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Baroness Barker: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed and helpful answer.

The Minister said that local authorities have been asked to include advocacy as one of six priority areas for children's services. Where will advocacy come in the list of those priorities? Local authorities are struggling hard to meet many different responsibilities being passed to them. When push comes to shove at local level, advocacy may not make it to the top of the list.

I thank the Minister for his comments about consultation as a result of the Waterhouse report, about which many noble Lords are greatly exercised. The Minister did not specify the consultation period. I urge the Government to include provision for any recommendations arising from the consultation before the Bill completes its passage in another place. All those concerned with children in residential care want urgently to ensure that nothing on that scale ever happens again and wish to put in place good practice as quickly as possible. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 7:

(b) after subsection (6) insert--
"(6A) Every local authority shall provide cash assistance to any relevant child in their area for whom another local authority is responsible under section 23A unless they are satisfied that his welfare does not require it."").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the amendment picks up an issue that was highlighted at Second Reading and in Grand Committee; namely, the financial predicament of young people who have become estranged from their local authority.

In Committee, I put the case for the retention of a safety net in the benefits system for that small minority of care leavers who, for whatever reason, have lost contact with their responsible local authority. I argued that the safety net could take the form of a discretionary right to support via the severe hardship allowance.

In reply, the Minister made a number of powerful points. In particular, he drew attention to the perverse incentive that would be offered to local authorities to push young people on to the benefits system when the better and often more difficult course would be to provide them with direct help and support. The Bill provides a mechanism for young people to claim support from their responsible authority and places a

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binding duty on that authority to give such support not simply in monetary form but, most importantly, in the form of the young person's adviser.

I fully recognise the advantages and significance of those provisions. However, the Minister said that he understood the concerns that had been expressed about the plight of disaffected young people. One of his arguments was that Section 17 of the Children Act gives a power to local authorities to provide emergency support to estranged young people. However, as I read that section, it confers on local authorities a discretion to provide assistance and only in exceptional circumstances to give assistance in cash.

In practice, there is a great variation as to the provision of Section 17 monies. What is needed for the group of young people that we are discussing is a duty to provide cash assistance. I believe that without such a duty, young people who for whatever reason become disaffected will be exposed to considerable risk; the risk of homelessness, involvement in crime and, as the noble Earl was right to remind us, involvement in sexual exploitation.

The amendment recognises the merits of placing a duty of support on local authorities rather than on the benefits system. It puts in place what to me is the missing piece of the jigsaw; namely, a guaranteed safety net.

It is probably right for me to admit that since tabling the amendment I believe that I have identified a difficulty with its wording. No doubt that could be improved if, as I suspect, it is likely to lead to unintended consequences. However, I am in no doubt about the central point at issue and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to it. I beg to move.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I support the noble Earl's intentions. This is where we begin to understand what the failure to keep in touch can mean in practice. Young people leave the authority with which they have been in care for many reasons. It is not unusual for people to run away to major cities and to want not to be pursued. They believe that in their circumstances it is a danger to maintain a link with the authority from which they came. For those reasons, many young people turn to other local authorities for practical and immediate support. The noble Earls, Lord Howe and Lord Listowel, were right to identify the serious and immediate nature of the dangers which they face.

In those circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that the local authority to which they may present is able to make cash and other payments. Organisations such as that which runs the missing persons' national helpline will often tell how people's experiences with the local authority in whose area they grew up make it impossible for them to remain in touch. That is why they disappear. I believe that in those circumstances the local authority to which they move must immediately meet their needs. Therefore, I believe that

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we should support what the noble Earl is trying to achieve. Many of the people who leave care end up on the streets of cities with which they are not familiar.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for again raising this important question. Although I understand the issues that have been raised, I am not persuaded that we need to go in the direction suggested. I believe that mechanisms are provided which will enable the appropriate support to be given to young people in the circumstances mentioned. I also say to noble Lords that, as in relation to other matters in our discussions--I refer to our debate on Amendment No. 1 in relation to evaluating the criteria which are used--we shall, of course, keep these matters under review as part of the normal assessment process.

Certainly, I believe that one has to start by recognising that the situation in which young people will find themselves once the Bill has been enacted will be very different from the current arrangements. I believe that it is the current arrangement that leads noble Lords to express their concerns in this area. The whole point of the Bill is to ensure that young people will enjoy continuous support in whatever form is most suited to their needs and circumstances. That is why the concept of a responsible authority has been introduced. Therefore, it is absolutely clear where support is to come from for each young person. That is crucial because of the mobility of the very people whom we are discussing. Experience of the present system has shown that there have been problems and disputes between authorities over who should give support to these young people. The Bill clarifies absolutely which local authority is responsible.

Therefore, young people will be able to move around the country confident of where their support will be. I believe that, together with the benefits brought about by the young persons' advisers and pathway plans, this key change should cut drastically the number of cases where young people cut themselves adrift and turn up without support.

Of course, I recognise that the amendment is not aimed at the vast majority of cases where young people are working well with their responsible authority, but at those cases, which we hope will become fewer and fewer as the Bill's effects improve matters, where young people run away and lose contact. I share entirely the concerns that in those few cases assistance should be available immediately to tide the young people over until proper arrangements can be made to get them back on an even keel. Of course, none of us wants to see anything other than young people having that assistance.

It may be useful if I spend a moment or two explaining how we envisage that that emergency support will be given. Essentially, there will be two avenues open to young people who arrive in another local authority area in need of support. One port of call would be the social services department, which would, given that emergency support is commonly needed out

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of hours and at weekends, normally give assistance through the out-of-hours service. The other scenario might be for the young person to find his or her way or be referred, say, by the police to a voluntary organisation, probably in the homelessness sector. Either way, we would expect assistance to be given to the young person through the second authority, but only for as long as it takes that authority to contact the responsible authority, which would then take over the funding.

The basis on which the second authority would assist the young persons in the short term would be, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, Section 17 of the Children Act. I believe that, in looking at Section 17, we need to look first at Section 17(1), which places a duty on every local authority to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area. The Act then further states that the services provided in the exercise of that duty may include assistance in kind or, in exceptional circumstances, in cash. But the word to which I draw your Lordships' attention is the word "duty" in the first line of that section.

The other important component of the Bill is to turn perverse incentives which presently exist within the system into what I might call proactive incentives. Under the new arrangements, the second authority will have a considerable financial incentive to make contact with the responsible authority as quickly as possible and to agree a proper programme of support. In short, the incentive is there to keep the young person within the social care system.

To make sure that that works properly, we intend to cover the provision of emergency assistance in guidance to local authorities, including the payment, where necessary, of cash.

The intention of the amendment is clearly understood: to remove the discretionary element in Section 17 to ensure that relevant children are not left without financial means if their welfare requires it. But--and perhaps this is the point to which the noble Earl referred--it would have additional consequences, with wider implications both for local authorities and for the effectiveness of this new legislation. For example, it would require a local authority to undertake a needs assessment for every relevant young person for whom another authority was responsible.

The only point I make is that that would be a tremendous bureaucratic burden which is neither needed nor wanted. But I accept that the noble Earl is making the point that he wants to ensure that the kind of matters envisaged would be dealt with adequately in the circumstances which have been mentioned.

I hope that I have said enough to persuade your Lordships that while I appreciate the intention of the amendment, I believe that children's needs can be met in an emergency through the existing provisions of Section 17, backed up by the new arrangements and incentives which this Bill puts in place. On that basis, I invite the noble Earl to withdraw the amendment.

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