Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Kevin Brennan: Yes, we will make it absolutely clear what the frequency of the visits should be. We will also make it clear that the visits should not dry up under the circumstances outlined by the hon. Gentleman and that their frequency and regularity—this is an important part of the principle behind the clause—should not decline.
For the reasons that I have outlined, it is important that visitors have the right skills and experience to provide the support and advice that the child needs and to establish an effective relationship with the child. The Bill seeks to ensure that that is the case by giving local authorities a limited degree of flexibility, but we will also ensure that the regulations and guidance support local authorities in achieving that aim. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw his probing amendment.
Tim Loughton: I began by saying that these were probing amendments, and I was heartened by the Minister’s opening comment that it was essential that visits should be conducted by the social worker. That is a useful starting point.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole talked about qualifying new section 23ZA(5), and the amendment would strike it out on the basis that we define who an appropriate person is. If we keep new section 23ZA(5), and the Government do not accept the amendments, I hope that the regulations will define a visitor’s necessary skills and experience. The Minister said that the child might have formed a relationship with somebody who is not a registered social worker. Although it might be decided that it is in the child’s best interests for that person to be a link person, a responsible social worker clearly needs to make the decisions. If a non-registered social worker is performing the visiting duty, that role should be subcontracted out by the responsible social worker. Although the person doing the visiting may have formed a helpful bond with the child, they may not necessarily be qualified to make or advise on the decisions that must be made about the child. A fully registered social worker must be the lead individual. If the visitor is someone below that level of qualification, the regulations should set out how the reporting mechanism is supposed to work.
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I am also heartened to hear that the regularity, frequency and circumstances of the visits will be set out. Again, my experience when I go round some of the homes and speak to children in the care system is that there is an enormous postcode lottery in the way in which their social workers visit them, depending on which authorities they come from.
Kevin Brennan: To expedite matters, I can confirm that the registered social worker would supervise the visitor if the visitor is not qualified as a registered social worker.
Tim Loughton: That is very helpful. That also provides a role for a volunteer social worker as well, according to the criteria that I have set out. I note the Minister’s comments about giving a limited degree of flexibility to authorities. There will be exceptional circumstances in which an urgent visit is required, and a registered social worker is not immediately available. Again, if it is to be done in regulations we are, as usual, talking slightly in the dark. We have not seen the regulations, but it must be made clear that it is in exceptional circumstances that it will not be a registered social worker performing this role.
I have seen different children in the same children’s home receiving quite a wide disparity of service from their responsible placing authority regarding social worker visits. It is a key requirement to ensure that that child does not feel neglected and detached from the person who is making decisions about their future. If we can get some regularity now, it is greatly to be welcomed. I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. On the basis that he will take up some of those points in the guidance, 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 7—Assistance for looked after children in custody
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 23ZB (which is inserted by section 17) insert—
“23ZC Assistance for looked after children in custody
(1) This section applies to—
(a) a child looked after by a local authority who is taken into custody;
(b) a child or young person being held in custody who was previously being looked after by a local authority;
(c) a child or young person who has been released from custody but who was, prior to his or her detention, being looked after by a local authority; and
(d) a child or young person—
(i) who is of a description prescribed by regulations made by the appropriate national authority; and
(ii) in relation to whom the regulations impose the duties in this section on a local authority.
(2) It is the duty of the local authority—
(a) to ensure that a person to whom this section applies is visited by a representative of the authority (“a representative”);
(b) to arrange for appropriate advice, support and assistance to be available to a person to whom this section applies.
(3) The duty contained in subsection (2)(b) only applies to a young person aged 18 years or over if that person seeks the relevant advice, support or assistance.
(4) The duties imposed by subsection (2)—
(a) are to be discharged in accordance with any regulations made for the purposes of this section by the appropriate national authority;
(b) are subject to any requirement imposed by or under an enactment applicable to the place in which the person to whom this section applies is held in custody.
(5) Regulations under this section for the purposes of subsection (4)(a) may make provision about—
(a) the frequency of visits;
Tim Loughton: New clause 7 stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends. I do not want to dwell on it. It was tabled and debated in another place, where it was moved by the noble Lord Ramsbotham, who has great expertise in this subject. It was supported by other noble Friends and noble Lords. Lord Ramsbotham received some assurances from Lord Adonis, but it would be useful to have further clarification from the Minister about what happens to children in the care system who go into the custody system. We should ensure that some continuity of care is available for them, because there is a perverse incentive to consider.
I do not suggest that this happens, but hypothetically there is an incentive for a children’s services authority to offload a child in care into the custody system. All of a sudden that child is no longer a financial burden on the children’s services department, but becomes the responsibility of the custody system, be it in a young offenders institution or whatever. We know that the number of young people in young offenders institutions has risen enormously. Around 3,000 young people are effectively in prison at the moment. We also know that the recidivism rate for inmates of young offenders institutions, particularly those who are sent there on sentences of less than 12 months, is 92 per cent. That is alarming. Basically, sending young people into young offenders institutions is a rapid escalator to a career of crime. The recidivism rate for alternative forms of justice is substantially lower. We have to be a lot smarter in our thinking about how we deal with many of those young people.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): We all know that there is a wide range of reasons why young people are looked after—they have not all suffered ill treatment or neglect, for example. It occurred to me when I looked at new section 23ZA (2)(b), which places a duty on the local authority
“to arrange for appropriate advice, support and assistance to be available”,
that there may be occasions on which a family member—a mother, for example—might be well placed to give support. If a family member could not give “advice...and assistance”, he or she could at least give emotional support to a young person in custody, which would help to alleviate feelings of abandonment or rejection and to maintain those essential family ties whenever possible. Of course, that would have to be done when it was felt to be appropriate and beneficial to the young person, and when they were anxious for it to happen.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. She will know as well as I do about the experiences of young men in young offenders institutions. I visited Feltham a few months ago, which was fascinating if rather depressing, and some of the young offenders shared their experiences with me. Interestingly, the worst possible offence that one can commit against a fellow inmate is to “diss” their mother—I shall not repeat the fairly graphic terms in which one can “diss” someone’s mother that were relayed to me. The staff say that 90 per cent. or so of the visitors will be mothers or girlfriends, and there is an almost complete absence of fathers and father figures who keep in contact with, or keep a watching eye over, their children. That is the harsh reality of where many of the offenders come from.
We also know that up to 50 per cent. of the people in young offenders institutions are products of the care system. It is relevant to the sort of people whom we are talking about that they have the right sort of support if they have to go into the custody system. Those people also need the right sort of continuity of support. They might have been making some progress with the support outside, and they will need to re-engage with it when they leave the custody system to alleviate the possibility of becoming one of the 92 per cent. who go back into a more severe form of the system in due course.
Those are shocking figures and stopping young people getting on that escalator into the justice system is a real challenge facing all of us, as is putting the escalator in reverse for those who are already on it. To mix metaphors, we do not want it to be a slippery slope—I think that the Committee gets what I mean. That is the challenge facing us.
The new clause, the argument for which was better articulated by Lord Ramsbotham in another place, with fewer mixed metaphors than I would use, seeks to specify that the person in the care system who is responsible for the child in care retains and continues contact and support if that child goes into the custody system. It is crucial that the parents—meaning, more often than not, the mother, as my hon. Friend said—should be part of that. The Youth Justice Board could tell us that in about 60 per cent. of cases, a parent attends the case conference and keeps in touch regarding what will happen to the young offender. Of course, there is another important conference before release takes place. Parents should be fully engaged in the process, as should the person outside the family—that could also go for extended family members, depending on the young person’s circumstances.
From the response of the Government in the Lords, I do not anticipate that the Minister will suddenly say that the new clause is great.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about young offenders. I have visited Ashfield young offenders institution, which is fairly close to my constituency, on a number of occasions. I cannot recall the figure offhand for the number of parents who get involved in case conferences, but it is certainly very low—10 per cent. comes to mind, but I would not want to put that on the record because I am not sure that it is correct. One problem is that, geographically, the institution covers a huge area, so it is very difficult for parents to maintain contact with the young people. Talking to some young lads due for release, I found that those who had lost contact with their families did not know what was going to happen to them when they were about to be released, and the idea of having somebody who is—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Lady should put her question.
Kerry McCarthy: Yes, Mr. Williams. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that having that link, whereby somebody maintains contact with the young person when they are released from the system, is the right way to make progress because it cannot be assumed that they will go back into the bosom of their family and friends?
Tim Loughton: I completely agree. The hon. Lady has obviously had the same experiences as me when visiting her local youth offenders institute. The figures that I had were much higher than 60 per cent., but again there is a postcode lottery, and of course there is a postcode lottery given that young people can be placed well away from home.
I am talking about the pure practicalities of family members being able to maintain contact with the child. That is why it is even more important that there is a responsible officer from the children’s services department and that there is continuity of responsibility, particularly when the young person is about to come out. Too often, not enough good work goes on in prison, but we know that some good work takes place there—depending on how long the young person is inside—on drug treatment, alcohol abuse, learning disabilities and so on, which improves the chances of young people being able to get back on their feet, only for all those support mechanisms to be taken away when they are on the outside. They fall off a cliff, in effect, and revert to where they were before they went into prison.
It is essential to have a responsible officer who sees the young person before they go into the custody system, if that is where they are going to end up and they cannot be kept out of it, who monitors their progress, the treatments that they might be receiving, the developments that take place and their achievements while they are in the custody system, and who then takes them on when they are outside the custody system. The new clause is designed to achieve that. I think that the Minister will agree with the principle of it; it is just a question of how we bring it about in practice. This new clause, championed by Lord Ramsbotham, would be one way of ensuring that children in the care system who go into custody receive the assistance that they need to keep them out of the custody system in the future and to give them a decent chance of getting back on their feet when they come out. It would allow them to have all the other things that other children in care might expect and, we hope, because of this Bill are more likely to achieve.
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