Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-312)


2 JUNE 2008

  Q300 Mr Stuart: The children's rights directors undertook a survey and found resentment among children about a loss of contact with the carers or social workers with whom they had built a relationship. What can we do to stop that happening?

  Martin Hazlehurst: We can make the changes that young people need to make the system more flexible. If a young person has a good relationship with a social worker, that is to be cherished. The system that is often used, of young people automatically changing social workers at 16, needs to have some degree of flexibility built into it. If a young person says, "No, I want to stay where I am," that should be possible. Similarly, although it probably happens less now than it used to, foster carers are sometimes discouraged from keeping contact with young people once they have left because other younger children might be coming to live with them. I think that we have learned that lesson; things are getting better. The other area, which is not taken enough into account in discussions like this, is young people's relationships with their birth and extended families. Most young people in care have a relationship of some kind with a member of their family. Those families will be around a lot longer than the social workers, ex-foster carers or personal advisers. That is another area that we need to exploit better; we need to find out and be sure whether a young person has a positive relationship with a member of their family, and to ensure that it is encouraged and supported.

  Q301 Mr Stuart: May I ask about care leavers with disabilities and what specific barriers they might face in the transition to adulthood?

  Professor Stein: There is evidence from the research perspective that services for young disabled people leaving care and those for other care leavers are sometimes separate. At its worst, that can mean that disabled young people cannot access the same kind of opportunities as other care leavers. That is one of the problems that we picked up in research, as did others who have carried out research in that area. Again, practice is variable. Some authorities' disabled teams work closely with leaving care teams and plan together. That is what should happen, but sometimes it does not, and that is usually to the disadvantage of disabled young people. It is usually they who suffer by not having the opportunities given to other young people. That should not happen, but it does.

  Q302 Mr Stuart: Does the panel agree that the key issue is the separation of services?

  John Hill: The easiest way to understand it is that the model of care that you provide has somebody to lead that care—a carer or a lead professional. Someone has to lead that parental element in the care. The danger for children with disabilities is that they get one of the rawest deals among the care-leaving population. What happens is that you remove any opportunity for that element as children with disabilities go through the transitional plane and move on towards adult services. That is not to say that we should not work together or co-ordinate our children's and adult services much better than we do, but the reality for adult services is that it is a very different world. They are not setting out to provide a leaving care service. There are local authorities that will say, "Our adults with disabilities team does that." I know, from the experience of working with colleagues in adult services, that those workers can have 50, 60, 70 or 80 cases. They are assessors and commissioners of services. That is what they do. They are care managers. That is not a personal adviser's role. They are not there to be social workers for someone. That is what the care leavers with a disability lose. If a local authority is not very good, maybe you have not lost much, but where the local authorities are good, that is a significant loss. All the stuff that stimulates development—such as access to educational support assistance—does not happen. What about the contact with the larger care-leaver family—that corporate family stuff? Where does that fit? They lose out on all of that.The work that I have done previously, as a smaller piece of research on a local authority, identified a significant group that we did not even know about—mostly, those who were profoundly disabled, who came into care and needed specialist personal adviser support, but who were out in private residential placements, with the expectation that the person involved would be some sort of personal adviser. Where is the independence? They may well have a great relationship, they may be great at doing it, but who is looking at that? Who is assessing whether that is appropriate? Who is reviewing that process? Most of them were not getting the personal adviser service. You can tell that I am quite heated about it, but it is a real gap in the provision and we have not done enough.

  Q303 Lynda Waltho: I would like to talk about accommodation. You said earlier, Martin, that that was one of the most important issues and that research suggests that a third of young people who leave care experience homelessness. Why do care leavers end up in unsuitable accommodation? What is the extent of the problem?

  Martin Hazlehurst: Again, we have to see it as that transition. At one point of time, when leaving care, young people might need a fairly high level of support in the accommodation that they are living in. Hopefully, as they get a bit older, they will be able to make a transition and move into more permanent, unsupported accommodation, or even backwards and forwards. As I said, there is not enough quality assurance for supported accommodation, particularly for the younger age group. We are not absolutely sure that some places that young people have been put in are safe. Certainly, Rainer did some research that found that quite a significant number of young people said that they did not feel safe where they were living. Largely, those were young people who were put in hostels of various kinds. We need to be certain about that. At the moment, the standard varies. As with everything we have said this afternoon, some local authorities do really well. They commission accommodation of a kind that they want for young people, they put a lot of effort into providing supported lodging schemes, or they put a lot of effort into developing other models of support. However, with many other local authorities, it seems to be done on a wing and a prayer. It is a case of what is available for the young person at the time that they need it. One of the things that we worked with peers on, when the Children and Young Persons Bill was in the Lords—and that we talked to the Bill team about, ready for their work in the Commons—is far greater planning of the kinds of accommodation that young people need. The Bill contains a clause to ensure that the local authority has a range of diverse placements available for young people in care. We would like to see that extended at least to supported accommodation for young people who are leaving care. The issues for young people who need permanent accommodation are often the same kinds of issues that cover anyone wanting to find somewhere to live. In some areas, yes, of course, people can have a council flat, but in many areas that is an impossibility, because there are not the council flats. But children's services and housing departments can work together. They can plan to see what will happen for young people as they leave care. We know who those young people are. It is different for homeless young people who just turn up at housing departments, but we have very often known young people who are leaving care for years, so we should be able to plan for them. It is about housing departments and children's services working together. If social housing is simply not available, we should have creative options. In some areas, the private rented sector provides the only accommodation available. Leaving care services have good arrangements with private landlords—they trust them and know that they will always provide decent-quality housing. However, in some areas, that does not exist. For us, the key issues are quality assurance in supported accommodation and planning for permanent accommodation. Nor should we assume that a young person wants a council flat. That gets my goat. That someone has been in care does not mean that they want to live in a council flat—not everyone does. That is also about planning and preparation—we must ask what we need and think far enough ahead.

  Professor Stein: The ones who have the worst outcomes tend to be young people trying to manage on their own at 16. Often, their lives have not been easy and they have had a wide range of difficult experiences. The degree of support that they need would mean that you would have to move in with them. Imagine a 16-year-old care leaver whose whole life has been troubled trying to manage and cope on their own. They do not fail because of the bricks and mortar, but because the policy of getting them to manage on their own at 16 and cope with their own accommodation is wrong—they need a degree of support. Young people going on to higher education get support, including family support—they can take their washing home, for example—and a range of campus services, but we expect 16-year-olds care leavers who are troubled by past family relationships to cope. It is understandable if they break down. The policy needs to be questioned, which is linked to the issue of getting the placement right so that people can remain and leave care more gradually in supported accommodation, which was raised by Steve, Martin and John.

  John Hill: A lot of these answers tie in together.

  Professor Stein: Coherence.

  John Hill: There would not be quite the same issue with the numbers in unsuitable accommodation if we could have some easy wins on foster-caring policies. Some local authorities push kids out at ages 16 to 17 into accommodation that they might survive in, but which is not appropriate. That might have a knock-on positive effect on the amount of suitable accommodation for young people, but would a good parent put their child in such a situation? No—they would have to have people around them. Placements can fail or break down, and some local authorities fund staff around the clock to be with kids who live out because they may, for example, have destroyed their foster care home. They have to leave—there is no alternative and no one else will take them—so local authorities will pay staff to stay with them 24 hours a day, even if they are over 18 years old. It is not perfect, but it is a better model than leaving people in unsuitable accommodation. I echo Martin's point about the lack of regulation—there is little regulation, monitoring and knowledge. I have had great relationships with supported accommodation providers, but it is hard to staff them. The staff they have are not incredibly well trained or paid, but we expect them to provide care. That is difficult. Asking people to provide a roof over somebody's head is one thing. The accommodation should have a reasonable standard of health and safety, be decorated and the sockets in the walls would need to be in good condition—but we cannot expect people to care. That is our job. Often, however, we expect them to do the care as well when they are not skilled to do that.

  Martin Hazlehurst: As for what John said about the savings in respect of young people leaving care early, if local authorities think that moving a young person from foster care to supported accommodation will save them money, I worry about the quality of that supported accommodation. I do not know whether Steve can tell us how much it costs to keep someone in a Foyer for a week.

  Steve Hillman: It is not cheap.

  Martin Hazlehurst: The idea that money is being saved by letting young people leave early is worrying.

  Steve Hillman: A person at Foyer told me about a young care leaver whom he had worked with recently as a way in which to exemplify something that they see frequently. When a 16-year-old care leaver moved into the Foyer, that person did not want to be there because they did not want the conditional, contractual relationship on which the Foyer is based. The person would rather have gone to a B and B because they just wanted the freedom to do what they wanted, so they got themselves evicted from the Foyer by trashing the place, not paying the rent and so forth. The person went to a B and B and a few months later went back to the Foyer and said to the manager, "I am so pleased you have let me back in. I really want to be here now. Now I have found out what it is like out there, I want to come back." Some individuals almost need to go out into the big, wide world, find out how awful it is, and then come back. They are, in some ways, more motivated to engage with the Foyer process.

  Q304 Lynda Waltho: What about the Homelessness Act 2002? Is that a help or a hindrance? I am thinking particularly about making oneself intentionally homeless. From what I can see from research, that again varies throughout the country. In some cases, one refusal of a particular property counts as making oneself intentionally homeless. What is your knowledge of that?

  Martin Hazlehurst: The very idea of someone who is leaving care having to go down a homelessness route to get housed is something that should not happen in the first place. We still hear of places where the recognised route into housing is, "Go and pretend that you are homeless". That is changing slowly, but it should not be like that. Agreements and protocols can be negotiated between children's services and housing services. When they are negotiated, that can make a difference, but it often depends on the relationships between the particular officers who are implementing them. Being intentionally homeless is a real problem. People tell us that if a young person gets a flat or is housed at 18, but is not ready, makes a mess and is intentionally homeless because they have not paid their rent, it is a big problem. Doing what Steve said happens. The fact that going back to supported accommodation and getting themselves together prevents them from having another go is another real problem, but I do not think that it should be a problem.

  Q305 Lynda Waltho: Do you think that they should almost be exempt from that category?

  Martin Hazlehurst: Yes.

  Professor Stein: The guidance makes young people in care one of the priority areas. Some revision to the guidance might be needed. When authorities work round their protocols and so on, the guidance is used to offer young people appropriate housing. It seems a shame that, in the case of a breakdown, it could not be looked at in relation to sustaining accommodation. Some clever lawyer would have a word for this, but perhaps the guidance can be adjusted.

  John Hill: My experience of working with young people in such a situation is that together you have worked on the protocol, so you have it right to start with. You do not have young people homeless anyway because you are part of the council and access resources before you even count anyone as homeless. If you are working closely together, you can stop the intentional stuff. You can actually say, "I am leaving my tenancy." You can officially do it another way round. We can say, "We are going to give the tenancy back now. It is not working for the young person. We are going to put them back in supported accommodation, and then we shall come back at a later time." You can have that as part of the protocol. There are reasonably easy ways round it, but my experience was that you had to spend quite a lot of time educating housing people about their responsibilities—which is part of the job, because we are supposed to be the lead in terms of corporate parenting anyway—and trying to show them that, actually, this group of young people is different and should be their priority because of the proper parenting role. There are some good examples of good housing protocols that include all those elements, such as the new choice-based letting schemes and those sorts of things, where there is only one option—one offer of a flat—but where people make sure that they are ready beforehand, see what sort of flats are out there, and then get a deal for their housing. Under such schemes, people have a look at the flat first and if they think that it will not work, they should not even bid because if they say no when it is given to them, they do not get anything else. However, interventions can be made. It is almost as if you are parenting the child as a member within the council and you can get something slightly different because it is your own child. It does not work everywhere, by any means, but it works well in several places and other local authorities could learn a lot from those places. But it takes a lot of effort to set it up.

  Lynda Waltho: Thanks very much.

  Q306 Paul Holmes: Just picking up on that last point, you were saying that you are part of the council, so you access the council resources and get young people sorted with accommodation before they leave care. But is there a noticeable difference between unitary authorities and two-tier authorities, where social services is not part of the council dealing with the housing?

  John Hill: Yes. It is a really difficult issue.

  Q307 Paul Holmes: Are there good examples where two-tier authorities get round that easily, or are you saying that we should have unitaries everywhere?

  John Hill: No. There are pros and cons there, too, are there not? I live in the area of an authority that is trying to go for unitary status at the moment, and I am not so sure that that is the right way. I know the problematic side, although Martin might be able to mention more positive examples. The stuff that I have managed is in inner London authorities, where it is much easier. However, there is an issue there, too, because you have to make relationships with other councils' housing departments, as young people cross boundaries quickly in London and, although they might be only half a mile across the road, they could be in Newham or Waltham Forest, for example, or somewhere else.

  Martin Hazlehurst: If you speak to anyone who is responsible for managing leaving care services or for the development of housing options for young people, they will tell you that it is a constant juggling act if you have seven or eight—in Lancashire, 10—unitary or district housing authorities with which to negotiate. Inevitably, at any one time, your relationship with one, two or three of them is better than that with the others. Some district councils just will not contemplate the very idea that there are any young people in care in their districts, so, yes, it is an issue. I was doing some work recently in Wiltshire, which has four district councils and a county council at the moment, but is going to be a single unitary authority. Because the county council and four district councils had together adopted a public service agreement target on homeless young people, those bodies had to work together and they were doing so well. That work combined with the movement towards the unitary authority. So, it can be done, if there is the will across a county for all the authorities to come together.

  Q308 Paul Holmes: We now have a presumption in law that looked-after children will be given priority for moving into schools. Are we are moving towards a similar presumption on housing? Will that make a big difference? Are we there yet with that?

  Martin Hazlehurst: We are not there. Most housing protocols will, while not going as far as saying that young people leaving care have the first call on housing, try to ensure that they at least receive something. Where council housing or housing association accommodation is available, most local authorities are moving towards having it available for young people. However, there are areas with protocols where that is just not available. I am thinking more of the rural areas, where that is unheard of in respect of one-bedroom or studio council flats. Yes, things have improved, but most people doing the job will still talk about their relationship with the housing department as much as anything else—it is an issue for everyone. Whether things are good, bad or indifferent, it just takes a lot of work, as John says.

  John Hill: Each local authority has its pyramids for priority housing need. Of course, it is the homeless who get the first call on housing in local authorities, because of the quotas and all that stuff. I am not saying that that is wrong, just that I have generally been able to get people into the second box. So, these people do become a priority, and that is not inappropriate—it is a pretty fair cop.

  Q309 Paul Holmes: Are we too pessimistic overall when we look at this? When the Care Matters Green Paper came out, Mike, you went into the national press saying, "It's all too negative. The measures that have been used are too crude."

  Professor Stein: Did I say that?

  Paul Holmes: Yes.

  Professor Stein: Right, okay. Yes, in The Guardian. I am glad you asked about that because I feel quite strongly that the way we measure performance does not do justice to the progress made by many young people who are looked after or who have been in care. We tend to use educational, normative measures at a particular point in time as the only measure. I am not against them being used, but we use them as the only measure of progress. Some young people make an enormous journey just by re-engaging with education when they are 14 or 15. They might have been out of education, or they might have had a difficult family that has affected their learning and they might have had troubles at school. They then get in touch with one of these wonderful leaving care services, such as What Makes The Difference?, and they get engaged again. I recently heard about a lovely scheme in Norfolk that was getting people back into learning, but it will not have any ticks under the performance framework that is currently used. My argument is that we should have progress measures that take account of young people's starting points on entry into care—where they are at. That is the first thing. The second thing is that we should look at not only their education record, but issues relating to their well-being. Thirdly, we should look at how far they have travelled on their journey by the time that they leave care and, ideally, at later points. If we are talking about extending the transition stage to 25, it would be good to look at what happens later. Evidence from research studies—particularly European studies—shows that quite a lot of young people catch up later, which is understandable, given their troubles and their family and care experiences. However, we never capture that. This will presumably link with the lifelong learning agenda—having an education and so on. There is a strong argument for looking at progress over a longer period. So, we need to look at starting points on entry to care, to link education and well-being, and to look at a longer period. That would do these things justice. My real worry when I wrote in The Guardian about the current way we measure performance is that it does not capture a lot of the experiences that people have because it focuses on just the educational normative measure. I would not abandon the normative measure; it is important to have it. However, as a single measure, it is extremely limited, and I feel very strongly about that.

  Q310 Paul Holmes: Anybody else on that?

  Steve Hillman: I would echo everything that Mike said, but I would extend it by saying that this goes way beyond care leavers. The situation that he has just described is the situation for many tens of thousands of disconnected young people in this country. They are some distance from the PSA regime under which they sit, which makes it difficult for organisations working with them to resource the work that they do. However, that does not mean to say that that work is not valuable.

  John Hill: Let me make a quick point about incentives through things such as targets. One thing that we found was that those were not incredibly strong. If you take your group of those who are not in education, employment or training—those who are not in anything—and the group of care leavers, there will be very positive measures to ensure that if young people want to come back and ask for educational support, they can. However, the work that has to go into getting them to come back to ask is excluded from the measurements. We know from our work with NEET young people what will happen if we do not do that work. It is such work that it is so important to measure. If you are going to get people to re-engage, it will take them much longer to catch up and then succeed. On the targets that are set—this is one of the things we have harped on about a lot—there are some easy wins because local authorities gather information much later than the Government want to collect it. They could easily collect information at 21 on education, contact and suitable accommodation because they are supposed to provide personal advisers until then for most kids. However, we do not ask then; we ask at 19. There are some quite easy wins whereby you could start to gather more information and push the boundaries of what local authorities are going to do for those who are less interested in doing a course.

  Q311 Paul Holmes: Mike, you mentioned looking at comparable European research. In general, how do we compare? We have heard from other witnesses that it is hard to make comparisons, particularly because European countries tend to take a lot more kids into care than we do—we see it as a last resort.

  Professor Stein: As you have said, there are differences in relation to the legal frameworks and cultures. There are no easily transferable solutions, but it is quite interesting that there are some common messages. Let me focus specifically on your straight question: how do we compare? In a way, we are better than some and not as good as others. Generally speaking, most European countries, and other countries internationally, face similar challenges with this highly vulnerable group of young people. There are high levels of social exclusion. Also, from the research, we have just published a book, I have given a flyer to a member of your staff, based on the experiences.

  Q312 Chairman: Unfortunately, Hansard cannot read that piece of paper, so you might like to tell us the title of the book.

  Professor Stein: Young People's Transitions from Care to Adulthood. We have identified a kind of diamond of outcome groups. There is a group that moves on quite successfully—I will not rehearse all the messages again because I have mentioned stability, continuity, family links and all those things—and a middle group, who are young people who kind of get by. What makes a difference to the lives of that group is the quality of services that they get. They could go either way; they could go on successfully, but take a bit longer, or maybe go down a bit. The group at the bottom of the diamond, who are struggling quite a bit, often have very complex needs and have usually had the most difficult pre-care experiences. They have often moved around a lot in care and often their mental health and emotional needs have not been met, which raises issues about the relationship between the Department and, for example, child and adolescent mental health services. That whole other area is critical. From reading the transcripts, I think you have looked at that area. Generally speaking, there is that kind of diamond. It is not fixed; people can move within it, and that probably captures something about quantities as well—[Interruption.]

  Chairman: I am slightly disconcerted by the Division in the House because it would take us away for 20 minutes. I want to wrap this up before we vote.

  Professor Stein: The final point about that is just that most of the different countries have some balance between universal services for all young people and specialist services. It is important that that balance is right. If we veer too much towards specialist services, we tend to forget universal services and how young people from care can integrate and age out of care in an ordinary way. The link between universal and specialist services is quite an important message.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. That is a good note on which to finish. I thank our witnesses for an excellent session of evidence.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 April 2009