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Baroness David: My Lords, I raised the matter of what would happen under the amendment to Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 in Committee, but no amendments were tabled then. The matter was raised with me by various children's organisations near the time when Committee stage was drawing to a close.

However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in all he said about the way in which the arrangement is working now. Some children are being put into such accommodation without help or care being given to them. We do not want that; we need the care that is provided under Section 20 of the Children Act. I support the amendment and hope that the Government will lend it a sympathetic ear.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I support—

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, perhaps I may—

Noble Lords: Order!

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I am not forceful enough in rising. I support the amendment, which has two aspects. First, children should never be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation alone, but with their families. When they are alone, it is clear that Section 20 should apply.

I have spent a great deal of time working with homeless families and some years ago I produced a report on homeless families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Among them were a number of young people under 17 and a number of young people under 17 continue to be placed in such accommodation. They are unsafe and often adults are placed in similar accommodation. Often, those adults have their own difficulties, including mental health difficulties. That means that young people are exposed to violence, the likelihood of abuse and other difficulties.

I believe that the state has a clear responsibility to ensure that local authorities do not place unsupported, unsupervised children alone in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and that that or family-centre-type

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accommodation should be used only when those children are in the accompaniment of their families. I therefore support the amendment.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness for trying to prevent her from speaking. She always has something very worthwhile to say.

I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. It is clearly an issue about which they feel strongly. They have raised serious concerns ranging from what they see as the deficiency in Section 17, to unaccompanied children of asylum seekers, to inappropriate provision in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for single children.

We are clearly sympathetic to the argument that one of the key principles of the Children Act is that children are best helped within their family whenever possible. We do not tolerate the idea of separating children on a casual, frivolous or careless basis. Even though we are unable to accept the amendment for several reasons, I hope that I can reassure noble Lords of the sound reasons and practice for doing so. I hope I can address some of the issues raised, if not all of them.

The intention of the amendment is to enable local authorities to provide accommodation for the family as a means of supporting the child. Technically, it is not necessary. Section 17(3) of the Children Act 1989 states that services may be provided for the family of a particular child in need, or indeed for any member of the family, if it is provided with a view to safeguarding or promoting the child's welfare. The amendment duplicates that point, so one could argue that it is redundant on those grounds.

The second reason I urge noble Lords to think again about the framing of the amendment is that as drafted its principal effect would be to limit the provision of accommodation so that it applied solely to children and their families. It would preclude the provision of accommodation to children on their own. That would, by definition, curtail local authorities' powers to help children by leaving no avenue open to providing accommodation under the Children Act except by taking children into care. I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord intended or what he and other noble Lords would want to see.

Clause 14, which was introduced on Report in another place, was intended to address the very confusions and complications in case law which the noble Lord began his speech by addressing. The clause is intended to confirm and clarify that local authorities have a range of options available to them so that they can deal with young people and their housing needs in particular on a case-by-case basis. We do not see Section 17 as a first resort, a cheap option, whereby local authorities can place young people who, if they had a proper assessment, would fall within the provisions of looked-after children. That is a signal that we want to send to local authorities.

Much has been said about practice and about placing young vulnerable, single people inappropriately in bed-and-breakfast accommodation

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and not making the right choices under Section 20. We want to underpin best practice as it develops under the statutory Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. That has been in place for about one year and it sets out detailed, sensitive guidance. I do not know whether noble Lords remember the triangle with parenting on one side, developmental needs on another and environmental factors on another. That is the framework against which we want all cases tested and appropriate provision made.

When a child or young person presents to a local authority as a child in need, it is obliged to conduct a proper-needs assessment in accordance with the framework. That is why I hope that as the practice evolves, spreads and is properly monitored and performance-managed, we will not hear of the kind of cases referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. The whole basis of the framework is the individual assessment of a child's needs within the context of the family on an individual basis. That includes taking proper account of the wishes and feelings of young people. That is fundamental. If they want to and can stay within the family, that will be respected. We do not want to restrict local authorities' scope in that.

I want to reinforce that point because it bears on several other comments made by noble Lords. There is an argument that a lone child ought, as a matter of course, to be taken into care. If the alternative is unsafe accommodation, that would be the best option. But the experience of local authorities over the years must be respected. They have found that young people under 17 commonly resist being taken into care, and we can understand why. They resist the interference in their lives and the loss of independence. Some of them have been in care for 10 or 12 years and they want to make a life for themselves. Section 17 has traditionally provided the avenue for local authorities to be able to help them with accommodation or with cash and support. They do not have to take them into care and bring them under the full weight of the looked-after system. It is essential to ensure that the lighter touch help is available for them.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who present a particular problem. The largest number of lone children helped by local authorities are asylum seekers. The majority are young men between 16 and 17. There is a school of thought that they should all become looked-after children for safety and security, but we do not subscribe to that view. The assessment framework specifically refers to the special needs of asylum seekers, so we say that that framework, which takes into account the full needs of the child, should be applied to them as generously and as thoughtfully as it applies to any child in the country and to his family circumstances. That is what we would want to see.

I understand that there are concerns about practice and about whether local authorities are applying the framework as they should. That is a matter for which we must have a different remedy—not this

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amendment, but full, proper and rigorous performance-management through the Social Services Inspectorate rather than through the law.

The final point raised related to the Human Rights Act and to Article 8. I would prefer to give the noble Lord a full account in writing in response to the question he raised. We support in principle the intentions behind the amendment, but it would not have the outcomes that the noble Lord seeks.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, she referred to a thorough independent assessment of the child's needs. Can we be sure that resources will be available—not only the financial resources but the trained human resources—to ensure that such assessments will be thoroughly carried out in every case?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, in the framework for assessment there is certainly a great deal of emphasis on the need for the training, understanding and sensitivity of everyone involved in the process. Secondly, the 70 million-worth of new money that we have made available—which will be ring-fenced for three years—is designed to provide additional support services and to ensure that these kinds of provisions are as effective and appropriate in the future as improvements require them to be.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness not only for a graphic response in terms of the pyramid but for a forensic reply in terms of taking apart the different elements of the amendment.

We all share the same concerns about an inappropriate use of Section 17—whether they are the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, the noble Baroness, Lady David, or my noble friend Lord Russell. It was quite interesting that the Minister considered that our amendment would not quite achieve the required effect. It may be that we need more drastic amendments to Section 17 if we are to avoid classifying children either as "with their families under Section 17" or "looked after". We may need a middle course of action which would enable local authorities to take, to use the Minister's words, "a lighter touch approach". Perhaps we should explore such an approach at the next stage of the Bill. The noble Baroness has almost made a case for us to do precisely that because the worry about the inappropriate use of Section 17 is still there.

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If I had a pound for every time I have heard the words "rigorous performance management" in this House over the past nine months I would be a very rich man, particularly coming from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt.


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