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Children and Young Persons Bill [HL]

3.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

When a child is lacking support from their own parents and is in care, there must be a first-class system of public care in place and the child’s experience of it should be, as far as possible, such as to compensate for the care that the great majority of children receive from a responsible parent or parents. That is why we are introducing this Bill.

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There are 60,000 children in the care of the state at any one time, the majority of whom are in care because they have suffered abuse or neglect. They deserve the best possible support and nurturing, yet the statistics with which the House will be familiar from our earlier debates on this issue show that looked-after children are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs and eight times more likely to be excluded from school. Care leavers are overrepresented in our most vulnerable groups of adults, including young parents, prisoners and the homeless. A high proportion of looked-after children—28 per cent—have a statement of special educational needs, compared with the national average of 3 per cent, and 45 per cent of looked-after children, aged from five to 17, suffer from mental health problems; that is four times higher than the figure for other children. The most concerning statistic of all is that a quarter of adults in prison today have spent time in the care system.

Those poor outcomes have identifiable causes over and above the simple fact of being in care. For example, children in care are five times more likely to move schools in years 10 and 11 than other children, which has been shown substantially to damage their chances of succeeding in education. Some children see as many as 30 different social workers and go through nine or 10 care placements within a few years. We cannot expect young people to have confidence in, let alone plan, their future if they are living from one month to the next, reluctant to make ties—whether those ties relate to social workers, to their schools or indeed to their foster carers—lest they be broken.

The outcome of children in care has improved in recent years as a result of a number of reforms, including Quality Protects, which led to a renewed focus on the needs of these children and an emphasis on listening to their views. Through Every Child Matters, new multi-agency arrangements have improved support for vulnerable children and young people with better prevention and earlier intervention. This support is central to improving outcomes for children in care and, since the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 came into force in 2002, the proportion known to be participating in education and employment or training at the age of 19 has increased by 8 per cent. There has also been a welcome increase in the number of care leavers who maintain contact with their local authority, whether through accessing a personal adviser or following an agreed pathway plan, with increases from 75 per cent to 89 per cent since 2000.

Those changes have gone hand in hand with significant extra investments. Between 2001 and 2004-05, total expenditure increased by around £230 million for children in residential care and by around £330 million for those in foster care. That represents real increases of 20 per cent and 44 per cent respectively, whereas the care population rose by only 3 per cent during that time. Yet, over the same period, the proportion of children in care getting five or more GCSEs rose by only three percentage points—hence this Children and Young Persons Bill to improve provision for these highly vulnerable children.

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The Bill follows the Care Matters White Paper published in June, which set out our strategy to transform the life chances of children and young people in care. The White Paper was the culmination of an extensive, 18-month period of consultation with carers, practitioners and children and young people themselves. The principles behind the White Paper and the Bill are fourfold: first, to ensure good parenting from everyone involved in these children’s lives; secondly, to improve the stability of their experiences; thirdly, to give children a greater say over decisions that affect them; and, fourthly, to bring about a culture change where all those involved have greater ambitions for these children and believe that the children can achieve.

I will address each of those areas in turn and explain how these principles are enshrined in the Bill. First, the Bill seeks to embed good parenting from professionals in every part of the care system, whether a carer, a social worker, a director of children’s services or an elected lead member. Much has been said on the importance of effective and responsible corporate parenting from the state and on the need for us all to accept that we have not only a legal but also a moral responsibility to treat children in care as well as any good parent would treat their own children. Strong corporate parenting arrangements are essential to improving services for these children and this legislation supports local authorities in exercising their corporate parenting function more effectively.

Part 1 of the Bill will enable the piloting of social work practices, allowing local authorities to delegate some of their social services functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers to more autonomous practices. The aim is to establish whether, by giving social workers more freedom and flexibility in their work, they can deliver a more personalised service and create more continuity for children in care. The piloting arrangements set out in Clause 6 will allow us to ascertain whether or not social work practices should be rolled out nationally. We have a responsibility to pilot constructive proposals that might help to improve the life chances of looked-after children, and this is one of them. We will be working closely with partners to take forward the pilots and will commission an independent organisation to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the pilot stage. We look forward to working closely with local authorities on that. Clause 4 in Part 1 provides for the regulation of social work practices under the provisions of the Care Standards Acts 2000 following the pilot phase.

Crucial to good corporate parenting is ensuring that our residential children’s homes are of the highest possible quality. Thirteen per cent of the care population are in residential homes, 97 per cent of whom are aged over 10. Despite some excellent provision, however, compliance with the national minimum standards and underpinning regulations remains a major concern. Only a quarter of children’s homes meet 90 per cent or more of those standards.

Clauses 22 to 25 amend the Care Standards Act 2000 with the intention of making it clear that poor performance in children’s homes and other social care settings will not be tolerated. These measures ensure

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that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills has a wider range of measures to deploy to ensure that swift and decisive action can be taken where standards are not being met. For example, Clause 22 gives the chief inspector the power to issue a compliance notice to providers who fail to meet the standards expected of them. The notice will set out the action needed to address the failings and the timescale within which this must happen. In addition, Clause 23 gives the chief inspector the power to restrict admissions to residential settings where this is deemed a necessary sanction. In addition to the provision in the Bill, we are currently undertaking a review of the national minimum standards to ensure that they are clearer and more focused on outcomes for children.

Part 3 contains provisions to ensure that right decisions are taken regarding foster care approvals. Clause 29 establishes an independent review mechanism for foster carers, similar to the current mechanism that enables prospective adopters to challenge decisions by adoption agencies on their suitability to adopt. Clause 30 ensures that the provisions for the two independent review mechanisms are aligned.

In their corporate parenting role, much of the effectiveness of social workers and local authorities relies on their relationship and communication with children and young people themselves. Clauses 13 to 16 will ensure that regular contact is maintained between the local authority and the children whom it looks after, including those in youth custody. In addition, a new requirement is introduced to ensure that children who are in long-term care away from home, such as those in residential special schools for the majority of the year, are visited by the local authority where the child normally lives.

The second objective of the Bill is improving stability. Provisions in Part 2 aim to create better stability in every aspect of a child’s care—for example, by the provision in Clause 8 to limit out-of-authority placements. A major policy concern in recent years has been out-of-authority placements. We know that children in out-of-authority placements often do less well than those placed closer to home. This is not solely due to distance. Placing children out of authority can exacerbate problems; for example, placing authorities often struggle to co-ordinate services for children whom they look after when they are placed in other areas. This is why we are seeking in the Bill to reduce unnecessary out-of-authority placements to ensure that local authorities commission, plan effectively and provide appropriate placements for a range of needs within their area to help to improve the continuity, stability and overall experiences of young people in care.

Clause 9 introduces a new provision to ensure that at all ages local authorities take greater account of the impact of their care placement decisions on the educational stability of children in their care. For a child in years 10 and 11—the run-up to GCSE—school moves that are the result of care placement decisions will be stopped unless the circumstances of the child’s case are exceptional.

The best way to improve stability is by doing more to prevent children from going into care in the first place. Children and young people have told us that,

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where they cannot remain with their birth families, they want to be cared for by people who are familiar to them, such as wider family and friends, wherever that is possible. Provisions in Parts 2 and 4 will help to ensure that, where appropriate, children are supported in their families outside the care system and that those caring for them are given greater support and better recognition for the vital role that they play. In particular, Clause 21 allows local authorities to exercise wider discretion over the circumstances in which they make cash payments to those caring for children in need. Clauses 32 and 34 remove some of the barriers for relative carers applying for residence and special guardianship orders. To provide enhanced security, Clause 33 provides that residence orders last until the child reaches the age of 18, rather than 16, as currently.

Thirdly, the Bill puts the voice of the child at the heart of every part of the care system. In Care Matters, we committedto ensuring that the care system is child-focused, to listening to what children want and to responding appropriately. We want to ensure that at every stage of their lives where important decisions that affect their future are made the individual views of children are taken into account. While that cannot be achieved solely by one activity or reform, we believe that by increasing the focus on the transparency and quality of care planning and, in particular, by strengthening the role of the independent reviewing officer, we will make significant progress. We believe that independent reviewing officers have a crucial role in ensuring that children and young people are able to contribute effectively to their care planning and in quality assuring how local authorities carry out their responsibilities in relation to the planning and arrangements for children in their care.

Clauses 11 and 12 lay the foundations for the changes required by extending the responsibilities of the independent reviewing officer to monitor the performance by the local authority of its functions in relation to a child’s case and by ensuring that the care-planning processing is effectively overseen so that it is fair and reasonable and gives proper weight to the child’s wishes and feelings. We expect that those measures and accompanying regulations and guidance will enable IROs to secure the required improvements and to fulfil their role with credibility and independence. A good example would be their role in helping to ensure that young people are not moved from a placement with a foster carer or appropriate children’s home to other less supported arrangements—for example, an independent flat or hostel—without their views being given full consideration, as described in Clause 10.

Fourthly, the Bill is intended to raise the aspirations of all those involved in the lives of children in care and young people proceeding from care. Without that, the reforms will have little effect. We want greatly to improve children's educational experiences and to give them a greater chance to achieve—for example, by making sure that schools understand the specific learning needs of children in care and have the capacity to help them to achieve their potential, whatever their starting points. Clause 17 therefore places the role of the designated teacher,

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responsible for promoting the achievement of looked-after children and offering them additional support at school, on a statutory footing, ensuring universal provision across England and Wales.

Clauses 19 and 20 extend the existing duty under the Children (Leaving Care) Act to appoint a personal adviser and to keep the pathway plan under regular review to care leavers who start or resume a programme of education after the age of 21 but under the age of 25. We want to ensure that every child has the support and guidance that they need to become a successful adult.

Currently, only 6 per cent of care leavers go on to study at university. Improving that must in part be achieved by improving the support that they receive at school. However, consultation with young people in care shows that they face significant barriers to entering higher education, including a belief that they will not be able to meet the additional costs. Evidence indicates that looked-after children finish higher education with an average of £2,000 more debt than their peers. Clause 18 will therefore make available a bursary of a minimum of £2,000 for children in care who go on to university.

Independent visitors are trained volunteers who befriend and support children and young people in care who have little or no contact with their families. Visiting and befriending children in care and providing advice to them is an important service. Clause 14 requires local authorities to make arrangements for an independent person to be appointed to visit any looked-after child, if it is in the interests of the child for that to be done.

In addition to the reforms that I have outlined so far, the Bill contains supplementary provisions that will enable us better to support vulnerable children. Clause 26 removes the 72-hour moratorium on court powers to hear an application to discharge an emergency protection order. That provision is made in response to a recent Northern Ireland High Court case and will ensure that the emergency protection order procedure is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Clause 27 amends the procedures surrounding the reporting of child deaths to ensure routine notification of child deaths by registrars to local safeguarding children boards. That improved process will support local safeguarding children boards in carrying out their child death review function and help to identify the need for a serious case review or to highlight areas of concern affecting the safety and welfare of children.

Clause 31 extends by three years, until November 2011, the life of the Secretary of State’s power to make regulations concerning a registration scheme for private foster carers, thereby ensuring that we retain the ability to establish an additional mechanism to help to ensure the welfare of privately fostered children, should that be required.

The package of measures in the Bill will, we expect, help us better to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those in the care of the state. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Adonis.)

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3.59 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, in October last year, in response to the Statement on the Green Paper, Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care, I said that the care of children in the guardianship of the state had been a shameful side of the welfare system for too long. Too many children have been overlooked, not looked after. Much of what we have been asking for for several years, and much of what was in our manifesto on children at the last general election, are covered in the Bill. We therefore extend a warm welcome, and thank the Minister for his clear introduction.

All of us taking part in the Bill have a keen interest in the welfare of children, and many of us will have first-hand experience of the many difficulties and heartbreaks that face looked-after children and their families. None of us, however, will have the Minister’s insight, so it will be a particular pleasure to work with him on the Bill. There is work to be done, and we are concerned that much of the Government’s commendable ambition will not be achieved without a motivated and rewarded workforce.

The Minister has given some depressing statistics, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the challenge that we face. The Centre for Social Justice working group tells us that children in care and care leavers are far more likely to end up in jail, on drugs, on the streets or to be teenage parents than their peers. Care leavers comprise 27 per cent of all prisoners and between a third and a half of all homeless people. The educational failure is also worrying, with only 8 per cent of looked-after children achieving five or more A*s to Cs at GSCE and only 6 per cent of care leavers going to university. More than a third of children in care are not even entered for a GCSE exam. The numbers are simply staggering.

Improving the plight of children in care goes some way to addressing more widespread social breakdown. Half of all prostitutes and 80 per cent of all Big Issue sellers have been in care. Twenty-two per cent of care leavers—three times more than of all school leavers—will be unemployed by the September after they leave school. The statistic that always troubles me the most, however, is the alarming fact that the children of children in care are 66 times more likely to be taken into care, thus creating a generational vicious cycle.

As the Minister said, we must do all we can to ensure that children do not enter the care system in the first place. Early intervention, respite care and kinship care are key to breaking the cycle. As the NCH says in its excellent briefing, intensive family support for families with children on the edge of care can, where appropriate, prevent the need for a child to be placed in care in the first place. The NCH runs a number of these preventive services, in partnership with local councils, and on average four out of every five referrals are deemed to be successful. The voluntary sector has much to offer in this area and should be encouraged wherever possible. It is, however, also an area in which social workers generally would love to do more.

Children’s social workers operate very much at the sharp end of children’s services, and their dedication and professionalism are crucial to the delivery of the

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Bill. To do this, however, they must be properly respected, trained, motivated and resourced. There are still too few dedicated children’s social workers, and vacancy rates in London and the West Midlands are currently running at 18 per cent, with turnover in London at some 15 per cent. This makes it hard to provide the much needed consistency of care and time for essential preventive work. This is a vital area, and one that we will pursue. It is also of keen interest to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who is at a degree-awarding ceremony today but who will take part in later stages of the Bill, where her considerable expertise will add greatly to our deliberations.

The Bill will enable local authorities to delegate local authority functions in relation to looked-after children to providers of social work services and, after the pilot stage of this scheme, it will enable there to be regulation of providers and requires them to be registered. We welcome the chance to test the idea of having groups of social workers undertaking work with children in care that is commissioned by, but independent from, the local authority. As the White Paper, Care Matters: Time for Change, shows, it is vital for children and young people to know who their social worker is and to have a real relationship that can evolve with trust and a sense of respect over time. I welcome the Government’s recognition that children need not merely care, but a continuity of care.

If this new model of social work practice can go some way to provide this, the result would be a significant improvement in a young person’s experience of care. It is important that these pilots take place in a diverse range of local authorities and that they are run for a sufficient length of time to allow for robust evaluation of effectiveness, as well as ample opportunity to understand what could be improved. A key issue will be the concept of accountability. Another will be to allow the social work practice the freedom to operate in its own way. Would the Minister be willing to give assurances that this will be the case?

We are pleased to see the prohibition of moving a child from a placement with a local authority foster parent or children’s home to other arrangements and the emphasis on local provision. We have long been critics of children suffering the dual horror of being taken away from home, and placed somewhere remote and unfamiliar. But it is important that in this we do not allow the welfare of the child to be affected by too much emphasis on what can sometimes be arbitrary geographical distinctions. There might be cases where a child or young person lives in one local authority, but has stronger connections with a neighbouring community, or circumstances in which the neighbouring local authority is closer.

We must also recognise that where a child has a severe disability or is in need of very specialised care, a restriction to the local area might mean that they do not get the appropriate care. Not every local authority has the resources to provide for children on the more extreme end of the scale. We want to ensure that the decision is driven by the welfare of the child and not cost, the problems of cumbersome bureaucracy or arbitrary procedures.

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