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I cited one such great case-that of 90 days without charge-which was put forward as a serious proposition by a democracy and a land that believes in the rule of law. I would therefore like to give this task entirely to the British judges. That is what I see as the remedy to this situation: we bring the law back and it is decided here. We support and salute the endeavours of the Council of Europe, but this Court is a shambles as currently constructed and in the way in which it discharges its duty. I support the motion, for the reasons first
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argued so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), and in the underlying struggle to maintain the common law in this country.

5 pm

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), I support the motion. I do so because it is unacceptable that unelected European judges think that they can tell elected Members of this British Parliament how we should treat British criminals who break British laws. I am sure that the vast majority of people in Britain find quite unpalatable the idea that we should allow the vote to prisoners convicted of such serious crimes as murder, rape and paedophilia-certainly the overwhelming majority of people in my constituency share that view.

We must remember that prisoners are incarcerated in secure prisons because they are considered to be a danger to the public and that they are in prison as punishment for their crimes. That punishment should include not only the loss of freedom, but the loss of certain rights enjoyed by law-abiding citizens. One such right is the ability to vote in elections, and I very much hope that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House vote for the motion in large numbers. Doing so will make it very clear to the European Court of Human Rights that if a British citizen commits a crime serious enough to warrant incarceration in prison, that person will lose not only his or her freedom, but the privilege of voting in elections during their incarceration.

However, despite my passionate opposition to prisoners having the vote, I recognise the difficulty faced by the Government. It is clear that Ministers do not want to give votes to prisoners, but they feel obliged to abide by the ECHR ruling. A number of suggestions have been made as to how the Government could solve their dilemma and I wish to add my two-penn'orth. First, let us consider what we hope to achieve when we put people in prison.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this House may assist the Government to get out of this dilemma by passing this motion, and that may set a positive precedent for dealing with the European Union and similar issues? If the Government do not succeed in getting agreement to reduce the EU budget, for example, this House should pass a motion resolving to do so, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972.

Gordon Henderson: It would be very odd if I did not agree with my hon. Friend.

The first reason for putting people in prison is to punish them, but there is a second reason, which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Claire Perry) and for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who are not in their places. That second reason is to rehabilitate people, so that after they are released they are not subsequently locked up again. Although I totally oppose allowing prisoners to vote while they are incarcerated in a secure prison, there is an argument for allowing them to vote once they are transferred to an open prison as part of their release back into society. If Ministers want a way out of the fix in which they find themselves, they
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should accept the motion, as I shall, as a starting point. However, in addition to the categories of prisoner for whom the vote is currently allowed, which are set out in the motion, they should add a category of all prisoners incarcerated in an open prison, including those transferred from a secure prison as part of their release programme.

Such an approach would have a number of advantages. First, it would obey the European Court of Human Rights' ruling by giving the vote to the majority of prisoners at some stage in their sentence. Secondly, it would allow the vote to those convicted of relatively minor offences and sent to open prison. Thirdly, it would address the arguments of those who claim that giving the vote to prisoners would encourage them to become useful members of society-which it does. Fourthly, it would deny the vote to those convicted of the most heinous crimes until they had served most of their sentence and were about to be released back into the community, when they would get the vote anyway.

I do not want prisoners to have the vote under any circumstances, but I understand the problem that the Government face and I ask them, if they feel forced to give any prisoner the vote, to consider what I believe would be a reasonable compromise.

5.5 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Notwithstanding the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), the motion on the Order Paper in my name and that of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House has been carefully crafted in light of the judgments delivered by the Grand Chamber in the Hirst case. For that reason, and given the limit on Back-Bench contributions, I shall confine my remarks to demonstrating why the motion is correct and why it is important that it receives support from hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The previous Government's decision to refer the Hirst matter to the Grand Chamber is something that we have to live with because of the rule of law. We have to respect the judgment that the Court handed down, whether we agree with it or not, but it is important to bear in mind that the decision in Hirst was far from unanimous. A powerful dissent was delivered by the president of the Court, in which he was joined by four other judges. I add that Judge Costa, who is now the president of the Court, also delivered a dissenting opinion. Those dissenting opinions correctly recognised the importance of the Court not interfering or being seen to interfere in domestic political issues.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. Does he recognise that those opinions dissented from the majority opinion of the Court? If we are to support the whole concept of the European convention on human rights and the Court, we have to accept its judgment.

Stephen Phillips: I am grateful for that intervention, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to listen to where I am going rather than to what he has heard so far.

The minority stressed that

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I make this point, in answer to the hon. Gentleman, because although I accept, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has made clear, that the Government are bound by the judgment in the Hirst case as between themselves and Mr Hirst, in the sense that it is res judicata between them, they are not bound in relation to future cases brought by other litigants. There is every prospect, given the debate that we are having today, that the judgment in Hirst would not be followed by the Grand Chamber in future should it come to consider the matter again. To be clear, if, as I trust will happen, there is a clear demonstration in the House today of the will of the people, through their democratically elected representatives, to maintain the status quo regarding the removal of voting rights from those who are subject to custodial sentences, I fail to see how that could not subsequently be respected by the courts of this country and by the Strasbourg Court should the matter have to be considered again.

As even the majority in Hirst recognised, there is a substantial margin of appreciation in the context of article 3 of the convention, and the fact remains that there is no consensus across Europe as to whether those serving custodial sentences should have their right to vote removed as a consequence of having put themselves outside the law. Indeed, it was notable in the judgment of the majority in the Grand Chamber that significant reliance had to be placed on decisions from Canada and South Africa. The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) quoted from the South African case. It is true that Canada and South Africa are both common law countries, but they have significant civil law traditions stemming from French law and Roman-Dutch law respectively.

The margin of appreciation in the context that is being discussed in the House means, or certainly ought to mean, that if the House passes the motion, as I hope it will, and if it decides that it does not believe, in the name of the people of the United Kingdom, that section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 entails any breach of the human rights of the citizens of the United Kingdom, that, to my mind, must be an end of the matter. It will have to be recognised in the courts of this country. It will, I hope, be recognised by the Court in Strasbourg.

Ben Gummer: On that point, if the House expresses this opinion today, and if the Court takes that into account, and given that the article protects the totality of the democracy and not an individual right, will the Court not be subverting the convention itself if it persists along the course of action that it has begun?

Stephen Phillips: Yes, it will. One of the difficulties that the Government face, and which those arguing the case in the Grand Chamber faced, was the previous jurisprudence of the Court, where the article had been misconstrued well beyond its original purpose, to give rise to individual rights that the framers of the convention had never intended should come into being.

If there is a change in the approach of the Strasbourg Court, as there ought to be in light of the motion-assuming that it carries if there is a vote tonight-and if the Strasbourg Court were arrogantly and excessively to continue to seek to appropriate to itself the right to legislate for the people of the United Kingdom, the
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Government and the House would have to look again at the matter. In those circumstances, it would be difficult to see what properly could be done other than to repatriate the right of the United Kingdom to have sole jurisdiction to decide the human rights of its citizens in its domestic courts, as a number of hon. Members have suggested.

For the present, however, what is necessary, and all that is necessary from those on both sides of the debate-from those who support the existence of the jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court and those who do not, and from those who believe that we ought to be party to the European convention on human rights and those who do not-is that the motion receives support across the House, so that we make clear the position of the people of the United Kingdom through their elected representatives. For those reasons, I commend the motion to the House. I shall vote for it and I urge hon. Members of all parties to lend it their support.

5.12 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is a real pleasure to follow my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) because I, too, support the motion and he has succinctly explained its purpose and outlined the challenges that confront us.

My contribution will be short because a great many views have already been aired. I agreed with many of the earlier speeches. My contribution very much stems from the fact that many of my constituents are outraged by the concept of votes for prisoners. I support the motion for two main reasons. First, we absolutely should maintain this country's long-standing law refusing prisoners the right to vote. Secondly, as I see it and as we have heard, it is fundamentally wrong and undemocratic for unelected and unaccountable judges in Europe to attempt to undermine the sovereignty of this Parliament.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree with me and people in my constituency that there is another reason that many people are unhappy about this debate? That is simply that decisions of the European Court of Human Rights is a further illustration of the fact that some people are keener to promote the rights of perpetrators of crime than those of victims of crime, as has also been shown in today's debate.

Priti Patel: Indeed I do, and I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. The majority of the public believe that those who are convicted of criminal offences and sent to prison should forfeit their right to vote and not have the same rights as other members of society. I find it extraordinary that we are talking about the rights of convicted criminals-people in prison-rather than the rights of those who are the victims of crime.

The public are also fed up with the fact that the human rights agenda has been used to undermine our judicial process, and we now have the bizarre scenario where we are effectively talking about giving prisoners and convicted criminals more rights. There are also genuine concerns about the capitulation of successive Governments to these unelected judges in Strasbourg who are determined to expand their influence into areas of law that should not be anywhere within their jurisdiction. They are completely encroaching on that territory.

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Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Is she aware that in 2002, Sweden had a problem with an aspect of the convention and withdrew, then later went back into it? Why cannot we do the same on this issue?

Priti Patel: That is a good example. We need to start exercising our rights more vigorously and standing up for Britain and Britain's interests. This is why Parliament and the Government must stand up to the Strasbourg Court. I fundamentally believe that this Parliament should have the final say on this matter.

My constituents constantly make the point that they are outraged. They feel that the rights of criminals, as opposed to the rights of victims, are constantly discussed and put first. I was not sent to the House by the voters of Witham slavishly to nod through laws and accept every diktat that comes from Europe or the Strasbourg Court. I was elected to this House to defend the national interest, to support my constituents and to hold law-makers to account. It would be a great disservice to the British people if we were to say that the authority of this House and this Parliament is now so denuded, so irrelevant, that we are powerless to act, stand up, speak out and do the right thing in this Chamber. This is a democratic and sovereign Parliament, which has done more to promote democracy and the rule of law than any other. We should not be forced to bow down on this issue, and I urge all hon. Members to put Britain and the law-abiding majority of this country first by sending a clear and unequivocal message to Europe by supporting the motion.

5.17 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am probably the only Member of the House to have served as a prison officer and an assistant governor in Her Majesty's Prison Service, so I hope that I can throw a little light as well as heat on the debate .

Despite the disparaging comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), I can tell colleagues that working in a prison is very, very tough. I have been physically assaulted, tricked, verbally abused and just about everything in between, so I would definitely dispute any accusations of being a bleeding-heart liberal and a soft touch. It was a long time ago that I served in the Prison Service, and I hope things are different now, but when I was there prisoners were treated by many staff with contempt. They were regarded as the lowest of the low, and not deserving of the smallest consideration. People who write to me today to tell me how soft prison is do not necessarily understand the nature of the punishment that prisoners undergo.

There has been a lot of discussion about the terrible, heinous things that prisoners have done, and I in no way wish to detract from some of the terrible crimes that have been perpetrated, but I want to put the other side as well. More than half of people who are sentenced receive a sentence of six months or less. Around 70% of people come into prison addicted to class A drugs or alcohol. The offences committed by the women for whom I was responsible at Holloway were often minor, but persistent. They included fencing stolen goods and shoplifting, often to feed a habit. Many prisoners who commit cynical and premeditated offences, but some cherish hopes of returning to society and their families and behaving themselves, if they are given the chance. If
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we want prisoners to leave prison and rejoin society as citizens who will work, pay taxes and become full members of our society, we must wake up to the idea that depriving them of their dignity and identity as well as their liberty is not the way to go about it.

When I was assistant governor of Holloway prison, I was put in charge of a wing of adult prisoners and the young offenders wing, and I can tell hon. Members that those girls had some of the least attractive personalities of any individuals I have ever met. They were disparaged and looked down on by prison officers throughout the jail. However, as part of my training I spent time with the probation service and at a mental hospital, and the frantic and destructive behaviour of some of the girls started to make sense. They had suffered all forms of abuse, many so awful that they would shock even those hon. Members who have dealt with abuse situations. That is the context in which we are working.

When we take away a prisoner's human rights, we deny their humanity. We are telling them that they are worthless and reinforcing their isolation from the world.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady and to her last suggestion that we are taking away prisoners' human rights. Are we not simply taking away a civil right, rather than a human right?

Lorely Burt: I believe that it is a human right, as I have said a number of times, and it is categorised as such by the convention. I will give the last word to Juliet Lyon CBE, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, who sums it up well:

Mr Tom Harris: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lorely Burt: No, I will not give way again. Colleagues, let us move forward today, rather than backward. I will not be supporting the motion.

5.22 pm

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): We have had an interesting debate and a number of ideas have come forward from both the Front and, most notably, Back Benches. In the spirit of the invitation of the Attorney-General, who made his remarks in the middle of the debate, I think that it is incumbent on us all to come up with constructive suggestions on how we move forward. Before doing so, I want to say that the debate epitomises the age-old tension between the judiciary and the legislature. It is not something we should apologise for; frankly, it is entirely natural.

There are times when the concept that politicians make the laws and judges merely enforce them comes under severe strain, and this is one such occasion. Often, the fault lies here, with politicians, because of poor and unclear drafting of legislation. Judges will often have the difficult task of interpreting unclear provisions-I pray in aid the Criminal Justice Act 2003, for example-and will do their best to clear up the spilt
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milk that we politicians have left them. However, there are times when the hand of judicial activism can be seen. Nowhere is that more true, I am afraid, than in the European Court of Human Rights.

We have heard much about the original conception of fundamental rights and freedoms, and I associate myself with those remarks. What has clearly occurred is a move from a concept of the guardianship of fundamental liberty to one of pettifogging interference with the mechanisms of liberty itself.

Robert Halfon: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Buckland: I will not, because other hon. Members wish to speak, and I do not want to eat into their time.

In this country, the concept of human rights has become associated not with the far-sighted words of Sir Winston Churchill or the careful drafting of Lord Kilmuir, but with the rather grisly spectre of ambulance-chasing lawyers, scuttling around our prisons, encouraging inmates to think not about the right to vote, but about the prospect of compensation. We should all reflect on that; it is a sad reflection of where human rights have sunk to in the public's perception.

We need to return to the concept of basic rights. The right to vote is not in my view a fundamental freedom of itself. It is the expression of a freedom, of a constitutional right, but it is not of itself a fundamental human right. The suffrage is age-restricted, for example; it depends on electoral registration; and it is a mechanism for expressing our freedom, not the very freedom itself. That is where I am afraid the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) gets it wrong. There is a distinction to be made, but it is a distinction that the European Court has blurred-and blurred dangerously through its majority decision in the case of Hirst.

I said that the right to vote is an ancillary to freedom, and equally the loss of the right to vote by a prisoner is an ancillary consequence of incarceration. The punishment is the deprivation of the fundamental freedom that is liberty; one consequence is the loss of the right to vote. They go hand in hand, and the eloquent words of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) cannot be improved on. Much has been said about the misnomer of a "blanket ban", and that point needs to be reinforced.

I should like to make a suggestion, which I think my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) presaged, but whom I forgive. It is an observation based on the majority decision in the Hirst case. The criteria that troubled the majority there were the nature or gravity of the offence and the individual circumstances. We should move away from worrying about the length of the sentence and look at where we deal with the case. We deal with our most serious cases in the Crown court, and there should be a presumption of the loss of the right to vote for all defendants who are dealt with in that higher court.

We could observe the reverse to be true in the lower or magistrates court. I am reluctant to support the concept of judicial discretion, which brings judges into the political sphere and leads to an effective reduction in the loss of the right to vote. For all those reasons, I support the motion.

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5.28 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): We have had an excellent debate. Indeed, it has shown the House at its best: the opportunity to debate the issues of the day, without being whipped on how we vote at the end.

I come to the debate not as a lawyer but with a background in science and mathematics, and as such as I treat these issues with logic. My starting point is that Parliament sets the rules-it sets the laws. It decides what is a criminal offence and what is not, and what the range of a sentence should be when someone has broken the law and is guilty of such a criminal offence. It is then for the judges to determine, after someone has been found guilty, what sentence they serve, and the current position is clear: if they are imprisoned, they lose their right to vote.

There is a grave danger, however, in our saying to the judges, "You can decide whether someone should be sent to prison, how long they should lose the vote for, and whether it should be three months, six months or whatever." Equally, there is an inherent danger, because judges might have in the back of their minds the fact that, if they sentence someone to two years' imprisonment, that person will lose their vote, but if they imprison them for only one year, that person will keep it. That would leave the judges to make the judgment. That is fundamentally wrong in society, and we should shy away from it.

Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): Is not the solution that judges should have discretion over whether to withhold the right to vote rather than its being part of a sentence?

Bob Blackman: The logic that flows from that is that when judges decide that someone goes to prison, that person should lose their right to vote, full stop, without any slippery slope in the other direction.

Damian Collins: I am not saying that I agree with my hon. Friend, but judges already have a power to decide whether someone can stand for Parliament, because someone who serves more than a year in prison cannot stand for election as a prisoner, but someone who is serving less than a year can stand and be elected to this House.

Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

I would argue strongly that the Government should not make any proposals that place limitations on the time served before someone has their vote taken away. That is a slippery slope, and we should not allow the judiciary to take that position. We should clearly adopt that position as a House.

Having had this challenge from the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to which we must respond, we have heard in this debate the voice of the House of Commons. I suspect that when we come to vote there will be an overwhelming majority in favour of this motion. The Government could therefore propose very simple legislation saying that anyone convicted of a criminal offence that results in their going to prison loses their right to vote. That will respond to the challenge that the Court of Human Rights has set us. The House of Commons will consider that legislation, as will the
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House of Lords, and it will command respect and endorsement from all parties in the House. That will end this ongoing argument with the Court of Human Rights once and for all, and reassert the sovereignty of this Parliament and its position over the Court of Human Rights.

Why should we not suggest that to the Government? We have heard many ideas from colleagues on the approach that we should take. I ask the Attorney-General and the Government to take note of all the suggestions that we have put as Members of the House of Commons and come forward with simple legislation that we can all endorse and support. That will send a strong message to the people who would subvert our democracy and try to prevent our Parliament from being sovereign. It will tell them that that is our answer, and that it is clear and unambiguous, once and for all. I strongly support the motion.

5.32 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I have heard the word "rights" used a lot this afternoon, but surely equal weight should be given to the word "responsibilities". If someone behaves irresponsibly-criminally-they should lose those rights. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said that he is angry about this issue, and the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that it makes him feel sick. I suggest a remedy-a constructive one, may I humbly add?-and that is a steely spine and a determination to rid us of all these human rights laws. It beggars belief that we are having to discuss this subject at all. It only reminds us in this House how impotent we really are. Tied to the well-intended European convention on human rights, subjugated by judges and bureaucrats in Europe, and told we may have to pay £100 million to disfranchised prisoners, we are left humiliated in this place.

Preventing prisoners from having the right to vote is a point of principle for us all. They lost it in 1870, and my constituents say that they should not get it back today. I agree with the former Law Lord, Lord Hoffmann, that while democracy and freedom are certainly human rights, the right to vote is a constitutional right and is therefore different. In my view, prisons should punish. I appreciate that moves are afoot for the emphasis to be more on rehabilitation. I implore our Government that that must not be at the expense of justice.

There are two prisons in my constituency, HMP The Verne and the young offenders institution, both of which are on Portland. The Prison Officers Association already believes that prison today is no deterrent. We hear repeatedly of repeat offenders, and why? It is because there is no deterrent. Most law-abiding citizens do not have the rights and privileges that prisoners have. That is what I hear from those who guard today's prisoners.

I understand that the Government are considering pursuing the minimum legal requirements laid down in the European Court of Human Rights ruling. As I understand it, that would mean withdrawing the right to vote from the most serious offenders: those who have been incarcerated for four years or more. With respect, that misses the point entirely. It would be an ill-considered fudge brought upon us by our coalition partners. It was always a Lib Dem promise-never ours. Such a fudge will encourage prisoners to sue the Government. Already,
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we hear that lawyers are circling like vultures, waiting for convicted men and women to make financial gain from this farce.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Would it not be best, therefore, to set the penalty at the cost of a bottle of House of Commons Speaker's whisky, which is £20, and then to limit the legal aid to the sum that could be gained, or the case would be dropped?

Richard Drax: My hon. Friend is much more learned than I am, and he makes an interesting point.

Finally, I shall touch on the mechanics of giving prisoners the vote. How will we do it? Will we canvass prison cells? Will we knock on each door and ask, "What can we do to get you to vote for us?" Might murders and rapists affect the outcome of an election in a marginal seat? It sounds ridiculous and it is ridiculous. It is also completely unworkable. Surely our criminal justice system if for us and us alone.

During the election, we promised a British Bill of Rights that would balance a citizen's rights more carefully with their responsibilities. It is time that we replaced the European convention on human rights. As one of the oldest democracies on Earth, I think we can be trusted to look after our citizens.

Mr Speaker: To wind up this Back Bench-led debate, I call the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab).

5.37 pm

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish to pay my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, and to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who initiated an earlier debate on the same subject, which was extremely useful.

It is a privilege to wind up this debate after so many excellent speeches from all parts of the House. There have been insightful contributions on the criminal justice aspect on both sides of the debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) was on suitably robust form and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) made an eloquent contribution on the other side of the argument. We have heard compelling arguments about democratic accountability from my hon. Friends the Members for St Albans (Mrs Main) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). There were valuable contributions on the history of the convention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd).

I will start even further back. The House will recall that Alfred the Great was notorious for smiting Vikings, but he was not just a bruiser.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) can remember. He was there.

Mr Raab: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. King Alfred was a good Somerset man who did his duty to rescue us not only from Vikings, but from high taxation.

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Mr Raab: In the year 888, he was translating "The Consolation of Philosophy" from Latin and he asked a basic existential question: are we determined by fate or do we possess free will? He answered in favour of free will. When he translated the Latin word "libertas", he used the word "freedom"-"free" as in free from bondage, and "dom", for which we would now say "deem", meaning "conscious" of being free. Freedom was linked to free will and the basic idea that we take responsibility for our actions. That is how the word "freedom" entered our language in the first place, and it is what today's debate is about.

If a person commits a serious enough crime to be sent to prison, they forfeit the right to vote, along with their liberty, for the limited period of their incarceration. We have come a long way since the year 888, but our tradition of liberty sustains the basic idea that with freedom comes responsibility. When the European convention on human rights was negotiated in 1949, that remained a guiding principle, so when the French proposed including a right to vote it was rejected because the draft contained the words "universal suffrage". The British delegate, Sir Oscar Dowson, a former Home Office legal adviser, stated:

Robert Halfon: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for his important point. Does he agree that the founders of the European convention on human rights, who did what they did because of what had happened in world war two, would never have wanted to give Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer the vote?

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and of course he is absolutely right.

The context of Sir Oscar Dowson's comments is that when the convention was negotiated Britain barred peers, felons and the insane from voting. The British argument was accepted and the French proposal withdrawn, and when the right to vote reappeared in the protocol, not the convention, two years later, the words "universal suffrage" had been deleted. There can be absolutely no doubt that the protocol was explicitly designed to allow states to ban prisoner voting and impose other restrictions. As a matter of international law and a basic canon of treaty interpretation, Strasbourg should have taken that into account if there were any doubt, but it failed to do so. In doing so, it undermined international law.

Of course, that was not a one-off case. From the time of the Tyrer case against Britain in 1978, Strasbourg started referring to the European convention as a "living instrument". The Court said that its job was not just to interpret and apply convention rights but to expand and update them. The judges assumed the powers of legislators, without any mandate or any basis in the convention, and in defiance of international law and the basis democratic principle that states are bound by the international obligations to which they freely sign up.

From then on, in the UK alone, Strasbourg rewrote the law of negligence as it applies to the police in the Osman case; created novel fetters on our ability to deport criminals and terror suspects in the Chahal case
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and a whole series of article 8 cases since; and overturned both a British jury and the will of Parliament to dictate the rules governing how parents may discipline their children. There are many other examples. Let me be clear about this: Members may reasonably disagree on all those difficult policy and ethical questions, but all democrats must agree that they are questions to be answered by this House-by elected law makers.

One concern expressed in the debate has been about the idea of Britain defying a court, undermining the rule of law. As a public international lawyer, trained and practised, I pay close attention to that matter. However, there is another factor to consider. Impartiality and independence are the pillars of the judicial function, and they begin to crumble if judges are both interpreting and creating human rights law at the same time. That is now a far greater threat to the rule of law, the separation of powers and our basic notions of democratic accountability.

The motion is not about pandering to some populist agenda. I fully support prison reform, as other Members throughout the Chamber have said they do, including more drug rehabilitation, more training and more work in prisons. Nor is it anti-judge. Some of our most senior judges are now openly criticising Strasbourg-the Lord Chief Justice, the President of the Supreme Court and Lord Hoffman, who until recently was our second most senior Law Lord. Lord Hoffman did so not just in the recent Policy Exchange report, but way back when he complained that Strasbourg had proved

That was back in 2009.

The fact is that we face a serious abuse of power-there is no other word for it. I therefore want to put this question to the House: how perverse would a Strasbourg ruling have to be before we, as British lawmakers, stood up for the national interest and our prerogatives as democratic lawmakers? If not now, on prisoner voting, when? I make this prediction: if we do not hold the line here, today, there will be worse to come-far worse-in the years ahead.

What happens if we agree to the motion? Strasbourg could rule against us and we could face compensation awards. However, the architects of the convention introduced a vital safeguard: Strasbourg cannot enforce its own judgments. The worst that can happen is that we remain on a very long list of unenforced judgments to be reviewed by the Committee of Ministers-there are about 800 such judgments at the moment. There is no risk of a fine and no power to enforce compensation, and absolutely no chance of being kicked out of the Council of Europe.

A number of compromise solutions have been mooted, and I have paid careful attention to each and every one. The problem is that giving the vote to prisoners sentenced to six months or less or a year or less is not a compromise, because it is bound to be rejected by Strasbourg. The Court made that crystal clear in the Frodl case last year, and the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, stated that unequivocally on Radio 4 last Saturday. Such so-called compromise proposals are the worst of all worlds. We buckle and
10 Feb 2011 : Column 584
accept the erosion of our democracy and Strasbourg rejects the compromise anyway.

It is time that we drew a line in the sand and sent this very clear message back: this House will decide whether prisoners get the vote, and this House makes the laws of the land, because this House is accountable to the British people. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put .

The House divided: Ayes 234, Noes 22.
Division No. 199]
[5.47 pm


Afriyie, Adam
Amess, Mr David
Andrew, Stuart
Austin, Ian
Bacon, Mr Richard
Bailey, Mr Adrian
Baker, Steve
Baldwin, Harriett
Barclay, Stephen
Baron, Mr John
Barron, rh Mr Kevin
Barwell, Gavin
Begg, Dame Anne
Bell, Sir Stuart
Benton, Mr Joe
Betts, Mr Clive
Bingham, Andrew
Binley, Mr Brian
Blackman, Bob
Blackwood, Nicola
Blenkinsop, Tom
Boles, Nick
Bone, Mr Peter
Bradley, Karen
Brady, Mr Graham
Bray, Angie
Brennan, Kevin
Bridgen, Andrew
Brine, Mr Steve
Brown, rh Mr Nicholas
Bruce, Fiona
Buckland, Mr Robert
Burley, Mr Aidan
Burns, Conor
Byles, Dan
Cairns, Alun
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr Alan
Carmichael, Neil
Carswell, Mr Douglas
Chishti, Rehman
Chope, Mr Christopher
Clappison, Mr James
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Coffey, Dr Thérèse
Collins, Damian
Colvile, Oliver
Connarty, Michael
Cox, Mr Geoffrey
Crausby, Mr David
Creasy, Stella
Crouch, Tracey
Cunningham, Tony
Davidson, Mr Ian
Davies, David T. C. (Monmouth)
Davies, Philip
Davis, rh Mr David
de Bois, Nick
Dinenage, Caroline
Dobbin, Jim
Docherty, Thomas
Dodds, rh Mr Nigel
Dorries, Nadine
Dowd, Jim
Doyle, Gemma
Doyle-Price, Jackie
Drax, Richard
Dugher, Michael
Ellis, Michael
Elphicke, Charlie
Engel, Natascha
Eustice, George
Evans, Graham
Evennett, Mr David
Fallon, Michael
Field, Mr Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Freeman, George
Freer, Mike
Fullbrook, Lorraine
Fuller, Richard
Gapes, Mike
Garnier, Mark
Gilbert, Stephen
Glindon, Mrs Mary
Goggins, rh Paul
Goldsmith, Zac
Graham, Richard
Gray, Mr James
Griffiths, Andrew
Gummer, Ben
Gyimah, Mr Sam
Halfon, Robert
Hamilton, Mr David
Hammond, Stephen
Hancock, Matthew
Hancock, Mr Mike
Hands, Greg
Harris, Rebecca
Harris, Mr Tom
Hart, Simon
Heaton-Harris, Chris
Henderson, Gordon
Hinds, Damian
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs Sharon
Hoey, Kate
Holloway, Mr Adam
Hosie, Stewart
Jackson, Mr Stewart
Javid, Sajid
Jenkin, Mr Bernard
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Diana
Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph
Jones, Andrew
Jones, Mr Kevan
Jones, Mr Marcus
Jones, Susan Elan
Keeley, Barbara
Kelly, Chris
Kirby, Simon
Kwarteng, Kwasi
Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Latham, Pauline
Leadsom, Andrea
Lee, Dr Phillip
Lefroy, Jeremy
Leigh, Mr Edward
Leslie, Charlotte
Leslie, Chris
Lewis, Brandon
Lewis, Dr Julian
Lilley, rh Mr Peter
Lopresti, Jack
Lucas, Ian
Main, Mrs Anne
Maynard, Paul
McCabe, Steve
McCann, Mr Michael
McCartney, Jason
McCartney, Karl
McClymont, Gregg
McGovern, Jim
McVey, Esther
Menzies, Mark
Mercer, Patrick
Metcalfe, Stephen
Michael, rh Alun
Mills, Nigel
Mitchell, Austin
Morgan, Nicky
Morris, Grahame M. (Easington)
Morris, James
Mosley, Stephen
Murray, Sheryll
Newton, Sarah
Nokes, Caroline
Nuttall, Mr David
Offord, Mr Matthew
Ollerenshaw, Eric
Ottaway, Richard
Owen, Albert
Paisley, Ian
Patel, Priti
Pawsey, Mark
Percy, Andrew
Perry, Claire
Phillips, Stephen
Phillipson, Bridget
Pincher, Christopher
Poulter, Dr Daniel
Pound, Stephen
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, John
Raab, Mr Dominic
Reckless, Mark
Redwood, rh Mr John
Rees-Mogg, Jacob
Reevell, Simon
Robertson, Mr Laurence
Rosindell, Andrew
Rudd, Amber
Ruffley, Mr David
Russell, Bob
Scott, Mr Lee
Selous, Andrew
Sharma, Alok
Shepherd, Mr Richard
Simmonds, Mark
Singh, Mr Marsha
Skidmore, Chris
Skinner, Mr Dennis
Smith, Henry
Smith, Julian
Spellar, rh Mr John
Stanley, rh Sir John
Stewart, Iain
Straw, rh Mr Jack
Streeter, Mr Gary
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Stuart, Mr Graham
Sturdy, Julian
Syms, Mr Robert
Tami, Mark
Tapsell, Sir Peter

Timms, rh Stephen
Tomlinson, Justin
Truss, Elizabeth
Turner, Mr Andrew
Uppal, Paul
Vickers, Martin
Walker, Mr Charles
Walker, Mr Robin
Walter, Mr Robert
Watson, Mr Tom
Weatherley, Mike
Weir, Mr Mike
Wharton, James
Wheeler, Heather
White, Chris
Whiteford, Dr Eilidh
Whittaker, Craig
Whittingdale, Mr John
Wicks, rh Malcolm
Williamson, Gavin
Wilson, Phil
Wilson, Mr Rob
Wollaston, Dr Sarah
Wright, David
Wright, Mr Iain
Zahawi, Nadhim
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Roger Gale and
Mr Philip Hollobone

Beith, rh Sir Alan
Bottomley, Sir Peter
Brake, Tom
Edwards, Jonathan
Foster, rh Mr Don
Gardiner, Barry
Green, Kate
Hames, Duncan
Hermon, Lady
Hughes, rh Simon
Huppert, Dr Julian
Jackson, Glenda
Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn
Love, Mr Andrew
Lucas, Caroline
McCarthy, Kerry
McDonnell, John
Munt, Tessa
Qureshi, Yasmin
Reid, Mr Alan
Williams, Hywel
Williams, Stephen
Tellers for the Noes:

Jeremy Corbyn and
Lorely Burt
Question accordingly agreed to.
10 Feb 2011 : Column 585

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10 Feb 2011 : Column 587

Children in Care

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Angela Watkinson.)

Mr Speaker: Before I ask Mr Edward Timpson to speak to the motion, may I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording to the hon. Gentleman the same courtesy that they would want extended to themselves in such circumstances?

6 pm

Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Mr Speaker, I should like to begin by thanking you for granting this short but none the less invaluable and timely debate on improving outcomes for children in care. With Eileen Munro's final report on child protection due out in April, the spotlight on looked-after children in this country is rightly intensifying, as we strive to narrow not the gap but the chasm that still exists between the life chances of children in care and others. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on looked-after children and care leavers, I was disappointed not to be able to contribute to the recent excellent Backbench Business Committee debate on disadvantaged children, which was opened with great force by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds). I am therefore delighted to have this opportunity to speak up for all those children and young people in care.

I also declare an interest as a non-practising family law barrister specialising in care cases and, perhaps more importantly, as someone who shared their home for more than 30 years with 90 foster children and two adopted brothers. I have no doubt that that experience not only shaped and hardened my strong sense of social justice but propelled what some would argue was my misplaced desire to come to this place and fight for better outcomes for children in care. Indeed, I had no hesitation in using my maiden speech almost three years ago to do just that.

I want to pay a warm-and, I stress, in no way sycophantic-tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is replying to the debate today. He has shown a profound interest in and deep knowledge of this subject. In government, he has embarked on the direct, purposeful, common-sense programme of reform that he advocated in opposition. As he has said, the programme is committed to

I am sure that his recent appearance before the all-party group, when more than 100 passionate young people came to Parliament to make their views known directly-and, on occasion, quite forcefully-to the Minister, did not put him off his stride. Instead, I am sure that the experience provided him with ample proof of the importance of the work that he has undertaken.

I am sure that much of what I am about to say will sound as though I am teaching the Minister to suck eggs, but I hope to persuade him that, in supporting his efforts, there is even more we can do to help children in care to overcome the odds that are still so heavily stacked against them. Let us look at the facts. Looked-after
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children are four times more likely than others to receive the help of mental health services, nine times more likely to have special needs requiring assessment, support and therapy, seven times more likely to misuse alcohol and drugs, 50 times more likely to end up in prison, 60 times more likely to become homeless, and 66 times more likely to have children of their own who will need public care. As if that were not enough, there are four times fewer children in care getting five good GCSEs including English and maths than their peers.

The financial and societal cost of those appalling statistics is heavy. According to Demos's recent report, "In Loco Parentis", published last year, a young person who leaves care at 16 with poor mental health and no recognised qualifications could cost the state more than five times as much as one who leaves care with good mental health and strong relationships and who goes on to university or an apprenticeship and finds a job. The costs to society are, perhaps, immeasurable.

I recognise that there are a number of counter-arguments to the picture that I have just painted. We must exercise a degree of caution about making direct, unqualified comparisons between children who have been through the care system and those who have not. In too many cases, children who enter the care system are already deeply damaged by their early-life experiences, which even the best possible care might be unable to unravel and overcome by the time they reach adulthood. We must therefore be careful to view such children's outcomes in that context.

We must also acknowledge the tremendous amount of fantastic care and support that is benefiting thousands of children in care every day. I have seen it and lived with it myself; I have witnessed at first hand what good parenting and appropriate emotional support can achieve. We should not forget that there are many children whose time in care was an enriching life-changing experience that led to a successful career and a fulfilling personal life. We need to be better and more open about accentuating the positive work that is done and not drag all those who work in the care system down with the structural failures within it.

In many ways, we do not have a single care system, but more of a fragmented patchwork of care systems where good practice thrives in some parts of the country, despite the design of the system. In other areas, however, as noted in the Select Committee report on looked-after children during the last Parliament:

Let us be clear. As I know the Minister accepts and appreciates, there is no quick fix. This is going to require a cross-party commitment over a generation to build a care system that is proactive, responsive, joined up and brimming with high-quality multidisciplinary support, giving a real and enduring priority to improving outcomes for children both in and on the edge of care.

As Sean Cameron and Colin Maginn lay down in their paper of March 2007:

So how do we achieve that end?

Based on strong body of evidence and research by Demos, the three main factors associated with achieving the most positive experiences of care and the best
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outcomes for looked-after children are: first, early intervention and minimal delay; secondly, stability during care; and, thirdly, supported transitions into independence. This is backed up by Mike Stein of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who similarly identified the priorities for ensuring resilience and well-being for looked-after children in later life as preventing children entering the care system through pre-care intervention, improving their care experience and supporting young people's transitions from care.

The fact is that we need a comprehensive response at all stages of childhood, but there is unquestionably in my mind, amid a growing consensus, the need for a strong emphasis on and commitment to early intervention and prevention, which are absolutely key. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)-a standard bearer for all things early intervention-said in his latest report, which was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that

To that end, I welcome the Government's financial commitment to that programme through the early-intervention grant, the expansion of family nurse partnerships and the widening of free nursery care for two-year-olds. Like others, I would also want to highlight the superb work done by Home-Start in my Crewe and Nantwich constituency and across the country to help families struggling with the demands of very young children. They deserve proper and longer-term support, so I look forward to the Minister taking the opportunity today to reiterate that to local authorities in no uncertain terms.

By getting in early before problems become entrenched, Action for Children and the New Economics Foundation have calculated a potential saving to the economy of £486 billion over 20 years-imagine that. Just as relevant would be the transformation of life chances for so many young people. The brutal truth is, however, that even with more targeted and consistent preventative work, there will still be children who need the state to intervene in their lives. For them, stability is the foundation stone.

Young people who experience stable placements providing good-quality care are far more likely to succeed educationally, to be in work, to settle in and manage their accommodation after leaving care, to feel better about themselves and to achieve satisfactory social integration into adulthood than young people who have experienced further movement and disruption during their time in care. With stability comes the security as well as the time for children to develop those all-important secure attachments, but much of that is undermined by frequent and disruptive moves, which are too often a feature of a child's experience in care. As one year 8 child in care put it:

Children need and want a sense of belonging, of family, to feel reciprocal emotional warmth and to have someone who loves them unconditionally and believes in them.

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It is true that in recent years there has been a small drop in the number of looked-after children with three or more placements during the year, but there is still a long way to go. We are short of about 10,000 foster carers. Given that foster placements make up about three quarters of all care placements, and given that in 2010 the number of looked-after children stood at 64,400-up 6% on 2009-a relentless recruitment and retention drive for foster carers remains crucial if we are to increase the prospect of providing every child with the right placement, rather than providing the right child for the placement.

However, foster carers are only part of the stability equation. The recruitment and retention of social workers continues to cause concern, which is the driving force behind the Government's new "step up to social work" scheme. With a high staff churn rate comes more instability for the child. That is not new. Lord Laming, Moira Gibb and, most recently, Eileen Munro have produced reports in the last few years that pinpoint the tick-box culture that has spread its tentacles across social work and has sapped the morale and professional judgment of social workers. Eileen Munro hit the nail on the head when she said:

As the Minister has said previously, taking a child into care is not a science but a subjective judgment. To be able to make that and other judgments correctly requires experience, consistency, and the time and space that make it possible to really understand the needs of a particular child. A change of social worker every five minutes will not lead to good child-focused decisions. But it does not have to be that way.

I am conducting a cross-party inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children, with the welcome support of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and Lord Listowel. A few weeks ago we visited Hackney children's services to observe the way in which children's social care in the borough had undergone a complete shift in the culture of practice and management by reclaiming social work through the establishment of social work units. There are teams consisting of a social worker, a family therapist, a children's practitioner, a unit co-ordinator who takes all the red tape out of the hands of the social worker, and a consultant social worker who, under the old system, would have gone into management and had little or no contact with children of families, but is now using his or her experience on the front line.

The results have been dramatic. We have seen a reduction in the number of looked-after children from 470 to 270, a reduction in the number of agency staff from 50% to just 7%, a 50% reduction in sickness levels, a 5% reduction in overall costs, high levels of morale, and a strong increase in academic achievement among the children in the care of those teams. That example of best practice shows what is possible at a lower cost. Other local authorities have shown an interest in copying the model, but let us make sure that they all know about it. The Government have rightly embarked on a trial of flexible assessment time scales enabling social workers to exercise their professional judgment more effectively, and I note that Hackney council is among those taking part.

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Despite those welcome initiatives, the lines of accountability in local authorities remain cluttered, blurred and confusing. Local safeguarding children boards, directors of children's services, children's trusts, children in care councils, virtual school heads, corporate parenting boards, independent reviewing officers and others are all there to champion the voice of the vulnerable child, but, as Roger Morgan, the children's rights director, will confirm, many children in care feel that their voices are lost in the myriad management decisions being made in their name. The problem needs to be sorted out. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister to look formally into how the voice of children in care can be better and more clearly represented, so that all who act as corporate parents have them constantly at the forefront of their thoughts, words and deeds.

I mentioned my current inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children. I do not want to pre-empt its outcome, but the very fact of its existence demonstrates the central role that education plays in improving outcomes for children in care. Evidence that the inquiry has taken from young people in or leaving care suggests strongly that when they have had a stable educational experience not only are their prospects of future employability and independent living greatly enhanced, but their self-esteem, confidence and belief in themselves are significantly boosted. That is why I am reassured by the Government's guarantees that all looked-after children will receive the pupil premium, and that that additional money will be attached-metaphorically speaking-to all children wherever their education is taking place. However, it would be remiss of me not to add a further plea to my hon. Friend the Minister. If it is right that the personal education allowance is to be rolled into the pupil premium, I urge him to make robust representations to his ministerial colleagues in the Department and the Treasury and to put to them the compelling case for looked-after children to receive an additional sum-a pupil premium-plus, as it were-to reflect their often acute problems, and therefore their heightened need for one-to-one support, psychological input such as cognitive behavioural therapy and other specific interventions relevant to ensuring their prospects at school are not compromised in any way by their looked-after status.

Good quality support does reap rewards. We need only look at the achievements of the Horizon centre in Ealing, which was opened by the Minister and which I recently visited. Through offering young people in and leaving care a safe space where they can get financial, emotional and psychological support, and education and training, the centre has helped to increase the number of children in Ealing borough going to university from 7% to almost 20%. It is an example to others that the transition from care into independence can be successful with the right level and length of support. The so-called cliff-edge that many children leaving care face needs to become a thing of the past, and be replaced by an appropriate and incremental release of support backed up by a safety net when needed, something their peers-who on average do not now leave home until the age of 25-often take for granted, me included. Why should looked-after children be any different?

If time had allowed, I would have wanted to cover much more ground, but before giving the Minister his opportunity to reply, there are four specific issues I want him to respond to in detail, if not today, then at a
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later date. First, we need to widen the range and choice of care. At present, about 14% of looked-after children are in a residential setting. That may be too high, or it may be too low; I simply do not know. Yet in Denmark and Germany more than half of looked-after children are in residential care. Why the huge difference? Is residential care in our country now seen as a placement of last resort? As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, there is scope for seeing whether a greater use of children's homes is appropriate. The Select Committee report on looked-after children to which I have referred stated that

Indeed, the New Economics Foundation report, "A False Economy", estimated that for every pound invested in providing an appropriate residential placement leading to good outcomes, a return of between £4 and £7 was created for the economy. With the continued shortage of foster carers and the hit-and-miss aspect of matching children to the right placement still prevalent, I invite the Minister to consider seriously the case for a full and proper national review of residential care, to ensure we can be confident that we are offering children the right placement for them, not simply the only placement available.

Secondly, on looked-after children in custody, I urge the Minister to look urgently at ending the continuing and unjustified anomaly whereby, unlike a child placed under a care order, a looked-after child who was voluntary accommodated prior to custody loses their looked-after status on entering custody and therefore the support of their social worker and other key professionals. I know that people's minds have been on prisons for another reason today, but this is a serious issue that merits action. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister spoke in favour of putting this discrepancy right during the Committee stage of the Bill that became the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, so I hope that now he is in a position to do something about it, he will do so.

Thirdly, I echo the words of Sir Nicholas Wall, president of the family division, who has called for the prioritising of children's cases in court above all other family law proceedings, especially judicial decisions on placement in care and adoption. I am aware that there is currently a review of all aspects of family law, so I hope this plea from our most senior family judge does not go unheeded.

Fourthly, more than 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being looked after by local authorities, but there continue to be concerns about their access to fundamental services such as education, as well as their vulnerability to trafficking. I know the Minister is vexed by this issue and trust he will look into it closely.

I do not doubt that this Government and all previous Governments of whatever political hue have been, and are, determined to improve outcomes for children in care. So am I. With the tightening of purse-strings, the temptation for some will be to continue on a course of crisis management. My message to the Government, local authorities and all those who work with children in care is this: "Be bold, be smart and, above all, show you really care."

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6.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): As is conventional, I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) on securing this debate on a vital subject that is too little aired in this House. I also congratulate him on one of the best-informed Adjournment debate speeches that I have heard in this place. The quality of his speech was not surprising. I am something of an amateur on this subject compared with him, because he has vast experience. As he said, he is no stranger to the experiences of looked-after children; I know that he grew up with many of the prolific number of children whom his parents fostered over a period of 30 years and with his adopted siblings. He understands first hand the challenges that they face and he is leading a cross-party inquiry into their outcomes, as he mentioned. My hon. Friend's choice of subject comes as no surprise, and I am grateful to him for raising it.

I am aware of the time limitations, so if I do not reach the end of my speech, I will be happy to provide my hon. Friend with an annotated version of it and also respond to the additional points that he has raised specifically.

It is absolutely right to keep the outcomes of looked-after children firmly in sight. My hon. Friend has reminded us of some of the horrific statistics and I agree that they are completely unacceptable. There has been a modest improvement in some outcomes, including attainment, but it is not nearly good enough, as a chasm still exists, as he mentioned. There are no quick fixes in this area. A top-down approach has not produced the results that we all desire. However, the approaches that he spoke about-improving accountability, trusting professionals and sharing best practice-offer the hope of such results.

It is absolutely right that central and local government listen very hard to the voices of looked-after children and those who have left the care system. As my hon. Friend kindly said, since becoming a Minister-and indeed before-I have placed great importance on finding ways in which we can sharpen accountability, rather than tick-box compliance, and on ensuring that we take this subject much more seriously. For example, in partnership with the children's rights director and A National Voice, we are supporting quarterly meetings of the chairmen of children in care councils, and I have enjoyed those meetings thus far. I have also set up reference groups with foster children, with Roger Morgan, on a quarterly basis and a further group comprised of young people who have been through the care system. They have expert first-hand experiences and are not shy in coming forward with their invaluable views.

We want to see the children in care councils drive local change by helping looked-after children to ask challenging questions of local authorities about the services they provide. That is one way in which we hope to bring best practice to all local authorities-my hon. Friend mentioned that that is crucial. Foster carers are the bedrock of the care system. We need to listen to them, and be clear about what they can expect and what is expected of them. The charter for foster carers that we are developing is intended to bring that clarity in an accessible way, and I look forward to launching it in just a few weeks' time.

My hon. Friend rightly said that early intervention is key. I agree that the case for it is compelling. If we are to
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provide cost-effective services in the long term, early intervention must be a top priority. The evidence shows that early interventions, such as multi-systemic therapy and multi-dimensional treatment foster care, work, even where children already have very serious emotional needs. Properly targeted, such programmes can make a real difference. According to current audit data, 95% of young people on multi-systemic therapy programmes for children on the "edge of care" remain at home at the end of the intervention. For children in care, local authorities can save on an expensive residential placement later by investing in multi-dimensional treatment foster care at the right time. When faced with difficult choices about funding, it is natural to focus on the immediate priorities, such as, of course, keeping children safe. It is right to do so, but too often education for looked-after children has then been an afterthought, and that is a false economy.

Like any good parent, the best local authorities have high aspirations for the children they look after. The virtual school head model, embraced by almost all local authorities, has done much to emphasise that education for looked-after children and care leavers is absolutely vital. If local authorities act as corporate parents to looked-after children, then perhaps central Government are the "corporate grandparent". In that capacity, we have extended the pupil premium to include looked-after children, as my hon. Friend has mentioned. The premium is not the same as the personal education allowances that local authorities provide to support education in its broadest sense. The pupil premium is about focusing hard on raising attainment through extra one-to-one tuition, and it will benefit all children who have been looked after for six months. The overall funding for the pupil premium will go up from £625 million in 2011-12 to £2.5 billion in 2014-15 and the looked-after children premium will rise in line with increases to the deprivation premium.

I agree with my hon. Friend's general argument that more support needs to be given to those children who have been looked after on a voluntary basis and who enter custody. They can no longer be looked after when they receive a custodial sentence, but I accept that they will be as vulnerable and will have the same range of needs as any other young person from care while in custody. We do not propose to amend primary legislation so that those children retain their looked-after status, as that would not fit with the coalition Government's view about setting new burdens on local authorities. However, from April 2011 revised regulations and guidance will include explicit requirements on local authorities to minimise offending by looked-after children. Most importantly, they say that whenever a child loses their looked-after status as a result of going into custody, the local authority must appoint a representative to visit them.

The purpose of those visits will be to meet the young person, assess their needs and make recommendations to the local authority that had been responsible for their care about how best to respond to their needs in future. Where necessary, local authority children's services will have to be involved in release planning so that clear arrangements are in place to support the child and their family in the community on their release. For some young people, that will mean being looked after again. So, in future, when a young person who is looked after
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by the local authority is given a custodial sentence, the authority's responsibility will not stop at the gate of the secure training centre or the young offender institute. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend mentioned unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, who have the same needs as any other looked-after child but face particular challenges. We have been explicit in our care planning statutory guidance to local authorities that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have the same entitlements to support as all other looked-after children. In recognition of that principle, our revised suite of statutory guidance on care planning and transition from care goes much further than previous guidance in setting out how local authorities should support that especially vulnerable group of young people.

I recognise that the children placed in residential care are among the most vulnerable of all looked-after children. My hon. Friend also raised this issue. Children are often placed in children's homes only after other arrangements for their care have broken down, and they might find themselves living many miles from their home community. In September, as part of a wider review of all departmental contracts, I decided to cancel the contract awarded to Tribal under the previous Government to support and challenge children's homes. I took the view that, in the current financial climate, contracting out that important work did not represent the best use of available resources. Instead, I have instigated a new programme of work, led by my Department, to support and challenge children's homes to identify the challenges faced by the residential sector in order to promote much-improved outcomes for looked-after children in residential care and to see whether it could be used more extensively.

That programme will support children's homes in learning from the best practice that certainly exists and in developing approaches to supporting children in their care, so that residential care staff understand and are able to use interventions based on solid research evidence about how best to respond to children's needs in order to nurture them, promote stable care and improve their educational attainment. The programme has already embarked on a wide range of activities,
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including piloting learning sets for residential care staff in several regions. My staff have also scheduled a programme of visits to regions with high numbers of children's homes to meet social workers, the staff of children's homes and a wide range of others to understand their views about the support required by children's homes. I hope to report on some of that work and research in due course. Of course, that will include consultation with those children, which is so important, as my hon. Friend has said.

Our commitment to raising the quality of residential care has been demonstrated by the overhauling of the national minimum standards for children's homes. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as some assurance. I agree that it is extremely important that local authorities learn from each other in order to improve their services. I am concerned that there is not more sharing of knowledge and effective practice. Why is it, for example, that in one local authority no care leavers go to university whereas another manages to support no fewer than 41? The Department's streamlined regulations and statutory guidance on care planning and leaving care should help as they are more coherent, rooted in best local practice and provide a clear framework for achieving greater consistency. My hon. Friend mentioned some very good examples of best practice in Hackney and Ealing with which I am familiar and which Eileen Munro is certainly taking on in her review. However, that will not be sufficient on its own and we are therefore working with local government colleagues on the development of a sector-led improvement support system.

Central to improved outcomes is the ability of social workers to do their job. We need confident, autonomous professionals who spend more time with children and less time on over-complex recording systems. That is at the heart of the Munro review, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, and is why we recently announced the expansion of social work practices. Placement stability and high-quality care planning, particularly-

6.30 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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