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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)


23 JUNE 2008

  Q320 Annette Brooke: I shall look at just one more issue, which is mainly directed at Bob. We have touched on it already. We know that there are many residential homes in certain localities and that children are sent a long way to them. I had a letter from a council just outside Manchester, and the concerns were that the host authority was not given information about the children who came. Equally, the Youth Offending Team was not given information, but at the end of the day, the resources to tackle the issues had to be found from the host authority, and that inevitably meant that the child was not being put first. You said that it can work and this, that and the other, but it is pretty clear that it does not work very well, and I have heard that from other areas, too. In the Children and Young Persons Bill, there is nothing—other than trying to reduce the incidence of the situation—that will solve the problem, which will exist for at least the next five years, of such children being placed a long way from home, with all the agencies trying to shrug their shoulders.

  Bob Ashford: I think you are right. What is also clear is that some local authorities are what we call exporters of looked-after young people and that some are importers. I can name probably half a dozen—particularly large shire counties—that are net importers of large numbers of looked-after young people into not just local children's service provision, but private and charitable residential care, which also exist in those areas. We are concerned about that from a youth justice perspective. You are absolutely right and it is fair to say that over the years there has been some correspondence between authorities, particularly large exporters and large importers, about who will provide the services for young people and who will pay for them. We start with the premise that young people should receive a service from the authority in which they live, but that they most certainly must be supported with information and timely assessments by the authorities from which they emanate. On the Youth Justice Board issue, we are working with DCSF and looking at good practice guidelines, which have to be meaningful and to work for the local authority and local youth offending teams.[11] We need to try to establish what good practice is, try to ensure that we disseminate it and then try to ensure that there are some effective levers on local authorities and youth offending teams to implement and follow it. One positive thing that has happened, in terms not just of support, but of outcomes for young people, are the public service agreements whereby the targets for children's services, youth offending services and so on are becoming more joined together. There are now targets and indicators around reducing offending and reducing first-time entrance—that is, young people going into the youth justice system—and those targets are set by the local authority that has responsibility for children's services and housing, and primary responsibility for youth offending teams. I am hopeful that that move will have some positive benefits for looked-after young people.

  Q321 Annette Brooke: Very quickly, because I am not sure from your answer, are there guidelines or regulations that say that the exporter has to tell the importer that a child is arriving and pass on any information?

  Bob Ashford: Yes, there are. I understand that there is already guidance and that that does happen, but I am talking about good practice guidance. It is one thing to say that it is in a piece of legislation or somewhere else, but what does it mean in practice? We are trying to draw up what it means in practice, and what good practice is in terms of delivery.

  Q322 Annette Brooke: And do we have any time scale? It seems to me that this is urgent.

  Bob Ashford: Work is being done on the guidance as we speak, and I would hope that certainly within the next few months we would have something that we can distribute.

  Q323 Chairman: We looked at prisoner education in a previous Committee, and we were always told that the trouble is around keeping records up to date and moving them on with the person concerned—churn. Do most of the young people spend very short times in institutions and the criminal justice system? Is it mainly short-term?

  Bob Ashford: Hugely variable.

  Chris Callender: The average sentence is a four to six-month detention training order, which means that they spend two to three months in custody. Eight to 12 weeks would be the average sentence for a child.

  Bob Ashford: But in terms of residential care, of course, it can be variable.

  Q324 Mr Chaytor: May I make a quick point on the division of responsibilities? Earlier, Chris gave the example of Italy. I recall that you said that for every child in Italy who is picked up by the police, a welfare report has to be done first and foremost.

  Chris Callender: That is correct.

  Q325 Mr Chaytor: Who has to do that?

  Chris Callender: A designated social worker.

  Q326 Mr Chaytor: So 24 hours a day, whatever the circumstances, any child under the age of—what, 18 or 16?

  Chris Callender: Fourteen is the age of criminal responsibility.

  Q327 Mr Chaytor: A welfare report is done for them. Would that be completely impossible in the UK? How far are we from doing that?

  Chris Callender: No, of course it would not be impossible. It depends on how we divert and apply our resources. As Bob said, there are social workers on youth offending teams, so, in theory, we have people who are qualified and trained to undertake such assessments. It would simply be a question of increasing the level of resources at that end on a welfare basis. Coming back to Annette's point, there is a division between the youth offending teams and the children's services. There are fights between them, and we have had to come in. In the case that I mentioned of K v. Manchester City Council, we had to go in with the High Court to sort out the fight. We said, "No, that is the job of children's services, not the Youth Offending Team." I feel some sympathy for youth offending teams. They are unquestionably put upon in the way that Di mentioned.

  Q328 Mr Chaytor: A quick supplementary. Every custody office in the country has a duty social worker available 24 hours a day, so why is the welfare report not done by the duty social worker?

  Chris Callender: Do you mean a custody officer in a police station?

  Mr Chaytor: Yes, in a police station.

  Chris Callender: That is not how the system works.

  Mr Chaytor: There are social workers on duty.

  Chris Callender: There is an emergency duty team, of course, but it could be a custody officer or it could be a member of the community who you could call in and say, "I found this stray child. Can you do something?" You could leave a message on the message system in the hope that someone might get back to you.

  Chairman: Thank you, David.

  Q329 Mr Heppell: From what I understand—further to what the Chairman said; I do not consider myself an expert on such things—if you go into care under a voluntary agreement and then you get involved in the youth justice system, you do not get looked-after status in court. What does that mean? Should the children in that 30% have looked-after status, and what difference does it make to how they are treated?

  Dr Hart: Those are the section 20 children. As custody is not considered to be a placement provided by the local authority, if a child enters custody, they are no longer considered to be the responsibility of the local authority—in terms of the local authority being their corporate parent. They might still be a child in need, but they are no longer a looked-after child. As Chris says, in practice that means that some local authorities will then just close the case and say, "That child is not our responsibility while they are in custody. Give us a ring when they are due out and we might, or might not, accommodate them again." Those children are in complete limbo. The fact that they are in the care system usually means that their parents, for whatever reason, are not providing good enough care, yet the expectation is that suddenly those parents will have to resume their parenting. The Bill attempts to strengthen that arrangement by saying that the local authority will still have a duty to visit those children, but it does not say—I think that a lot of this will be in regulations and guidance—that it will have to assess them, provide services for them, and arrange for them to have somewhere to live. All it says at the moment is that the local authority will have a duty to visit them.

  Q330 Mr Heppell: Can I just get this right? Would there, with the other 70%, be a duty to assess them and to provide services for them?

  Dr Hart: The young people on a care order remain on a care order. In theory, their home local authority would still have parental responsibility for them while they were in custody. In reality, there is variation in how that is interpreted. Some local authorities are very confused about the fact that they are subject to such things as a sentence planning system. You have two parallel planning systems that do not mesh together. Certainly, some local authorities do not actively continue their parenting role with children on care orders in prison, even though, statutorily, they are meant to.

   Chris Callender: To be crystal clear, a child who comes under section 20, or who is looked after and accommodated, requires a detailed assessment of their needs: clothing, education, contact with family, employment, training, where they are going, what their future is and what their wishes are. So, you have a long list, which is very nicely worked out in the framework of the assessment of children leaving their families, and a care plan, and they are engaged in that. If you come under section 20, you should be looked after as though you had a mum and a dad, but we find that that does not happen—there is not a proper assessment. Once they go in to custody, as Di says, it certainly will not happen. We have even had to go to the Court of Appeal about a child who was coming out because the local authority refused to acknowledge that her conditions, or factual situation, came under section 20. It was prepared to release her only to a bed and breakfast.

  Q331 Mr Heppell: Are you saying that, in some respects, it is not just the 30% who are not getting what they should, but the others as well?

  Chris Callender: Absolutely, yes.

  Q332 Mr Heppell: Going further than that, presumably you are saying that, at the very least, the 30% should be included with the rest in terms of having looked-after status?

  Chris Callender: Yes.

  Q333 Mr Heppell: What about other children? I see that the Howard League is proposing that if you come in touch with the criminal justice system, you should automatically get the status of a looked-after child because you had fallen through the net and something had happened. Would that not criminalise the care system? Would it not be the case that people would rather go to court than get put into the care system?

  Chris Callender: I guess that that is a reaction to the problem that we are seeing day to day. These children slip through the net—and the net is not that good anyway. If they can get out of custody because they have somewhere to go, they reoffend and they are back in custody again. The problem that we are finding is that we have to struggle to engage local authorities to look after these children. That is why I come back to the point that we have had to go to High Court judges to get orders, to get injunctions, to get the rights and entitlements of those children met, to get them into suitable accommodation, and to provide them with support. The problem is that if we do not have some way of making sure that local authorities' attention is brought to these children, they will continually slip through the net. The imperative of being looked after leads into the leaving-care rights for those children. Those children are often very vulnerable even by the time they turn 18—they are no longer children, but they still have not managed to sort their lives out and they still do not have suitable accommodation. As care leavers, they would be entitled to support until they were 21.

  Bob Ashford: Just to add to what Chris is saying, with which I largely agree, we would have liked to have seen the section 20 status—the voluntary care status—remain for young people when they go into custody for all the reasons that he cites. We are obviously pleased to see the duty to visit those young people who were previously looked-after children under section 20, but our point is that the person who visits those young people is crucial. We do not feel that it is enough for local authorities to say that the youth offending team can do these visits to young people who were section 20 accommodated. We feel that should be done by a qualified social worker working within a children's services department who has access to the resources of that department. I am also encouraged by the development of the youth crime action plan, which is looking at resettlement. There is no longer going to be a resettlement Green Paper, but that work is now being encapsulated within the youth crime action plan. That plan looks at the issues that Chris has raised, not just for young people who are looked after, but for all young people leaving custody, because there is a real concern, which we have had for a long time, about the services that are or are not available to young people who are leaving custody. That is not just whether they have a home to go to, but whether they have a family to go to, a GP, a job, training and so on. We know that unless young people are prepared for leaving custody properly in terms of their rehabilitation, they will be back in custody within a short space of time. For us, the issue is about how looked-after children leave custody, but there is also an issue about all young people who leave custody and the services that are available to them.

  Chris Callender: In a way, that is nothing stronger than David's point. Do we not have social workers on call in police stations? Let us just check how they are doing. We are not trying to force anything upon anybody, but we want merely to check that these kids are all right, because often they really are not.

  Q334 Fiona Mactaggart: I am very interested in where we got to on the last point about resettlement, leaving custody and the experience of all young people, but particularly looked-after young people. I was rather shocked when a charity that I was involved in was working to provide housing directly from the prison gate to see what impact that had on the prospects for young people—not particularly young people in care, although obviously the impact is much more acute for those young people because they often do not have family to fall back on in quite the same way. The absolute impossibility of getting sensible referrals when housing was available made me realise how badly we were failing young people who were leaving custody, whatever their circumstances. I know that the Youth Justice Board has started putting social workers into YOIs. Has that made any difference?

  Bob Ashford: The simple answer is that it has. An evaluation that is due out soon will show that, in terms of the contacts, knowledge and expertise of those social workers within youth custody, it has been extremely valuable. There are issues, as I am sure you are aware, about the continuation of funding. It is secured until the end of 2009-10, I believe, when the funding for those social work posts will be the responsibility of local authorities.[12] We have some concerns—I will be quite frank—about how, if and when local authorities will be able to pick up that responsibility, given the other budgetary pressures in social services. Coming back to the point about accommodation, I could not agree more. One of the biggest issues that young people face when leaving custody, whether they are looked after or not, is the provision of suitable accommodation. Chris made the point earlier about how we do not consider unsupervised, unsupported bed and breakfast for 15 or 16-year-olds to be suitable accommodation. We would not put our own children into that type of accommodation, and nor should we expect that for young people who are—again, as Chris says—some of the most vulnerable and sometimes disturbed. We are setting them up to fail. That is why the youth crime action plan is looking at the importance and role of accommodation agencies and registered social landlords for young people within the youth justice system. Part of the difficulty in the past has been that accommodation is supplied by what we call second-tier authorities. If you have a shire or rural county, below that will come another tier—a second tier—of local authority. Very often, responsibility for children's services and youth offending services lies with the top-tier local authority, but responsibility for accommodation and registered social landlords rests with the second-tier local authority. That has been a problem. One thing that the youth crime action plan is looking at is the notion of having accommodation officers and accommodation agencies as part of the youth offending team steering group—currently, they are not legislated to be part of that steering group. We think that that is one thing that would certainly help the process. There need to be incentives and some effective levers if accommodation—not just accommodation, as I said, but appropriate, suitable and supported accommodation—is to be provided to these particular young people. One area that we have developed, which we have outlined in our submission, is around intensive fostering. We believe that that has huge benefits, not just in terms of resettlement, but also to prevent young people from going into custody in the first place. It is a structured and successful provision. Again, the early evaluation shows that these schemes are successful, not just as a way of preventing young people from going into custody, but for young people leaving custody and being supported after that as well.

  Q335 Fiona Mactaggart: But how could you structure the kind of tag that you attach, as it were, to a young person in care to ensure that they did not pass the accommodation test just by someone ticking a box to say that they have referred them to the B and B down in Hastings or somewhere, which is what too often seems to occur?

  Chris Callender: Bob is right. The judgment that we had in the Hammersmith and Fulham case in the House of Lords was on this point. In that case what is called a unitary authority—Hammersmith and Fulham—had responsibility for housing and social services. Kent or Essex is where you would get the problems. You get the County Council responsible for social services, but within that you have lots of other little authorities dealing with housing. The answer is simple: you do not put children through the homelessness route. You do not dump them in bed and breakfasts, which is what the homeless persons unit is all about. You look after these children. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are the big group that get dumped in that way—I use dumped, because that is how it feels when I am talking to these kids. They are placed in bed and breakfasts under Housing Act legislation. Sometimes they are found intentionally homeless. You have 16-year-old children wandering around the streets of England who have been found intentionally homeless. Therefore, the housing authority has no duty to them and social services are merely ignoring them. That is the end result. The Hammersmith and Fulham judgment was on just that point. It was about a 17-year-old girl whose mother was dying with a tumour and could not cope with her daughter. The local housing authority found her intentionally homeless. Social services never blinked an eyelid. It did not even look at her; it did not even touch her. The reality is that there should be a protocol. These people should be communicating with one another. The difficulty is that the Housing Act legislation allows local authority social services to sidestep their duties by pushing people down the homelessness route. Therefore, they are placed into accommodation that is inappropriate, unsuitable and unsupported, which then leads to offending and, we would say, custody. There are successes. In the case of the Sutton judgment, which was in the Court of Appeal, that girl, Jade, went on not to reoffend. She did two years for a serious offence, but she has not reoffended because she had stable accommodation. She did not get the best service—it took too long to get the judgment—but once we got there, with the stability of a home that she could call her own and a room that she could personalise and make up as her own, she stayed out of trouble. That was a very good result, actually with very minimal input. You raised the point about social workers and YOIs. I deal with these people on an almost day to day basis, and these big YOIs with lots of kids are overwhelmed, as you can imagine. Their focus is on the children who are already in the system, and part of my evidence is about those children who slip through the net. I say that that is a massive proportion of those children whom we need to reach. Their big problem is that when they ring a local authority, it says, "No, we're not doing it." They then ring us and say, "Hey, we're having problems getting this local authority involved." We might then need a High Court order.The problem that they face is similar to the one that youth offending team workers face. It is a question of enforcement, and they lack the ability, independence and legal access to justice, so they bring those children and we give them access to justice. That is not a bad job at the end of the day, but it is regrettable that they need to go that far. It is regrettable that when they complete referral forms, the local authorities that they contact do not engage. I agree with the youth crime action plan. It is very important to move towards welfare and to start to meet the needs of children. If we do that, it might prevent them from reoffending.

  Q336 Fiona Mactaggart: Do you think that if you move responsibility for youth crime to children's trusts, as is proposed, that will help, make a difference or be window dressing? What difference will it make?

  Chris Callender: To be tried and tested, in part. The problem with children's trusts is that they are not created as a statutory duty. The beauty of section 20 of the Children Act is that it creates a statutory duty. In the last analysis, we can try to enforce that if it comes to it and ensure that it happens. Children's trusts need a statutory duty and statutory force behind them.There is also the question of funding and how it will materialise and be channelled. Things are moving in the right direction and the right language is being talked, but the question is whether the right structures are in place for the plan to work.

  Bob Ashford: Just to add to that, the point about children's trusts and their roles was a leak in the press. In future, I would like children's services to be given more responsibility. I would like more levers for, and more accountability of, children's services so that they deliver services to young people who are offending, particularly regarding custody and rehabilitation. On the structure, I firmly believe that the current structure, whereby the local authority Chief Executive has the primary role with youth offending teams, is right. That brings together not just children's services, but, in unitary authorities, housing departments. It also brings together the role of the local authority chief executive as part of the local strategic partnership and their links with policing, courts and so on. I do not want responsibility for youth justice to go to just one agency. A local authority Chief Executive bridges different agencies, in both justice and welfare, and that is an important place to be. Children's trusts are largely untried and untested. If you talk to chief executives of children's trusts in different parts of the country, as I am sure that you have, you will find that they are entirely different in terms of their development, how long they have been there, how long they have been formed, what their structure looks like, what they are responsible for, and what their funding looks like. They are very much at different stages of development. If lead responsibility were to be handed to those agencies—or any other agency, but particularly children's trusts—we would have some reservations about how prepared and ready they were. Also, we are sending out a message about placing responsibility for youth justice wholly in a children's service organisation. We believe that it is important to keep on board the police, courts and the justice elements alongside, and balanced with, child welfare in children's services.

  Q337 Fiona Mactaggart: But I think what we are hearing is about child welfare and the concerns of children, particularly looked-after children. Many of the children who are involved in the justice system have parents who are not very good at being parents. It is not up to us to judge, but they have struggled, and one of the reasons for their children getting messed up in the system is that they have not done as well as they had ambitions to, or as well as children have a right to expect. Nevertheless, in the case of those children, we—the state, all of us—are their parent. It seems to me that at the moment, the justice bit of all this is trumping the parenting bit. There are various, quite robust, legal requirements in the justice bit of all this, but in most cases there are not very robust requirements in the parenting bit. I want to hear from you some practical steps by which we can stop the justice bit trumping the parenting bit. That is really what I am looking for.

  Chairman: We are getting a bit short of time, so can we riffle through the answers? Di, Chris and then Bob.

  Dr Hart: I certainly think that, as Bob has said, there are some very complicated strategic partnership arrangements with multi-agency involvement. What is lacking is a clear line of accountability. The more people who are involved, either at strategic level or on a case-by-case basis, the more confusion there is about who is ultimately responsible. I think that social care felt that with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, they were somehow being let off the hook in terms of young people who offend, and that they were handing them over to the people with primary responsibility. That does not work for looked-after children. Social care needs to be brought to centre stage again and held to account for the outcomes for the children that it looks after who are in the criminal justice system.

  Chris Callender: I agree with that, and much of what I have been saying today is about the fact that we are failing to meet and reach those children and to parent them. You are absolutely right—when no one else is there to parent them, it is absolutely our responsibility. Parliament has said that that responsibility lies with the children's services arm of the local authority—we find that in the Children Act and all its associated guidance on how to parent. The reality that we find on the ground, not only for children who are in custody or coming out of it, is that when we look back into children's history and lives, at the times when they most needed it—and we knew that—we failed to look after them. They then went on to offend. The way through this is in how the children's services department is run—with children having consistent support and not being moved around the country, and with quality assessments and planning involving such children. We have stuff there already, but it is a matter of ensuring that that happens.

  Bob Ashford: I am not going to get assurance about the justice part of it trumping the children's services part of it, because currently youth offending teams deliver about 11,000 parenting interventions every year to the parents of young people who offend. They work with about 25,000 young people who are at risk of offending to try to prevent them from doing so. They deliver a wide range of children's welfare services as well as a justice element. We need to concentrate more on what more children's services can do for that group of young people. We have heard from Chris and Di, and I absolutely agree; for me, it is about trying to ensure that there are some statutory levers in either legislation or guidance to spell out crystal clearly the responsibility not just of children's services, but of health and accommodation agencies, towards young people who offend, particularly those who are looked after.

  Chairman: A quick one from you, Sharon.

  Q338 Mrs Hodgson: I need two figures, if you have them. You mentioned that there are 3,000 children in custody in the UK. Do any of you know how many are on the youth offenders register, and how many children have looked-after children status?

  Bob Ashford: The simple answer is that I do not have those figures on me, but we can certainly supply you with the number of people who are on the books of youth offending teams.13 How many of those are looked after—I do not believe that we keep that information.

  Q339 Mrs Hodgson: No, one is not included in the other. I want to know how many children in the whole country, regardless of whether they are offenders, are classed as looked-after children.

  Bob Ashford: The DCSF would know that, certainly, but I do not have the figure here—sorry.

  Dr Hart: I think that it is about 60,000, but of course that is from birth right up to 18.

11   See Ev 194 Back

12   See Ev 195 Back

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