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Earl Howe: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. As he said, these are matters which are extremely sensitive, almost by definition.

If it is the management processes at local authority level that have led to the unfortunate incidents such as the one I recounted, it is necessary for the Government to look not just at the way in which the guidance is phrased but the binding nature of that guidance. There is guidance and guidance. Some guidance is clearly binding on the recipient and other guidance is not. I take it from what the Minister said that this would not be binding guidance, because there always needs to be an element of discretion. Nevertheless, it is hard to see how the failures in the management process to which he referred will not be prevented in the future unless something is considerably strengthened somewhere along the line. I hope that the Minister can come back at a later stage, or perhaps write to me, to amplify the comments that he has made in light of the further thinking in his department. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 18A to 20 not moved.]

Clause 2, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Advice and assistance for certain children and young persons aged 16 or over]:

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath moved Amendment No. 21:

The noble Lord said: This is a minor consequential amendment relating to the Health Act 1999 which established primary care trusts.

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Under Section 24 of the Children Act 1989, which this Bill restates with amendments, persons qualifying for advice and assistance include children accommodated for at least three months by a health authority, special health authority or local education authority. Further provision relates to the existing requirement for an authority, on ceasing to accommodate a child aged 16 or over, to notify the local authority for the area where the child will live.

As many noble Lords will be aware, under the Health Act 1999 some primary care trusts--level 4 primary care trusts--will be able to run hospitals and community health services. Their functions will include the provision of children's services and the accommodation of children.

As a result, the aforementioned provisions of Section 24 of the Children Act need to be extended to include those children accommodated by those primary care trusts. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No.22 not moved.]

7.15 p.m.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 23:

    Page 7, line 13, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Earl said: The format of this amendment substituting "shall" for "may" is all too familiar, but I make no apology for it. It serves to focus our minds on an aspect of the Bill that is for me one of the most important of all; that is, the need to ensure that young people leaving care are given the best possible opportunity to make something of their lives by pursuing their education or gaining a vocational qualification, or finding a job.

New Section 24B provides local authorities with a power to give assistance to care leavers up to the age of 24 by contributing to any expenses that they incur in living near their work, or place of education, or training, or by making a grant to help with the expenses associated with education or training. This provision is perfectly fine except for one thing: it is discretionary and not mandatory. Already in the Children Act local authorities have an absolutely identical power to provide assistance to care leavers for the purpose of education or training or employment, the only difference being that the age limit in most cases is set at 21.

However, these powers are hardly ever exercised, and referring to the point raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, we all know that if a local authority has to make a choice, as most of them now do, between spending money where they must and spending it where they may, then there is no real choice at all; they spend it where they have to.

The lack of additional money for education or training expenses would not be such a disaster were we not dealing with a group of people who, more perhaps than any other group in society, desperately need all the educational opportunities they can get. We need only go back to the consultation paper Me, Survive

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Out There? to remind ourselves why. Seventy-five per cent of care leavers leave school with no educational qualifications whatever compared with 6 per cent. of all school leavers. Shocking as that figure is, perhaps it should not surprise us too much when we bear in mind the sorts of experience that brought them into care in the first place and the frequent changes of home and school that many of them have to put up with while in care. Care leavers are highly disadvantaged in educational terms and it is no wonder that about 50 per cent. of them find themselves unemployed when they leave school.

Of all the requests we can make to the Government to re-examine the provisions of the Bill, this is one of the most pressing and deserving. Of course it is a question of resources--I understand that--but in the end, what is this Bill to be? Is it simply to be window dressing, or will it really make a difference to young people leaving the care system? If we mean business with this Bill then we should ensure that, where young people are trying to improve their employability and skills, they should not have to fight for the funds to do so. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones The noble Earl, Lord Howe, has put the case for this amendment most effectively. It is one of the key amendments which we on these Benches would certainly wish to see added to the Bill. I am so sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is not here, because some of his earlier remarks were directed towards this amendment. With his enormous experience of his students and the problems they face, he made out an extremely good case for it, although he was speaking to another amendment. When one has such authority as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has, that does not matter.

As we have heard today--and this is one of the crucial issues in the Bill--unless local authorities are under a duty they will not necessarily produce the right results. That is why this is so important.

I shall beg the indulgence of the Committee and read a short case history, which illustrates some of the issues.

    "Heather is 20. It took her a little while after leaving care to get herself sorted out and settled. Once she had done so she began to think about qualifications and studied for a GCSE. The local authority was approached by the NCH Action For Children Workways project to provide the £27 for the exam fee. They refused. They said that by 20 Heather should already have got her GCSEs. They seemed to have forgotten that one of the main reasons why she didn't take her GCSEs at age 16 was because the local authority had moved her from one care placement to another one week before she was due to take her exams".

Heather would like to obtain more qualifications but she cannot. The local authority would never consider supporting her while she did so and, because the qualifications she would be studying for are not advanced, she would not qualify for state benefits. That provides the classic illustration of these situations, and there are so many cases like that. That is why we so strongly support this amendment.

Lord Laming: I also support this amendment, which I regard as the most important we are considering this

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evening. As we said on several earlier amendments, many young people missed out on education at an earlier stage and they have a long way to catch up. Some of them will come to education rather later, older than their peers, as the Minister implied earlier.

It is essential that we encourage all young people to have as much education as possible, to help them achieve their full potential. That is particularly important for this group of young people, many of whom in earlier life experienced quite severe gaps in their education for a variety of reasons. Now is the time when we should encourage and support them to make up for those gaps which occurred earlier.

That will involve some resources, but, sadly, it will not involve a great deal. Although the Minister may feel hesitant about committing himself to this amendment because of the fear over resources, I regret to say that experience seems to show that in reality relatively few young people from this group will stay in education until the age of 24. That is a matter of concern, but it is a concern which ought to enable the Minister to agree to this amendment.

I hesitate to pray in aid the sayings of a fellow called Tony Blair. However, the Minister may be helped if I read a foreword to the Bridging the Gap document. I remind him that the Prime Minister said:

    "The best defence against total exclusion is having a job, and the best way to get a job is to have a good education, with the right training and the right experience".

The Prime Minister, if I may say so in a purely non-party political way, is entirely right. It is our responsibility to try to ensure that young people, who for whatever reason have missed out on education at an earlier stage in their lives, now have the opportunity to carry on with their education. Where young people have the potential to go to university, we should do everything possible to ensure they complete their courses. I hope that the Minister will feel able to support the amendment which seems to many of us to be one of the most important amendments that we are considering this evening.

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