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The Earl of Listowel: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask how emergency hardship payments figure in this, if at all. Furthermore, does the Minister recognise that children who have been abused or had bad experiences have difficulty keeping relationships? To have a good relationship, therefore, with a special adviser may be very problematic for large numbers of young people in this group.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: On the first point, perhaps I might write to the noble Lord on hardship arrangements and how these would come into play and the kind of emergency support that would be available. Of course, I recognise the issues that the noble Lord has raised. I have tried to explain that the very existence of a young person's adviser, together with the statutory responsibility of the responsible authority, ought to ensure that the young person can receive proper support, not just from benefits. They need proper support with the minimum of contact with the local authority and with the sensitive support of a young person's adviser.

In considering this, we have to compare and contrast the previous situation. For so many children and young people these new arrangements will be wholly better and much improve the situation. I accept that there may be, one hopes, in a very limited number of cases, people who might become totally estranged from the system as a whole. We hope, however, that by the very nature and existence of young persons' advisers and the ability of a young person to change the adviser through the operation of a complaints system, it ought to be possible to alleviate most of those concerns.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: Before the Minister sits down, I should like to agree with him and say how important it is that the young people keep in touch with somebody. So often they just disappear and they can then become sucked into this terrible underworld, which we ought somehow to be tackling but which nobody seems able to tackle. Keeping in touch is paramount.

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Earl Howe: I entirely understand the argument that the Minister has advanced. We are probably all agreed that in so far as is possible, perverse incentives for local authorities to default on their obligations should be done away with. However, this Bill brings about a whole new raft of duties on local authorities--legally enforceable duties--and those are not duties from which local authorities can simply walk away. That is unlike the present situation where the powers are simply permissive in many cases. It is a new situation. It worries me, despite all that the Minister says, that inevitably there will be a small handful of people who will slip through the net. I am troubled about what we are to say about those people and to them. There may well be no answer. I sense from what the Minister says that the Government are set on the course upon which they have embarked, for perfectly good and understandable reasons. Nevertheless, I am left with a nagging worry. There may be nothing more that can be said or done between now and Report stage but I shall certainly reflect further and consider in some depth what the Minister said.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: In response, I do not disagree here in principle. I am happy to meet noble Lords before Report stage to discuss the matter further.

Earl Howe: I am most grateful and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 28:

    Page 9, line 13, leave out subsection (7) and insert--

("(7) Regulations shall provide that national minimum standards are established to provide for the essential needs of those persons falling within subsection (2)(a) or (b).").

The noble Earl said: New Section 23B(8) establishes local authorities' responsibility to provide support for those young people who are eligible. Support in this context includes financial assistance, suitable accommodation and other personal support. Clause 6(7) provides for powers to make different financial provision for different areas. Many Members of the Committee will know--and indeed it was a point made by a number of noble Lords at Second Reading--that the level of support currently received by young people in or leaving care varies very considerably both within and between local authorities. Young people living in the same local authority area report receiving significantly different levels of financial and in-kind support. Amounts paid under leaving-care grants vary from a few pounds to £2,000. Often, young people and professionals are unaware of the criteria for different levels of support and therefore support systems appear to be discretionary.

This Bill provides an excellent opportunity to establish a level playing field for young people in the care system, and leaving it. National minimum standards for financial support should be set for the

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level of overall support for care leavers. Those minimum standards need, at the very least, to improve on current levels of support in local authorities where care leavers have been found to be living in poverty.

A national minimum standard for financial support would not require the Government to be over-prescriptive about the nature of financial support offered. Indeed, there should be some flexibility to allow local authorities to respond to individual circumstances.

At Second Reading, the Minister stated that as they progress along their pathway plan,

    "some young people will be given a budget and will be independent. Others might start with pocket money".--[Official Report, 7/12/99; col. 1189.]

I welcome those comments, but perhaps the Minister will confirm that cash payments will be available for young people. I take it that that was the tenor of his earlier amendment--not only in exceptional circumstances, as new Section 24A(5) states. It is clearly important that young people develop the ability to manage their personal finances. Research points to money management skills as the most often cited source of support requested by care leavers.

My own view is that some element of the financial support should be made in cash, but I fully accept that it would be inappropriate to standardise the balance of cash payments for all young people. The main objective must be to establish an overall minimum standard of support in all its forms, to prevent the equalities that currently exist.

There is another reason why the Government should look favourably on the idea of minimum standards, and that is Clause 6. Clause 6 removes benefit entitlement for most 16 to 17 year olds in or leaving care, as we have just been debating. That in itself removes a minimum entitlement for young people, many of whom are of course vulnerable. The establishment of a minimum standard of financial support for all young people who are in contact with their young person's adviser is vital to ensure that the protection of these young people is not weakened by this Bill. It would also strengthen the role of the young person's adviser by linking the clear entitlement to a level of financial support to contact with that adviser. I beg to move.

Lord Laming: I support this amendment. It is helpful that we have just had a discussion about the virtues of removing young people from the benefits system. This amendment looks at the other side of that coin. If that is to be the unequivocal position of the Government, it seems to me that national minimum standards should be included in regulations.

As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said, we have all been surprised and deeply concerned by the evidence that was put before us about the range of financial support

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available from different local authorities to young people. This is one of the grounds that young people present as being a source of great concern and annoyance about the current arrangements. If the new arrangements are to be satisfactory it seems clear to me that there will be considerable advantage in having national minimum standards prescribed, with the right of local authorities on the basis of assessed need to go beyond national minimum standards but not to fall below.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: I support Amendment No. 28. By this stage of the Committee most of us can begin to speak in code and still be understood. In a sense this follows on from the kinds of discussions we have been having about the difference between powers and duties. The argument that has been made on many amendments is that if local authorities do not have the duty to do something, even though they may not be falling down or acting in bad faith, they simply may not have the resources. They have a certain number of priorities which they have to take into account and they will, by and large, treat as higher priorities those matters that they have in law to undertake. We are back to that argument in this case. Unless there is a minimum level of financial support that local authorities are required to give in those circumstances, the temptation will be in many cases to under-provide. One recognises the danger: if one puts a floor down it may well become a ceiling. But one hopes that that will not necessarily be the case.

We need a clear sense of the level of financial support appropriate in the circumstances. We believe that that is best enshrined in our amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Perhaps I may assure noble Lords that we intend through guidance to issue minimum standards. The consultation Me, Survive Out There? and subsequent comments from young people raised a great deal of concern about the levels of support that they could expect from local authorities under the new arrangements. I suspect that some of that concern goes back to the inadequacies of many local authorities under the present circumstances.

It is important that children in care have confidence in the new arrangements and realistic expectations of what they can expect from the local authority by way of support. We are working on a number of minimum standards in a number of areas, such as foster care, and we shall build on that experience to define the standards that young people can expect under the Bill's provision. Those standards will set a benchmark for a decent level of service. I agree with the comment about floors and ceilings. We want to do more than simply guard against inadequate support. We want to ensure that those young people have a decent chance in life. That means ensuring that they receive a good level of support.

We believe that it is best handled through guidance. We shall certainly cover in that guidance services and financial support. It needs careful handling. We may need to identify a suitable benchmark for the package

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such as the standard of living a young person might have expected from state benefits. I very much take the point of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that one of the great strengths of the arrangements is that each young person has to be treated as an individual.

Another point raised at Second Reading was that one of the skills that all young people need is how to manage a budget. Everyone will come to that at a different pace. One young person might be perfectly competent to manage his own money, while at the same age another might be barely able to cope with pocket money. I am sure that parents would recognise that point. We are asking local authorities to behave more as a responsible parent would towards a child. Minimum standards would need to take account of the range of needs and abilities of the young people we are aiming to help. We should certainly be able to ensure that young people cannot be short-changed under the new arrangements. I hope that I have satisfied noble Lords on that point.

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