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Earl Howe: I support the amendments. As the noble Earl said, the provisions of the Bill may well serve as a disincentive, worthy as they are, prematurely to discharge young people from accommodation. As I understand it, the new status for such children is not the same as the looked-after status in law. Local authorities do not have parental responsibility for accommodated children and, in theory, planning should take place in partnership with their parents. However, in practice for a number of accommodated children the care authority represents the legal parent.

There are a number of reasons why it is preferable for young people to remain looked after as opposed to transferring to the new system. One is that not all looked-after children will qualify as relevant children. Those who do not will be eligible only for the equivalent of the present limited aftercare support. That means that they will not automatically be provided with financial or housing support. Another reason is the duty to provide maintenance and accommodation to these children is weaker than if they continued to be looked after. A third reason is that there are certain additional duties of local authorities to looked-after children which have not been reproduced under new Section 23B(8) of the Children Act; such as the requirements on local authorities to place children near to their homes, with siblings, with extended family members, and friends. For all these reasons I warmly support the amendments of the noble Earl.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I understand and appreciate the intent of these proposed amendments because we all share a concern about the way in which too many young people have been obliged to leave care ill-prepared for living independently. As we discussed at Second Reading, the consequences are well known in terms of these young people's vulnerability to homelessness, unemployment and other difficulties.

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Young people themselves have spoken, often eloquently, about the way in which they did not feel ready to leave care, as the noble Earl suggested. However, the whole thrust of this Bill is to end the practice of turning young people out of care at too early an age and without adequate preparation for a step which many of their contemporaries living at home do not take until they are in their early twenties--indeed, these days sometimes later than that.

We anticipate that as an outcome of the provisions of this Bill many more young people will remain in care longer, and certainly beyond the age of 16 which is when so many are currently obliged to leave.

Besides, the neediest young people will in any case be under a care order which will not expire until they reach 18, unless it is discharged by a court. We are talking here about those who are accommodated voluntarily.

Assessing the optimum time when a young person should leave care is a crucial matter, but it must allow for some choice on the part of the young person, recognising that they cannot be forced to remain in care if they are accommodated on a voluntary basis. That is an important decision which has to be taken as part of the assessment and pathway planning process in which the young person will be closely engaged with the young person's adviser and other significant people such as their foster or other carers and their family if appropriate. Both the young person's readiness and willingness to leave will be at the heart of the decision making process, which we want to be conducted with the greatest sensitivity possible to the young person's needs. As I have indicated earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, these aspects will be covered in detail in the guidance to be issued to local authorities.

There will, of course, be a few--a very few, we hope-- who will be determined to leave before they are ready to do so despite the best efforts of all concerned to point out to them that it is not in their best interests. As I suspect many of us know, not all adolescents are prepared to listen to advice, no matter how well meaning. Indeed, some young people may feel that they have compelling reasons to leave; regrettably, possibly based on their experience of care. There is a real problem here in insisting that a child who is voluntarily accommodated remains in care against his wishes and where to do so might make a bad situation worse.

Under the new arrangements, however, even those young people do not step into the streets and disappear. Until they are 18 their responsible authority will be under a duty to support and accommodate them wherever they choose to live in the country. Their young person's adviser will be in touch with them and they will still have a pathway plan, which will be regularly reviewed and updated.

This is an interesting debate, but at the heart of this Bill is the determination to provide the right support for all young people who have been in care. That includes the recognition that while each will have

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different abilities and requirements which must be met in different ways, all of them need the security of having someone responsible for their welfare. It is my contention that the duties on the responsible authority are designed to provide that security.

I hope that I have said enough to assure the Committee that the provisions in the Bill will enable all concerned, and not least the young people in care, to give very careful consideration to their readiness and willingness to leave care.

The effect of these amendments would be that any child who is looked after by a local authority at any time would be required to remain in care until there was demonstrable evidence of being both ready and willing to leave. This could have far reaching consequences. For example, authorities might be very unwilling to provide short-term care for young children whose parent was in hospital, for instance, and who then came into the definition of the Bill.

I understand the noble Earl's concerns but, at the end of the day, the Bill has the right balance, with the right incentives for local authorities now, instead of the perverse incentives that were there before. Together with the impact of the advice which the young person's adviser can give, and the pathway plan, I believe it is sufficient to provide the kind of safeguards that the noble Earl obviously considers necessary.

The Earl of Listowel: I should like to thank the Minister for his very helpful and full reply, which is extremely reassuring. I shall take his reply away and reflect upon it.

As regards the three or four-year term, we will need more reassurance that once the ring-fencing has been removed the situation will not change.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I understand that. Ring-fencing is extremely important when introducing these provisions. However, as local authorities gain experience and understand their duties, we would expect them to be able to carry on and ensure that the system works as effectively as possible. I would reiterate that even without ring-fencing the much stronger performance management arrangements that are now in place will enable the department to ensure that local authorities carry out their duties appropriately.

The Earl of Listowel: I thank the Minister for his helpful replies. I shall reflect on his statements and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 6C not moved.]

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 7:

    Page 2, leave out line 33 and insert--

("(c) is between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one").

The noble Lord said: I wish to move Amendment No. 7 and speak to Amendments Nos. 8, 12, 16 and 17 which are consequential. At this stage I do not want to speak to Amendment No. 23 in the name of noble Earl,

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Lord Howe. In fact, we should like to de-group that and deal with it at a suitable point later in the proceedings. It may conveniently be taken after Amendment No. 22, since this is rather a rogue amendment which has come into this grouping.

Amendment No. 7 would, in particular, ensure that local authorities were under a duty to meet the continuing assessed needs of young people, previously looked after, up to the age of 21. It would ensure a safety net for those young people who leave care only to get into difficulties later on. I hope Members of the Committee will forgive me if I spend some time elaborating on why we believe that this is of vital importance. It is a central part of some of the criticisms which have been made of the Bill which otherwise, in many respects, is a very good Bill indeed.

Paragraph 19B introduces a new duty upon local authorities to assess and meet the needs of eligible young people aged 16 and 17. Eligible young people will include both those who have been looked after for a period of 13 weeks or more and those who meet these criteria but have already left care.

The Children Act 1989 contains a number of statutory duties and associated powers for local authorities to prepare young people for leaving care and to support them afterwards. Despite this, the proportion of young people leaving care as young as 16 increased from 34 per cent to 46 per cent between 1994 and 1998. Provision of leaving care support varies widely and the rights which young people currently hold are often denied.

This is a cross-party matter. The conclusions of the Health Select Committee, Sir William Utting and others, that the discretionary powers contained in Section 24 of the 1989 Children Act should be converted into duties, have been very strongly supported. The Health Select Committee, in its report on looked-after children, recommended that this duty,

    "should extend to young people up to and including the age of 21",

and that,

    "the Government should ensure that the resources necessary to achieve this end are provided".

At Second Reading, the Minister reiterated the Government's commitment, originally made in November 1998, to extend the new duty until the young person reaches the age of 21. Significantly, he added that the Government,

    "will first study the costs, limitations and affordability of doing so".--[Official Report, 7/12/99; col.1159.]

What is the case for extending the duty to 21 years? Young people leaving care have to cope with the challenges and responsibilities of major changes in their lives at a far earlier age than other young people. They may be the victims of abuse or neglect or have parents who are overwhelmed by problems and unable to cope. Although the present Bill should ensure that children between the ages of 16 and 18 have better access to support and protection, limiting the proposed new duty to 18 will mean that many young people, for whom the local authority has had parental

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responsibility, will continue to be refused help and told to leave home, just as other young people of their age are about to sit their A levels.

Perhaps Members of the Committee will allow me to refer to a case history. First Key recently spoke to Avril McGowan, a foster-carer with 25 years' experience, in relation to Melanie, whom she had fostered from the age of 12. Melanie had been in care, on a care order, from the age of 10. When she was 17, Avril fought hard but unsuccessfully for the local authority to allow Melanie to stay with her for an extra year while she finished a Foundation Course in Health and Social Care. Melanie had previously been picked on and bullied at school. Despite her previous bad experiences, she was keen to take up a place at the local FE college last year. According to Avril, this was "the best thing to have happened to her". Melanie loves the course, which gives her lots of confidence. She has never missed a day and receives numerous credits for the quality of her work.

However, local social services not only refused to let Melanie stay on with Avril but rang to ask "for a date when she would be leaving" and cut all financial support once Melanie was 18 last September. No support was provided by social services to help Melanie find alternative accommodation. Avril believed that Melanie would be "eaten alive by bullies and drugs" in the hostel the social services department were recommending. Avril found Melanie a flat near to herself, her daughter and the FE college and paid the deposit out of her own money.

Melanie has still not received her leaving care grant and is now being told by the local DSS office that she must leave the course and get a job. Her housing benefit has been reduced, leading to a build up of rent arrears. Avril is concerned that Melanie may not only have to give up a course which she loves but that she is now at risk of homelessness. She is angry, as she believes Melanie's present problems were avoidable, had the social services department agreed to Melanie staying with Avril while she completed her course. Avril continues to support Melanie but has resigned as a foster-carer out of frustration and anger at the way that Melanie has been let down.

As presently drafted, the Bill would afford no additional protection for Melanie. Young people leaving care, because of the problems they have experienced, may take longer than other young people to get their lives back on track.

Perhaps I may refer to another, shorter, case history. John Russell, who is 20 and was in care since the age of three, recently wrote to First Key to say:

    "I am one of the lucky people. Northamptonshire leaving-care department have supported me to come back into education and help financially with my rent and weekly income".

John explained that when he was younger, he was very disruptive and at times uncontrollable because of the many problems he experienced. He missed out on a lot of education and left school without any qualifications. But he added:

    "I am now several months into my GCSE course and I strongly believe this is a big step to achieving a good future career".

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It is important that the new framework provides mechanisms to enable young people like John to catch up on the opportunities they have previously missed.

Comprehensive data on the cost of extending the new duty to 21 are currently unavailable. One can, however, illustrate the cost-effectiveness of providing good quality leaving care support from independent research and evaluations. In a recent report by the Audit Commission, Getting the Best from Children's Services, the commission identified both Manchester's leaving care service and Westminster's independent support team as providing good value for money. Research into the outcomes of leaving care schemes concludes that they work,

    "particularly well in respect of accommodation and life skills and to some extent in furthering social networks, development relationships and building self esteem".

Positive achievement in relation to educational outcomes is closely linked to placement stability and particularly to foster care placement. There is additional, convincing evidence that focused leaving care support may also contribute to reducing potential future offending and that this could be a cost-effective response.

Nobody can put a price on pride, confidence and self- esteem. Those are qualities that young people gain successfully by holding down a first job, maintaining a home, friends and family or gaining an educational qualification for which they have worked hard. It cannot be right that children and young people leaving care have to fight for financial and practical assistance to stay on in a course, in a job or a home where they feel secure and happy. The cost of eradicating social exclusion manifested in problems like homelessness and unemployment is enormous. By comparison, early preventive support is both affordable and effective, as well as socially just. That is what the amendment is designed to do.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Laming: I support the amendment and I hope that the Minister will have found the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, as compelling as I did. The case illustrations powerfully brought home to us all the force of why the amendments are essential to achieving the agreed objectives of the Bill.

On Second Reading we spoke about our shared concern about the poor educational attainments of many young people who have been looked after and who need care, the poor skills that many of them have to survive independently in society, our concern that many of them fall into criminal behaviour, drug abuse or prostitution. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has reminded us on many occasions of the young people that she has come across who have fallen into crime and ended up in young offender institutions, simply because they have not had the certainty of support on leaving care.

We need to acknowledge that as a society we expect the most from the young people who have the least. They have the least by way of family support and by way of education or other resources, and yet we expect

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those young people not only to become good managers in being able to survive on small amounts of money, but to make their way in society with nothing to fall back on.

I hope that the Minister will agree with me that it is greatly to the credit of the former Secretary of State for Health, Mr Dobson, who on a number of occasions spoke with great feeling about his concerns about what happens to young people who do not have a family to support them. He illustrated what we would expect normal parents to provide for their children. Some children in their twenties or even their thirties understandably turn to their parents when they have had a bad experience, a set-back in life, difficulties that have undermined their self confidence or have caused them to be upset. They can talk things through with their parents and seek guidance and support.

Perhaps I may illustrate that point further and add to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. I came across a young person who had been looked after for most of his young life. He left care at the age of 16 and when he later fell into difficulty he went back to the local authority which was supposed to be a good parent, only to be treated as "a new case", to be sent to the back of the queue and regarded as somebody for whom it had no continuing responsibility.

I hope that the Minister will agree to two amendments. Amendment No. 7 is, I believe, essential to the success of the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, we have had assurances of a commitment of this kind since 1998. If we miss this opportunity to extend the duties to the age of 21, we will not only fail this generation of young people in care but also will fail succeeding generations. Do we really want to miss this opportunity to ensure that young people looked after will have help and support available to them up to the age of at least 21? There are good examples that this is already happening and I can see no reason why this extension should not be agreed to. I hope that, if for no other reason than as a tribute to Mr Dobson, the Minister will agree to this amendment.

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