Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

I agree that there is a need for a qualified social worker following through and keeping in contact with the young person. In this case, it is a question not just of visiting but of the ability to make ongoing assessments of the young person’s needs. It is very important that it is an holistic assessment, considering all the issues that might apply to a young person in custody.
12.30 pm
In conjunction with the Youth Justice Board, there are now some social workers based in young offenders institutions, but I still think that we need a continuity of contact with the social worker, as described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. If a care order is attached to a young person in custody, there is a responsibility to keep track of them to some degree, but if the care placement is voluntary, I am not sure that the same provisions apply. Nevertheless, it is an important situation in which we particularly need to give greater support to children and young people. I would like some clarification on that point.
Over the past few years, we seem to have progressed quite a lot in getting social services even to be responsible for young people in custody. It has taken High Court judgments to move the agenda on, and the Howard League for Penal Reform has been very much involved. We have moved on, but the outcomes for young people who enter the custody system are still very poor. The Bill offers an opportunity to address every possible issue.
I agree that however a child enters the care system, it is important to work with all the other services to ensure that that young person is supported when they come out. I spoke to a local youth offending team early last year. They explained the difficulty of housing young people who have come out of custody. Because family accommodation is not available, the traditional route is YMCA accommodation. However, I understand that such accommodation carries out risk assessments. I discovered that our local youth offending team has had to place young people coming out of custody in bed and breakfasts, which I suggest is undesirable. My plea—there are so many strands to the problem—is for continuity and an holistic approach. That approach should include social services, local youth offending teams and housing services into the bargain and see the process as a whole.
Beverley Hughes: I certainly agree with Opposition Members that looked-after children who then go into custody are a vulnerable group, and that they can face many serious practical problems getting back on their feet and establishing themselves again in their local communities when released. I agree that they are at high risk of reoffending, although I did not recognise the figure of 92 per cent. given by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The one-year reconviction rate for young people who have been in custody is about 77 per cent., which is still very high.
Because of that, the Government will publish a youth crime action plan before the recess. One of its central themes will be strengthening the resettlement process. In terms of that special group of young people who have been looked after in one way or another, I recognise absolutely that we need to take the opportunity in the Bill to ensure and strengthen continuity of contact and what follows from that contact—it should not just be a social visit but a visit with a purpose.
I recognise that the amendment is intended to improve how such young people are supported. I do not think that there is a problem with the spirit of the amendment, but there is a problem with some of the detail, and I shall explain that. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked me about information on children in care who are in custody. Hitherto, that has been limited. We have established a system that tells us how many placements of children in care cease because they are admitted to custody. The first year’s figures, for 2006-07, will be released in the not too distant future. That will be the first time that we have had authoritative figures on the number of children who went into custody from care whose placements have ceased.
Clause 16 provides a clear statutory framework to ensure that local authorities maintain contact with all looked-after children, wherever they live. That includes all the children referred to in section 23ZC(1)(a) of the 1989 Act, proposed in new clause 7. Clause 16 also enables us to ensure through regulations that the duty to visit is extended to include children that are provided with voluntary accommodation by the authority but who lose their looked-after status when sentenced to custody in a secure training centre or a youth offenders institution, because they are no longer accommodated by the local authority. That is all the children referred to in section 23ZB(1)(b) of the 1989 Act, proposed in the new clause.
Helen Southworth: Will the Minister address something that is of particular concern to me and which we have talked about a number of times? The clause will be beneficial in many ways. Will she confirm that it will not do away with the right of young people in custody, determined through the courts, to have access to a trained social worker under their entitlement to stay safe? The Minister is well aware of the successes at Thorn Cross young offenders institute in my constituency, which for three years has had a social worker based there. It has seen a radical reduction in the self-harm of young people, but it has also been working as part of a team to ensure that young people have good and effective training while there and good opportunities for effective resettlement when leaving custody?
Beverley Hughes: My Department, jointly with the Home Office, is funding a pilot scheme on the provision of dedicated social workers on-site in a number of young offender institutions, with a view to local authorities taking up the provision nationally. I shall certainly correct myself if I am found to be wrong, but I am not aware that a right of access to a social worker has been declared and enforced by the courts for young people in custody. However, if my hon. Friend is thinking of the pilot, then yes it is showing some beneficial results.
The entitlement of care leavers to local authority services should be unaffected by a custodial sentence, and I think that it would be impossible for a local authority properly to discharge its duties to care leavers in relation to the preparation and maintenance of the pathway plan, the appointment of the personal adviser and the maintenance of contact unless the care leaver is regularly visited by a representative of the authority. As I said to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, that is not a social visit. It is a visit for a purpose—to assess and to ensure that things that need to be done for that young person are mobilised and put in place.
We made a commitment in the other place to use existing powers in relation to care leavers to require visits to relevant children—that is, those aged 16 or 17 wherever they may be living—and that will include the children referred to in proposed section 23ZB(1)(c) of the 1989 Act. We plan to do the same in relation to former relevant children in due course, as and when resources allow.
The difficulty with the new clause is that the regulation-making power that it contemplates is drafted in extraordinarily wide terms. Potentially, it allows the Government to require visits to be made to any group of children in any circumstances—for example, those living in their family home—and because “young person” is not defined it could similarly permit regulations to require adults to be visited in specified circumstances. It would put on the statute book an almost untrammelled power, with the potential to ride roughshod over the rights of children and young persons and their families. For instance, it could allow a local authority to visit someone who may have been in voluntary care for a few weeks when a baby, only for that youngster to be in custody at the age of 15. One may still want to visit that youngster, but we need to think carefully about the boundaries.
Not only does new clause 7 add nothing substantive to the duties and powers already proposed in clause 16, but it has some significant gaps. For instance, it would not require local authorities to visit those children who acquire looked-after status by virtue of being taken into custody of section 21 of the 1989 Act, for example, if they are remanded to a children’s home. This group of children, on the other hand, will benefit from the new mandatory requirement on local authorities to arrange visits to all its looked-after children. So it has some very wide powers in one sense but also some significant gaps in others.
Referring to other aspects of the amendment, we intend that the person responsible for visiting a formerly looked-after child in custody will be an officer of the local authority’s children’s services and, where possible, a qualified social worker known to the child and familiar with his or her background. That support will be in addition to the role of the separate youth offending team worker responsible for planning how the child will serve the rest of the sentence in the community.
There has to be effective co-ordination for this group of children with the shared support from children’s services and the youth offending teams. The new visiting requirement now provides a mechanism to ensure that this happens and puts an essential safeguard in place, so that they are not allowed to be forgotten by local authority children’s services.
The Youth Justice Board and the Prison Service support our intention to achieve a step change in the quality of support provided to looked-after children in custody by children’s services and for local authorities to do for a child in custody what any reasonable parent would do—visit them and make plans for their release. That is what we expect local authorities to do and how we expect them to behave when they have a looked-after child who goes into custody. Clause 16 allows for that, it requires it to happen. Having heard our approach, I hope hon. Members will not press the new clause.
Tim Loughton: I said that this was a probing new clause to try to tease out some further detail which the Minister has given us.
The right hon. Lady said that it would be impossible in her view for a local authority to discharge its duties without the responsible social worker visiting, keeping contact and developing the care plan while the child was in custody. That sends out a strong message because at the moment that does not happen. It is important that that expectation is rammed home loud and clear, that simply because a child is effectively off the local authority’s patch in the custody and responsibility of someone else, that the responsibility of the local authority is not diminished. In many cases it becomes more important to make sure that they are fully aware of what is happening to that young person within the young offenders institution, or wherever it may be, and that their care plan can be adapted to take care of them when they come out.
Given the greater cross-departmental working between the DCSF, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office—she and I were at the reception last night for the Youth Justice Board—I hope that in practice that there will be greater joined-up working between the youth justice system and the children’s services departments of local authorities, as I know is her intention. I heard the encouraging words of the Secretary of State who spoke last night. Unless that message is sent out loud and clear, that in practice local authorities are expected to keep a watch on their charges as much when they are behind bars as when they are in their authority area then it is not going to happen. It is a useful discussion. We have teased out further detail than we had in the House of Lords, so on that basis I am happy to ask to beg leave to withdraw the new clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Independent Visitors for Children Looked After by a Local Authority
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kevin Brennan: Even though no amendments to the clause have been tabled, I should explain the purpose of clause 17 to the Committee.
12.45 pm
Their potential in helping to support placement stability, enabling young people to build constructive relationships and encouraging aspirations and ambitions is considerable, and that is why we want to extend the opportunity to have an independent visitor to all looked-after children where they would benefit significantly from such a relationship. Clause 17 will place a duty on a local authority to appoint an independent visitor where it appears to them that it would be in the child’s best interest to do so, and where the child wants one. We want those who are currently eligible to maintain their right to an independent visitor and will use regulations to ensure under new section 23ZB subsection (1)(a) that these groups continue to be automatically eligible for an independent visitor on that basis.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Notification to appropriate officer of children in long-term care
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in clause 18, page 14, line 27, at end insert—
‘(2A) In each of subsections (1) and (2), after ‘responsible authority’ insert ‘within one working day.’.
We now come to the subject of out-of-area placements, which has arisen already during the Committee, and reflects a concern which I and the my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster mentioned previously—what happens with children who are placed out of area in terms of notification of responsible agencies in that area
A child would typically be placed in a children’s home and somewhere around 11 to 13 per cent. of children in the care system are in a residential home, but it also involves care homes, independent hospitals, NHS hospitals or residential schools, including maintained boarding schools, non-maintained specialist schools, independent boarding schools and colleges, as set out in the guidance. What this amendment is seeking to do is tighten up the notification process.
What happens at the moment is that if Stoke, for example, places a child in a residential home in my own authority of West Sussex, for example—I have already mentioned some 700 children in my county are estimated to be there having been placed by an outside authority—then good guidance, reinforced by Lord Warner some years ago when he was the responsible Minister, is that the authority where that child is placed should be notified that that child is placed there. That must be good practice on the basis that there is a child with particular needs who finds him or herself out of a familiar area.
In Worthing we now have at least 10 independent children’s homes, many including children who are from completely different environments and from quite a long way away. I have to say that things are getting better and inspection regimes for some of these children’s homes are improving, but if something goes wrong, it is usually the local children’s services department who gets put in the frame, even though that child is not their responsibility, or the local police have to pick up the pieces, or the local magistrates then deal with a child who has committed some offence if it has gone really wrong.
I think I cited earlier in the Committee today, and on Second Reading, the response from the probation service union, giving an extraordinary figure of something like over 80 per cent. of children who had appeared in the magistrates court had been in the care system but placed out of authority area, and the first the probation service union had heard about it was when the probation service officers were in court.
That cannot be any good for all of the local agencies involved who then have to come forward and step into the breach for somebody who is not strictly speaking their responsibility. It is not good for people living in the vicinity of some of these residential homes when things go wrong, as happened to us in Worthing but, ultimately, it is not good for the child as well. The child is being let down.
The purpose of amendment No. 15 is to tighten up the reporting mechanisms so that when a child is placed in an authority area outside the placing authority, there is a strict, defined duty of the placing authority to notify the authority area in which that child is placed—nominally, the director of children’s services would be the contact point—that that child has been placed there and we have suggested that it should be within one working day.
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 2 July 2008