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I turn to Amendment No. 28 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I supported it in Grand Committee and was happy to put my name to it again today. Like the noble Lord, I feel that it is hugely frustrating when Statements interfere with the rhythm of a Bill. This is a very important issue which should be addressed to a full House. In order to stop the cycle of many children in care ending up in custody, it is essential that they do not feel abandoned and that their fears and concerns are addressed appropriately.
In Grand Committee, the Minister stressed that a child who is looked after because he is the subject of a care order does not lose that looked-after status if he enters custody. He argued that local authorities share parental responsibility for that group of children and, like any reasonable parent, should arrange to visit them. Unfortunately, the good practice of which the Minister spoke is often not to be seen, but putting it in statute would make it harder for local authorities to wash their hands of a detained child in need.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, from these Benches we add our support for all these amendments. We very much welcome the spirit of Clause 14. In Grand Committee, there was lengthy discussion about the value of visitors to looked-after children, and these amendments would ensure that the person responsible for visiting the child would be known to the child. Nothing is worse for a child who, as we have all been saying, often will have come from a very troubled and difficult background than being visited time after time by different people whom he does not know at all. This happens frequently. If the child is to build a relationship of trust with that person it has to be someone whom the child knows and therefore trusts. For those in custody, it is even more important for there to be trust and that the person understands their background and knows what they have gone through. No one could be but moved by the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
Sadly, our discussion on this issue was curtailed in Grand Committee and we did not have a chance to talk about it as much as we might have done. It is obvious that society has frequently neglected its responsibilities to looked-after childrenan unfortunate euphemism because very often they have not been looked after. Above all, when in custody they need to be looked after. We on these Benches have a great deal of sympathy with all that has been said and we support these amendments.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I too support all these amendments. They are absolutely essential for the vulnerable people about whom we are talking. It is essential for the young person in prison to have someone to visit them, to have contact with
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There are not many good things about the Criminal Justice and Immigration Billit has far too much in itbut if it allows my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham to have one more go at having this clause debated fully, with time for everyone to express their views, I shall think more highly of it than I do at the moment.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I also support the amendment. It is one of the more important amendments we have before us. We have a common interest, which I know the Minister shares, to prevent the sad outcome of some looked-after children who are taken into custody and who slide into a way of life which is very bad for them and for society. The question is how best to minimise the risk. This is one element that can be important in that situation. The clause is very firm in imposing a duty on the local authority to ensure that a looked-after child taken into custody is visited by a representative of the authority and is given appropriate advice, support and assistance. I know that may happen now, but it would be good to have it in the Bill, as we are concerned with what may be a watershed in a young persons life.
The local authority representative should know something about the child, his health, his mental health and other issues which could be relevant to the life of the child in custody and afterwards. It would be wise of us to insist on this approach by the local authority as a means of reducing the problems that we experience with looked-after children who leave custody and come out to very difficult circumstances.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, the intention of Clause 14 is to ensure that all looked-after children receive regular visits from a representative of their local authority and have access to advice and support when they need it between visits. Amendments Nos. 24 and 25 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, would require the local authority to ensure that the representative of the local authority who visits is known to the child in all but exceptional cases. The Government agree that in most cases it will be desirable that the representative is known to the child and I can reassure the noble Baroness that the guidance that we issue will reflect that. However, it is likely to be difficult in practice for local authorities to meet this requirement for all children when they first become looked after, and there will be times when the social worker who knows the child is simply not available to visit. Illness, holiday and maternity leave are just three examples of circumstances that are hardly exceptional. Equally, we need to recognise the practical realities: staff turnover is also unexceptional. However, I take the noble Baronesss
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Furthermore, as I explained when I introduced our amendment to this clause, we will make it clear that a representative who visits a looked-after child in custody should be an employee of the local authority childrens services department and not, for example, a member of the youth offending team. Again, this is in general a desirable policy. However, in respect of whether or not that person should be a social worker, local authorities may at times wish, or indeed need, to choose a representative who is familiar to a childfor example, an experienced member of the childrens services team responsible for the childs case who may not be a registered social worker.
Conversely, it may be necessary for registered social workers with particular experience, but who have not previously been involved in the childs case, to visit the child, perhaps because the child has requested an urgent visit and the familiar representative is unavailable. In addition, the need may arise for someone with particular specialist skills or experience to visit the child at certain timesfor example, in relation to the transition from one setting to anotherwho may not be known to the child.
For these reasons, we cannot go as far as the noble Baroness wishes in legislation but I hope that we can go most of the way to meeting her concerns in the guidance that will follow it. I certainly agree with the noble Baronesss point that a transfer of responsibility between staff should not happen merely for administrative reasons or for the convenience of an area.
I appreciate that the intention behind Amendment No. 28 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is to guarantee that local authorities provide proper support to children and young people in custody whom they have looked after or who remain in their care. We strongly support many aspects of this amendment; in fact, it duplicates much of the effect of Clause 14. I hope that I can resolve this misunderstanding between us, which I thought I had resolved in Grand Committee. I will have another go at explaining the issue at stake.
Clause 14 requires the local authority to ensure that visits and access to advice, support and assistance are provided for all children who are looked after. This new duty on local authorities will go beyond those children targeted specifically by the noble Lords amendment, which is focused solely on children in custody, and require local authorities to visit looked-after children wherever they may be living, whether it be in childrens homes, hospitals, residential schools including boarding schools, or custodial settings. I reiterate the commitment that I gave when this amendment was debated in Grand Committee: we will use the power to require the local authority to visit children who have been provided with voluntary accommodation by the authority but who then lose their formal looked-after status because they have been given a custodial sentence by the
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The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked whether we shall through statutory guidance ensure that the authority works closely with the youth offending team in planning for a childs resettlement when they leave custody. The policy intent underlying Clause 14 in relation to children in custody is to make sure that services for this vulnerable group of children are effectively co-ordinated so that the children have the necessary support to re-establish themselves in their home area, which will minimise the risk of their going on to commit further offences. The short answer to the noble Baronesss question is: yes, we will seek to ensure that there is that necessary co-ordination. We also intend to revise the Children (Leaving Care) (England) Regulations 2001 to specify that one of the functions of a leaving care personal adviser is to visit the young person whom they support, wherever that young person is living. That will include visiting a care leaver who is in custody.
The combined effect of the commitment to revise the 2001 regulations, as well as Clause 14 and the regulation-making powers in that clause, will be to impose a duty on the local authority to visit and provide continuing support to all its looked-after children, wherever they may be, and to extend the benefits of that service to young people in custody who are care leavers or children who were looked after at the time they were taken into custody but who no longer have that legal status. I hope that that meets the essential points made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord and that they do not feel the need to press this amendment.
Baroness Meacher: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that sensitive and helpful response to my questions. I have a small point to raise. The Minister mentioned that sickness and leave are not exceptional circumstances. I suggest that in circumstances that are not exceptional the opinion of the child should be sought. Do you want to see yet another stranger or is it more important to you to wait a week or so for your social worker who is on leave or sick? That is what I am getting at: not just willy-nilly bringing in yet another new person. If there are exceptional circumstances, it may be necessary but, if at all possible, every attempt should be made to achieve that continuity because of the vital importance of trust. There can be trust only if there is continuity; trust is built over time. Nothing is more important to these children than that continuity in an attempt to rebuild trust that has been completely destroyed. I do not think that I explained myself adequately, but I hope that that gets the point across.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, I thank the Minister for his response, but we come down to the word formally. Although formally no longer applies to the social services because the formal responsibility for those in custody has passed to someone else, the relationship between the social worker and the person who has gone into custody should surely not change. It should be adjusted to follow the formal responsibility. The state has not relinquished formal responsibility for that person. The state retains it, but in a slightly different form. I wonder whether this is the nub of the statement of 3 December, which I continue to question, which rather implies that, once someone has gone into custody, the state no longer has that responsibility. That is the burden of my contention.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, the state does not relinquish it. The state has many hats in these relations as it is in charge of the custody in the first place. In respect of the duty of the local authority, the point that I was making is that those who, because of the nature of their accommodation, were looked after but who lose that status because they go into custody will still be subject to a continuing requirement in respect of visits. That is a requirement on the social services department that is separate from those responsible for custody. I think that the difference between us is narrowing, but I do not know whether it has narrowed entirely. I shall look further at the noble Lords remarks and I promise to write to him further.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the aim of the amendment is to enable an independent visitor to continue their work until the young person is aged 25 or until the young person has been assessed as no longer likely to benefit from an independent visitor. Clause 14 makes it clear that the independent visitor or the local authority may terminate the appointment at any time. I suggest no change to that. Without this amendment to the clause, however, the appointment would automatically be terminated in every case when the child ceases to be looked after by the local authority, if I have understood this correctly. This latter stipulation concerns me. Is it right that the support of an independent visitor is required by law to end at precisely the point when the young person ceases to be in care and when other supports are also likely to be withdrawn?
In east London, where I chair a mental health trust that includes a CAMH service, when the child leaves care or ceases to be looked after, he or she is automatically transferred to someone else; there is automatically a double whammy. I understand that this is normal
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The other development since our earlier debate is the Governments own amendment, which gives the Secretary of State a power to promote the well-being of care leavers and, by regulation, to extend the power to other groups of young people under the age of 25. All I propose in the amendment is to add a very small amount of flesh to the bones of the Governments amendment. Independent visitors are paid only their expenses; the Bill team tells me that on average this amounts to some £2,000 a year. I seek the Ministers agreement that, when a young person leaves their home and loses their social worker, if an assessment shows that continuation of the independent visitors work would be helpful to the young person and if the independent visitor is happy to continue working with the young personthey may not bethe local authority should be able to continue to pay the very small expenses of the independent visitor.
The whole point of an independent visitor, as I understand it, is to be an anchor for the young person through the traumas of transition and the ups and downs of young adult life. There is little doubt that one of the consequences of failing to provide sufficient anchors for young people who need them is that many turn to crime, with the vast expense involved.
I know that the Minister wants to do his best to achieve the right outcome for looked-after children and young people; along with everyone else, I have huge respect for him and for the work that he has done on the Bill and in many other arenas of life. I beg to move.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, this is such a sensible amendment that I cannot think that the Minister will reject it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has said, we know that the period of transition already creates problems for many of these young people and that some element of stabilitysomeone whom they can rely onis vital. They may have built up a relationship of trust with their visitor and, as we said earlier, it is important that there should be someone whom they can call on and whom they know to help them through these difficult days. The amendment is sensible and I very much hope that the Minister can give some hope that it will be incorporated either into regulations or into the Bill.
Lord Judd: My Lords, this is another powerful amendment, on which I hope that my noble friend can again illustrate to the House that the gap is narrowing. Continuity is vital, relationships are vital and stability is vital. Offender rehabilitation or the severely disrupted lives of people who have not yet become offendersfor example, the dangers of vulnerability or the need to put a person on a positive course towards a stable and fulfilling future as a full member of societymust be given priority. For that reason, I applaud this amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who speaks with a great deal of experience and practical knowledge, as well as with a lot of authority. I believe that it is time for our whole approach to be oriented towards the reality that we are dealing with human situations, not administrative situations. The necessary administration must underpin the human priorities, which are key to success.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I spoke in support of this amendment in Grand Committee. The transition stage is crucial and, in a lifetime of uncertainty, help should not be abandoned when it is most needed. I was, however, reassured by the Ministers answer that there is already provision under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which imposes a duty on local authorities to allocate a personal adviser and to keep in touch with all former relevant children until they are 21 years old, and in some cases 25 years old.
In Grand Committee, I asked the Minister for the number of people aged 18 to 25 who may be eligible under the amendment, but he was unable to give me an answer. I wonder whether he has managed to find that out. If he does not know today, I am more than happy for him to write to me.
While we are talking about independent visitors, perhaps I may also take this opportunity to ask about mentors. Does the Minister envisage mentoring schemes coming under this clause? I am a huge fan of mentoring because it brings the stability and continuity for which we are searching and it is a constant when other things, such as the professionals involved with a young person in care, change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, they are the anchors in the young persons life.
Bolton Lads and Girls Club, with which I used to be very involved, was at the forefront of mentoring many years ago and it has had remarkable success. It is running a scheme training employees of Bolton Council to mentor looked-after children. Rainer is providing the finance and the club is delighted with the progress that is being made. The trouble is that, like all these things, funding is always on a short-term basis. It would be sad if, after establishing good relationships, the scheme had to stop. It would be especially cruel for those young people who, probably more than anyone, need those anchor points in their lives. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, Young Minds, the mental health charity for children and young people, conducted research into mentoring and an overview of the literature. It found that the most effective mentoring
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Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am well aware that all good things come from Bolton. I will study with care the mentoring scheme, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. I cannot immediately tell her whether they come under the ambit of Clause 14, but I shall certainly let her know. The number of care leavers who might be eligible for an independent visitor, if it was in their interests, is 5,800. I am sorry that I was not able to have that figure earlier.
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