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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Perhaps I may say in reply that there is no argument about the principle. The Bill allows us to extend provisions to the age of 21 when it is decided that it is appropriate to do so. The issue is not "whether"; it is "when".

Lord Clement-Jones: I have little to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Laming, so passionately expressed; I entirely agree with him. The Minister used very consensual, conciliatory language, but in a sense he managed to incite us all to further efforts at Report stage. He used a mixture of Treasury and Augustinian arguments which were very attractive but nevertheless unconvincing for people who wish to see the good parent concept extended across the Bill. The element that must be there is that it must run the gamut from 16 to 21. It cannot be a matter of short term financing; it must be there on the face of the Bill. It would leave a huge hole in the Bill, despite the Minister's assurances that at some future date a comprehensive spending review might mean that this would be brought within the Bill.

The reason has been given by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. The Melanie case history showed that the Social Services Department--and the Minister said it himself--could have given assistance, but it did not, and it is because local authorities in cash-strapped times make a huge distinction between powers and duties, and they look first of all to finance their statutory duties.

In conclusion, while withdrawing the amendment, the Minister can be certain that we will bring this back at Report stage and keep arguing for the Bill to be good in every respect, not just in some respects. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

Lord Laming moved Amendment No. 9:

("(1) It is the duty of the responsible local authority to use their best endeavours to establish or maintain contact with a relevant child or young person at such times as are reasonable with a view to discharging their functions under this section, whether or not that child or young person is within their area.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 9, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 15, 19 and 20, and I look to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to see whether he would like to speak to Amendment

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No. 18A. I can reassure the Minister that accepting the amendment would not cost any additional money, and I hope that he will skip that part of his note.

This is a matter of English and meaning of words. I take exception to the use of the words "keep in touch" with a young person. It is right that each local authority should have a duty to take reasonable steps, but not to keep in touch. I hope that I am not the only person who keeps in touch with a large number of people, but sometimes I do it by means of a Christmas card and feel guilty that I have not kept in touch with them rather more effectively during the year. Sometimes I keep in touch with people when I feel that I have the time to do so and, sadly, because of evenings like this, the time goes by all too quickly.

I hope that the amendment flows with the aims of the Bill which is to require local authorities not to keep in touch on the basis of an aspiration but requires them to use their best endeavours to be able to demonstrate that they have done something positive to establish and maintain contact with a relevant child. I hope that there is nothing between Members of the Committee on these objectives, but the means needs to be rather stronger than "keep in touch". I beg to move.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: The noble Lord, Lord Laming, has made an effective case. I call this a "disc jockey" amendment--keeping in touch in that informal way, "Hi, guys, we're on air!". It really has to be something rather more maturely considered than just "keep in touch". The words of the amendment, "maintaining contact", is a far more effective way of expressing what we all know we are talking about. This is not a matter of not understanding the underlying essence of what we are talking about, but it is basically the language that is being used in these circumstances. At the end of the day, if we do not use the right language, it can affect how people carry out their duties. This is an important amendment in that respect.

Earl Howe: I support what has been said by both noble Lords. I should like to speak to Amendment No. 18A, which has been grouped with these other amendments. This relates to a separate issue and it also has no financial aspect attached to it, at least so far as I know. It is intended solely as a probing amendment.

I should like to hear from the Minister what the force of the word "first" is in the subsection that the amendment addresses at page four, new Section 23C(3). The word "first" is applied to one of the duties set out in the Adoption Act 1976. My understanding is that its meaning there has been interpreted as first on the list--it does not mean that it is more important than any other duty. What is the meaning in this Bill? If it is intended that the duty in new Section 23C(3) is to be the most important duty, then there needs to be some qualification added to the word "first". In any event, I am not sure whether the word "first" adds anything to the clause at all.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: There are two issues here. One is whether we have the wording right and the other

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is how local authorities are to keep in touch. I will try to cover both those areas because this is clearly an important part of ensuring that this works effectively.

I have already emphasised the importance of the flexibility of these new arrangements to take account of the needs and wishes of each young person as an individual. I set out the importance of the responsible authority in simplifying support arrangements for young people who wish to move around the country, for whatever reason--including disaffection with their home authority. The new duty to keep in touch is intended to ensure that local authorities cannot duck out of their responsibilities when someone moves away.

It has been phrased slightly differently for relevant children of the older age group, again to underline the fact that young people's needs change as they grow older and each one must be seen as an individual. Clearly, in the performance monitoring that we will undertake we will wish to ensure that local authorities take this responsibility very seriously.

I turn to the phrasing. I know that noble Lords feel that "keep in touch" appears rather too slight and too casual, just meaning "let us keep in touch and meet up every so often.". Just as "maintaining contact" can mean different things to different people, so "keeping in touch" can also have different meanings. It is very difficult to come up with a phrase that fits the circumstances we are discussing completely. The dictionary expression suggests that the phrase "keep in touch" is a simpler way of saying to maintain contact. It is just a question of plain English in that respect. No doubt the noble Earl will correct me.

Earl Howe: No, I want to ask whether there is a precedent in law for this phrase occurring in an Act of Parliament.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I am informed that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 imposes a requirement on offenders who are subject to a drug treatment and testing order to keep in touch with their supervising officer. I gather that there are other examples, but I do not have those with me. Returning to the more substantive point, as to the different circumstances and the different hierarchies of keeping in touch, there will be cases where only a very light touch will be required from the young person's adviser. One can think of a young person perhaps aged 20, who has just got married and is holding down a job, who may neither need nor want his responsible authority to keep "interfering"--as he might see it--in his affairs. His needs and wishes should certainly dictate the level and the type of contact he has with that adviser. That minimum level of contact will keep the door open for more intensive support should it be needed. On the other hand, as we have discussed already a number of times, there will be young people who need a much higher level of support. For them, the adviser will need to be in contact more frequently. We consider that the new duty allows for both extremes and for everything in between.

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The absolute bottom line is that the responsible authority must keep in touch as needed. If it loses touch, it must try to re-establish contact. At one extreme, if a relevant child were to go missing at 16, the responsible authority would have to keep trying to find him until his 18th birthday had passed. The language used does not in any way detract from what is a serious and onerous new duty.

As regards the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, it simply means "first"--that is, it is the first thing that should be done--and nothing more than that. I am happy to look at the wording again to see whether it needs further explanation.

Lord Laming: I am grateful to the Minister. I have to say that the word "first" seems to have a distinctive quality. There is only one position that can be described as "first" and "paramount"--as the noble Earl has said--emphasises that point. We are saying there that we are emphasising the importance of this matter. I have to admit to disappointment at the response of the noble Lord to the question of keeping in touch. This is not because I want people who are capable of living independently to feel that they are being oppressed because of this piece of legislation and having help forced upon them that they neither want nor need. It is because the greater danger is for young people who are vulnerable to be lost, one way or another, to the system and for local authorities for a variety of motives, not all of which are worthy, to go through the motions of keeping in touch. Frankly, however, if really tested on that, they would not be able to demonstrate that they had used their best endeavours and behaved reasonably.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the noble Lord's intention. However, I hope that the Minister would be willing to look again if not at this form of wording at some other expression which would strike a slightly more robust, pro-active tone than "keeping in touch", with the element of casualness which that evokes. I would be happy to be guided by the Minister on a different kind of phraseology which would have that extra energy about it, rather than "keeping in touch". On the basis that I would be happy to withdraw the amendment, I hope that the Minister would be willing to meet me at least halfway across the divide between us and perhaps have some discussion in the meanwhile. If he smiles and nods, as he has just done, I shall beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

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