HC Deb 06 December 1995 vol 268 cc306-27 10.59 am
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

This morning's bitter weather is a reminder that many people in this city and throughout this land will be sleeping on the streets tonight. Sadly, a high proportion of them will have been in care.

Three reasons make this debate crucial and timely. The first concerns the reminders that we have had in the West trial. The pitiful vulnerability of young, defenceless people was exposed to us all in the stark horror of that trial, which has invaded all our imaginations with fearful images of young people who were unprotected and who faced people such as the West family. We know now that 10,000 people leave care every year. Many of them disappear into the urban jungles of our cities. No one would notice if they discontinued their existence in this world. No one cares about them. That position was well recognised before the Children Act 1989 was passed.

The second reason, and it is the urgent one, is the cold cynicism of yesterday's Budget cut in the already paltry income of young impoverished people. In future, they will have to share accommodation, possibly with complete strangers, robbing them of what they need: safety, privacy and the stability of life. The Government should hang their heads in shame about the reasons that they came to that decision. We have read the leaked published correspondence from the Secretary of State for Social Security, in which he has announced his despair, talked about the chaos in his Department, but identified a housing benefit cut for young people as an easy option. They are a soft target. In a giveaway Budget, where billions of pounds were given to people who were well off already, the Government put in that mean cut against people and against all the evidence that the House and its Committees have heard of how the abolition of income support entitlement for 16 and 17 year-olds damages that group of young people.

The third reason is the encyclopedia of evidence that the Children Act is not working. Dozens of organisations—and I thank them for the help that they have given me in relation to this debate—have prepared searching reports on the Act's effects. It is now six years since it passed through the House and four years since its implementation. There were high, idealistic and practical ambitions for that Act, which was supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but the shadow of failure falls between that dream and the reality. There has been some success—of course, there are examples of good practice. There is a fine after-care team in my constituency, but it is one of the few: only two operate in Wales—but there are also huge deserts of Great Britain in which there is little happening with the Children Act. We must rethink it, because the cause of its failure will be multiplied by yesterday's Budget cuts.

The third problem is the shift of spending from national to local government, which will mean an horrendous problem in Wales. where we are going through local government reorganisation, with an already fragile system is passing from eight county councils to 22 unitary authorities. We must ask: where will after-care support come in the list of their priorities? I have written to all the authorities in Wales and I fear that, despite the great ocean of good will that exists there, with the problems of finance, the after-care of people leaving foster homes and care institutions is a low priority.

Every year, 10,000 people leave care. Many of them are denied adequate support, adequate money and decent accommodation. Often, they are bewildered and damaged by their experience and are pitchforked from full-time care into little more than full-time neglect. Their experience is different from that of the children of most hon. Members. They leave our family homes at an average age of 22 and often they come back. There are often strong links there, but how on earth can we expect 60 per cent. of these young children, who have been hit with every misfortune that life can offer, to set up a fully independent life at the age of 16 to 17?

Those young children take on such adult responsibilities at that immature age at the same time as they are moving from school to a job, unemployment or a training scheme—another traumatic move. They are moving from an institutional life where they were financially dependent in all their decisions to responsibility for managing a woefully meagre budget. At the same time, there is a collapse of their network of friends, teachers and acquaintances when they go into an alien environment in which that support is not there. In addition, they face what all young people face: all the bewildering problems of adolescence.

Only the strongest characters can come through that. Many of them do so unscathed, but that says a great deal for them. This morning, I met a group of six care leavers for the first time and they are all bright, highly intelligent and highly articulate young people, but they share another characteristic: they are full of anger at a system that has robbed them of part of their childhood and of their early adolescence, and that has heaped unreasonable burdens on them when they should be enjoying the prime of their lives.

Remarkably, many such young people go into care work. I am sure that those who have experienced care themselves are the most able in such work, so I do not want to add to the negative image of care leavers. There is a problem involved in that: the public perception is poor. There is a great wall and a cliff of public prejudice against such people, who are reluctant to say that they have been in care, but many come out of this and we want to take a positive line and rejoice in those who, unscathed, have come through the problems that we as a society have heaped on them.

The figures are startling and depressing. Thirty per cent. of single homeless people have experienced care. A study of homeless care leavers by Centrepoint found that more than half of those surveyed became homeless immediately after leaving care, and that nearly all of them had on some occasions slept rough. Imagine doing that yesterday evening or tonight.

A study by Leeds university found that more than a third of its sample had incomes of less than £30 a week and that only 7 per cent. earned more than £70 a week. The research also found that, in 1993, 22 per cent. of males and 16 per cent. of females aged 16 to 19 in the general population were unemployed. However, between a third and a half of its sample of care leavers were unemployed, so they are suffering disproportionately.

A survey by Save the Children found that more than half the respondents were not encouraged to continue with their education, and that 40 per cent. had no help in finding a job with curriculum vitae, application forms and letters, in an increasingly competitive world of job search for young people.

Care leavers are at greater risk of offending and of getting into other activities than other young people. According to First Key, 23 per cent. of adult prisoners and 38 per cent. of young prisoners said that they had had experience of local authority care as a child, although less than 1 per cent. of them were taken into care because they were offending. If people are not stirred by our pleas on the grounds of common humanity and compassion, perhaps they will accept the argument on the ground of the damage that we are doing to society by providing inadequate care. The Minister has the uncaring, flinty exterior of all Conservative Prime Ministers, but inside there is a warm, compassionate human being fighting to get out. I hope that he will succeed.

The Minister knows about the lack of preparation and support for those leaving care. I have no wish to give instant remedies and condemn everyone. Many marvellous people whose life's work is care devote their time, energies and skills to it and achieve great things. But the general picture condemns us all. There is inadequate preparation for leaving care, and the lack of support is revealed by the Save the Children survey. It showed that 60 per cent. of respondents lacked life skills on leaving care. Half of them did not know how to manage their money, and nearly a quarter did not know how much things cost. We are failing in that vital area. Although all those matters were identified during the passage of the Children Act six years ago, according to the whole catalogue of research that has been published, we have not succeeded in changing the system to any great degree.

According to the Save the Children survey:

The amounts young people received ranged from nothing to £1,800 with most receiving under £1,000 … from 'Don't know'—gave me £5 and some sandwiches and said I don't want to see you again". The young care leaver received some money in the form of vouchers.

Through savings while young people are in care, by postponing the age of leaving care, to which I shall shortly come, and by ensuring financial responsibility through running a budget, people should be taught, not in one fell swoop but over a long time, the great skills of managing their finances. A report from Leeds university states that a survey of 102 local authorities found that only 42 per cent. offered an automatic leaving care grant. Of the remainder, some operated a discretionary system. Matters can only get worse following the shift of spending from central Government back to local government and the enormous challenges that local government will face in the next financial year.

There are positive aspects, because good preparation and support has plainly had a wonderful effect. The research by Leeds university showed that leaving care schemes are beneficial to young people when they are properly organised, especially in securing good accommodation and improving life skills. One care leader from west Glamorgan made plain the difference that decent accommodation made to her when she said about her new flat:

It is the best property I have ever had. It makes me feel proud of myself. Public prejudice on the issue must be tackled. A MORI poll found that almost all those who were surveyed would not risk employing someone from a care background. More than half of the young people surveyed by Save the Children said that they rarely told anyone that they had been in care. That is the truth, ugly as it is, and the Government and the country must work to get rid of the foolish and damaging wall of prejudice. It makes no sense and greatly hurts the life chances of young people who have already faced so many challenges in life.

I have made some study of the position in Wales. I wrote to all the local authorities there and read all the reports that have been made, especially that by Dr. Hutson of the university of Glamorgan. She points to the unevenness of the situation in Wales and mentions the two excellent teams in Wales. There were cases of great distress among the young people whom she interviewed.

The feature of all these reports, most of which have been published within the past year, is the evidence from young people. It was not a case of academics telling us what was going on or laying down theories; the reports contain practical quotations about what has been happening to young people. That is the strength of every report. Leaping from the pages are pictures of young people's faces, and their words are used to describe what has happened to them. All of them talk about running out of money because of lack of organisation. There are images of young people sitting in the dark because they have run out of tokens or money and have no gas or electricity.

Welsh care leavers were dumped in unsuitable accommodation. One young care leaver from west Glamorgan said of private rented accommodation:

The other bloke in the room was a rapist"— and also apparently drunk most of the time—

I couldn't take my girlfriend there … It's a dump. The windows are coming out. The walls are damp. The electric fire is expensive. A young woman who wanted a flat in Pontypridd where she had been in care was told by the council to take a flat in the Rhondda. Three months later the council knocked the flat down.

I wrote to the Minister in August about these matters and about the need for mandatory monitoring. The Government and local authorities do not know what happens to care leavers or where they have gone. We could well be replicating the West tragedy many times over and nobody would know. There is an overwhelming case for a check, because we have to know the whereabouts of everyone who has left care.

It is said that young people have gained A-levels and degrees and now say, "We are adults now and we do not want to be mothered." One such young person said to me, "I would like someone to knock on the door now and again to ask me how I feel and whether I am all right." Care even on that basic level would be an improvement. The Minister said that some young people might not welcome it, but it is not compulsory for those who make it clear that they are managing perfectly well on their own. The problem is with the many young people who have disappeared from the system, and unless there is mandatory monitoring there will be no major improvement.

In his letter, the Minister said:

Whilst we would expect local authorities to adopt an active stance on this issue, the introduction of a statutory requirement would be inappropriate, because there will be those care leavers who do not seek, wish, or require continuing support services from local authorities. That may be true and such young people do not have to accept those services, but they should at least be available, and at present they are not: it is up to local authorities to do their own thing. The Minister's argument is not at all convincing and I hope that his thoughts have advanced a little since August.

In his fair-minded way, the Minister states:

I fully accept that there is some way to go before we can be satisfied with the level of provision in all local authorities. That is as much of an admission of failure as one is likely to get from a Minister, and I welcome it. The Minister's letter continues:

progress is being made and I am sure this will be maintained. We all have one chance of life, youth and adolescence and we cannot continue in this leisurely way by saying, "Things are getting better, they arc slowly picking up." By the time that young people leaving care today have reached adulthood, their lives could be damaged irreparably by lack of provision. We cannot rely on a slow evolutionary improvement. Action has to be taken now. One new development is the requirement that health education services contribute to the planning process to help children who are leaving care. That was mentioned in a recent paper, and perhaps we can debate that.

Many hon. Members who are in the Chamber made creative and productive contributions to the Children Act, and it was felt that progress was being made when the Act was passed. However, in many areas the situation has not improved: it has deteriorated. A recent survey by the social services inspectorate found that more local authorities now have leaving-care teams, and at least, 50 per cent. of social services departments have some form of monitoring system.

That is fine, but a national survey by the Aftercare Consortium, which attempted to assess the situation after the implementation of the Children Act, came to a much more negative conclusion. Although most of the people working on care projects reported that there was a leaving care policy in their area, they said that it was not always followed up. The survey also found that only in the affordability of supported lodgings and the availability of leaving-care grants had any real improvement been made between 1992 and 1993 in the provision for care leavers, and in the case of leaving-care grants, improvement had only been slight.

Significant deterioration was found in nine areas of provision: housing, benefits, income support for under 18-year-olds, community care grants, social fund loans, education grants, financial support during vacations, youth training, and employment and financial support from social services. That is an horrendous list of areas in which the provision has not improved—it has not increased as the Minister has suggested. It has in fact deteriorated according to the Aftercare Consortium report.

One of the main problems with the Children Act is the fact that is does not ring-fence funding. Also, the provision of services is very much at the discretion of each authority. According to First Key,

The Children Act provisions need to be amended to give strength to the current duties to prepare young people for leaving care and to advise, assist and befriend them once they have left care. The primary reason for the failure and poor quality of preparation for leaving care is that the provision of services relies on discretionary interpretation of powers. Local authorities"— now more than ever—

faced with the demands of child protection services and more recently community care legislation are prioritising their constrained resources and leaving care services are losing out. Consequently, there is a credibility gap", between the rhetoric and the reality, between the belief in what is being provided and the considerably lower level of services that result.

The Act was supposed to improve things for care leavers—that was its whole purpose—but it has not done so, due to the position of local authorities. As we know, under the Act local authorities are required to provide befriending services for care leavers up to the age of 21, but that is very rarely done. If local authorities fail to provide such services, they are breaking the law. The Act has failed, and the Minister must accept that. There should be a statutory duty on local authorities to provide services for young people leaving care.

We know all about the various problems with social services departments and the difficulties that they have in so many other areas of work, but I wish that the Government would consider reversing the planned housing benefit change. If it cannot be reversed—unfortunately, it seems that it cannot—the Government should instruct local authorities to interpret it in such a way that every after-care leaver is automatically considered a hardship case. That seems to be one of the only ways in which one can guarantee that progress will be made and young people will get a fair deal.

We are seeking some undertakings from the Minister on improvements that should be made to that Act. We want to hear that he will introduce mandatory monitoring for local authorities, they he will decide to say to them that the money they receive is ring-fenced and that it must go towards services for those who leave care. We want some indication from him that he recognises the failure of the Act and the need to introduce reforms.

Many areas of reform are being pressed on him by Community Care and concerned groups, which would ensure that people who leave care do not enter a period of steep decline in their fortunes and Members could look with pride on their work. Images of young people such as the haunting one of the young lady who said that she was virtually expelled from a community care home at the age of 17—with all her possessions in a black plastic bag, a fiver in her pocket and the message, "We hope never to see you again," ringing in her ears—is shameful to the House and to the country. We must do far better

11.25 am
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am grateful to be called in this important debate. I am sorry that, at this stage, only the Minister and the Whip are on the Conservative Benches. Certainly, Opposition Members are concerned; they believe, rightly, that the subject of this debate has to be addressed. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on his passionate and well-researched speech.

My thoughts are based on a number of experiences, partly to do with my background as a Front-Bench spokesman over three years. For part of that time, I shadowed the Minister, whom I respect. I recognise that he is interested in and cares about this issue. Although I would not say that about many of his hon. Friends, I think that he has genuinely attempted to look in detail at the matter and to listen to people's concerns.

Like me, he has met many young people who have been through the care process and has addressed conferences of young people. Indeed, I pay tribute to the articulate voice of the young people who have left care and have organised themselves in a number of ways to press, quite rightly, for changes to the circumstances that they have experienced and that others are still experiencing.

As the Minister and my hon. Friend knows, I also have personal experience of social work—over almost 20 years before I entered Parliament. It is very interesting to meet as adults people whom I took into care as babies. Talking to them about their life experiences in the care system is very traumatic. When I was a very young man, I was responsible in some instances for taking decisions about their lives. They were taken into care as babies on the assumption that the care system would offer them something better than they would otherwise have had. From meeting the one or two whom I know now and listening to their experiences, I have to say that I am afraid that the system has let many of them down very badly. I feel deeply about that because clearly I have some responsibility for their lives and the way in which they have been treated. Many have undergone all sorts of appalling experiences that should not happen to anybody.

The issue is brought home to me regularly by my wife, who works for an organisation in Leeds called Caring For Life, which is concerned with addressing specifically the needs of young people leaving care and attempts to care for them for life. That is a key factor, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West demonstrated, once they leave the system, many are dropped, forgotten about and allowed to undergo appalling experiences. Some go into the penal system, to disappear for ever—sadly, sometimes in such circumstances as the recent events in Gloucester.

Many others have gone through very bad experiences—not perhaps as bad as those in Gloucester—and have ended up in an environment that is totally unacceptable in this day and age. My wife's work has brought home to me the need for immense improvements along the lines of those mentioned by my hon. Friend.

On entering Parliament in 1987, I had the great privilege of being involved in the passage of the Children Bill. It was one of the first major pieces of legislation on which I worked. There was all-party consensus that that Bill offered a major improvement in protecting children and in alleviating the plight of people leaving care. Despite that cross-party support and the whole-hearted endorsement of the House, one or two reservations were expressed about the Bill.

One reservation mentioned by my hon. Friend was the limited time and responsibility that the Bill devoted to care leavers. I served on the Standing Committee and I remember the attempts by a number of Opposition Members to persuade the Government to extend those responsibilities in the way referred to by my hon. Friend. In that respect, and despite the great success of the Act in many other ways, our concerns have proved justified.

Another fundamental weakness, which is much more difficult to overcome, is that the Act fails to require a co-ordinated approach, both nationally and locally, to child protection and to services for children and young persons. One department, at either Government or local level, should not be able to initiate something that has not taken into account the responsibilities of other departments. The benefit changes initiated by the Departments of Social Security and of Health are examples of that. I do not believe that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), acceded to the benefit changes—I know him too well. He understands as well as I do the impact that those changes will have on young people leaving care.

A classic example of a lack of policy co-ordination between Government Departments can be seen today. After this debate, I shall be serving on a Statutory Instrument Committee discussing a Government proposal to remove the social work training element from the qualifying courses for probation officers. That might appear to be irrelevant to what we are discussing this morning, but it is not. Unfortunately, a number of the people with whom probation officers have to deal have offended as a result of difficulties which they faced very early in their lives and which, sadly, have led them to end up in the penal system. I am sure that, privately, the Minister would not disagree with a word of what I am saying.

I become angry when I hear the latest proposals from the Home Office—the tough approach, going back to the short, sharp, shock treatment that was such a miserable failure. I know that because one of the experimental camps was in my constituency. Now, the Government want to bring in boot camps. The same kids will be going through those camps—they are the kids who have gone through the care system. Sadly, I see some of them in Wakefield prison serving life sentences.

We must tackle the problems much earlier. If we fail to do that, we will have to try to deal with them through the penal system, which is a much more expensive process. I appeal to the Minister to fight his corner against some of the nonsense that we hear from some of his colleagues in the Home Office. He knows that it will permanently damage some already damaged young people.

That point will be made in Committee this afternoon. I hope that we carry the day, but I fear that we will not. The Minister understands why social work training should be part of the probation officers' brief. They are dealing with social work issues and with some very damaged people who need skilled intervention. I mean no disrespect to ex-police officers or ex-Army officers, but I cannot accept the suggestion that authoritarian-style people, marching up and down and shouting like a serjeant-major can deal with very damaged people. The Government's own figures prove that. We have a very effective probation service with social work training which steers people away from the penal system.

No doubt other hon. Members will want to expand on the implications of the income support changes on young people. I know of many examples where they have resulted in immense difficulty for young people leaving care. The housing benefit changes that are due to take effect on 2 January next year and the restrictions on hardship payments will specifically impact on care leavers. The Minister should tell his colleagues at the DSS, loudly and clearly, what the Chancellor's proposals will mean for the sort of people about whom we are talking.

I am not simply pointing a finger at different Government Departments; I am aware that there is a lack of collaboration and co-ordination locally. In October 1991, two years after the implementation of the Children Act 1989, I did a survey of all English local authorities. I discovered that, at that stage, only three of them had developed cross-departmental strategies on family policy. It is not just Government Departments but local authority departments that do not talk to each other, and even sometimes contradict each other.

There is a lack of clarity about the role of social service departments and housing departments, especially in relation to the definition of "vulnerability". I wish that I had a pound for every case that I have come across of a dispute between a housing department and a social services department about whether a young person is vulnerable. It is my view that, by definition, if a young person has been through the care system and is leaving it, he must be vulnerable. People must be vulnerable if we have intervened in their lives and placed them in the care system. They are disadvantaged and worthy of additional support and care when they leave the system.

Many local authorities have worked hard to overcome the problems. I know that many of them have tried desperately to improve the plight of young persons leaving care, but they have to wrestle with the local consequences of Government policy. Housing policy is probably the most important area, and there has been a complete rundown in investment in social housing. Whether it be housing associations or local authority housing programmes, there is no doubt that the housing stock for people in social need has been markedly reduced. That has impacted on young people leaving care.

Of course, it is easy for the Opposition to argue that the Government do not invest enough money and that there is a lack of resources. However, the Minister talks to local social services departments and he will have been told of the way in which the child care budget has been raided to prop up the huge demands resulting from the community care changes. There is a ring-fenced community care budget, but not a ring-fenced child care budget. Social services departments have told me that they have had to move resources away from care leavers and child protection to meet the massive demands of the community care changes.

The Minister should consider education policies and their impact on young people in care and leaving care. There has been a huge increase in the number of exclusions of young people from schools. Many of them have been through very difficult home circumstances and some have ended up in care, yet they are excluded from school. There is now a climate of league tables. They show academic success, but they do not show the nature of a school's clientele. They do not highlight the difficulties faced by schools and the admirable way in which they deal with them. Unfortunately, in some cases schools are only too happy to exclude certain pupils. I know that some of those within the care system are easily excluded because the difficult circumstances that they have experienced occasionally show in their behaviour at school.

It is sad that the current education environment is not conducive to supporting many of the young people about whom we are concerned in this debate. There has been a move towards local management of schools and grant-maintained status. Social services departments and teachers have told me that that has resulted in less willingness to participate in collaboration on child protection and the care of vulnerable young people. Those are wider policy issues that need to be considered in this debate.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's points about education. However, is it not true that within the care system there may be provision for young people to have leisure and television rooms, but no place that they may use for study? That point must be within the remit of the Department.

Mr. Hinchliffe

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The educational needs of young people, especially those in the care system, are often overlooked. We look after the more basic caring needs, without really considering other needs. I know some people who, despite all the disadvantages, are highly academic and have gone to college or university and done very well. We must give them credit for having overcome those disadvantages.

There are three specific points which summarise the present position and, in making them, I am very much reliant on my wife's experiences and on her feelings about where we need to go in respect of young persons leaving care.

First, there is the question of preparation. We still do not properly prepare young people in the care system for the kind of life that they will face when they leave care. Hon. Members should think about what they were like when they were 16. Could they cook or sew? There are some of us in our 40s who still cannot cook or sew.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Some people in their 60s cannot do that.

Mr. Hinchliffe

My hon. Friend is right. If hon. Members could not have carried out those tasks at 16, why should we expect young people who have gone through far worse experiences in their childhood to be able to do so? Cooking, budgeting, use of leisure time and choosing the right company are all important. It is easy to be placed in accommodation in certain areas where the company is not particularly positive, and we must look at that issue.

Suitable housing is the second crucial point, and it is not just a case of putting somebody in a flat. In many instances, that person needs supervised lodgings, or perhaps a motherly landlady. The third and final point is that the person leaving care needs somebody in loco parentis. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West mentioned, we need to pinpoint somebody who will follow the young person through after leaving care.

My wife's organisation, Caring for Life, cares—or attempts to care—for life for the many people who will always need on-going care. Many people do not need on-going care throughout adulthood, but many others do. We need a person to be pinpointed who can provide that support.

My main point is that we clearly lack a national strategy of co-ordination which can resolve all the boundary disputes which result in people falling between the different agencies. More than ever, we need collaboration between local authority departments. We need a Minister whose remit ranges across Government Departments to ensure that there is a national strategy for young people in these circumstances.

I believe that the Children Act was a very important move forward, and I commend the present Minister's predecessor—the right hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)—who was very much involved in the passage of the legislation. He listened to the concerns of many people, and amended the legislation accordingly. That Act was a major step forward, but—as the Minister will be aware—there is still a long way to go in addressing the needs of young people in care.

11.41 am
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on creating the opportunity for the House to consider these matters today. He has done a remarkable job, and I commend him on his complete, well-measured and well-prepared speech. I must also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on following the matter up so effectively.

Indeed, if we put the speeches of my hon. Friends together, there is not a hell of a lot left for Opposition Front Benchers to say, and I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), who winds up for the Opposition. My hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West and for Wakefield made astonishingly complete, compassionate and considerate contributions, and I am very pleased that I was here to hear them.

I must also register my gratitude to the Chairman of the Defence Committee for liberating me from the need to hold witnesses under scrutiny upstairs and allowing me to add to some of the points which have been made. I must declare an interest, in that I was a consultant and parliamentary adviser to the Gracewell Institute until it went out of existence.

Currently, I am a trustee and director of the Faithfull Foundation. I must add that I was pleased that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis)—who is to reply to the debate today—came to the launch of that foundation in the House of Lords some time ago, and made an excellent speech. I know of the machinations that he went through to make that presentation. I am not supposed to know, but I do, and I commend him for making that speech. It confirmed in my mind the Minister's commitment to the issue. I shall not declare any details of the incident now, and I have no intention of doing so elsewhere. Our secrets are safe.

My involvement in this matter goes back to Cleveland, the Butler-Sloss inquiry—in which I was involved—and my experiences since then. When I told my soulmate in my office, Christopher Kelsey, that I was going to try to contribute to the debate today, he asked whether I had prepared anything. I replied that I had not, but he said that that was all right as I knew all about the issue. I said "No, Chris. No one knows all about it. We are still scratching the surface." We have barely embarked on a journey that we really must complete because, to date, we are making a dog's breakfast of it.

Perhaps the starting point is that everybody—regardless of who we are or what station we occupy in life—seeks approval and recognition. In order to gain that approval and recognition, we respond inevitably to example. It does not matter whether that example is good or bad, because when we start to receive it we are incapable of judging whether it is good or bad. If we receive that example from the people who are caring for us and feeding and clothing us, we naturally assume it to be proper. No matter what a person shows us to do or how he shows us to do it, we expect it to be the right manner in which to behave. If we are later subject to the shock of realising that we are badly in error, we have huge feelings of guilt, remorse, confusion and regret which put us at a disadvantage.

A person is put into care usually because he or she is in some kind of danger, be it from mental or emotional cruelty or from physical or sexual abuse, although someone can be put into care if there is no one else to care for him or her. Generally, children are put in a form of what we hope is positive custody, but they are placed with other youngsters who have had similar unfortunate experiences. In doing that, we add to the series of unfortunate experiences that have been visited on them.

We make that error not only at that stage, I have to say. We make the same error with the people whom we find guilty of abuse, because we usually put them into some kind of protective custody in a penal institute. They are banged up with people who have been guilty of similar transgressions, and once again there is an almost organic cycle of amplification and multiplication.

We must try to break that cycle, and break the relentless repetition of damage that we are allowing to be visited on future generations. I was greatly taken with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, who called for a change in ministerial remit, as that was a point that I wanted to raise.

In my work with the obscene publications department of Scotland Yard, one thing seemed to me to be profligately wasteful. We would place a fairly experienced police constable—male or female—in the department, and would allow him or her to be trained in somewhat distressing circumstances. Some of the stuff that the department must examine, scrutinise and evaluate is so bloody foul that the effort to stay sane while observing it stretches the mind. Just when the constable was becoming mature and seasoned in that work, he or she would be moved to traffic because otherwise that person's career prospects could be damaged. That is fine from the point of view of career development, but it is not much bloody good in terms of taking care of children.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the matter, but I would ask him to moderate his language somewhat.

Mr. Cook

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for using the term "bloody", if that was the word that caused offence. Was there any other?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Not yet.

Mr. Cook

I had no intention of causing offence, I promise you, and I promise the House. I apologise for using the term "bloody"—but I still feel as strongly as that, or even more strongly.

It does not make much sense to train people, to give them that degree of expertise and then to remove them from the position of responsibility. The same applies to Ministries. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield referred to the plethora of departments that have to cope with the problems that have been described. Health, education and social services are all involved, as are Home Office responsibilities such as probation and the police.

Somehow the poor individuals fall down the cracks on the keyboard. We are trying to play a minor tune on a keyboard capable of performing only in a major key. My plea, extending those that have already been recorded, is that we should create another kind of agency. I have pleaded for some time for such an agency, to concentrate on family matters. What would we call it? Perhaps a support availability agency.

What we need is a police force that is not police, social services that are not social services and probation services that are not probation. Such an agency would need the responsibility and authority to stretch further than other bodies and, as a single agency, to care for the particular needs of every individual who required such attention.

Every family should be able to call on such services as and how it sees fit. The courts, too, should be able to identify people whom they consider to be in need of such attention. I could talk at great length on the subject, but I know that other hon. Members want their turn. I hope that my comments have been of help to the House.

11.51 am
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I begin by declaring an interest as a practising barrister, and the few remarks that I shall make will relate purely to that sphere. I have spent about 30 years in court in one form or another, and in that time I have seen thousands upon thousands of children and young persons who have ended up before a court simply because they have been neglected.

None of us chooses his or her parents, but for most of us life is quite happy; our parents care for us, guide us and see that we are educated, housed and eventually launched upon the sea of life. But for some, that is not to be.

For some the path is care, or even custody. That sometimes happens because of the death of parents, leaving their children alone in a society in which there is no one to care for them. Over the years, much good work has been done by various adoption societies, children's homes, and so on—but that can never replace a parent. All of us who have children know that.

For instance, if my sons want advice they can ring me up today, wherever they may be. They may not get especially good advice from their father, but at least they have someone to whom to turn. When, for whatever reason, a child has been in care, to whom can that child turn? Can he or she go back to the matron or whoever else ran the home and say, "Please, what do I do?"? The answer is inevitably no, because the throughput is so great, as is the pressure on space and time, and the lack of resources.

Other children end up in care because they have broken the law. We have all seen youngsters such as the young tearaway who is put into care, unless he ends up in one of the more contained establishments run—although "run" may be too kind a word to use—by Her Majesty's Prison Service. In such units there is little education, little support and little, if any, after-care.

The various agencies such as the probation service and social services have done a superb job over the years. But what happens to such children now? They are contained and restrained. And now the Government want to take the social service element out of probation training. How stupid can they get? The idea is negative and stupid and will actually he costly. When children in care are 16, we say to them, "Where now?" Some authorities give them £1,000, and some the proverbial sandwich and a fiver. Then they are supposed to find their way in the world. It is not their fault that they do not have parents or that they grew up in a broken home in a destroyed society. They did not ask for that. Tell me of one child who wants a life of misery. There would not be many volunteers.

None the less, there those children are at the age of 16. What do we do with them? And now we are to tell them that they cannot have as much housing benefit or support as before. Yet those are the very children who need support and benefit. Ten years ago in America, in Boston and other places, there was the Massachusetts experiment in which, with the aid of the probation service and social services, children who came out of the penal system were fed back into society.

They lived in almost sheltered accommodation at first, but they could work their way up the ladder and get a better flat, and were helped and advised about getting jobs. They were gently cared for and led back into society. Why can we not do that? I do not say that every child who leaves a children's home this year will fall into the problems of criminality, but it was found that there was not much offending among the children in the Massachusetts experiment.

When is a child most vulnerable and most likely to be caught up in the web of offending and reoffending? We know that the peak age of offending is 14, and at 16 one is not far away from that. Yet a young girl who leaves a care home is put into a bedsit. She may have her £1,000, but to whom is she to turn? Along will come some nice kindly person, as she thinks, and before she knows where she is, she will be in the wrong company.

How is such a child to judge the quality of the company that she keeps? She has no experience against which to balance it. Unfortunately, we do not have many wise people in government at present—except, of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Health who is here today, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis)—but if the Government were wise in such matters, they would consider the overall cost.

How much does it cost to put a 16-year-old into a secure environment, by which I mean somewhere warm, dry and affordable, where there is support and someone to whom to turn? Perhaps £100 a week. Contrast that with the £400 a week that it costs to put someone into a penal establishment. So, to save £100 a week, we risk spending £400 a week. That is the mathematics of the madhouse, but the Government do not take that fact on board.

We have a Home Secretary who seems to think that if we march people up the hill and down again often enough, we might achieve something, although all that he will find out will be what the rest of us found out 10 or 15 years ago—that the faster we march them up the hill, the more quickly they think of ways of getting away, the more crimes they learn and the worse they turn out at the end of the day.

Why can we not get away from all that and simply build and rebuild? It would not cost a fortune. I heard what was said about the Children Act 1989, and I know from professional experience that there are many holes in the legislation. However, I do not propose to trespass down that road now, because I am watching the time with great care, and watching my Whip, to whom I have to be nice, with even greater care.

Let me finish as simply as I began. When a child is vulnerable, we as a society should care for that child. And which children in our society are more vulnerable than those in care? Therefore, when they reach the age at which they must leave the environment that has looked after them hitherto, that is the important time when they need support. We do not give it. We do not try. We abandon them and, years later, say, "Gosh, how did that all start?" We have only ourselves to blame. To a Conservative Government this must come as manna from heaven and music to their ears, but sometimes there is benefit in investing. That is their motto. I merely ask that the Government should try investing in our kids; they deserve it.

11.59 am
Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington)

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) deserves the thanks of the whole House for bringing this important subject to public attention. It is also important to pay credit to all the organisations that have mounted such a spirited campaign in defence of care leavers and their problems. I am thinking of organisations such as Save the Children Fund, Barnardo's, Community Care magazine, Centrepoint and many others.

Today's debate reflects the growing concern about a neglected group of some 10,000 young people a year who leave local authority care. We know where those young people came from and why they went into care but until recently we knew little about what happens to them once they leave it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made the important point that there is a long way to go before we correct that information deficit, but, thankfully, a spate of recent reports has begun to unearth what has all too often been a hidden problem.

The picture that those reports paint of life after care for young people is bleak. We have heard about unemployment and homelessness. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) made the important point about the all too frequent appearances of young care leavers before the courts and how they eventually enter the prison system. However, the organisations that produced the reports are to be commended for involving young care leavers in their preparation and production. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said, care and after-care services will only improve if we listen to the voices of those who have experienced them.

The stories that young care leavers have told in the various reports to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West referred will, I hope, help to shape a better future for the next generation of care leavers. It is easy to forget that all young people who leave care have exactly the same aspirations as any other young person. They want to raise families, to have homes, to prosper and enjoy the best that life has to offer. It is common ground that the aim of all policy, whether local or national, is to ensure that young care leavers make the transition from care to independence as quickly and easily as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West made the important point that there are good examples of local, and national, organisations working together to ensure that that transition is made, but such experiences are all too limited. The reality is that, too often, young people leaving care find the path to independence blocked. As a consequence, young care leavers find the opportunities that are available to others denied to them. They face the worst of all possible worlds: an early ejection from a supported environment into an often prejudiced society with no stable family support system to fall back on when the going gets tough. Invariably, the going does get tough. They find themselves competing for jobs in a labour market where 600,000 young people are already out of work but face the additional handicap of public prejudice against care leavers and, often, lower educational attainment. The result, not surprisingly, is that a high proportion of young care leavers become unemployed.

Life without work, and on the breadline, is the biggest single obstacle to the search of young care leavers for meaningful independence. Unemployment and poverty also inhibit their search for appropriate housing. The Centrepoint study that was mentioned earlier in the debate found that more than half the young care leavers who were surveyed had been homeless, and nearly all had slept rough.

Without a job or an income, finding a rented flat becomes virtually impossible. To compound the problem, Social Security Ministers say that social fund payments cannot be used to pay rent deposits. That situation will be made worse by the Government's plan to have housing benefit paid in arrears.

The social security system is also set to militate against the development of what I think everyone is agreed is an excellent halfway house between care and independence—ssupported lodging schemes. They provide support services that are unavailable in any bed-and-breakfast accommodation but since housing benefit is to be capped against assumed shared costs, supported lodging schemes will be priced out of the reach of young care leavers. Already, organisations involved with running such schemes are warning that the latest planned changes to housing benefit policy risk throwing more vulnerable young people on to the streets. At best, the proposal to limit housing benefit for young people under the age of 25 will force them out of half-decent accommodation into inadequate, unregulated and potentially dangerous multi-occupation dwellings.

Already, 16 and 17-year-olds face exclusion from the benefit system with access to income support and housing benefit virtually unobtainable except in cases of exceptional or severe hardship. There is even evidence that social fund officers have refused community care grants to care leavers on the basis that social services have a power to make leaving care grants under the provisions of the Children Act 1989. They have that power, but, with the best will in the world, it is unrealistic to expect social services departments to pick up the tab for the Government's refusal to allow young people access to benefits that are available to everyone else. That is not their role and nor do they have the resources to be able to do it.

The Minister will have read the recent report from the Association of Directors of Social Services, which warns that already more than three in four social services departments are projecting substantial overspends on their 1995-96 child care budgets due to the pressure of rising demand. Indeed, the ADSS president Tad Kubisa explicitly warned last month that services for young care leavers could face cuts as a result. As with other matters, there seems to be total confusion between the objectives of different Government Departments.

The Minister will no doubt say that he wants care leavers to be able to live independently outside the care environment—and rightly so—but the Department of Social Security is engaged in an exercise of restricting choice and limiting independence. Unfortunately, the piggies in the middle are the care leavers, who find themselves bereft of support, and social services departments, which find themselves under more pressure to compensate for failures in national policy.

There is a need for national policy to reflect the best examples of local policy, where education, housing and social services co-operate together to ease young people's transition from care. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield pinpointed the problems and failures of the Children Act 1989 in ensuring proper co-ordination. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

Similarly, there is a need to build on best practice. The document produced by the First Key national standards working group is a welcome step in the right direction. National standards would considerably strengthen the existing guidance to the Children Act 1989 by defining the sort of after-care services that local authorities should work towards. However, if new duties are to be imposed on local authorities, it is clearly important that appropriate resources are identified to ensure that change happens. In that regard, work by the social services inspectorate is to be welcomed, especially if it helps to identify the cost of a comprehensive leaving care policy.

Crucially, there should be improved monitoring of care leavers. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West mentioned the almost unspeakable murders committed by Fred and Rosemary West. They are a tragic reminder of the failings of the current system and the dangers faced by lonely and vulnerable young people. I have listened carefully to the organisations which were most closely involved in the West case about the lessons that they think can be learned from it. The Bridge child care consultancy, which was appointed by the Gloucestershire social services committee—I understand, with the Department of Health's recommendation—has called for national action in relation to children who run away from care or their families or who place themselves at risk. The ADSS is calling for a national register of young runaways, and the British Association of Social Workers is calling for a register of convicted abusers. I should be grateful to know the Minister's views on those proposals.

Will the Minister also tell us how the monitoring of young care leavers in general could be improved? Frankly, there are some problems with mandatory monitoring, but I think that it is possible to consider a number of important improvements that could be made.

First, we could ask local authorities to collect factual information when young people leave care, which would provide some basic data on their accommodation, educational attainment, employment and training prospects. It is important to monitor the first moves that young care leavers make when they leave their care placements. We could ask the social services inspectorate to monitor more of the long-term outcomes for care leavers, perhaps by studying a selected sample of experiences from individual local authorities. Will the Minister give us his views on those proposals?

The particular difficulties that young care leavers face call for a twin-track approach from the Government. One track would involve the pursuit of policies to improve young people's general opportunities and prospects. One policy would involve a jobs and skills training programme that would use the talents of the young and, incidentally, help to cut the benefits bill. Another policy would entail a housing investment programme that would use the locked-up capital receipts from council house sales to create badly needed and innovative social housing schemes. A rejuvenated economy would provide resources for essential social services.

The other track of the programme would involve more specific action to ease young people's transition from care to independence. It would necessitate co-operation rather than conflict between Government Departments; a resolution of the benefit anomalies that currently frustrate independent living; earlier and better preparation for leaving care; new standards of after-care services; improved monitoring of young people's progress when they leave care; and the involvement of young care leavers in the process of improving support in future.

Improved support is necessary and is long overdue. Young care leavers have to contend with a range of difficulties. Such young people lack the bedrock of a stable family background. In care, they often have to contend with a traumatised personal history and, not surprisingly, they often feel marginalised from society as a consequence. After leaving care, they all too often become unemployed and homeless. As we have heard this morning, many of those young people tragically turn to crime. Having rightly assumed responsibility for their care, society cannot simply wash its hands of them immediately they leave the protected environment of care: the costs, both to care leavers and to society, are too great for that.

There have been some excellent contributions to this debate and they have pinpointed some problems in the aftercare services. More positively, the contributions have clearly suggested how the problems can be resolved. I hope that the Minister will, in turn, respond positively to those suggestions.

12.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis)

This is the moment when I have to try to expose my flinty exterior for what it is. I welcome the introduction to the debate by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). I also welcome the contributions by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) and for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) and the brief but important contribution by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).

I have heard much during the debate that I welcome. The tone of it was right. We are here to seek to care for people who need our care in a particular and continuing way. If I have one quarrel with the subject of the debate chosen by the hon. Member for Newport, West it is over a matter for which he cannot be blamed: the fact that we talk about "leaving care." That is the wrong terminology. We should not talk about young people leaving care; we should talk about young people moving, over a period, from care to independence. The concept of leaving contains the notion of a cut-off, which the hon. Gentleman and I reject—I think that we all rejected it today. Our message is that there should not be a cut-off point, certainly not at the age of 16.

When he and I talk to young people who have left care recently, and who often contribute to our debates and conferences, we do well to listen to their message. They ask, "Who was getting to know me while I was in care? Who was preparing me for the moment when I would leave or move out of care? Who kept in touch with me once I had made that move?" That is the theme of today's debate and it is certainly the theme of my response to it.

We have to use the phrase "leaving care" as a convenient shorthand and I shall prove as guilty of doing so as anyone else, but it is only shorthand. The phrase is familiar to all those involved with the provision of services and opportunities for young people who are looked after by local authorities, many of whom, as we have heard, will have come from disadvantaged backgrounds—the hon. Member for Stockton, North listed some of the disadvantages. The shorthand phrase does not and cannot describe the wide variety of circumstances in which young people are looked after, nor the individual needs that they present as they move from care.

A number of hon. Members have acknowledged the Children Act, which I welcome. That Act probably gave the greatest ever impetus to the provision of leaving care services. We can argue whether the Act is perfect, whether it needs amendment or whether it could be better implemented, but it give local authorities a clear responsibility—particularly under section 24—to provide a range of services and assistance. It also gives local authorities the discretion to provide additional help for young people where appropriate.

Under that Act, the local authorities have the new statutory responsibility to prepare the young people they are looking after for the time when they leave care. They have the power to provide after-care support in certain defined circumstances until the young people reach the age of 21. They also have the power to provide financial assistance in appropriate circumstances.

The Act requires local authorities to advise, assist and befriend young people with a view to promoting their welfare when they cease to be looked after in the legal term. Local authorities also have the power to provide financial assistance connected with a young person's further education, employment and training—that assistance can extend beyond the age of 21 to enable the young person to complete a course. Comprehensive guidance for local authorities and voluntary organisations on all those matters was issued to accompany the legislation.

Section 24 is the key to the Act. The hon. Gentleman referred to the amendments that he would like to see implemented. I sought to intervene towards the end of his speech and I should be grateful if he would give some thought, not necessarily now, to the ways in which he would like the Act to be improved. I shall be happy to listen to his suggestions. The message that I heard today was that hon. Members want the Act to be better implemented, not necessarily changed. However, we can all consider that together.

I believe that the duty placed on local authorities to prepare children for the day that they leave care is of fundamental importance. Whenever I am asked to speak on the subject of so-called "leaving care", I make a great effort to emphasise the fact that the arrangements for leaving care are not matters that can be left until a few weeks before the young person leaves care.

The day that a young person arrives in care should ideally be the day when preparation for leaving care begins. In one sense, the best preparation is to ensure that the young person receives the highest quality of care and education while being looked after. Special attention may need to be paid to equipping him or her with the skills required for living on their own. That should be integral, not a stand-alone element in the programme of help. I want a seamless range of services—that has been mentioned—to be available for each young person. Leaving care arrangements must be evolutionary and must be put in place, quite often, over some years, but that can be achieved only if the young person receives good quality care. That is why we have taken several initiatives to make residential care a more positive experience for them.

Mr. Flynn

The main recommendations that we would make are to strengthen duties of local authorities in the Children Act 1989, to make them mandatory on local authorities, to ring-fence those funds for the financial provisions for care leavers and to raise them to an adequate level. I want measures of choice to prevent young people leaving care too young. They will have a great deal of say in that. Most important of all, there should be measures to iron out those disparities that exist between local authorities or care services. We want national co-ordination, to ensure that the level of care provided does not depend on the address of the person who applies for it.

Mr. Bowis

As I suspected, much of that is to do with implementation rather than changes in the law. I acknowledge that that is what the hon. Gentleman appeared to be saying in much of his speech.

The requirement in section 24(1) of the 1989 Act is mandatory, not voluntary. That section says:

it shall be the duty of the authority to advise, assist and befriend him"— the child being looked after by a local authority—

with a view to promoting his welfare when he ceases to be looked after by them. That requirement is certainly mandatory.

I believe that the hon. Member for Newport, West is asking for other things to be made mandatory, such as monitoring. As the hon. Member for Darlington said, that might not be as simple as he suggests. Nevertheless, I will listen if the hon. Member for Newport, West suggests possible improvements. However, if—although I should be surprised if they are—local authorities are telling me that they will do what they are required to do in law only if we make those things mandatory or if we require them to do what is best practice, I shall listen to them. Similarly, if local authorities want us to top-slice the money that otherwise would be given to them to be used at their discretion—to ring-fence a budget for those aspects—we shall listen, but they have not so far asked us to do that.

Mr. Flynn

It would be impossible to iron out those difficulties in the final eight minutes. Will the Minister agree to meet a delegation consisting of myself, some other hon. Members, representatives of some of the organisations and some care leavers, so that we may explain and discuss the fine details of what we propose?

Mr. Bowis

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and people involved in that sector. I meet them and have met them. I have attended conferences and seminars with them and sat down and chatted to them. I am happy to take that a stage further, if the hon. Gentleman wants to do so.

Some interesting and justified arguments were made about the reputation of residential child care. It is important that we do not allow its name to be muddied by highlighting examples of things going wrong. Too often, perhaps, it has been regarded as an option of last resort, and if people regard it in that way it can become self-fulfilling. I am keen that we improve the standing, status and quality of residential child care. That is why our residential child care support force has travelled throughout the country, under the leadership of Adrianne Jones. It has worked with about 76 agencies in the public, private and voluntary sectors to try to improve the quality of residential child care.

There is evidence from that exercise that authorities are making solid progress in implementing many of the good practice recommendations from the Warner and other reports. In relation to foster care and residential care, we have promoted our looking after children project, which is being implemented in 39 local authorities and has attracted widespread, indeed international, interest. That provides a complete system of planning and decision making, reviewing and monitoring the care of children away from home with the aim of improving day-to-day standards and thereby offering a better chance to a child to fulfil his or her potential in life.

In spite of those improvements, it is true that substitute care can never entirely replace the benefits of a child being brought up in his or her own family. Many of the children in care enter care at a very early age and already have a disturbed and disadvantaged history. Many will experience multiple placements, including perhaps a mixture of foster and residential care. Some, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North said, may have suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse or neglect, or a mixture of those.

Such young people have different backgrounds and have few of the opportunities that may be afforded to young people brought up in what may be termed a "normal" family environment in which, even after children leave home, they continue to look to their family for support, help and advice. That is why I urge local authorities—and I shall go on doing so—to ensure that there is a continuity of relationship between the young person and key individuals to provide that essential continuum in managing the transition between being in care and adulthood.

Above all, those young people need adults to stand by them; to be committed in the way that we expect parents to champion their own children. "Key workers", social workers or volunteers may play that role, which we consider to be so important for individual young people.

When I visit local authorities and speak to staff, I ask them to consider what they would expect for their own children. It is a simple, effective question, and I have witnessed some immensely positive outcomes from it. Not so long ago, I visited a London borough that had a policy of positively encouraging young people to return to their children's home for advice and support or to stay for a short time, remembering birthdays and so on. It is all part of that continuum of care, which is a very important message that we bring.

Listening to young people is crucial. The conferences in Bolton and London that the hon. Member for Wakefield mentioned, which attracted 1,000 people from social services and elsewhere, were especially valuable, because, not only were we launching the training pack and the Leeds research, but they showed how important it is to listen to young people and hear their perspective.

Young people contributed to those conferences, and we intend to go on listening to them, not least by including them, as we are doing, in some other social services inspectorate work. They form part of the inspection teams that we send out, and that is part of the monitoring, which I hope is acknowledged and recognised by hon. Members. I know that First Key and other organisations such as the Who Cares Trust and the Save the Children Fund place great store by direct consultation with young people. I know, from meeting First Key, of young people who are members of consultancy teams brought in by local authorities to help them plan their services.

In all those aspects, we need to, and we shall, liaise closely with local authorities and other statutory agencies to effect the changes that are seen to be necessary. Many authorities have developed imaginative, effective schemes for supporting care leavers. That is why I have confidence that we can do better nationally.

However, we need to recognise that provision varies throughout the country. We need to reduce that variation by monitoring and development, and our social services inspectorate is currently preparing a set of standards, which has been asked for, for local policy and good practice, as a basis for its inspection of local authority leaving care services next year. That will be published as part of the report of the inspection and will provide a benchmark against which all local authorities will be able to measure their existing policy and practice.

In addition, we issue guidance for our children's services plans. That will give us another opportunity to enable local authorities to develop their services in that sector, and I take the point that, just as Government Departments must talk together, so local authority departments must talk together and work with education and other agencies. Education should be part of young people's experience in care. There are many other points that one could make. We have had an interesting range of contributions.

I welcome the debate and I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating it. We are agreed that we need to do more to support young people as they move from care to independence. We need to support them not as an intrusive and unnecessary exercise, but in the way they tell us they want. If we listen, we find they want what we as parents would want for our own children. If we keep asking whether the provision is good enough for our own children, we will begin to find the right answer for children leaving care or, as I prefer to put it, moving from care to independence. That will be good for society as a whole.