Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, many of the young people covered by this Bill will be institutionalised; many will be late developers; many will have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. The Minister said that there should be flexibility. This amendment gives just that. I strongly support it.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, it is a fundamental principle of childcare that the earlier an intervention is made, the more likely it is that a positive outcome will be reached. A recurrent theme of those who work with damaged children and young people is that of continuity and of maintaining a special and long-lasting relationship with a significant other adult person.

Perhaps I may report to the House my experience of meeting a young woman in Centrepoint's hostel for the homeless. She had a steel pin pierced through her chin. She talked to her friend of her many sexual encounters and her enjoyment of drugs. Later, she sat very close to a male staff member, a new acquaintance, and rubbed herself against him. If a child has not experienced a continuing significant relationship and has not known the love of a parent, she may well seek solace in promiscuity and drug taking or other kinds of vicious, self-destructive activity.

If a child who has been looked after by his foster parent is obliged to leave that carer before he is ready, he may lose out on life's single most important lesson; namely, how to sustain a loving relationship. It is that experience which teaches young people how to find a partner for themselves and to form a family of their own. Of course, foster family support is necessary for helping young people to find education and sustain their educational courses, but they also need help, not only practical but also emotional assistance, to be able to cope with the stresses of taking on a first job or perhaps resisting the temptation to enter into crime.

For that reason, I am concerned that if this amendment is not put on to the face of the Bill, there will be pressures on foster families--most young people in care are in foster care--to terminate such relationships or for those relationships to be diluted prematurely. That is why, as treasurer to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Child, I so strongly support this amendment.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this is a significant amendment and an important matter for debate. First, I should like to say to noble Lords that I do not disagree at all about the importance of the points that they have put concerning 18 to 21 year-olds. In Grand Committee I believe that I made it clear that the question for the Government is not "if" but "when".

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to the possibility of what he described as "new and pressing concerns" overtaking the focus that we are

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1253

currently placing on children leaving care. Perhaps I may reassure him that this matter will remain a priority for the Government. We want to bring about improvements as soon as possible. However, I reiterate a point that I have already made. We must ensure that proper funding is available, but as yet we not in a position to do so. Nevertheless, noble Lords should be in no doubt of our intention to impose the new duty for 18 to 21 year-olds on local authorities as soon as we can.

Before I turn to the substance of the argument, I should make a comment on the drafting of the amendment. I have doubts as to whether making such young people "relevant children" is the right approach. By extending the definition of "relevant children" up to the age of 21, it would mean that all the provisions of the Bill applying to relevant children would apply to all those affected until they were 21 years old. That would include the new financial arrangements, making people up to the age of 21 ineligible for non-contributory benefits. As the Bill stands, relevant children are taken out of the benefits system in favour of comprehensive support from their responsible authority. While I believe that to be absolutely right--indeed, it is a basic tenet of the Bill for children aged 16 and 17--I am not at all sure that that would be the right approach for young people aged 18 and over. Those young people are of course legally adults and, I believe, should be treated as such. However, I recognise and acknowledge the principle that lies behind the amendment rather than only its precise wording.

I believe that we should recognise that it is not the case that the Bill does nothing for care leavers aged 18 and over. In answer to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, when he told the House about the case histories of David and Carol, the Bill offers significant improvements for care leavers aged 18 and over. Section 23C sets out responsible authorities' continuing responsibilities towards former relevant children. They will receive the services of their young person's adviser until they are at least 21 years old. The responsible authority must continue to keep in touch with them until they are at least 21, which includes making efforts to re-establish contact with a young person who disappears. Young people will still have their pathway plans covering future plans and ambitions, including support which the local authority will provide until they are least 21.

I believe that the pathway planning process up to 21 and the young person's adviser will between them make it far more likely that a young person will have the assistance they need to meet their ambitions and to receive the kind of support that I very much agree is necessary. The prospects for care leavers will be significantly improved by the Bill as it stands. However, I agree with noble Lords that we ought to take the extra step to guarantee assistance and we will do so as soon as we are able.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, has tempted me to talk about estimates and detailed discussions in the spending review. He knows that I am not going to go down that path, but I well understand the point that he

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1254

has made. The whole philosophy of this Bill is predicated on making the necessary investment in services to support vulnerable young people. The knock-on effect of that investment will be of benefit to individuals and to society as a whole. No doubt those arguments will be used to good effect in the discussions that will take place in the future.

I should like to reassure noble Lords that we take this matter very seriously. We are committed to imposing the new duty on local authorities to assist these young people as soon as possible. I can give an assurance that we will make the necessary arrangements as soon as we are able to do so.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his considered reply which, like his reply in Grand Committee to a similar amendment, is not unsympathetic. That is much appreciated and phrases such as, "not if, but when", the assurance that the needs of these young people will remain a priority and the further assurance that the Government intend to impose a duty on local authorities are all welcome.

The noble Lord has been helpful in elucidating the position of a young person over the age of 18 even where the new provisions do not come into effect. I accept his points about the amendment. There may well be other forms of words that can be used to introduce a duty to cover those over the age of 18 that do not deprive a young person of benefits in those circumstances.

However, while I appreciate what the Minister has said, the clear fact remains that essentially the only way to guarantee that a young person between the ages of 18 and 21 will be properly supported is to change the definition and to find a form of words to ensure that a young person does not lose his or her entitlement to benefits. For that reason, a change to primary legislation must remain our clear goal.The Minister is clearly relaxed about the cost involved. He has already made his estimates and the department has already submitted them--

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong to assume from what I said that I am "relaxed" about estimates for future expenditure.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I would not want the Minister to blot his copy-book with the Treasury. Therefore, I entirely accept what he says. However, whether or not the Minister is relaxed about them, the estimates have clearly been made and they are in place. One hopes that the department has made a rattling good submission with all the right arguments behind it. I would make exactly the same arguments, but our timing is perhaps rather earlier than that for which the Minister has made the case. This is not the time for night-watchmen to be testing the opinion of the House, so I do not propose to press the amendment at this stage. Nevertheless, the Minister can rest assured that we shall return to the matter at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1255

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 4:

    Page 3, leave out lines 5 to 8 and insert--

("(1) It is the duty of the responsible local authority to take reasonable steps 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: My Lords, in the regrettable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Laming--he sends his apologies to the House--I shall move this amendment. Noble Lords will remember that we had some discussion on this matter in Grand Committee. The amendment before us is very close to the one that was moved at that stage. A number of noble Lords, including myself and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, raised questions about the meaning of the expression "keep in touch" and about the way in which the intention of the legislation would, perhaps, not be best implemented by such wording.

We are talking about a colloquial expression; indeed, it seemed to us to be a rather flippant one. For example, is sending a postcard adequate to keep in touch? I do not believe that that is a proper way to stay in contact with a young person, but it could be said that keeping in touch by a postcard could qualify under the terms of that section. Under new Section 23B (of the 1989 Act) there are other very concrete duties proposed in terms of both housing and income support. It is wrong that this expression should form part of that section.

When considering the type of continuing relationship that one needs to have with these young people, it is a matter of maintaining proper contact with them. It is not a case of simply keeping in touch, which could be very ambiguously interpreted. I also suggest that the phraseology of "each local authority" in the current subsection is confusing. As new Section 23A(4) refers to a "responsible local authority", it seems to me that that would be the appropriate expression. In Grand Committee, the Minister said that such phraseology appears in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. However, that does not mean that that is the right phraseology for this Bill.

The crucial importance of staying in contact under this Bill is undoubted. It is absolutely vital that that duty should be clearly imposed on a local authority. I do not believe that the use of the expression "keep in touch" contained in another piece of legislation is necessarily a definitive argument for the purposes of this Bill. The wording does not take into account the sensitivities, such as the amount of contact that is appropriate for the young person depending on his or her needs and wishes. The wording in the current amendment would certainly provide the kind of duty and flexibility that is needed in these circumstances. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page