HC Deb 21 June 2000 vol 352 cc357-420

Order for Second Reading read.

4.31 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Three years ago, the Government published Sir William Utting's review of the safeguards for children living away from home, which revealed a dismal catalogue of failure. Many children who had been taken into care to offer them help and protection had been neither protected nor helped. Some had actually suffered harm at the hands of those supposed to help them. Others had just been badly let down. They had been moved from placement to placement, from school to school, and were then turned out to fend for themselves when they reached 16. We know that three quarters of looked-after children leave care with no qualifications of any kind. Many experience unemployment and homelessness.

These grim facts point to a failure of the whole system, for which we must all accept responsibility. However, the Government have a special responsibility to provide leadership, proper resources and clear direction in children's social services. We are now doing those three things.

Perhaps more importantly, we need radically to change the system so that we begin to develop the same ambition and aspiration for children being looked after that we all naturally want for our own children. Such cultural changes within any service will take time—everyone accepts that—but with this Bill, and with the new resources coming on line in quality protects, we have a golden opportunity to make this step change, which is so badly needed.

This will mean a major programme of change—a modernised service offering a clear framework for delivering the care, security, support and opportunities that children need. Whatever difficult and traumatic experiences they had before being taken into care, children who are looked after by local authorities are entitled to the same opportunities as all children. They are entitled to a good education, to the health care and other specialist services they need, and to consistent support, advice and practical help to guide them into adult life. This has not always been the case, but it must be so in the future.

Today we are concerned with young people in care. The risks that they face include unwanted parenthood, failure at school, failure to gain employable skills, and failure to find a job or somewhere to live. The Bill addresses all these issues, and forms part of a concerted effort to improve the life chances of looked-after children.

Quality protects is a key part of this effort to tackle the social exclusion of young people. Eighteen months ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) launched the quality protects programme to modernise children's services and tackle the failure of the local authority care service with a £375 million investment in children's social services.

When my right hon. Friend launched the programme, he asked us to keep two questions in mind. Would this have been good enough for me when I was a child, and would this be good enough for my children? That is the approach that we have followed in developing quality protects. We need to understand that these children are not just someone else's problem—they are the children of our country, the children of us all. That approach also underpins the Bill.

The programme of reform that we have launched since 1997 is a major challenge to local authorities, the health service and the voluntary sector. It sets a series of new objectives for children's services, aimed at raising standards through the whole cycle of the "looked-after" regime. It includes ensuring that looked-after children gain maximum life chances from educational opportunities, health care and, of course, social care.

It will help to ensure that, by the time young people come to leave care, they already enjoy good prospects for their adult life. Through all of that, we want to ensure that young people leaving care are not isolated as they enter adulthood, and that they participate socially and economically as full citizens of our country.

Those are tough objectives, but we believe that they are achievable. Indeed they must be achieved if we are not to fail children in care once again.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

Recently, I held a conversation with a young person who spent a considerable amount of time in care as a child, and who expressed grave scepticism about the ability of local authorities to deliver on that ambitious and far-reaching programme. Can my hon. Friend reassure me on the Government's commitment to ensuring that local authorities do just that?

Mr. Hutton

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend. Furthermore, I pay tribute to the work that he has done as a Member in drawing attention to those matters. We have taken on board the issue of monitoring the performance of local authorities; we have a new system of performance assessment for them. We also have new powers, under the Local Government Act 1999, to intervene—if necessary—when a social services department is failing.

The early signs of progress under quality protects are most encouraging. There is much more to do, as I am sure my hon. Friend and the whole House would accept. It is certainly true that no local authority will be able to opt out of the programme of change that we have developed. The challenge is being embraced with some enthusiasm by local government.

My hon. Friend and I and many others in this place have been concerned for some time about the support that care leavers receive from local authorities. There has been an increasing trend to discharge young people from care early. Every year, about 5,000 young people aged 16 and 17 leave care. The proportion of care leavers aged between 16 and 18 who left care at the age of 16 increased from 33 per cent. in 1993 to 46 per cent. in 1998. That is completely unacceptable. It is part of the disturbing pattern of too many children and young people leaving care without a single qualification and of too many being unemployed and homeless.

We are determined to reverse that trend. The Government believe that care leavers should be able to expect support from their parent—the local authority. I am pleased to see that services for care leavers are beginning to improve. The Bill will ensure that they improve for all eligible care leavers, right across the country.

In July last year, we published a consultation document entitled "Me, Survive Out There?", setting out all those issues and our proposals for dealing with them. We had a very good response. More than 160 organisations, authorities and individuals replied; more than 83 per cent. of the responses supported our proposals. We are most grateful to all those who replied. The Bill is the result of that consultation exercise.

We believe that local authorities' responsibilities towards young people in and leaving care should correspond more closely to those of responsible parents. That means providing support and assistance for children beyond the age of 16. That is why clauses 1 and 2 place new responsibilities on local authorities to assess and meet the care and support needs of children aged 16 and 17 who are in their care, or who have left care. Such support includes providing accommodation and maintenance as necessary for the child's welfare.

In future, the local authority that last looked after a child who has left care will be responsible for continuing support wherever that young person is living. That will clear up the unacceptable confusion about responsibility that often occurs at present.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Minister will recall that we recently corresponded about the care case of a child who is being looked after by grandparents. Often, grandparents step in to provide a stable background when parents are unable or unfit to look after their children. However, a problem arises if the grandparents want to adopt the child, to give it an even more stable background, because the local authority relinquishes any system of support for the child. Does the Bill contain any provisions that would overcome that problem?

Mr. Hutton

I am familiar with the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman through our correspondence. However, the measure is about children who are being looked after by local authorities. I am not entirely sure whether the case he described would fall within it. He asked about post-adoption support arrangements. The Bill contains no provision for such matters. The arrangements that we are discussing are for looked-after children—the children who remain within the parental responsibility of a local authority. The wider issue of the arrangements for adoption and any reform of those arrangements are with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He is considering the report that he received last month, and announcements will be made in the usual course of events to deal with that issue.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the regulations that flow from clause 2 be subject to the negative procedure, which does not allow for debate, or to the affirmative procedure, which does?

Mr. Hutton

The regulations under clause 2 will be subject to the negative procedure. However, the arrangements in relation to clause 6 that affect benefit entitlement will be subject to the affirmative procedure. The hon. Gentleman huffs and puffs about the negative versus the affirmative procedure, but he often huffs and puffs. However, he should not be surprised by the regulatory arrangements that will be made under the Bill, because it uses the normal procedures. When the Bill affects a person's benefit entitlement, that will be a perfectly appropriate issue to come before the House under the affirmative resolution procedure.

It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the House will not have the opportunity to consider the proposals in the normal course of events; of course it will. I shall be very interested to learn whether he wishes to take part in debate in the Standing Committee about the regulations. We should look forward to his contribution, but I would be surprised to see him there. However, stranger things have happened.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

In answer to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), the Minister said that he thought he had sufficient powers to cope. However, in this mobile age, is he aware that social workers face increasing difficulties in keeping in touch with families and children? Do we have enough social workers to do that job?

Mr. Hutton

Social workers do an important job and it is the responsibility of Government to make sure that they have the right resources and can attend the right courses so that they obtain the educational and professional qualifications that will enable them to develop their skills as their careers progress. We are doing that. The Bill is specifically about looked-after children, and its arrangements will significantly improve the ability of local authorities to keep in contact with children who leave care. That is one of the most fundamental aspects of our proposals. We all accept that social work is not easy. Social workers do difficult jobs, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. We want to ensure that they have the support that they need.

Clauses 1 and 2 will place new responsibilities on local authorities. In future, the local authority that last looked after a child who has left care will be responsible for continuing support. Responsible local authorities will have a duty to keep in touch with the young people wherever they move to, an issue to which the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) alluded. That duty will apply beyond the age of 18, and at least until the age of 21. No longer will local authorities be able to forget their responsibilities to the young people who leave their care.

It is important that young people are helped to prepare and plan for their future to enable them to achieve their aspirations. That is why from their 16th birthday—or as soon as they become eligible under the new arrangements—young people in and leaving care will have a pathway plan. The plan will map out a clear pathway to independence and will cover education, training, career plans and the support to be provided by the local authority.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

My hon. Friend said that the Government should, as far as possible, reflect for children in care what parents want to do for their own children. Does he agree that we should be trying to reduce the number of age limits in the Bill, because parents try to maintain their help and support for their children no matter what their age? Will he keep that aspect of the Bill under review?

Mr. Hutton

That is an intriguing question, but I am not sure how a Bill such as this could be constructed without any reference to age limits. That would be a difficult job.

We are trying to align more closely the responsibilities of good local authorities with the behaviour of responsible parents. There are key milestones in the life of a young person, and reaching the age of 18 is one of them because it is the age of majority. The Bill will allow a local authority to continue to support a young person beyond the age of 18. We are therefore giving local authorities important new responsibilities, which meet what my hon. Friend and I both accept is a need to ensure that these young people get the support that they require.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) wish to intervene?

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

I was hovering; I thank my hon. Friend for anticipating my wish to intervene.

I welcome and applaud the Government's excellent and long-overdue initiative on pathways, and thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for getting it going. Professionals in the front line in my Stourbridge constituency welcome the initiative, but have doubts about its resourcing. Machinery and pathways will be put in place and people will act as parents. However, parents not only give their children support and caring, but put a lot of money into their upbringing. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Mr. Hutton

My hon. Friend said that I anticipated her intervention; she has anticipated a matter that I wish to discuss in due course. Of course we will not ask local authorities to discharge new responsibilities if they are not properly resourced. We are not unreasonable. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that some decisions about resources connected with the Bill must wait for the spending review that will be announced later this summer. However, we will implement the Bill sensibly, if that is what my hon. Friend is concerned about. We certainly will not put local authorities in a position in which they have to discharge extensive new responsibilities without being provided with resources.

I was trying to set out some of the aspects to be covered by the pathway plan. We want young people themselves to be directly involved in drawing up their plan, along with other interested parties. The plan will be reviewed regularly to develop alongside the young person's changing circumstances and ambitions. The plan will continue in effect and be regularly reviewed until the young person reaches the age of at least 21; it will continue beyond that when the young person is in education or training.

We also intend to introduce a parallel duty to provide these young people with young persons' advisers. Many young people are unaware of the services available to them or how to access them. It is essential that, under the new arrangements, young people receive the support and assistance they need in a co-ordinated and accessible way. The young person's adviser will provide a single point of contact for the young person and will be easily contactable in times of crisis or whenever advice is needed. He will be able to put the young person in contact with other specialists, such as careers advisers. The adviser will be responsible for overseeing the pathway plan and ensuring that the young person receives the advice and support to which he is entitled. The adviser will be expected to fulfil the local authority's duty to keep in touch with young people who have left care.

The Bill also deals with support for young people aged 18 and over.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of the young person's adviser, will he say something further about who that designated person might be? For example, does he envisage that the adviser will always be a local authority social worker, or will other people employed by the local authority or voluntary agencies be able to take on that role? As he will be aware, young people leaving care often have a lack of trust in the social work system.

Mr. Hutton

My hon. Friend is right. As she intimated, there is no reason to restrict who can act as a young person's adviser, and we do not intend to do so. There is no reason why the young person's adviser has to be a local authority social worker, and that will not always be the case. We intend to develop that in regulation-making powers under the Bill, which relates to a matter to which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) alluded. There will be an opportunity for hon. Members and those outside to be consulted on that.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

The Minister mentioned possible regulations on young persons' advisers. Will he confirm that those regulations will specify the need for the adviser to be culturally and linguistically appropriate to the young person? In Wales, for example, Welsh-speaking advisers would be needed to advise Welsh-speaking young people. Certain areas of England would need minority language and ethnic minority language-speaking advisers to be available for young people. That is an important aspect of such advice services.

Mr. Hutton

I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman's concern in relation to Wales. Regulations made under this part of the Bill will be the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales, not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am sure that the National Assembly will want to ensure that any such regulations cover the points to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

I have forgotten what point I had reached in my speech, but I do not suppose it makes a great deal of difference, so I shall continue.

We believe that young people continue to need help and support even after they leave care and legally become adults at 18. However, they must be supported as adults, in the adult world. The Bill provides that the responsible authority must continue to keep in touch with such a young person until he is at least 21, and must continue to provide him with a young person's adviser and a pathway plan.

The Bill also introduces a new set of duties to assist those young people. The responsible authority has a duty to provide general assistance, in cash or in kind, and assistance with the costs associated with employment, education and training until the young person reaches 21, so long as his welfare requires it. If he is in education or training, the responsible authority must assist, if necessary, until the end of the agreed programme of education or training, even if that takes the young person past the age of 21. If the young person is in higher education, the responsible authority must provide vacation accommodation, or the means to secure it, if necessary.

Since the pathway plan will continue to be revised and updated at least every six months to take account of the young person's changing needs and achievements, it is possible to envisage a case where someone coming late to education started his GCSEs at, say, 20, did well and was supported by the local authority through A-levels, a degree and even beyond.

It is important to be clear about what those new duties mean. This is not the same duty to accommodate and maintain which applies to the younger group of 16 and 17-year-old eligible and relevant children. There will be no changes to the benefits regime for those of 18 and over, and they will be expected to find the bulk of their funding through the same routes as anyone else. The new duties are, however, a significant advance on the present position, whereby those young people are able to fall back only on local authority powers, not duties, to assist them—powers that we know are not used as extensively or as consistently as we would like.

Mr. Dawson

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new duties on local authorities will ensure that those young people for whom it is appropriate will be able to remain in foster care and residential care beyond the age of 18?

Mr. Hutton

Yes, I have no difficulty in giving my hon. Friend that assurance.

The Bill also extends authorities' powers to assist care leavers with education and training, which are both important. Currently, they can do so up to the age of 24 only if the young person starts the course before the age of 21. Clause 4 will get rid of that restriction, allowing local authorities to provide assistance whenever the young person starts the course. That provides a further safety net for young people aged 21 to 24 who fail to take up education options while the authority still has a duty to assist them. As I said, clause 4 also places a new duty on local authorities to assist such care leavers in higher education with vacation accommodation where it is needed.

All those new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will be underpinned by a new financial regime, the foundations of which will be laid by clause 6. We believe that one reason for the trend of children leaving care at 16 is the perverse financial incentive for local authorities to push them on to benefits and so on to the benefits budget. The new financial arrangements will remove that incentive and recognise that young people in and leaving care need proper support and guidance, and not just cash.

The funds from income support, housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance—to which those young people are entitled—will, therefore, be transferred to a new budget, to be allocated to local authorities to support those young people properly. The budget will be based on local authorities' existing spend on that group, drawing in additional resources from the children's social services special grant and making extra money available to ensure that local authorities are able to fulfil their new duties to this vulnerable group.

We want local authorities to act more like responsible parents towards the children in and leaving their care. We recognise that, at present, certain 16 and 17-year-olds, such as disabled children and lone parents, are eligible for income support even if they live at home with their parents, which acknowledges that they have special needs. The new financial arrangements will continue to recognise that those groups have special needs.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Many young people in Wales, particularly those from the Voices from Care group whom I have met, have expressed great concern about their transfer to the local authority from the benefits system. They are concerned that they might not have access to some of the services that they can use at present, such as crisis loans, and that the regulations that guide the benefits system will not apply. Can my hon. Friend reassure me on those points?

Mr. Hutton

I am very anxious to reassure my hon. Friend on those points. Young children leaving care will not be worse off under the proposed arrangements. There is every possibility that they will be better supported by local authorities. That aspect of our proposals drew strong support from children's organisations in the consultation exercise undertaken on "Me, Survive Out There?". They could see the benefit of it.

We are trying to make it easier for children to get the support that they need. The benefits system is a complex one through which to navigate a path and many young children leaving care do not get the support that they need from that system. We shall not reduce the amount of support for young children leaving care—far from it. We are looking at ways to increase the support that young people can enjoy in future.

The new financial arrangements will continue to recognise that those groups have special needs. Clause 6 contains provisions that will allow the Secretary of State to except certain groups from the new financial arrangements, and we intend to use that power to ensure that disabled children and lone parents keep their present entitlements to income support.

In combination with other related initiatives to help that age group, the Bill should mean that fewer young people will be discharged from care as soon as they reach their 16th birthday; more young people will stay in contact with the responsible authority and receive support for as long as they need it; more young people will live in suitable accommodation and maintain a stable tenancy; more young people will be in education, training and employment; and fewer young people will become socially excluded—that means fewer will be sleeping rough, in prison, dependent on benefits and living in poor and unsuitable conditions.

Young people of 16 and 17 will no longer be forced to rely on the benefits system for their support. The local authority will be under a duty to provide for them, whether they stay in care or not. To ensure that no one loses out, we shall set minimum standards for support in statutory guidance. I hope that that will reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan).

The new duties to assist care leavers until they are at least 21 are especially important for education and training. Young people coming through the care system are likely to have lost ground relative to their peers. We shall give them the chance to catch up and gain the qualifications that are so important to making a career in the modern world.

The Bill and the other initiatives that we are taking forward, including our strategies to tackle social exclusion, should ensure that young people in and leaving care get a fair deal at long last. For too long many young people have fallen into the trap of poverty, joblessness and homelessness after leaving care, because no one gave them the help they needed. The Bill will provide that helping hand and give care leavers a better opportunity to realise their true potential.

In legislating in this way, and by means of the other steps that we are taking, the Government are making two very clear statements. First, we will act to correct injustice and poor provision wherever we find it. We will put the interests of those young people who have been badly let down by the system first and foremost, and we will make the necessary investment now to secure their futures.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I am glad that my hon. Friend is determined to take action, under the Bill and other measures, where standards fall below what is expected. Will the Government be assisted by the children's rights director or a children's rights commissioner in ensuring that they live up to their word on that?

Mr. Hutton

Yes, certainly the children's rights director will have a specific remit on the regulated services for which the National Care Standards Commission has responsibility, including children's homes and local authority adoption and fostering services. The children's rights director will have an important contribution to make in ratcheting up the standard of services.

Mr. Kidney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so patient with me. Clearly, the children's rights director will be involved in children's homes under the new National Care Standards Commission, but what about all the other looked-after children who are not in children's homes? Will a director or a commissioner assist my hon. Friend in ensuring that the new entitlements are secured for those children?

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I said in response to his first intervention that the children's rights director clearly has a responsibility, especially in adoption and fostering services. I am sure that he will find—he knows about the subject—that many looked-after children are in foster placements, so the role of the children's rights director goes beyond regulated children's homes.

The Government's objective is to ensure that no looked-after child will go without help, that every child is included, that every child will have the chance to make the best of his or her life and that we will never allow another generation of looked-after children to be discarded in the way others have been.

The second clear statement that we are making is that we want to pursue those radical changes in partnership with all those who share our view that it is right and proper to put the needs of those who have been marginalised for too long centre stage in the programme of change.

The future holds out the prospect of further progress and opportunity in all those areas. Of course we have not yet done everything that needs to be done—a lot more needs to be done—but we have started a process that I believe can make a difference to the lives of some of the most damaged children and young people in our society. I am sure that the whole House wants to see that happen. I commend the Bill to the House.

5 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

I start by confirming for the record that there is a substantial degree of cross-party consensus in the House on the Bill, although it is perhaps not so clear that there is such a consensus in the Scottish Parliament. That is important in the context of the way that the Bill works, and I shall return to that point.

The Bill builds on the Children Act 1989, both in terms of the principles behind it and its very architecture. It responds directly to the recommendations and findings of Sir William Utting's review of safeguards for children living away from home, following the inquiry established by the previous Government. As the Minister explained, the Bill in its original form, as introduced in the House of Lords, sought to address the needs primarily of 16 and 17-year-olds either in or leaving care—that is, the needs of children. He described the perverse incentive in the present system for local authorities to shuffle children off their budgets and on to the social security budget, and the discontinuity in responsibility for the care of those who move away from their home local authority areas.

The Bill removes that perverse incentive, provides a series of duties to support 16 and 17-year-olds who are or have been in care and places the responsibility squarely on the local authority that last looked after those children. The Bill's objective, as the Minister described it, is to increase the number of 16 and 17-year-olds staying in care and to extend support to those who leave it. No one can argue with that objective. We have a moral responsibility to ensure equality of opportunity for children who grow up in care. We also have a pragmatic responsibility to address the issues that the Bill seeks to address: as the Minister also said, too many of those children and young people end up homeless or in trouble with the law, with their futures blighted by that poor start for the rest of their lives.

However, the Bill now goes further. As amended in the House of Lords, it extends the obligations of local authorities and, through that, extends the rights of adults who were formerly cared-for children, in some cases up to the age of 24. I shall say more about the implications of that later.

I say now, quite clearly and for the record, that this is a good Bill. It provides an extension of support for some of the most vulnerable children and extends that support to adulthood in ways that represent a sensible and largely cost-effective investment in young people leaving care, to try to secure their futures in the world beyond care. However, that does not mean that the Bill is perfect.

The Minister has spent the past 20 minutes or so detailing the purposes of the Bill and the positive benefits that it will bring. I found myself nodding for a great deal of that time. I shall not bore the House by repeating the arguments in favour of the Bill, but I shall outline the areas that we believe need further improvement—perhaps strengthening—or on which we need further assurances from the Government. Some areas are significant; others are more minor.

I hope that the Minister will take my remarks in the spirit in which I make them. They are intended to be a positive contribution to a constructive debate and are designed to make the Bill workable and robust. I can assure him that we shall engage constructively in Committee, with the aim of ensuring that the Bill that is reported back to the House will achieve the objectives that Members on both sides of the House share.

When the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), announced the measure in November 1998, he said that the principal objective was to ensure that local authorities' responsibilities for children up to the age of 18 and beyond corresponded more closely to those of a good parent. I confirmed then the Opposition's support for that concept and for the Government in the process of implementing the recommendations of the Utting report. I also confirmed our continued support for the Government in their efforts to ensure the safety of children living away from home and, for that reason, we supported the quality protects programme. I am happy to confirm again today our support for the broad thrust of the Government's programme for continuous improvement of children's services, so that we can work together to make steady advances. Within that broad support, however, we must reserve the right to probe the details where necessary.

I come now to some of the concerns that we have about the Bill. During its passage in the other place, important issues were raised about local authority obligations to those who are over 18—which is to say, adults—who have been in care but have now matured to adulthood. As the Minister recounted, local authorities have historically had powers in relation to people who were formerly in care, and the Bill as originally drafted would have strengthened those powers. However, on the basis of persuasive arguments advanced by my noble Friends and others in the other place, the Government agreed to amend the Bill to create obligations—as opposed to powers—for local authorities in respect of people between the ages of 18 and 21, and in some cases up to the age of 24 when those people are care leavers. By extension, those obligations create corresponding rights for those people.

As the Bill stands, local authorities have a duty to keep in touch with adult care leavers, wherever they are, and to re-establish contact with them if contact is lost, for whatever reason. The local authority will also have an obligation to appoint a young person's adviser and to maintain and review a pathway plan for all such people who were last cared for by that authority. I fully accept that for many young people that will be a welcome safety net, providing the reassurance that the family and the family home provides for millions of other, more fortunate, young people. It will be somewhere to turn to when things go wrong in their lives. It is also a significant step towards the Bill's goal of creating circumstances for care leavers that resemble, as closely as possible, those enjoyed by other young people. That is an entirely laudable objective.

However, we must remember that we are dealing with adults, and the obligation on the statutory services to maintain contact and to re-establish contact with those adults is—potentially—highly intrusive. Essentially, the local authority will be required to track the whereabouts of an adult care leaver, to monitor his life style, and to report and record what he is doing. At its most extreme, tracking people down and maintaining a pathway plan for them, once they are adults, could be sufficiently intrusive to risk falling foul of article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

Mr. Dawson

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hammond

I see that the hon. Gentleman disagrees, but that is not intended to be a criticism of the fundamentals of the Bill. I remind him of the history. The Bill was originally drafted to deal with 16 and 17-year-olds and its scope has been extended, rightly, during its passage through the other place. However, that has introduced a complication, because what is acceptable in relation to a child, from an authority exercising a parental role, could—I emphasise that word—become oppressive in relation to an adult. Apart from the criminal justice system and the Mental Health Act 1983, I cannot think of any other significant areas that allow the statutory authorities to intervene in that way in the life of a competent adult. I stress again that the majority of care leavers will welcome the provisions as a safety net, but the duty to re-establish contact may be a step too far in some cases. The message to young people who have left care and moved on into adulthood must be that help and support is available if it is wanted, perhaps at the end of a telephone line. I am afraid that assertive outreach, if that is what is required in seeking to discharge the duty to re-establish contact, might be misguided, morally indefensible and potentially highly counter-productive for such care leavers.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points; I have listened carefully to him. He used the term "competent adult". We will need to explore in Committee the issue that he is rightly raising. One concern that I have, not about the Bill but about the entire principle of how we follow through with young people leaving the care system, is that a number of young people—I know many from my work background—will never be able to cope without some assistance. The cut-off point is 24 years old—perhaps we need to make it 64; I do not know. The hon. Gentleman has touched on some important points, but the issue of competence must be explored in detail in Committee.

Mr. Hammond

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I look forward to exploring that issue with him in Committee. I do not claim to be an expert on all aspects of the subject, but I have racked my brains and cannot think of other examples of mentally competent adults, who have committed no offence, who have not fallen foul of the criminal justice system, being subject to such monitoring by statutory authorities.

The hon. Gentleman's point is that there will be some for whom the duty to re-establish contact will be clearly wrong and intrusive, and others for whom we will all feel that it is right. I suspect that the difficulty—we shall explore this in Committee—is definition. Unless there is some statutory procedure to define incompetence, which would render someone subject to continuous monitoring by the statutory authorities, the matter might be difficult to deal with.

Ms Shipley

The hon. Gentleman used the term "assertive outreach" and queried it. Would not a decent parent take exactly such a positive, assertive approach? A 22 or 23-year-old might well think that he is an adult and out on his own, but would not a parent say, "I want to help my child"? Surely that is what my hon. Friend the Minister is attempting to enact.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. My own children are too young for me to claim any direct experience of the best way in which to deal with teenagers, but I was talking to a parent of late teenage children just last night who said that, if the child is determined to go their own way, the sensible parent very often stands back and waits for the call for help. I accept that that will not always be so, but we must recognise the significant difference between a regime that we can legitimately implement to look after children and one that seeks to track and monitor adults. I merely flag up the issue; it is not fundamentally fatal to the principles behind the Bill, but we will want to consider it in Committee.

I hope that the Minister agrees that, although a care leaver who is an adult should have access to such additional support, he must be respected as an adult and not stigmatised as merely an overgrown child. If the care leaver makes it clear that he does not want to be traced, contacted or planned for by somebody in a distant office, his wishes must be respected.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that, in fairness to the staff who might be involved, the House would need to acknowledge that the social worker and managers concerned would not be belaboured by officialdom or the newspapers if one such young person decided that they wanted to be excluded from the system and turned into a rent boy a year later?

Mr. Hammond

The right hon. Gentleman of course makes a good point. We will explore that in Committee. The idea that I had in the back of my mind was some exit procedure from the powers and responsibilities—but it should never be a permanent exit. I am sure that we would all want to assert that someone at the age of 19 who felt that he wanted to be left alone, that he was an adult and wanted to do his own thing—perhaps to go abroad—must always have the option of picking up the telephone, dialling the number and knowing that help was there when it was wanted. That is the way in which a responsible parent would respond.

The problem with the Bill as drafted is that it places a requirement on local authorities to use reasonable endeavours to re-establish contact with an adult care leaver. I understand that, under the quality protects programme, guidance to local authorities is that such contact should be made at least four times a year, at three-month intervals. I can envisage circumstances in which to be contacted every three months would be regarded as unnecessary and intrusive, for example, by an adult who had moved on from care, succeeded in putting that stage of his life behind him and was moving ahead in the world. I hope that the Committee will be able to explore that issue.

Mr. Dawson

I accept the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but does he accept that he is in danger of creating a loophole that would enable the sort of local authority that, scandalously, encourages young people to leave care at 16, to renege on the responsibilities that the Government are trying to impose?

Mr. Hammond

Obviously, one does not want to create loopholes for irresponsible local authorities. A balance has to be struck, but I hold dear the rights and liberties of individual competent adults in our society, so I urge the House to think carefully about how we deal with people who, legally, are adults.

The second issue we must address is the balance between rights and responsibilities. By creating new and significant obligations for local authorities, we, by definition, create new rights for 16 and 17-year-olds who are in care or who are care leavers, and for young people aged 18 and over who have been in care. The hope is that many more will take advantage of the opportunity offered by that additional support to pursue further and higher education or training. Those who cannot or who choose not to do so will be supported and helped to find work. The object is to simulate as nearly as possible the support that a child could reasonably expect from his own family at that stage of his life.

Families are all different, but many—perhaps most, and certainly mine in my younger days—expect children and young people to acknowledge certain obligations in exchange for the support and maintenance they receive. Few of us will not remember being told at some point, "If you're not going to buck up your ideas, don't think you're going to lounge about for ever under my roof'. So should it be for the children and young people covered by the Bill.

During the Bill's passage, I intend to seek assurances that it will be made clear—perhaps through regulations or directions issued by Ministers—that local authorities' support, for example, for continuing education must be matched by a commitment to learning by the child or young person, much as an averagely demanding parent would expect from his child. We should not expect local authorities, any more than parents, to continue to support a child in education if that support is abused—for example, by persistent truancy or disruptive behaviour in school or college.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

We were all young once. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all young people make mistakes and that it important to allow care leavers to make those mistakes and have another go? We should not tell a young person, "You've got one chance and if you don't co-operate, you've blown it." It is important that we give young people leaving care many different options and allow them to learn by their mistakes, like most young people do.

Mr. Hammond

I agree—no one would be minded to say, "One strike and you're out." However, let me develop my argument further, as it might answer the hon. Gentleman's points.

We must repeatedly ask ourselves what a child who was living with his family would reasonably expect from a parent in similar circumstances, and what the parent would reasonably expect of the child. In the case of a child covered by the Bill, the answer would seem to be compliance with the agreed pathway plan.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise a certain contradiction in his speech? He is saying that local authorities ought to have the same obligation as good parents. He was objecting to authorities having the power to monitor children and young adults, but now he is suggesting that authorities should have the power to compel. Care should not be conditional; it should be available.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman has missed the essence of the point. The scope of the Bill was extended in the House of Lords, so we are dealing with two distinct groups: children under the age of 18, who are the legal responsibility of the local authority, which is their corporate parent, and adults over the age of 18, who may need support and assistance but who are legally adults, competent in their own right and entitled to be treated with the respect that that brings.

I am concerned that it is not clear from the Bill what remedies or sanctions will be available to a local authority, for example, to deal with a 16 or 17-year-old who persistently truants from school or college—who simply refuses to get on with learning—has his pathway plan changed so that he can go into training, refuses or fails to attend, has the plan changed again to say that he will be supported to find work, and fails to make appropriate efforts to do that. I hope that only a tiny minority would do so, but the local authority must have some sanction. No benefits will be payable under the system, so there is no question of those being withdrawn.

My understanding of the Bill is that the obligation on the local authority to maintain and support children in that age group is not subject to exclusions. I fear that that may send the wrong message to the minority of young people who do not want to play the game: the message that 16 or 17-year-olds who are minded to do so can reject education, training and work while the local authority retains the obligation to support them. If that is the case, it does not pass my test of what the reasonable parent would require of a child.

Ms Shipley

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman for the first time during the debate. It cannot be right to talk of sanctions and of withdrawing whatever from vulnerable young people. They have not had the best start in life and they have not had parental or family support. My hon. Friend the Minister wants to put in place a caring system, which will not give up on the young adult because he or she does not do as we would want. We are saying, "No, we'll keep in there with you. We will keep on and on and we will be there for you." As the hon. Gentleman said, he is probably talking about a very small number of young people. We can afford to support them over and over again. They are vulnerable and they have had a bad start in life.

Mr. Hammond

I hope that the hon. Lady is right and that it will only be a tiny minority, but I look forward to engaging in that debate with her if she is fortunate enough to be a member of the Standing Committee.

We will also want to seek the views of the people who will have to make the system work. There seems to be a parallel with the problems in schools. Everyone understands the desire not to exclude pupils and to try to include them for as long as possible, but doing so has consequences that have to be considered. I am thinking of the practical effect for those who are trying to make the system work.

Mr. Simon Thomas

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hammond

One last time, and then I must make progress.

Mr. Thomas

Will the hon. Gentleman take it from me that he is missing the trick? The pathway plan, which is agreed with the young person and his or her adviser, who is there to offer support, will introduce greater compulsion than exists at present. The Bill provides for more help, support and direction than is now on offer.

Mr. Hammond

The problem with the hon. Gentleman's analysis is that it is not clear to me—perhaps the Minister will make it clear when she winds up—what the sanction is, and how the system will deal with the child who persistently fails to stick to the agreed course of action in the pathway plan. That is the problem that I am identifying. I see it as a practical problem for the people who will have to make the system work. I hope that we can return to the matter in Committee.

The third aspect that I want to address relates to the engagement of voluntary organisations in the process. Many of the major organisations dealing with children and young people already have nationwide networks. They will often be in a far better position than any local authority can be to maintain contact in a mobile population, wherever individuals happen to be. They also carry less of a stigma than social services for the individuals concerned. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) alluded to the benefits of bringing voluntary organisations into the loop.

I want to make sure that the arrangements set out in the Bill allow local authorities to exploit to the full the potential of those voluntary organisations in discharging their duties under it. In my county, Surrey, working under the quality protects programme, there is already a multi-agency youth support service, including a leaving care team designed to deliver precisely what the Bill requires.

That service is provided by a voluntary organisation, which can reach and communicate with young people far more effectively than the social services department or other statutory agencies could reasonably expect to achieve directly, and it does not have the stigma of statutory services attached to it. We want to ensure that such arrangements become the norm in delivering the services envisaged under the Bill or, at the very least, that they are properly considered as an option in determining a model of service delivery by an authority.

Mr. Hinchliffe

I look forward to the publication of the Conservative policy documents on children in care, to answer one or two concerns that I have. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's point about voluntary organisations, but I am concerned about the message that we send out. It started with Lady Thatcher. The Leader of the Opposition has mentioned the involvement of Church organisations—putting Church organisations in charge of children in care. I link that to the point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), in the debate on care standards, that every child entering care should have an adoption plan. Whether the child is in care for 10 minutes or three days, he will have an adoption plan. The alternatives posed by the Conservative party seems to be that a child is either adopted or placed with the Christian Brothers—

Mr. Dawson

And sent to Australia.

Mr. Hinchliffe

—and sent to Australia, as my hon. Friend says. I should welcome further explanation. Does the Conservative party intend to produce a document that fits all the parts of its policy together, so that we can fully understand it?

Mr. Hammond

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that before he has to make the difficult decision of how to cast his vote at the next general election, he will have the benefit of the Conservative party's manifesto, which will include our proposals for children's services.

It is slightly disingenuous of the hon. Gentleman to misquote my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on the subject of adoption. The hon. Gentleman knows very well what my hon. Friend meant. He was not referring to children in care for very brief periods; he was talking about children in long-term care and the desirability—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can quote the words from the Official Report, but he knows as well as I and everyone in the Chamber what my hon. Friend was referring to. He was simply expressing the view that for children in long-term care, the objective should be adoption, wherever possible. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would not disagree with that view.

I shall deal now with local authority finance. I know that the Minister would be disappointed if I did not mention the financial aspects. The Minister told us that money spent in various ways, including benefits, on 16 and 17-year-old care leavers is to be re-branded in a ring-fenced special grant to local authorities. The Government made it clear in the House of Lords that the extension of assistance to over-18s that is provided for in the Bill would require new money, and that no commitment to bring that section of the Bill into force could be given until the outcome of the comprehensive spending review is known.

The cost impact on different local authorities will vary. The rules specifying which authority is responsible, as clarified by the Bill, will presumably lessen the burden on authorities in London and other magnet areas. We need to know from the Minister whether the funding will be made available on a reimbursement or a per capita basis for each category of child or young person on a local authority's books, as it were.

Given the pressure that many local authority social services departments are under, especially in the south-east, it is vital that funding meets the costs and does not provide any perverse incentives. We understand that funding arrangements will not be part of the Bill, but I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that, perhaps before it is considered in Committee, she will be able to make available draft proposals on the calculation of the sums that are to be paid, even if not on the amounts. Without that information it will be difficult, if not impossible, to receive a full and informed response from local authorities about the practical effect of the Bill.

Ms Shipley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hammond

I would like to move on. I have been speaking for quite a long time already.

I shall take up the implications of the devolution settlement. The measure is what I am calling a new hybrid Bill—it involves both reserved and devolved matters. There may be consensus in this place on the Bill, but apparently that is not so in the Scottish Parliament. The sticking point there appears to be the withdrawal of access to benefits for 16 and 17-year-old care leavers. The Scottish National party has recently tabled an amendment to a Government motion that is supportive of legislation similar to the Bill. It ends by calling upon the Executive to delay any moves to introduce such legislation pending the results of its recently commissioned research into the effectiveness of provision.

Reading between the lines, that is an intention to try to slow down the introduction of similar legislation in the Scottish Parliament. It is possible that there may be a less smooth ride in Scotland, where the parliamentary arithmetic is less favourable to the Government.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

The hon. Gentleman has raised an extremely important point. Will he distinguish between the position of one political party which is not part of the coalition which is in government, and the position of the Executive in Scotland, which broadly takes the same view as the Government, but agrees that dialogue should continue between this place and the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Hammond

Surprise, surprise, the coalition Executive takes the same view as the Westminster Government. The objection to which I am referring is an opposition objection in the Scottish Parliament. Whereas the Bill can expect a smooth ride through this place, with support from both sides of the House, it is not clear that similar legislation will enjoy a smooth ride with cross-party consensus in Scotland.

The Government's amendments in the other place—

Mr. Clarke

Does the hon. Gentleman not see the parallel between parents giving children the right to pursue their adult lives once they have been given that opportunity, and this Parliament, having devolved power to another Parliament, allowing it to exercise the very powers that we gave it?

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman is right. I am not qualified to say whether the Bill is the first measure that we have dealt with since the devolution settlement that contains both clauses that are the subject of devolved responsibility and clauses that are reserved matters. In this instance, clause 6 deals with the withdrawal of social security benefits.

There are complications in implementing such legislation. The Government who answer to this place can control, so long as they have a working parliamentary majority, the implementation of clauses 1 to 5, 7 and 8, but they cannot so directly control the implementation of clause 6 in Scotland. The Government's amendments in another place to clause 8 clearly envisage that legislation mirroring the non-reserved parts of the Bill may not be in place in Scotland when the Bill comes into effect in England.

The Government's proposed response is to delay implementation of clause 6, which removes the right to benefits for 16 and 17-year-olds, until Scottish legislation placing similar obligations on local authorities to those that the Bill seeks to impose on local authorities in England is in place. That shows a flaw in the devolution arrangement. Where non-reserved and reserved matters interact and the Scottish Parliament is disinclined simply to mimic English legislation within a time scale that fits the Government's purpose, there will be a gap.

In this instance, there is potentially a real danger. If clause 6 is not implemented in Scotland at a time when the rest of the Bill is in force in England and Wales, benefits will continue to be available in Scotland to 16 and 17-year-old care leavers after they are withdrawn in England. That will make Scotland precisely the magnet for young people who want to access cash benefits that London and other areas have been under the present arrangements. If local authorities are, as the Minister has told us, actively encouraging 16 and 17-year-olds to leave care and put themselves on to the social security budget, there must be a danger, depending on the financing arrangements for local authorities, that there will be an incentive during the interim period to encourage 16 and 17-year-olds to go north.

It is clear that there is no intention behind the Bill to encourage young people to migrate from the area where they have been looked after. Indeed, the intention is precisely the opposite. It is also not the intention to give an incentive to local authorities to push them out. However, the difficulties in relation to Scotland may undermine the Government's intentions and create in Edinburgh and Glasgow the magnets that we have seen in London. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) may have read the Bill more closely than I and may be able to correct me, but it seems from my reading of it that young people may be able to have it both ways, with their local authority in England retaining a statutory duty to support them even when they move away, while being able to claim cash benefits in Scotland.

The inevitable conclusion is that there is a case for delaying implementation of the Bill until that can be done on a United Kingdom basis, to avoid unintended consequences. The ideal situation from the point of view of the Bill, if not from that of the devolution settlement, would be the Government prevailing upon the Scottish Executive to introduce the necessary legislation, reflecting the English legislation, within the same timetable. Otherwise, the Bill may not work as well as we all hope.

I have outlined our principal concerns. I hope that Labour Members will treat them as constructive contributions to the debate and as issues that can be thrashed out and resolved in Committee. If I am wrong on any of these concerns, I shall be the first to admit that. However, I think that they all require further investigation. Some of them are more serious than others, but none of them is fatal to the Bill or to any of its underlying objectives. They can all be accommodated within the Bill's structures, either by amendment or by ministerial clarifications and the use of regulations or guidance.

I re-emphasise that we support what the Government are doing with the quality protects programme. We support the Bill and we shall continue to support the cross-party consensus on building progressively on the Children Act 1989, to strengthen and broaden the protection that it offers to vulnerable children and young people wherever they may be.

5.39 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill, in part because it keeps promises that I made on behalf of the Government. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the huge amount of work that he has done in fleshing out those original promises, and also on the speed with which he gathered up the topic when it was handed on to him by our right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) who initiated a great deal of the work, for which he did not receive as much credit as he should have done, and for which I received more credit than I deserved.

More importantly, I welcome the Bill because it is a major step towards ending what can only be described as Britain's abject failure to look after children in care. A great deal of attention was paid to the problem of molesting children in care, and rightly so, but, until recently, little attention has been paid to the general failure to provide decent care for young people who were in care.

Children in care form less than 1 per cent. of the child population, but 38 per cent. of young people in prison and 30 per cent. of young people who are homeless have been in care. It is also worth bearing in mind that, unless my memory is playing tricks on me, they are usually two to three years less mature than other children of their age, a matter which is relevant to the points made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) in relation to competent adults. Generally speaking, their mental development, their maturity, is a long way behind that of other young people of the same age, and we should bear that in mind.

We must remember that children and young people in care have been designated by officialdom on our behalf as needing care and protection. In many cases, it is clear that they have received neither. That was not just the fault of social services or individual care staff. We were all responsible for those failures—care staff, social services managers, councils and councillors. Police, lawyers, courts and schools did not do their job properly. Voluntary organisations, including religious organisations, did not do their job properly. Neighbours did not give sufficient attention to what was happening. The news media did not give the matter sufficient attention, and nor did Government Departments. There was an abject failure on behalf of the Government's social services inspectorate. This Parliament did not give the matter enough attention. Ministers did not give it enough attention, and the previous Labour Opposition did not give the matter the attention that it deserved. There were some honourable exceptions in those categories, but not many, and the time has come to put things right.

The quality protects programme, launched in 1998, which relates to all children's services, is making a start. The introduction of the National Care Standards Commission will be a step forward, and the Bill, which deals particularly with preparing people for leaving care, delaying them leaving care and providing them with more help, and more concerted and thought-out help, after they have left care, will also be a huge step forward.

Almost half of all the children in care leave care in the year that they are 16. After that, the statutory duties on local authorities are too feeble to think about. They bring to mind the old saying that they offer every assistance short of actual help. Councils have the power to provide help, but they have no duty to do so after the age of 16. That legislative shortcoming, combined with the benefit rules, have provided a huge incentive for officialdom to encourage young people to leave care. That is wrong, as I think that we all accept, and the Bill changes all that.

Throughout the development of the policy, as my hon. Friend the Minister was kind enough to say, I always said that the basic questions should be, "Would this have been good enough for me when I was a child? Would this be good enough for my children now?" We have an obligation to provide for children in care nothing less than we would want to provide for our own children.

The Bill basically proposes two major changes. Children will be looked after until they are 18 rather than 16, and, all being well, that age limit will be raised later to 21. I shall come to that. It also specifies that a person—not a machine, a council or a department, but a person—will be responsible for helping these young people to plan their lives, and then for helping them to carry out that plan, initially when they are in care, and then after they have left care. The Bill tries to make society, as corporate parents, do what might be described as what normal parents do. We should aim to provide what John Betjeman once felicitously referred to as the love that in a family dwells. It is difficult for officialdom to do that, but that is what we must try to achieve.

We asked officials to prepare a paper spelling out what ordinary families do or try to do, not necessarily continuously, but intermittently, for their own children between the ages of 16 and 21. The main thing is to provide a home to live in, or return to. Then there is the shoulder to cry on, the encouragement to do a bit more work at school or college, the morale-boosting chat before going to an interview, the consolation afterwards if the interview goes wrong, or the celebration if it goes right. Young people want someone to provide a lift when they want to go somewhere, a meal, or, when they are a bit older, someone to take them for a drink, someone to get the washing done, someone to touch for a tenner when they are skint, someone to keep an eye on them, someone who cares about them.

The intention is that, as a result of the Bill, and as a result of a lot of hard work by a dedicated staff, young people leaving care will have someone who knows and cares for and helps them, and they will both know what obligations one has to the other. That is what the Bill tries to provide. That is why it is so welcome. These changes in the law are necessary and they are long overdue.

Mr. Hammond

The right hon. Gentleman read out a list of parents' functions, which he used in the November 1998 statement, which I have here. Is it his understanding that the young persons' advisers to be appointed under the Bill will be able to carry out all those functions?

Mr. Dobson

I was spelling out what a normal family, if there is such a thing, and a normal home, tries to provide for its children. In so far as officialdom can attempt to do what a family does, we should try to enable the person who is designated as being responsible for a young person td do all those things, or to arrange all those things, in so far as that is possible. No doubt, others can think of other things. They are not just the more obvious things; it is the casual help, the feeling that there is some base to go back to, that there is someone there who cares and who will do a bit of thinking on the young person's behalf and try to help him or her. That is what most families try to do.

If that is to be done, additional resources will certainly be needed. There was some argument in the House of Lords, where the Bill was considerably improved, about the Government's intention to ring-fence the funding. It was argued that to ring-fence the funding for children leaving care would fetter the discretion of local authorities. Until local authorities can demonstrate a rather better record than they have had up to now, we should fetter their discretion. Some of them have exercised their discretion by actively encouraging young people to leave care. I may fall out with some of my friends in local government for saying that, but that is not as important as trying to ensure that some of the most deprived young people in the country are properly looked after in future. Apart from the additional resources, all the people responsible will have to make a new commitment.

As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, the quality protects programme is already creating some improvements. I shall give one or two examples. In Blackpool, there is a significant increase in the number of people approaching their 18th birthday who are staying in care; in Thurrock, there is a fourfold increase in the number of young people who receive support after leaving care; In Tameside, 96 per cent. of young people who were born in 1980-81 and for whom the local authority is responsible have what it regards as appropriate accommodation. Matters were much worse in the past. All those developments should be encouraged.

We must make sure that policy developments in other spheres are not harmful to young people in care. I urge those—I believe that that includes Conservative Members—who say that all schools should be able to choose their pupils and decide their admissions policies to pause and ponder whether children in care are likely to be among the chosen. If the answer is no, the policy of schools choosing the pupils cannot be reconciled with a commitment to looking after young people in care.

We must consider when the age limit will change not only from 16 to 18 but to 21. The average young person leaves home at the age of 22. It cannot therefore be right to tell young people in care, "You're on your own" when they are 18, any more than it is right to say that when they are 16. I welcome the fact that the Government have said that raising the age limit is not a question of "if' but "when". Freed as I am from the limitations of Cabinet responsibilities, I can say that I believe that the limit should be increased from 16 to 21 now.

I wish the Minister success in his negotiations in the comprehensive spending review, and I emphasise to my former Cabinet colleagues that, for all practical purposes, the decision on the age limit must be made now or never. If the money to increase it from 18 to 21 cannot be found in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, when do they seriously believe that it will be found?

I urge the Government to find the money now for three reasons. First, it is right and just to do that. Secondly, it will benefit enormously many of the most deprived young people. The third reason should appeal to the Treasury: it will be a good bargain because it will reduce the huge number of young care leavers who go to jail, where they contribute nothing to society and cost us a fortune; sums that are vastly in excess of the cost of providing proper care up to the age of 21.

The Bill is a good measure. It was improved in the House of Lords, where it was welcomed by all parties. The thoughtful contribution from the Conservative Front Bench suggests that it may be improved again in the House of Commons. The sooner it becomes law, the better. I commend the measure with a quotation, which I discovered recently, from someone who is not usually associated with child care. Queen Elizabeth I, who had a rather chequered childhood, said: We are more bound to them that bringeth us up well than to our parents. We should bear that in mind.

5.54 pm
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I am glad that, with the help of some of my noble Friends and others, the Government have listened and accepted the right hon. Gentleman's original premise, which he presented so clearly to the Select Committee on Health and in his statement to the House two years ago.

We welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. It rightly places a duty of care on local authorities for those children who are in their charge and have no one else to look after them. I am worried that it also appears to grant local authorities powers that are beyond those of normal parents. I shall revert to that later.

It is right for the Bill to define eligible children, but I want to ensure that the definition is not too tightly drawn. Families break down most frequently not only when children and young people become more difficult, but when child abuse is at its most rife. Young people may have to leave home and go into care when they are 15 or 16. They would not have enough time in the care system to qualify under the new system. We should not forget that many young people have to leave home at 16 or 17 because they have no option. They would not be helped by the Bill, but would have to rely on an inadequate benefits system.

Earlier contributions about the local authorities' duty to keep in touch were interesting. On the one hand, we are told that a postcard at Christmas is inadequate; on the other hand, we are told that there should be a report every three months. I get on extremely well with my sons, but if I insisted on the postcard at Christmas, I would have been disappointed sometimes. Young people have a right to decide whether they want to participate in the process.

The job of the adviser to some young people will be difficult and require dedication. I do not want to appear to be my usual, optimistic, starry-eyed Liberal Democrat self: I know what the real world is like. It can be extremely miserable for parents, children, social workers and their charges. The personal adviser role is key to the proposals. It is insidious of the Government to suggest that they can simply amalgamate current budgets and find the expert, caring, flexible super-parents that the Bill requires to make it work properly. Much training and thought will have to be expended to make that aspect of the Bill work.

If trust is not established between the adviser and the young person, the measure will not work. It will become a control mechanism whereby young people can be told, "You turn up for your giro or your housing benefit or we won't look after you." I know that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras did not intend that. Parents do not care conditionally; they have a duty of care whether they like the sods or not. It is important not to lose sight of that, and to bear in mind that young people are not always compliant.

I want to consider briefly benefit withdrawal. When things are working well—we hope that the measure will work extremely well—everyone will benefit from a young person's receipt of practical help in their day-to-day life. That help could be through a foster placement or in a young person's own home, or with going to school, to a job or to a college. When the measure is working well, normal access to the benefits system should be withdrawn.

That is absolutely right, but I can envisage circumstances in which children and young people feel so alienated from their parents that they would not accept help from them even if it were offered. The same picture could emerge—rarely, one hopes—with a young person and a local authority. I would not want that young person's relationship with the authority, which may be important at a later stage, to be influenced by an insistence that the only means of access to the ordinary benefits system is through becoming pregnant. That seems to be the only means in the Bill of preventing the withdrawal of benefits.

Young women sometimes become pregnant because they want to start a family and have dependants of their own as a way of demonstrating their independence from parental control. I do not believe that they have babies in order to jump the housing queue—that is a myth. To have babies to demonstrate one's independence is unhealthy, but our benefits system has encouraged it. That is probably one of the reasons why we have such a high rate of teenage pregnancies and of teenagers who remain lone parents. I urge the Government to reconsider the automatic exclusion from the benefits system for those people who come within the remit of the Bill.

Most of the anxieties arising from the Bill were demonstrated in the thoughtful contribution of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). As anticipated, his slant on the command and control structure was slightly different from the Government's. We have a view that the Government have too much of a tendency to want to control the money passing down rather than to allow the recipient to make the decisions, whereas the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that care should be to some degree conditional—or certainly that the goodies should be conditional.

Stopping people's pocket money is okay if that money is on the fringes of what they need, but if we are talking about having enough to be housed and clothed and to get to school or a place of work, one cannot make that conditional on good behaviour and fitting in with what is required. I hope that the Bill will be amended in such a way that it will work and be a tremendous success, but it can work only if the young people themselves sign up to all the wonderful care pathways and pathway plans that are set out. I can tell hon. Members from my experience that if we try to impose a pathway plan, we will have lost before we have started.

We welcome the Bill, which is a first stage in looking after young people's needs. Parallel work must be done on the inheritance from the previous Government of the way in which young people are treated by the benefits system. It is ridiculous to expect young people to be dependent on their parents if the parents do not want to accept that dependency. We all see the misery arising from the differential way in which housing benefit is applied to young people. I hope that the Government will take that on board when considering a small but significant vulnerable group of children and extend it to the wider group of those who may be as much at risk as those who have gone through the care system.

It is right that the Government have accepted that we, collectively, have a parental responsibility for those children whose parents, for whatever reason, do not accept that responsibility, but it is not right for them to discharge their duty purely through local government. They retain a responsibility through the centrally administered benefits system, to ensure that there are no holes in the laudable measure that they are introducing to allow everyone to have an opportunity in life and to avoid failure setting in at such an early age that people have no way of improving themselves and making a positive contribution to society.

6.6 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

We have had an excellent debate. The contributions so far have without exception been very constructive, and important points have been made. It is a pity that not one Conservative Back Bencher was present to hear what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) had to say, as he made some very relevant points.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I was here.

Mr. Hinchliffe

The hon. Gentleman is a Front Bencher.

I welcome the consensus that has developed around the measure. The most recent similar consensus that I recall was around the Children Act 1989. In a recent debate on the Care Standards Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) referred to the fact that several of us had served in Committee on the Bill that became that Act. We recognised that it was a landmark measure and we all tried to ensure that we put on the statute book the best possible solution to some of the problems that we faced.

One or two of us thought then that we needed to go further on the issue of leaving care. We tabled amendments on the subject, which were rejected. I recall my very good friend Joan Lestor speaking passionately and at length on the subject.

I thank the Government for finding time for this measure. I know that it is difficult to fit such measures into the timetable, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team—and a special tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I know how passionately he feels about these issues, and his contribution today evidenced the anger that he feels about the way in which we have maltreated so many youngsters over many years. As he says, we are all responsible. I join him in paying tribute to the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), who made a detailed contribution to the development of the Bill.

I also want to mention one or two people whom I have known for a long time who have campaigned long and hard—indeed, in some instances, they have devoted their lives—to bring about a measure of this nature. Way back in the 1970s I met Professor Mike Stein of York university, who has specialised in this area. He argued long and hard 30 years ago for steps such as those that we are taking in the Bill. I pay a sincere tribute to his work.

I must not forget my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). It says a lot when someone from Yorkshire pays tribute to someone from Lancaster. It shows how much I admire the work that he has done since entering Parliament. He has dedicated himself to fighting on this issue, and has brought together many children and young people behind his efforts.

I also pay tribute to the campaigning work that young people who have been through the care system have done over many years to get a better deal. In the Select Committee on Health I had the great privilege of listening to witnesses who we thought might not perform but who outperformed even former Secretaries of State in terms of their confidence and their ability to argue their corner. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) was present at that sitting, and I know that he would share my view.

I speak with some feeling, because I worked with children in care for many years. I can get quite emotional about what I saw of some of the youngsters with whom I had dealings who left the care system in circumstances that were far from desirable.

I have continued contact with some of those young people, some of whom have done very well in life. A couple of years ago, I was moved to be visited at my surgery by a lad whom I had thought was one of my failures. He came to tell me that he had got a job as a charge nurse or psychiatric nurse in the community, and was doing extremely well. He had achieved something in life, which I never thought that he would do. We should never lose sight of the fact that very many youngsters from the care system do well. Despite the problems that are put in their way, often by us, many of them come through.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said, however, the clear pattern for far too many males is to move from care into the prison system. I think that about 25 per cent. of all prisoners have been in care, and that—as my right hon. Friend said—about 38 per cent. of young prisoners come from the care system. I also agree with his point on costs. If we are arguing in the comprehensive spending review for more resources, for goodness' sake, let us make the point that giving youngsters a decent start in life helps to avoid the huge costs and other impacts created when they spend time in prison. It is a way of making long-term savings.

Too often, females go from care to prostitution. I have terrible experience of that fact. One of the Yorkshire Ripper's victims was a young lady whom I knew when she was in care. She left care in the usual way, went into prostitution and was murdered by Peter Sutcliffe. I will not forget that as long as I live.

Frequently, when travelling between Leeds and Wakefield, I pass the part of Leeds where prostitutes assemble at night. Sadly, far too often I see faces that I knew many years before, when I worked in the care system. I feel deeply that we need to do something about young people moving from care into prostitution.

Since the passage of the Children Act 1989, report after report has said that we have to take action about young people leaving care. The Utting report has already been mentioned in detail today. We have also had the Waterhouse report on the situation in Wales. I was proud to be able to take part in the Health Committee's inquiry into looking after children, which was the first major inquiry of this Parliament. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise)—who has not been well recently, although I am pleased to hear that she is doing better now—for her part in that. No one devoted more energy than she did to the inquiry and to addressing the issue, and I give her full credit for it.

In our inquiry, the Committee considered the priority given to children's issues by successive Governments. One fact that we established was that successive Governments—I blame not only the present Government but the previous one as well—have failed to fulfil a key requirement of the 1989 Act, which was to present to Parliament an annual report on the Act's operation. Perhaps that fact indicates that we should give a bit more thought to what we do for children and young people. It is worrying that requirements in legislation passed by the House can simply slip off the agenda.

I believe that we have to ensure that the Bill provides a vigorous independent voice, locally and nationally, for children in care. I welcome the concept of a personal adviser for children. In our report, the Health Committee picked up the concept of an advocate for children and young people in the care system.

Nevertheless, I suspect that I am speaking on behalf of many of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber when I urge the Government to look again at the role of the children's rights commissioner. The commissioner's role will have to go wider than dealing only with children in the care system. So many agencies are involved in the issue that that proposal simply cannot deal with it. We have to listen to the arguments—which I accepted many years ago—for a children's rights commissioner. I have seen the concept work in many other countries, and I believe that a commissioner could do a huge job for vulnerable children and young people in the United Kingdom.

I have one or two other concerns. My hon. Friend the Minister raised the issue of resources. Although I understand the Government's position on the comprehensive spending review, the entire history of United Kingdom social legislation is one of good intentions backed by entirely inadequate resources. We have to learn the lessons of the many Bills that have been passed by the House and been widely welcomed, but for which there has been no money for implementation. I realise that colleagues from local government will hold up their hands in horror and say, "We agree with that, but where will the money come from?" The Government will have to address the resourcing issue.

I shall also nit-pick on one small matter—some of the terminology used in the Bill. I hope that in Committee, Ministers and their team will examine some of the archaic terminology, such as "eligible children", "relevant children" and "former relevant children"—that is, children over 18 who were previously relevant or eligible. Some of the terminology is Sir Humphrey-style gibberish at its best, and was probably dreamed up at Richmond house by the same Department of Health official who came up with the official distinction between "community care" and "care in the community", which continues to baffle me—and most of those who end up in community care.

I hope that that matter will be examined in Committee, because the point underpinning the legislation is that all children should be relevant. The words "relevant" and "irrelevant" are nonsense and should perhaps be replaced in Committee. I am sure that we will be able to do that.

I seek further assurances about the development of a national strategy to investigate the reasons why children come into care. I genuinely appreciate the action that the Government are taking with various measures to deal with poverty and unemployment. I have always been concerned, however, about the fact that such initiatives are not always knitted together, and are occasionally completely contradictory.

Specifically, what are we doing to deal with the perpetuation of physical and sexual abuse over the generations? So many of the sexually abused children with whom I have worked had parents who themselves were sexually abused. We have to examine how we can break that cycle, and we have not yet got a grip on the issue.

I want the Bill, and all legislation affecting children in care, to help to prepare children for life outside the care system as soon as they enter it. We should prepare children for leaving care from the word go. Of course I am not talking about preparing babies to leave, but we have to ensure that our system is geared to enabling young people to leave the care system prepared and competent to deal with life, just as we should hope that our own children are able to deal with life.

The education system has caused me great concern, and I echo the comments on schooling made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. In our inquiry, the Health Committee picked up on concerns about the way in which the education system rejects kids who come from the care system. My right hon. Friend was bang on in his comments about league tables and choice, which lead us to reject youngsters.

It is often easiest for schools to leave out those children. In some respects it is helpful to schools if those children do not attend, because the schools do not believe that they will be achievers. Often, social services are not unduly worried about youngsters missing school, so long as they are not in trouble. We have to address that crucial issue and tie it in with broader thinking on the implications of league tables and competition between schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), who is not in the Chamber, asked about age limits. That issue was also touched on by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). I not only listened carefully to his speech but intervened in it, because the issue of competence has to be well and truly addressed in Committee. The point that he and I were trying to make is that so many youngsters will never survive without help.

Through my wife, I am involved in an organisation based in Leeds, called Caring for Life. It takes children from across west Yorkshire who have been in the care system and takes care of them for life—just as its name says. Against the background of struggling to raise money, it looks after some very vulnerable young people and older people. We have to understand that some youngsters will never cope independently, but do not fit easily into the other care categories—such as those involving mental health—for which provision is made.

I mentioned the Conservative policy of placing children with religious organisations. I seriously hope that Conservative Members will seriously consider the United Kingdom's experience with such a policy, which was not particularly good. One or two of the Conservative Members who served on the Health Committee will give the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge the reasons, chapter and verse, why some of us have reservations about returning to the Christian Brothers as the basis for our care system.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the fact that the Bill talks about care leavers. Some of us have had dealings with care leavers who were victims and went through the child migration scheme that the United Kingdom operated until 1967. Some of those people are now my age, and others are in their 80s or 90s. Children were sent to Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Canada and elsewhere. Thousands are still alive, and still suffering.

In the context of the wider debate about people who have left care, I hope that the Government will look again at the funding arrangements for the Child Migrant Trust. That organisation is struggling to cope with the demands of people who are still trying to get into contact with their natural mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

The trust bid for £800,000 a year, but received only £130,000. That is more than it used to get, but it is nowhere near adequate to meet the demands placed on it. A trust representative told me today that cases remain unallocated, and that even when parents' whereabouts are known, those now elderly people are dying before they can be linked up with their children. That is unacceptable.

I hope that the Government will look at the travel fund for child migrants, which was worth £1 million over three years when it was established. That total has been eaten up rapidly by the demands placed on it. This is a matter of humanity, and the Government's response to the Health Committee report was constructive, so I feel able to ask for a bit more money to be given to the trust. It would make a huge difference.

Australia week takes place in early July, and the Australian Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet will be in this country. Might not that be an appropriate time to suggest that people in Australia could play a bigger part than hitherto in addressing a scandal that stemmed from the policies of both Governments?

I shall conclude my limited observations by congratulating the Government on the introduction of the Bill. One or two points need to be sorted out in Committee, but it addresses the needs of a group of people who have been left behind far too often. The Bill will offer youngsters a future, and I welcome it very warmly.

6.22 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I, too, broadly welcome the Bill. The Utting report was published after there had been a catalogue of disasters over the past few years. The Select Committee on Health, on which I am privileged to serve, looked into the case of children looked after. It is fair to say that Governments of all political persuasions have done less than they should have done to safeguard the future of the children who became their responsibility.

About 5,000 people aged 16 or 17 leave care every year. The proportion leaving at 16 has risen from 33 per cent. to 43 per cent. More than 75 per cent. have no academic qualifications, and more than 50 per cent. are unemployed after they leave. Moreover, 17 per cent. of girls leaving care are pregnant. Among prisoners, 23 per cent. of adult inmates have left care, as have 38 per cent. of young prisoners. In addition, 30 per cent. of young single homeless people have left care.

In many ways, British Governments have been penny wise, pound foolish with regard to children leaving care. The cost to society—of prison, and of the catalogue of disasters and horrors that the statistics show befall people leaving care—is very great. It is clear that society as a whole would benefit if we could respond to the problems a little earlier. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that the statistics that I quoted apply to about 1 per cent. of the total in that age group. That is a horrific and frightening thought.

I welcome many of the measures in the Bill, which will at least start to improve matters. When the Health Committee inquired into this matter, we found that most youngsters leaving a home at 16 are not encouraged to go back. When they leave, the posters come down, the bed goes, and that is it. Yet most of us who leave our parents' homes know that we can always go back, and we often do so. When we have to make choices or decisions in our lives, we know that our parents will always provide a home, a bed and a square meal. In contrast, many children leave care and then get lost.

Broadly speaking, the approach adopted in the Bill is the right one. The Health Committee wanted 21 to be the key age. I agree with most of the comments made in the debate so far, and I hope that the Government will use 21 as the key age. That would make much more sense, given the current economic background and the comprehensive spending review.

Many of the Bill's proposals are sensible, such as the duty to keep in touch. Although people who do not want to be found will not be found, the proposal at least means that local authorities will have to pay attention to where people go when they leave care, and to what happens to them afterwards. If pathway plans are to be introduced, there will be a great need for more information about the welfare and progress of children who have left care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made a good point about sanctions in connection with pathway plans. However, the most important thing is that the Bill provides some sort of measure by which to judge a person's progress. If that information is regularly reviewed, it will be possible to judge people's aims and prospects, and pathway plans will be useful.

Personal advisers are another important element in the Bill. The question of whether they should be trained has been raised, but the most important thing is that they should be trusted. All hon. Members know that people who work for local authorities, or social services professionals, would not necessarily be the best people to have as advisers, and that they would not always be able to inspire trust. That is a key issue. When the Health Committee investigated the question of children looked after, we found that having someone who can act as an advocate—just as a parent would—is of critical importance to children.

The Bill moves matters on by providing for vocational support, assistance with employment, and education and training support, all of which are important. People who leave their parental home expect their parents to pay attention to what they do, and to offer help and support. The Government cannot be a substitute for that, but it is better for them to intervene in this way than to leave children to their own devices. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) recounted some of the horror stories about what young people have suffered because no one is especially concerned about them once the state's responsibilities for them are over.

Clause 6 deals with removal of benefit, and Save the Children has pointed that one of the most important lessons for people leaving care concerns the management of money. We must be careful about removing benefit from young people, as it is important to allow them to have responsibility for some money so that they can make choices about their lives.

As I said, I broadly welcome the Bill. Many of the details, such as the problem with definitions mentioned by the hon. Member for Wakefield, will have to be considered in Committee. Improvements can be made, but this is a good start. I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), as much progress has been made in a matter to which hon. Members of all parties pay a lot of attention.

We must value our young, or the consequences of the statistics that I gave earlier will be pretty dramatic. I am pleased to have been able to participate in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge described a difficulty with what might be called the Scottish problem. So long as that can be ironed out, the Bill will immeasurably improve the prospects of young people leaving care. If we can achieve that in the lifetime of this Parliament, we will have done a good job.

6.29 pm
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I am grateful that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) concluded on what he called the Scottish problem, which is a major issue in today's debate. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) did the House a great service by raising it in the way that he did, and I shall return to what he said later in my speech.

I welcome the Bill. It is an excellent Bill and it follows logically on the unfinished business of the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), not only for the tremendous comradeship that he offered in 1989 when we both served on the Standing Committee considering the Children Act, but for saving me the trouble of rehearsing some of the major points that are relevant to tonight's debate. I welcome what he said about the late Joan Lestor, who would certainly have welcomed everything that we are saying and the progressive tone of our discussions. I also recall what my hon. Friend had to say in 1989, and his recollections tonight reminded me of the tremendous impact that was made on that Committee by the young people whose problems we were debating, even though at the time—and perhaps later—we still did not reach a firm conclusion.

I am not at all surprised that Barnardos and Barnardos Scotland have provided excellent briefings. Some of my thinking in this short speech tonight has been influenced by them, particularly in respect of the Scottish issue.

Those of us involved in the passage of the 1989 and 1995 Acts will remember the dreadful stories that we heard. Times have not changed very much. We heard harrowing stories about what actually happened to many young people leaving care. I remember being appalled when we heard that they were told, "You can't get a job unless you've got a house and you can't get a house unless you've got a job." We heard about the great poverty that affects older children leaving care.

I remember too—and I am sure that things have not changed very much since 1989 or 1995—young people telling us that every Monday morning they would queue outside Marks and Spencer and Tesco in order to obtain food that was past its sell-by date. That seemed an extraordinary way of addressing young people at that vital and vulnerable age.

I am glad that the Bill seeks to address many of those problems. It presents practical solutions which, when they are followed through, as I have no doubt they will be, will help to solve problems that have not been properly addressed until now. The pathway plans that are on offer are absolutely excellent, but there is a major change; and here I come to the speech by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, which I praised earlier. He dealt with an issue that was raised in another place in respect of devolution, and I agree that it still has not been resolved. However, I can offer some hope to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

The hon. Gentleman addressed, in passing, the debate that is taking place in Scotland. The Bill clearly deals with the DSS aspects of the problem, whereas the Scottish Parliament deals with the local authority aspects, and the Westminster Parliament deals with both in respect of England. If the hon. Gentleman accepts that, as we have decided on devolution, the hybrid aspects of the Bill should be dealt with by the Scottish Parliament, I encourage him to believe, as I do, that at the end of the day the Scottish Parliament will reach the right decision. I am encouraged by the dialogue that I understand is taking place between Ministers in this Parliament and those in the Scottish Executive.

I realise what the problems are. The hon. Gentleman may not have known it, but he touched on an important constitutional issue—which is the reason why I and a majority of Scottish Members take the view that social security, among other matters, should remain a matter for the United Kingdom Parliament. If that were not so, the prospect of the abuses that the hon. Gentleman envisaged in his speech would be wide open. We cannot have young people who may not have access to social security in England going from Carlisle to Dumfries to get it there. I accept unreservedly, as the Bill does, that we should try to prevent that from happening.

Looking at the more positive aspects of the Bill and what is planned thereafter, one can see that the commitment to a pathway plan for young people leaving care is splendid. Although I do not want to dwell on Scotland, let me for a few moments confirm my optimistic outlook by quoting just a few brief comments from the document issued by the Scottish Executive. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will recall that I pointed out in an intervention that his concerns seemed to be about the views of the Scottish National party, which does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament. It is arguing its case, but I do not believe that it will carry the day. I believe that the views of the Scottish Executive will carry the day, and those views are consistent with our arguments today.

Mr. Hammond

I accept the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, which is that the Scottish National party does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament; but does he accept that there is a flaw in the devolution settlement, if legislation like this being workable depends upon the same party being able to command control in both the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster Parliament?

Mr. Clarke

No. I am trying desperately hard to please the hon. Gentleman, but I do not agree that there is a flaw in what we have done in respect of devolution. To return to what he said about children leaving home or leaving care, there comes a point when one cannot instruct them to do as one would like them to do, but almost inevitably they end up taking the right decision anyway. I confidently believe that the Scottish Parliament will do the same, in terms of the powers that we have given it. Again, I seek to reassure the hon. Gentleman. Let me quote what the Scottish Executive said about the responsibilities that we have given them: The most efficient and effective method would appear to be a transfer of resources from DSS to local authorities, thus enhancing the resources already available to them to carry out their duties under the 1995 Act. That was a firm statement. They also said: The Scottish Executive proposed that young people requiring throughcare and aftercare should receive support in a co-ordinated way from local authorities in line with the principles of the 1995 Act. That reflected the 1989 Act in respect of the United Kingdom. They continued: This parallels proposals for England and Wales. Dependent on the results of consultation, the aim would be to introduce the relevant changes to primary UK legislation at the earliest opportunity. They continued in bold type: Scottish Ministers are therefore seeking views on the proposal that the mixture of current spending on local authority aftercare, support services and DSS benefits should be drawn together in a single fund which would be used by local authorities to provide support and assistance to 16 to 18 year olds requiring throughcare and aftercare. I am particularly confident on that point.

Let me return to the main thrust of the Bill in so far as it applies to the United Kingdom. I welcome the proposals that are being made, particularly on the pathway plans. A minority argue that we really ought to leave things as they are and let young people spend their benefits as they wish. Set against that, the experience that has been gained, not least the overwhelming reaction of the voluntary bodies that responded to the Government and the Scottish Executive by fully supporting the direction of the proposals, shows that there is a problem here. The hon. Member for Poole gave the figures: 75 per cent. of children leaving care have no qualifications; 50 per cent. of them are unemployed; and 38 per cent. of young prisoners have come from care. Given that situation, the pathway plans are long overdue and it is right that we should move in that direction.

I want to turn briefly to an important issue. Encouraging local authorities to appoint advisers and seeing that through is welcome, but I think that we should be more positive about their role. Let me give an example. I worry tremendously about children leaving care having access to higher education. Whereas I was able to obtain the statistics that I just gave fairly easily, and I imagine the hon. Member for Poole was too, I could find no figures, not even from our excellent Library, relating to young people leaving care and entering higher education. I assume, therefore, from the anecdotal evidence, that very few do. That is unacceptable. We must challenge such a state of affairs, and encourage the advisers to take the same view.

I should like to turn to the impact of the Bill on disabled children. Even now, many disabled children leave home. There are no advisers or advocates, and often there is no involvement in any decision that affects the future of disabled children. I hope that that will be put right, and I think that the Bill offers an opportunity to do it, particularly in the areas of education and employment.

The most acute area is probably that of children with learning difficulties. They, above all, are in need of the kind of advice, the kind of pathway plan, that the Bill seeks to achieve elsewhere. If the Minister is of a mind to embrace the priority that I seek to promote, I would greatly welcome her remarks.

The wider issue of financial support has already been touched on by other right hon. and hon. Members. I can imagine local authorities in each constituent part of the United Kingdom saying, "We like Parliament's proposals, but once again we are being given responsibilities without the necessary resources." I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on that, but given that the comprehensive spending review is now being considered, I offer her the support that I think she and her Department want. I am sure that the House wants this measure to work, and I am sure that that is also true of another place, but to achieve that, resources are crucial. The Treasury must take that on board.

These provisions are inspiring as well as practical. When the legislation is in place, there should be proper training. The advisers should be properly trained and have the opportunity to bring themselves up to date from time to time with the demands and challenges of the society in which they work. After all, we will be asking a great deal of them.

The Bill seeks to help these young people achieve genuine fulfilment, given that in the past they have not exactly been up front in their achievements in employment, education, housing, leisure and recreation and higher education. Many of these young people have been in the House today and earlier this week, and they are right to tell Parliament that they are here and their problems are here. If they can be positive about their problems, the least we can do is be positive about their future, and I think that the Bill achieves that.

6.44 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I warmly welcome the principles behind the Bill. Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, hopes that the Bill will reach the statute book and be operational in Wales in quickly as possible. With a few amendments that I hope will be made in Committee, the Bill will provide a huge advance in the way in which our society looks after young people.

The Bill places a duty on local authorities to assess and meet young people's needs. It is done in a jargonistic way, as the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) remarked. What is important is that young people are part of the planning process for their future, however. They will have advisers with whom they will be able to build relationships and trust. Although that is not the same as the family support that we would all wish every child to have, it is a significant improvement on the present haphazard services, where postcodes are a factor and services differ according to county.

I particularly welcome the amendments made to the Bill in the House of Lords. The extension of eligibility to 21, and to 24 for education and training, is an important amendment, and I hope that it will progress with full Government support.

Ensuring that children leaving care can participate fully in society goes a long way to tackling social exclusion. I support the Government's intentions in that respect. However, we have a huge task ahead of us. It is partly about funding, but also about how to deliver these services at the right level. I would like to illustrate the task ahead by briefly outlining the work done in my constituency by a voluntary organisation that works with children leaving care, and the difficulties that it encounters in the present regime. I shall outline some of the improvements in the Bill that I hope will help that voluntary organisation, as well as my local authority, in delivering better support services.

Hope for Young People Everywhere—HYPE—has been going for just two years. It deals with 80 young people a week in the small, rural town of Aberystwyth alone. Eighty young people a week come through HYPE' s doors, looking for assistance. They are mostly local school children, students and unemployed care leavers. Many are either on their way into foster care or on their way out of foster care, as the volunteers put it. Many have extreme difficulties and have been excluded from school in the recent past.

The benefits system presents a great many problems. Many of the young people seen by HYPE do not know their rights, and are at a loss as to where to go. They have support from other young people in the town—there is an informal family arrangement among many young people who support themselves. They often have difficulty accessing the benefits that are available to them. In that regard, the provisions rejigging the benefits system for 16 and 17-year-olds could be a significant step forward. The onus will not be on young people to find out what benefits and support they are eligible for and to try to fight through the system. Instead, the Bill puts the onus on the local authority to ensure the right delivery of services and support to young people.

Care leavers are let down by the present system of crisis loans, which is discretionary, and the lack of support in the housing benefit system for young people, which leads in particular to many care leavers living in poor accommodation.

HYPE identifies the problem as authorities not taking full responsibility for children leaving care. Nor are the guidelines that are already in place being fully followed. With all the improvements in the Bill, it has to include a warning to local authorities and the other partners that they must follow correctly the procedures and guidelines laid down and fulfil their responsibilities.

Having said that I welcome the Bill, I should like to pose a few questions on parts of it that may need looking at again. The withdrawal of benefit support for young people aged 16 and 17 could prove a significant step forward. However, at present it is difficult to see how that will occur unless we establish the right national standards of support for those young people. I do not want an ad hoc system to evolve whereby local authorities use that method of support in different ways for their children and young people leaving care.

Incidentally, I think that we should use the term "young people"; it is confusing that the Bill refers to children and young people. We are talking about young people, although I accept that the Government may have included the word "children" so as to have regard to the Children Acts.

In Wales, where the National Assembly will have full discretion over the regulations that result from the Bill, I hope that we shall introduce national standards. I also hope that the Assembly will receive that package of ring-fenced money provided by the amalgamation of the various support arrangements—revenue support grants, housing benefit, income support and so on—so that we can deliver a national standard for Wales to ensure that young people are fully cared for at the relevant time. I assume that similar measures will be adopted in England.

A real problem in my rural constituency is the dumping there—I cannot use a less strong word—of care leavers from other areas. Local authorities wash their hands of difficult children in care—especially those in foster care. They use private foster care arrangements to farm out children—literally so, in my rural area—so that the children are far enough away from their own local authority area to be no longer a problem or a concern.

The problem under the arrangements is that, when such children leave care, they cease to be the responsibility of the authority that put them, say, in Ceredigion and become the responsibility of Ceredigion. The Bill will produce an improvement, because the authority that was first responsible for the child will continue that support. However, I have a question about the pathway plans and the arrangements for personal advisers. How can we ensure the delivery of such services over long distances? We need to consider how that will be achieved.

Mr. Shaw

I agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about young people and children being placed with private foster agencies outside their local authority area. Such agencies are not regulated at present. Does he agree that it will be crucial for the National Care Standards Commission to regulate them? It is most important that the practice to which he referred be stopped.

Mr. Thomas

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In Wales, we hope to appoint a commissioner with overall responsibility for standards. I hope that the commissioner would be able to achieve even more—to ensure that the standards wanted both by the hon. Gentleman and by me are met. If that occurs, I am sure that people in England will want to learn from and follow our example.

I understand that the Government intend the pathway plans to be drawn up with full consultation and in partnership with the young person; they should be worked out jointly between the adviser and the young person. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) raised the spectre of young people failing to follow, or disrupting, their plans. There may be a handful of such cases, but we do not need to consider such possibilities under the Bill; they are practical matters to be dealt with on the ground. If young people are properly involved in the pathway process, they will want to achieve the goals in their plan. They will own the plan. That is an essential aspect of the improvements.

It is important that the pathway plan can be changed according to circumstances. I feel strongly that the financial constraints on an authority should not be a guiding consideration in the contents of the plan. Advisers should be as independent of local authorities as possible. I agree with many of the comments about the need for voluntary organisations to be heavily involved in the process. Many young people might be reluctant to discuss their future directly with local authority staff. We must accept that reality, even if we do not think it right. The voluntary sector thus has a large part to play.

I hope that the Government will consider the problem of accommodation for care leavers. They might need to introduce further measures in future. In many areas, including mine, people leave foster care and go straight into bed-and-breakfast accommodation that has never been inspected by the individual nominally responsible for the young person. No doubt that will change.

There is a huge strain on the system at present. Will accommodation be considered under the standards for young people leaving care? In another place, at another time, and as the remit of another Minister, will the Government deal with the poor standard of HMOs—houses in multiple occupation? There is little regulation of such dwellings, where so many foster care leavers end up.

Mr. Dawson

The hon. Gentleman draws attention to a serious problem. Local authorities have substantial resources and access to housing resources. Does he agree that a crucial part of the corporate parenting role of local authorities is to ensure that, when young people leave care, they can have local authority accommodation, or can be given priority by the local authority in securing housing association accommodation?

Mr. Thomas

I do not want to follow that point too far, as I may be out of order. I certainly agree with the main points made by the hon. Gentleman. There is a lack of accommodation specifically for young people leaving care. There is certainly a shortage in my area, although I am pleased that the county council put supported accommodation for such young people at the top of its strategy for this year. That policy is being pursued with the help of a local housing association. Despite such examples of good practice, we need legislation—especially on HMOs.

I want to touch on some of the aspects of the delivery of the provisions in rural localities. The adviser must have the right skills, training and knowledge to deliver the service in a particular area. Advisers need the right cultural, linguistic or gender background. In a rural area, they need to be able to travel so that they can be close at hand. Although we may choose to move away from our own parents, we would probably all agree that the personal adviser needs to be nearby. In the Welsh context, the advisers should be able to speak Welsh and English. I am sure that other languages would be needed in areas throughout England so as to provide the best services to young people.

We need to consider the possibilities for the use of the leaving care grant in rural areas. The grant will be governed by national standards, but I should like to it to be used for driving lessons for young people leaving care. The driving licence should also be paid for. For example, under the new deal, there are payments for driving lessons but not for the provisional licence. That would be nonsense for many young people. We need to ensure that they receive the necessary support in order to find a job.

There are difficulties with rent bonds. My local authority set up a rent bond project last month. It is most welcome. Only 20 rent bonds are available for the year. I understand that social services have bought several of them for young people leaving care, but given that about 80 people a week use a drop-in service, 20 bonds for the whole county is quite low. We should consider how the leaving care grant and other resources might provide assistance.

The Bill could be improved. Under clause 4, local authorities will be allowed to give educational assistance to young people aged up to 24. The point has been made by Voices from Care and Children in Wales that the provision needs to be re-examined to determine whether local authorities should be under an obligation to provide assistance. If we follow the good parent principle, we expect any parent who can afford it to provide educational assistance to their children, even though that may be of a tapering nature. There is no doubt that local education authorities need to have that responsibility placed on them, and I hope that we shall explore that issue in Committee.

I want to conclude by saying a few words on resources, and particularly on resources as they affect Wales. I have the official civil service briefing to the Health and Social Services Committee of the Welsh Assembly; it was produced on 8 December last year, when the Bill was discussed during the consultation process, and it clearly states: It is therefore the responsibility of the Department of Health to ensure that resources are made available to cover any additional costs that result from the requirement to introduce Young Person's Advisers in Wales. Whatever the other benefits of the devolution settlement in Wales, the Barnett formula does not deliver sufficient funds to accommodate extra expenditure if they are not forthcoming from the Department.

If many young people are able to realise their potential, to have successful careers, to leave care, to participate fully in society and to go to college or university to gain skills, they will be less likely to be socially excluded, less likely to need state support and less likely to end up in prison. Young people want to lead independent and successful lives. The Bill, if amended, will save the Government considerable sums compared with the long-term resources that would be needed to pick up the pieces of a failed system.

7.2 pm

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The provisions in the Bill should ensure that we never again hear the shameful statistics that we have heard from many Members today. However, it is worth repeating them because it is important to realise how children and young people in care have suffered. Many of them end up homeless, and the vast majority do not obtain any educational qualifications. Many of them have to cope in the wider world long before they are ready to do so.

Like many other Members, I have worked with young people and I remember with shame the way in which many of them were left to cope with circumstances that were far from ideal. I welcome the Bill as a tremendous step forward in addressing their needs. The Bill gives us the opportunity to protect care leavers and to help them fulfil their potential, which far too often they were not able to do in the past.

I was very pleased that, at an early stage in the Bill's development, I was able to arrange for a group of young people from Wales to come to this place to discuss their concerns directly with Welsh Members of Parliament and with others. I pay tribute to those young people and to the Voices from Care group for the tremendous work that they have done on the Bill and other legislation. The Bill will be successful only if it takes on board and reflects the views of the young people who have been involved in the process. I also pay tribute to Children in Wales, which has worked hard to influence the process and to join the groups that have been organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

I also want to convey some of the views that people from Wales have expressed to me so that they can inform the Bill as it proceeds through the House. They greatly welcome the Bill as a huge step forward, but there are ways they would like to see it improved. I shall go through some of those points later.

I warmly welcome the Government's promise to extend aftercare services for care leavers up to the age of 21, and to 24 for those in full-time education. There is clear evidence of the need for that. I am thinking of a young man who came to see me recently in my surgery in Cardiff. He had no family contacts and left care at the age of 16. He left school with no qualifications and had difficulties with literacy after a disrupted education, having been moved from place to place. He experienced problems in retaining work, and was moved to a bed-sitting room in another town out of his home area.

The young man was advised how to claim benefits, but he has faced endless difficulties since that time. There was no plan to prepare him for independence, no funding to help him catch up on his education and no on-going contact with a social worker to help him establish himself. Four years later, he still faces tremendous difficulties and, to our shame, we could tell a similar tale about many young people who have left care. I welcome the Government's promises to raise the age limit, and support my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) when he says that that should be done immediately.

I also wish to comment on the pathway plans. The Bill rightly includes the requirement for all care leavers to have a personal education plan. That will help young people to move towards independence. However, young people in Wales have expressed concerns to me that there is no explicit duty to fund the pathway plans. I welcome the reassurance that my hon. Friend the Minister gave earlier, but I would like to hear more about that.

Young people fear that a way forward could be agreed on how to provide them with basic literacy services but that there would be no funding for it. I want to ensure that all the aspirations that are set out in the personal education plans, which are an excellent idea, are achievable by young people and that they will not be an empty concept with nothing to back them up. There should be a duty on local authorities to fund the pathway plans and they should have the money to ensure that that is done.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I shall refer to the terminology used. One of the issues that has been drawn to my attention is that clause 1 states that the local authority shall … prepare a pathway plan for him. We are talking about teenagers, and I suggest that all parents would acknowledge that teenagers prefer to have something planned with them rather than for them. Could not the terminology be changed to make it more attractive to young people so that they feel that the plans are made jointly by them and the adviser working with them? Language is important, so it would be useful if that particular provision could be changed.

There should be a duty to support education and training for care leavers for courses commenced before the age of 24 years, and it would be ideal if the provision covered those aged 24 as well. Earlier, we heard an exchange on whether we should introduce any age limits at all. It was suggested that such limits did not apply to children who live at home with their parents, but I understand that, practically, we must have them. Therefore, would it not be possible to extend the provision to those aged 24?

Evidence from young people and Voices from Care has shown—this is commonly accepted—that many care leavers take time to resolve the other priorities in their lives and to catch up on their education before they are able to plan for a higher education course. A small-scale study in Wales found that children in care are more likely than their contemporaries to be at least one academic year behind at school. As has already been said this afternoon, 75 per cent. of care leavers finish school without educational qualifications and need time to progress their basic qualifications before being able to go on to higher education.

Mr. Simon Thomas

Does the hon. Lady recall the briefing that she organised in this House at which Voices from Care suggested that the obligation should continue until the age of 30 because of the need to sort out young people's priorities before starting education? The Minister may blanch at that figure, but a statutory duty until the age of 24 would be a reasonable compromise.

Ms Morgan

I accept that. At the briefing, young people were asking for the age to be set much higher than it is in the Bill. We should make the duty continue until the care leaver reaches the age of 24 as a small step towards meeting those wishes.

It is clear that care leavers are not moving through the education system in step with their contemporaries. I am sure that we all accept that that is not a matter of ability but a result of the system that they have been in. We must go out of our way to enable them to develop their skills later than young people who have not been through the care system.

There are clear reasons why we should ensure that local authorities have a duty to support care leavers up to and including the age of 24. That is important, as experience shows that local authorities do not have a good track record in this field. For 50 years, local authorities have had discretionary powers to give aftercare and support for care leavers' education, as provided for in the Children Acts 1948 and 1989. They have not used that power, so I have doubts about discretionary powers in this field. One local authority in Wales, for example, currently has 200 care leavers, but has no budget to finance education and training for them.

Care leavers and representatives from Voices from Care say that they have not even been told by local authorities that they may be able to receive assistance to pursue their education. They had no idea that they could receive discretionary assistance—that seems to be a common problem among local authorities in Wales. It is therefore not surprising that so few young people leaving care go on to higher education. That is a disgraceful situation which must change, and the Bill gives us an opportunity to change it.

Not getting any training and education has severe consequences for young people, but there is clear evidence that we can do something about that. In research done in Wales, Professor Sonia Jackson studied care leavers with good academic qualifications and found that those who had qualifications ranging from a minimum of 5 GCSEs to degrees all ended up with secure careers and housing. The education system offered them opportunities to achieve and take part in the mainstream of society. However, only one member of the control group of approximately 100 care leavers without any educational qualifications had secure work and housing. That is a gloomy statistic. Education and assistance with education seem to be the key to helping those young people move ahead. We should help people not only in the short term but in the long term.

I said earlier that young people in Wales were sending a strong message that they did not wish benefits to be transferred to local authorities. They assure me that their consultations show that that feeling is shared by all young people in Wales. I accept the intention behind the proposal to transfer benefits from the Department of Social Security to local authorities. However, young people have told me forcefully that they feel that they are being treated differently from other young people who are not able to live at home. I accept that it can be argued that we are trying to make local authority provision more like a real home for care leavers, but I want to put it on the record that young people fear that a transfer may result in their losing out on additional benefits from the DSS, even though, as has been said, such benefits are a maze and difficult to get.

Many young people in care do not have a good relationship with the local authority and feel that they have often been let down by social workers. Lots of them do not have social workers who have worked with them for a long time. I am not attacking social workers, as that is not their fault, but perhaps the system is not properly resourced. Young people are sceptical of the local authority and are anxious about the transfer of benefits from the DSS to local government. Is it possible to have further consultation with young people on the issue, as we need to reassure them that they will not lose out and that there will be a better and easier system?

The National Assembly for Wales will be responsible for the distribution of benefits to local authorities in Wales. The Bill specifies that money going to the local authorities will be ring-fenced, and we want that for Wales, although how it is done will be up to the National Assembly. If the money is not ring-fenced, I would have a grave fear that some of it would be lost in local authority budgets.

Finally, I want to take the opportunity to publicise the need for all further and higher education colleges and institutions to recognise positively the particular needs of care leavers. Ground-breaking work done in this field by Howard Firth at Hampshire county council in partnership with local universities and colleges has led to passports to education, which are positive routes for care leavers to help them into further and higher education. That involves work before the young person goes to college, exploratory visits, support and other assistance which helps to make higher education more accessible. It is leading to real results and achievements, which can be an inspiration to others.

All the research evidence shows that care leavers are under-represented in further and higher education. Their parents have in effect been local authorities, and more must be done by colleges and universities to ensure that an appropriate number of young people from care enter further and higher education.

In summary, I am aware that some of my proposals would add to the resources needed for the Bill. However, it is important to recognise that if we provide the money now, we shall not have to provide it later. Whatever we do, we must change the situation whereby young people end up in an expensive prison system or homeless on the streets, which involves a great cost to the individuals concerned.

7.19 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

For the first time in this Parliament, I truly welcome a Government Bill, although I hope that I do not come to regret that. I am not going soft, but I feel that I should give credit where it is due. I congratulate the Government on a Bill which, in every sense, is a measure of common sense. As with all such debates, it seems that there is little to say because all hon. Members have said that they agree with the measure. The few points that we want to make will be best made in Committee. Having said that, I should still like to put on record a few thoughts.

The Action on Aftercare Consortium comprises of Barnardos, Centrepoint, Childline, the National Children's Bureau, Action for Children, the National Foster Care Association, First Key, Save the Children, the Children's Society and Voice for the Child in Care, all of which support the Bill. Many of us have great contact with them in our constituencies. Perhaps the Government needed no encouragement because they have acted on the Utting report, but those organisations must take some of the credit, and I pay tribute to them.

The statistics for children in care are absolutely horrendous. The circumstances under which many children go into care are too awful to describe. Many hon. Members have come from a loving, caring, family environment, and it is difficult to imagine the awful circumstances of some children, who eventually drift into crime and take drugs. They may become pregnant when they do not wish to do so, and they then have children, and one cycle follows another. I welcome the fact that the Bill will address some of those problems.

We heard from the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, of which I am a member. I was not serving on the Committee when the report to which he referred was produced, but I pay tribute to it for that report, especially three of its proposals. It said: It is clear that in many cases undue pressure is put on young people to leave care as soon as they are 16, irrespective of how well or badly prepared they may be for independent living so early in their lives. I am glad that the Government have taken that proposal on board.

The Committee's second proposal states: The social services must not turn their backs on young people when they have left care … We support the proposal by Sir William Utting and others that the Children Act 1989 should be amended to convert the discretionary powers contained in section 24 into duties imposed on local authorities to offer appropriate support to care leavers in the form of services, in-kind assistance and cash. We recommend that this duty should extend to young people up to and including the age of 21, and should exist as a discretionary power up to and including the age of 25, or beyond in exceptional circumstances. The Government should ensure that the resources necessary to achieve this end are provided. Several hon. Members have already mentioned that.

The final point—I do not think that the Minister mentioned it in opening the debate—is that the Select Committee said: We recommend that the Government should take the necessary steps to improve the quality of statistical information available on service provision for and outcomes of care leavers. I hope that the Minister—

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because he will probably not receive a response to that point if I do not respond now. He will be aware that the work that is being done on the quality protects programme has hugely increased the resources and data available on such issues. We hope to publish the second national overview report of the management action plans shortly. I hope that he and his fellow members of the Select Committee will pleased about the progress that we are making on data collection.

Mr. Amess

Excellent. I thank the Minister for that instant response. There are beacons of good practice around the country. I am trying to be politically neutral, but I have struggled to find a reference to a Liberal council.

Dr. Brand

The Isle of Wight.

Mr. Amess

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) wants me to mention his local authority, but the Local Government Association's briefing particularly praises Westminster city council for linking care and aftercare services, Wakefield metropolitan district council for the signpost project, the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea for the good parent model, and Suffolk county council for working in partnership. I do not know why the LGA did not include a Liberal council, but the hon. Gentleman has certainly put that right.

There are wonderful examples of good practice throughout the country, in which appropriate resources are set aside, but there are some examples of very poor practice. Some local authorities seem to take the first opportunity to cast out youngsters from the system and make them fend for themselves. There have been perverse incentives for local authorities to shove the cost on to the social security budget. I am so pleased that this little Bill of just eight clauses will address that point, and I congratulate the Government on that.

My noble Friend Earl Howe, among others, successfully argued in the other place that the age should be 21, as Utting suggested. I am pleased that the Government have accepted that. I understand that an undertaking was given in the other place on assistance for care leavers in connection with job training, educational qualifications and employment up to the age of 24. Perhaps the Minister in the other place was simply trying to placate and shut up my noble Friend, but we might be able to test that in Committee.

I was sent a briefing by the British Association of Social Workers, which the Minister may or may not have had an opportunity to read. It seems to make one or two critical points on legislative changes. For example, it states that the proposals for helping the youngsters are inadequate. The aim of preventing destitution … is too modest. The proper course in these circumstances is to give the area authority a duty to provide services and a power to re-charge the care authority until such time as the care authority is able to assume responsibility for service provision. The care authority's desire to regain control of their own expenditure should prove a sufficient incentive to prevent drift in this situation. The Minister may be able to respond to that in Committee.

As the Minister knows, the LGA supports the Bill, but, with others, it is concerned about resources, which will be no surprise to the Minister. It believes: The proposals cover new and extended duties, new staff and the administration of benefits. The association is keen to ensure adequate levels of funding so that young people are not let down. Access to related benefits and to employment and careers support should continue. There needs to be additional funding to cover the administrative costs of implementing the proposals. The simple transfer of current benefits to the ringfenced "account" to support young people will not be adequate to meet needs such as accommodation, as under 25's receive reduced benefits and underclaim. There will need to be higher levels of support. I am privileged to do some organised voluntary work with Barnardos, which also supports the Bill, but it is concerned that the Bill does not cover the full 47,000 disabled children who live away from home. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) touched on that fact. Barnardos believes that disabled children and young people who are placed in residential schools on full-time placements, or those who receive care during school holidays, are not officially looked after, and it is concerned about their position. It believes that those young people will spend most of their childhood living away from their families and are unlikely to return to them when they finish their education.

The transition planning requirements address the transfer from education and children's services to adult services, but I am advised that there is no requirement for those young people to have an adviser or advocate and that decisions about their future are often made without reference to their wishes and feelings. Frequently, assumptions are made about their abilities, and they are not given the opportunity to consider independent living or access to mainstream education and employment services. That group of marginalised and excluded young people are denied rights available to others, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a steer on that in Committee.

The issue of the advisers was raised in the other place, and it is important that they are given proper training. Their job will be an enormous responsibility and they should be tutored in child welfare, so that they are not just a cheap version of what is on offer at the moment. I hope that the advisers, with all the responsibility they will face, will receive first-class training.

My five children are still dependants, and I am told that the idea that when they grow older I will be able to really enjoy life and they will never come back, with all their hopes and anxieties, is complete nonsense. Above all else, the children leaving care, who are the victims of such terrible circumstances, deserve the best possible support. I hope that the Bill will ensure that they get it.

7.31 pm
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I apologise for being absent for part of the debate, but I had an urgent meeting. We all arrive here through a variety of circumstances, and that brings a rich mixture of knowledge and varying degrees of expertise. We all have great hopes of seeing changes in areas of policy that we might have a particular interest in or experience of. I have spoken in many debates and I have welcomed legislation in the belief that it will change and improve the lives of the constituents whom I represent, but the Bill fills me with an immense sense of pride. I am proud because I know, from my work with young people leaving care, that the measures it contains will improve their lives—they are among the most vulnerable members of our community. I am also proud that it is my party in Government who have listened to and—importantly—understood the concerns of young people in care.

The Bill is also great testimony to the campaigners, who have been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House, who have worked tirelessly to get the measures in the Bill accepted by Parliament. As other hon. Members have said, we want the Bill implemented as soon as possible.

It is important to discuss why we need the Bill. We have heard that 75 per cent. of young people leaving care do so without any educational qualifications, and 50 per cent. of them are unemployed. That is hardly surprising when the majority have to leave their homes at 16 or 17, and that figure has been rising steadily. They leave home and have to run their own home. Then they have to start their college course, and they might need to supplement that college course by working at the local supermarket. They have no family to back them up. They might have been sexually or physically abused. They might have experienced the turmoil of adoption breakdown. All that at 16. We, the policy makers, decide that they can cope with all that at 16. It is a disgrace. Was there ever a better entitled consultation document than "Me, Survive Out There?" What do we expect? It is not rocket science to work out that the odds are stacked heavily against those young people.

Despite all the adverse circumstances, it is important to acknowledge that many young people who leave care are great survivors and do remarkably well. However, when we congratulate them, we should feel a sense of shame, because it is despite the policy makers and the laws that are in place that the young people do so well. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), I was privileged to meet a group of young people from Kent, who came to the House with their social workers to discuss aspects of the Bill, including issues such as housing, training, foster carers, supportive lodgings and money—the sort of issues that one would expect young people in care to want to discuss.

Those young people gave a positive welcome to the Bill, but in their eyes—and to some extent, in mine—it will succeed or fail depending on whether we grasp the nettle and raise the statutory leaving age to 21. That is crucial for the success of the Bill. We should pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is no longer in his place, because I know from conversations that I have had with him and from speaking to others that he has worked hard to see that the amendment tabled in the other place made it into the Bill. I thank him for that, and all the young people in care and everyone involved in their welfare should pay tribute to him. We should send a loud and clear message to young people in care that we want to see the change to 21 made as soon as possible, so that they can stay in care until the age of 21 and, if they are in education, until the age of 24.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, we should ask whether what we provide would be good enough for our children. A background of abuse followed by the requirement to leave home at 16 and live in a bedsit is not good enough. We must give young people the opportunity to stay in a family home until they are 21. Nothing less will do.

One of the young people whom I met told me about the time he was preparing for his A-levels. He is an exception, because few young people in care get to that point. Three months before sitting his exams, he celebrated his 18th birthday. We all remember doing that, but for him it meant that he had to leave his foster home and move into a bedsit. That was not what his foster carers wanted or, obviously, what he wanted. Not surprisingly, given the distress that the move caused him, he went on to fail his A-levels. He did so because the system had let him down. I am glad to say that, through his own efforts, the wrong was righted. He has a place in a supportive lodging scheme and is progressing well. Sadly, in my experience, his story is not uncommon.

I have seen too many young people leave home before they were ready. Is that the fault of the social workers, the foster carers or the local authority? There are cases in which all could have done a lot better. I know that I could and should have done a lot better in certain cases. However, as my noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath said in the other place, much comes down to money. It simply has not been there.

There are examples of good practice, as the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) pointed out. Many local authorities are held up as beacons of excellence in the services that they provide for young people. In Kent, I am pleased to say that they have developed a model, recommended in the Utting report, of dedicated services for 16-year-olds and older. With the assistance of some £3 million over the next three years, an excellent team has been set up that is doing some good work with young people throughout the county. The Government are putting their money where their mouth is, and the quality protects programme has been welcomed on both sides of the House.

The Bill will have cost implications. It is proposed that young people should stay in care until they reach 21, but the recruitment and retention of foster carers is a problem now. The Government are doing their level best to recruit extra foster carers for the children in care now, but we will have a new group of 18 to 24-year-olds, some of whom will be in foster care, which adds a whole new dimension for foster carers. That will require some specialist training, which will mean extra resources. Foster care is a demanding job, particularly with 16 and 17-year-olds, but I know that all foster carers with whom I have worked do not want young people to leave care at such a tender age.

The Bill rightly places great emphasis on preparation and pathway plans. It is vital that we get that right. Many young people from as early an age as 15 have a cloud hanging over their heads; they are told that they should prepare for independence. Let us imagine what that might feel like. One can imagine the insecurity that that creates among 15-year-olds who have been abused or have entered care for other reasons—there are all sorts of reasons, as the hon. Member for Southend, West said.

Being 15 years old is not that easy anyway—nor is it easy for parents or any of us to cope with them. I remember running away from home for a couple of days when I was 15, causing my parents problems. The reason was that I did not want to have my hair cut. Sadly, I am reminded of my folly every time that I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning.

Introducing independence preparation too early can be very damaging. It is important that we get the matter right and focus on the important issues. The experience of leaving care can jeopardise a young person's future. When they should be thinking about their examinations, enjoying themselves, worrying about their haircuts and doing all the things that 15-year-olds do, they should not have to cope with the constant thought of leaving care in two years' time.

That is particularly so given that the preparation is heavily focused on practical life skills. Young people aged 15 and 16 are expected to know about bank accounts, how to cook and where the jobcentre is. I did not know all that when I was 15. Young people in care are great survivors, but-emotional support and educational achievement need to come first. If we get those right and provide for young people to stay in care for as long as they need, we will have provided the best pathway plan. That is the best way in which we can assist young people to survive out there.

If young people are to succeed when they leave care, there must be a sea change in culture. A youngster leaving care at the age of 17 or 18 must be the exception, not the norm as at the moment. We must allow young people on leaving care to get it wrong. They may choose at 18 to move into a bedsit, but if that does not work out and they have difficultly paying bills, they should be able to return to care. Any other young person in such circumstances would go home, saying, "I am sorry; I got it wrong," and their parents would take them back. That is exactly what should happen to young people who have been in care. They should have such back-up, which will give them confidence and enable them to get the most out of their lives. That means no half measures: 21—nothing less.

I should like to make a few comments on other aspects of the Bill. First, the proposals to move benefits are entirely right, but I wonder whether some flexibility should be built into the system. If it can be demonstrated, through due process, that a young person's relationship with a local authority has broken down or that they have moved on, it might be appropriate for them to receive benefits in the normal way.

Secondly, setting up home is crucial for youngsters leaving care. The Green Paper on housing widened the category of priority groups to include care leavers, which is welcome. I hope that there is a Bill to that effect in the next Session. Parental responsibility should involve housing authorities. Kent operates a two-tier system of local government. Several district councils operating in an area means that resources vary greatly from one housing authority to another. Unfortunately, so does willingness to participate in assisting young people, which does not cost a great deal but is very important. There should be a clear requirement on housing authorities to be so involved.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned houses in multiple occupation. In the interests of joined-up government, I hope that a Bill in the next Session licenses HMOs. Local authorities and their representative bodies have been calling for that for many years. Although HMOs are a necessary part of housing provision, a landlord should have a licence and a clean bill of health for the premises before he opens his doors to any young persons and receives benefit payments. That would raise the standard of such housing stock.

Thirdly, the provision of young persons' advisers is welcome. Let us hope that such advisers will be an additional advocate and a positive force for rights and quality. It is crucial that young people trust, and have confidence in, those individuals. I would be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health how their performance will be monitored and whether there will be a mechanism in clause 5, concerning complaints procedures, for which there will be regulations, for a young person to be able to change their personal adviser if they see fit.

I was completing my social work training just as the Children Act 1989 was completing its passage through the House. The legislation was heralded as a bringing together of all the various Acts and there was great support for it in the House, but a number of commentators were saying—I said so in my law paper—that it was a missed opportunity. Its one glaring failure was that, rather than stipulating duties, it simply gave powers to assist care leavers. As a consequence, over the decade since that Act came into force, young people have missed opportunities to fulfil their potential—because they have left home at 16. As hon. Members have mentioned, the cost to those leaving care, and to society, has been enormous as a result.

As long ago as 1948, local authorities were given powers to assist young people leaving care. More than half a century later, most authorities do not use those powers. We need to stipulate the age of 21 and we need young people to stay in care until such an age—and as soon as possible. I wish my hon. Friends all the very best in negotiations on the comprehensive spending review.

I want to make one final point, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) referred. Child migrants are a forgotten section of the community of children who leave care. The Child Migrants Trust experiences difficulties in funding all the work that lands on its desk. It has 130 families on its books waiting for social workers. Just recently, a mother aged 86, who had been looking for her child in Australia, died before any reconciliation. There are not enough social workers to do the work. That man in Melbourne will shortly be told that his mother has died and that the opportunity for reconciliation has passed.

Finally, I wish my hon. Friend the Minister good luck with the comprehensive spending review. I know that there is enormous competition, but it is right that we assist children who are the responsibility of the state. We have let them down too often in the past and, by helping child migrants, the Bill will go a long way to righting many wrongs.

7.50 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

It is fair to say that this is a brilliant Bill, packed full of excellent measures. 1 welcome it as representing the coming of age of public policy on children and young people looked after by local authorities. The way in which we have let down vulnerable young people, time after time, has been catastrophic for them because it has damaged their ties to family and the wider community, and it reflects badly on our society as a whole.

I am pleased to tell hon. Members that I do not intend to take them on another tour of the Bill's contents as other speakers have done; instead, I shall set the Bill in two of its immediate contexts and raise two specific points that have already been raised but which, even in a debate of such high quality, have not been focused upon. The two contexts are quality protects and the Care Standards Bill, both of which have been mentioned many times in the debate.

Quality protects was launched in September 1998. It is important to remember that the Bill relates to children and young people in care and leaving care, whereas quality protects has a far broader application, covering all local authority services for children, including those for young people looked after by local authorities. Let me illustrate the sea change that is already taking place as a result of quality protects, by referring to Staffordshire social services.

Even before quality protects began, a leaving care team was in place in Staffordshire, and the social services department was already moving in the direction in which that programme later pushed everyone. In May 1998, before the launch of quality protects, I organised a conference in Stafford to discuss how better to support children leaving care, and the local social services department was a strong supporter of the conference. The department picked up and ran with several recommendations on best practice that emerged from the day, which put it in a good position later, when quality protects was launched.

Staffordshire social services department's most recent publication sets out its response to quality protects. It says: A lot has started to happen for children and young people we look after. Some examples of changes on the ground include the appointment of a children's voice officer and complaints officers, and the institution of formal and informal methods of consultation. There are now mentors for children leaving care, trained and supported by a joint co-operative venture between the department and the Prince's Trust. I was pleased to award the first volunteers their certificates of competence at the end of their training and to meet the people who want to help and support youngsters leaving care.

A project called Sustain provides immediate help to youngsters in placements that are in danger of breaking down; it tries to save the placement and keep the children safe. Planning is carried out to avert the need to receive children and young people into care, to keep them with their families and to support them in the community. Finally, there are effective links with education and health services in Staffordshire. Those examples of local action remind us that while the Bill is being implemented, quality protects will be running alongside, developing and pushing local authority social services in the same direction.

That brings me to the Care Standards Bill, which deals with much more than children. Where it does deal with children, it relates specifically to those living in residential care homes and to fostering agencies and voluntary adoption agencies. The intention is to protect vulnerable people from abuse and neglect and to promote a consistently high standard of care in all care homes. All children's care homes will come within the remit of the new National Care Standards Commission and its inspection regime.

When the Government were under pressure to establish a children's rights commissioner, the concession they offered to those pressing for such a post was to promise that the new commission would appoint a children's rights director. That brings me to the first of the two issues that I want to highlight, which are, first, the arguments surrounding the children's rights commissioner, and secondly, advocacy for children and young people. I am but one of many voices calling for a commissioner to be appointed.

Dr. Brand

Does the hon. Gentleman share my surprise that although 13 speeches made on Second Reading of the Care Standards Bill focused on the need for a children's rights commissioner, amendments based on the Children's Rights Commissioner Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) were not accepted by the powers that be?

Mr. Kidney

I was not so much surprised as disappointed. I intend to urge Ministers to think again.

In discussions with Department of Health officials about the reasons behind the objection to a commissioner, the official response to my arguments in favour of the post being established was that with all the other developments already in train, nothing additional would be gained by such an appointment. I do not agree. First, the post of commissioner would secure the advances now being made against future watering down or neglect. Secondly, it would provide a focus for children and those who are concerned for children and want to help them. Thirdly, a commissioner would be an authoritative figure to provide guides to best practice, to pull up those who fail to do what they should do, and to be either the whistleblower or the person to whom a whistleblower turns to draw attention to something wrong.

Earlier this year, in a debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), said of the proposed children's rights director: In recognition of its role in safeguarding children, the national care standards commission will appoint a children's rights director, whose job it will be to ensure that children's rights and welfare are at the heart of all its responsibilities for regulating children's services.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 3 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 253WH.] I believe that his statement could—and should—properly be adapted to read as follows: "In recognition of his role in safeguarding children, the Secretary of State will appoint a children's rights commissioner whose job it will be to ensure that children's rights and welfare are at the heart of all public policies that govern children's services."

Have the Government given any further consideration to the creation of the post of a children's rights commissioner? Am I right in thinking that the Bill's long title precludes an amendment being made in Committee that would create such a post? If I am right, what is the role—if any—of the new children's rights director established under the Care Standards Bill in ensuring that children and young people can gain access to the new rights granted under this Bill?

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), told me earlier that the director would be able to help children who are in residential care, who are fostered through a fostering agency or who are adopted through a voluntary adoption agency. However, I am sure that a moment's reflection would enable her to think of many children covered by this Bill who do not fall into any of those categories. Those who come to mind immediately are children in care who are placed with their own parents or relatives from their wider family, and also those mentioned in the Bill—eligible, relevant and former relevant children who were in care.

Many young people must be out of their foster placement or children's home by their 18th birthday, despite the assurance that the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), and I suspect that under the proposed set-up none of them would have access to the children's rights director. That would be a loophole, and would lead to a terribly uneven application of the brilliant suggestion that there should be someone for children to turn to. That is why I think that there must be a children's rights commissioner.

Finally, on advocacy for children, many years ago Staffordshire contributed the expression "pindown" to the lexicon of child abuse. Young people were restrained in residential homes by having their outdoor clothes taken away and being locked in their rooms. No advocacy services were available for those young people—apart from access to the traditional lawyer. Eventually the practice came to light because of a solicitor's legal action on behalf of some young residents. How much better it will be when children and young people have ready access to trained advocates, be they paid professionals or well trained volunteers. They would be non-lawyers who were ready and able to stand by children and young people and articulate their points of view for them.

Advocates are not needed in every situation, nor for every young person, but the greater the vulnerability and the more difficult the task of speaking up for themselves, the more compelling is the case for providing that service. A number of organisations concerned with the welfare of children and young people have put to the Government the case for an advocacy service. They are a powerful coalition of some of our more respected organisations, and I support their call for the Bill to include a provision for advocacy services. Will the Minister tell us whether the Department is now persuaded by the force of those arguments and is willing to incorporate the provision in the Bill?

A great story is waiting to be told about the Government's tremendous effort to improve public policy towards children, from the attack on child poverty to the drive to raise educational standards. High up in the list of achievements will be the civilised, decent measures taken to care for the most vulnerable children, which include some of those looked after by local authorities. For quality protects, for the Care Standards Bill and for this Bill, I say a hearty, "Well done" to the Government.

8.3 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

It is an absolute privilege to take part in this debate and, in particular, to follow some of the other contributions. The Government inherited a care system that hon. Members on both sides would acknowledge was a shameful disgrace—a system in which a lack of investment, of coherent policy, and, frankly, of interest for many years resulted in the shocking abuse of children in care, as is well documented.

The situation got worse in the 1990s, when young people were turned out of care at 16, or even younger, in increasing numbers. Basic rights were denied to those children in care—the right to education and to the ordinary experiences of growing up in modern society, and to being listened to and cared for properly. It is remarkable that in only three years under this Government we now have a national voice for such children, the new National Organisation for Young People in Care. We now have quality protects, the £375 million investment in improved standards and management accountability.

Soon we will have the National Care Standards Commission, the children's rights director and the General Social Care Council. In this Bill, we have the biggest prize of all: the extension of the statutory duty on local authorities to assist looked-after young people up to the age of 21 and, while they are in education, to 24.

Those policies, coupled with the new education policies, which will require local authorities properly to attend to the education of young people—to set proper individual plans for their education—and to appoint staff to manage the policies, and with full implementation of the Protection of Children Act 1999, will transform the care system. That is a triumph for the Government. It is a triumph for the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who has picked up the baton in exemplary fashion and run with it tremendously well, and for his direct predecessor, now the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), and, above all, for my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), whose justified anger, passion and determination to change the care system have carried these measures through—[Interruption.] Excellent, my right hon. Friend comes in on cue. I was just saying what a good chap he is.

The measure is a triumph for campaigning organisations, such as the Who Cares? Trust, First Key, the National Care Leavers Association, Children in Wales and Voices from Care. It is also a triumph for the Select Committee on Health and its estimable Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who can rest assured that I was born in Northumberland even though I represent the glorious city of Lancaster. Above all, however, it is a triumph for the brave, resilient and amazing young people in care, whom many of us have the privilege to know. We can dwell for ever on the sad facts of life in care in previous decades, but it is incredibly important to understand that children in care—anyone who has listened to them could understand it—know more about the care system than we ever will. Frankly, they are more intelligent and articulate than most of us. They have endured situations and survived distress that would have finished many of us, more fortunate, Members here. It is great that the Bill will allow them educational chances and give them the support that they need.

The Bill must succeed. It must receive the required resources from the comprehensive spending review. Quality protects should be replenished with further resources, too. The Bill must be fully implemented by local authorities. Their supreme failure for years has brought us to this pass. On paper, we have had good legislation in the past, but statutory duties have not been properly fulfilled and powers have been totally neglected. The one most crucial message of all is that we should forget about giving local authorities powers over young people who are looked after. If we want the job done, we must give them duties, and then make them carry them out and keep them to the letter of the law.

The operation of quality protects, the National Care Standards Commission and the children's rights director, and the Government's passion for, commitment to and anger about the care system will ensure that, across the country, the care system is transformed.

The Bill represents the culmination of a series of events, and constitutes great social policy from a great reforming Government. All the implications of that policy and the Bill must be implemented. However, the Bill needs to go further. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that young people should have a statutory right to advocacy. Young people leaving care should have a statutory right to be housed by the local authority.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras never said a truer word than when he challenged local authorities to be corporate parents, and urged them to take on the simple requirement of social work and measure their achievements against what a good, responsible, ordinary parent would do. A good, responsible local authority would not send children into bed-and-breakfast accommodation, for goodness' sake, or into temporary accommodation. It would ensure that children in whom it had for many years invested time, money, work, care and support left care for decent accommodation and were decently supported through their early adult years.

I do not believe that that is an over-ambitious proposal for all young people in care in this country. We did it in Lancaster when I worked there, and in Wyre when I worked there. Every young person who remained in care until the age of 18 was guaranteed the opportunity of a local authority tenancy. That should obtain for all young people in care and should be written into the Bill.

We should acknowledge that legislation is not enough. Procedures are important and policy development is vital. We must engage all elements of the system—local authorities, voluntary societies and, above all, young people—in developing practice.

The Bill represents an historic moment for social policy. It is clear evidence that the Government are listening, learning and working with all concerned to achieve change, and are producing great reforming legislation. We should all recognise the significance of this day and celebrate a victory for care, compassion, decency—and especially for the hundreds of thousands of children who will pass through our care system and benefit from the Bill in the future.

8.13 pm
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The debate has the air of a Friday debate on a private Member's Bill on which there has been consensus in all parts of the House. I have good news for the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who said that he remembered such consensus last breaking out in relation to the Children Act 1989. I am pleased to tell him that, from my short time in the House, I recall a similar consensus on the Carers and Disabled Children Bill, and I am reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) that that was the case also when we debated the Protection of Children Act 1999.

When we discuss children's services, consensus breaks out in all parts of the House. We are working together to make sure that those services are improved. That is why the Bill has received support from the Opposition.

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman

I should like to make progress. The hon. Gentleman has just spoken. As he has just had his turn, perhaps he will allow me to get going, but I shall give way later when we get on to the substance.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about parenting. We must be realistic about the role of the corporate parent. It can never be quite as good as a relationship with a mum or dad who sees the child through the truculent transition from childhood to adulthood, with all the powers, good will and love for the child that a parent has.

The bare statistics cited by hon. Members in all parts of the House during the debate reveal that the state has made a poor fist of trying to be a corporate parent. I shall not rehearse all the statistics, but there is one that I find particularly sad: one in seven young women leaving care is pregnant or a mother already—in other words, those young women fell pregnant before they reached the age of 16. Clearly, as corporate parents we have not done well. That is why we support the Government in their efforts to improve that appalling situation, and why we have given our support to the quality protects programme.

Our purpose today is to help the Government improve the Bill. If we think ourselves into the role of parenting a troubled teenager, we know that teenagers resent being dictated to or bound by rules and sanctions that they regard as petty and offensive, so we must strike a balance, as any successful parent does. There must be give and take during the teenage years, and young people need to know that if all goes wrong, we are still there for them. That is what we must convey and transform into practical reality through the Bill. Many of the youngsters with whom it deals have only a broken experience of such unconditional love.

Ms Shipley

Does the hon. Lady agree with what I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), when I suggested that if the teenager refuses to participate in the programme that we suggest or in some other way does not comply with our wishes, we cannot withdraw, as a sanction, the structure proposed by my hon. Friend the Minister of State? We must keep going and keep offering love, support and care.

Mrs. Spelman

I heard the hon. Lady's earlier intervention. Common sense is needed in working out the pathway plan. Adults at their wits' end must try to use common sense as young people make the transition, and advisers will have to use common sense when dealing with youngsters unwilling to follow the route that we suggest for them. It is against the ideal of being a really good corporate parent, which is hard to achieve, that we are trying to assess the Bill.

It is important that we try to ensure that young people have a choice when it comes to personal advisers. The independence of personal advisers may be the key to trust. A phrase that came home to me when I was talking to some of the voluntary organisations was that children in care sometimes see those who are there to help them as part of a "hated establishment". If the advisers are seen as insufficiently independent of that establishment, they are unlikely to be trusted. Surely the young individual should have the right to reject any advice thrust upon him if, after a trial period with an individual adviser, the process is not working.

I support the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that, at 18, a young adult must have the right to say, "Thanks, but no thanks." However, that must be balanced in the Bill with the right for that young adult to come back if he changes his mind. Striking that balance will be part of our skill in getting the proposed legislation right.

Where the Bill will succeed or fail lies in the future ability of local authorities to overcome the natural antipathy and mistrust of young people in their care towards them. We have been told so often by those working in this area that that is the nub of the argument. That is one of the reasons why we strongly advocated the greater use of voluntary organisations. In the example given by my hon. Friend, they can often do better.

Communication between local authorities will be vital if the Bill is to work. Young people are naturally mobile, and they may move from the authority area in which they are in care to another. The Bill holds the original authority responsible for the financial and social support of that individual. There will have to be a new spirit of interdependence between local authorities.

As in one case study that I saw, if the local authority in Hull is asked to pick up the tab for a care leaver who lives, studies and needs help in, for example, London, good communication between the two authorities will be required.

The Government may have to use their powers under the Local Government Act 1999, as the Minister made clear. It contains powers to direct a local authority which fails in its obligations under the Bill. These powers have not yet been implemented, despite having been law since April. If the Bill is to have effect, these powers will have to be seen to work. It is only when local authorities are brought to book if they fail, that confidence in the system will be restored.

There is the question of the looming Scottish anomaly. We do not want a repetition of the student fee situation. However, it could arise where care leavers can continue to get hold of existing benefits from social security in Scotland whereas, under the Bill, that will be stopped in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) is not present because I have to say that that involves two-way traffic.

Scottish care leavers coming to England will still be entitled to benefits unless parallel legislation is achieved pretty quickly in the Scottish Parliament. It is not impossible to imagine a situation, unless the anomaly is rectified, where somewhere such as Glasgow becomes the care leavers' capital of Britain. I am sure that the local authority in Glasgow would not wish that to happen.

Voluntary organisations such as the Action on Aftercare Consortium have considerable evidence of young people having trouble accessing the existing complaints procedure. The Bill lacks a new model with sufficient independence to inspire confidence in a complaints procedure. I support the view of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that it would be helped by greater use of advocacy. The voluntary organisation First Key and a host of other organisations believe passionately that every child should have access to an independent advocate. I hope that is something that we shall be able to explore in Committee.

Mr. Hutton

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that yesterday we published a consultation document about possible reform of social services complaints procedures. We have asked specific questions about the role of advocacy. We have always made it clear in relation to the Bill that we shall ensure that looked-after children have access to proper advocacy arrangements.

Mrs. Spelman

I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention. I was unaware that the document had been published. That helps me.

A host of other practical issues will be brought forward in the form of appropriate amendments in Committee. To allow the Government time to think about some of them, it is worth flagging up a few. For example, why restrict the provision of vacation accommodation to those on higher education courses only?

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) made an important point about the value of further education. Only a few care leavers aspire to university qualifications. However, many aspire to more practical qualifications that are obtainable through further education. Of course, FE colleges also have vacations, and that is something that we need to consider if we are to commend this part of the Bill.

An important point was made in the other place about the means-testing of financial support. As far as I am aware, that point has not been taken up today. I would like to know the Minister's thinking on protecting care leavers who have been granted compensation for criminal injuries. That could arise particularly in cases of child abuse. In that instance, that compensation should definitely be excluded from any means-testing of the financial support that the individual receives. We want to ensure that that point is not lost.

Hon. Members raised a number of other technical points, and at times the debate almost resembled a Committee stage. Therefore, I simply re-emphasise the Opposition's support for the Bill. In Committee, our opposition will consist of constructive suggestions on how to improve the Bill. There needs to be a touch of gritty reality about dealing with the needs and aspirations of troubled youngsters who have had some of their life chances seriously dented, and we must be careful not to make matters worse. Sadly, there is too much evidence of the state doing just that.

We recognise that the Bill will place a considerable additional burden on social workers, and they will need plenty of support. We must be particularly aware of the fact that, as the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) said, social workers are already in short supply in certain areas.

Several hon. Members made important points about resources. For the Bill to work, it needs to be properly resourced. At least one practical problem that will need to be addressed is that savings in the administrative costs of benefits will remain with the Department of Social Security unless they can be transferred to support the new financial support arrangements for care leavers under the Bill. We are anxious to ensure that resources that were once available for care leavers from one Department will now be available from another, so that there are sufficient resources to ensure that the Bill can be put into effect.

Mr. Dawson

I am not a chap for spurious consensus, and some of the hon. Lady's remarks cause me to shudder a little. I am committed to the role of the voluntary sector and the private sector, but when we hear from the spokesperson of a party which comprehensively failed for so long to deal with these issues that it is sceptical about the role of the state, it makes me wonder. The role of the state will be crucial in ensuring that standards are raised. If we rely on the Churches, the voluntary sector, other private sector organisations or odd little organisations coming together, however worthy they are, we will not tackle the fundamental issues that the Conservative party so signally failed to deal with for so many years.

Mrs. Spelman

I regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman. He provokes me into referring to the tone of his speech, which stuck out like a sore thumb as it was the only one that did not represent the cross-party consensus. I would have glossed over it but for that last intervention, which was particularly provocative. I do not think that he was present at the beginning of my speech when I said that we are seeing a continuum in terms of the improvement of children's services, which started with the Children Act and was greatly informed by the inquiry, set up by the Conservative Government, into what had gone wrong in children's services. We have learned a great deal and now we are working together to try to improve what is available. There was no necessity for that intervention.

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman

No, I shall certainly not give way again. The hon. Gentleman has burned his boats. He will have to content himself with the one intervention.

In Committee, we must seek to infuse the debate with the practical experience of those who work with children leaving care, which I am sure several members of the Committee will be able to do. We should also include the independent views of voluntary organisations, which have a great deal of experience of best practice to offer. We may find ourselves the corporate parents of young people in our care system, but they will not thank us if we impose unworkable solutions, cut off their money and let them down.

8.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper)

The debate has been extremely positive and I welcome the support of many hon. Members for the Bill. To his horror, even the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) expressed support for a Government Bill for the first time; I trust that it will be the last. The measure is morally right as well as common sense.

Many detailed points and constructive comments have been made. I shall try to deal with as many as I can. However, I do not apologise for leaving some for the Committee stage. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) made suggestions about the language in the Bill. That is clearly a subject for the Committee.

Many hon. Members eloquently described why the Bill is essential. I join others in paying tribute to those who have campaigned for so long, including hon. Members—not least members of the Select Committee on Health, who have raised the issue many times. I pay special tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who has done so much to ensure the Bill's existence, for his great personal commitment to ensuring that the Bill secured parliamentary time, and for being the driving force behind its genesis and the consultation paper, "Me, Survive Out There?", which was published almost a year ago.

There is no argument about the duty that we owe vulnerable young people who have been looked after by local authorities and have no other family to turn to for support. To face making one's way in the world at just 16 is daunting for any teenager. How much more difficult is it for someone whose childhood has been disrupted, troubled and complicated by family circumstance, tragedy or abuse?

Children in care arrive as victims of circumstance, and seldom through any fault of their own. They are often seriously damaged by experiences before they arrive in care, and they have often grown up without the security of a family network to support them and sustain them emotionally as well as materially when they try to strike out on their own. As most parents and teenagers know, no matter how independent a 16-year-old feels, family support makes a huge difference for many more years in tangible ways—for example, through education, a home, encouragement for exams or job interviews, advice on bank accounts and career choices, help with driving lessons, the chance to borrow a car and the unquantifiable benefit of unconditional support from someone who cares.

Teenagers leaving care rarely have any of that support to fall back on, yet they need more help than other young people and children if they are to make the most of the opportunities of adult life. We are considering a matter of social justice and opportunities that other young people take for granted. It is not right that they are not provided to all young people as they begin their adult life.

The Bill is morally justified as well as pragmatic and sensible. Plenty of evidence supports it; hon. Members have mentioned much of it in their speeches. I shall not repeat many of the points that were made. However, I shall try to respond to some of them. I will begin with those about 16 to 18-year-olds. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) suggested introducing sanctions. I emphasise that we are talking not about adults or over-18s, but about teenagers, many of whom have extremely troubled backgrounds and may struggle with chaotic lives. We are considering teenagers for whom things will go wrong.

A 17-year-old who tries to get a job, changes her mind, tries to start a course, finds that that goes wrong and tries something else, but has no back-up at home, is in a difficult position. She may keep changing her pathway plan, but she still has a right to support from the local authority, including help with housing and maintenance. We are not proposing to make that support conditional on the pursuit of the pathway plan.

Mr. Hammond

I appreciate that the Minister was not here during the relevant part of my speech, but—[HON. MEMBERS: "She was."] I did not think that she was; if she was, I apologise.

What support is to be put in place for the people at the sharp end who have to deal with these very difficult situations, if there are no sanctions and nothing whatever that they can use as a lever to try to ensure compliance with the agreed pathway plan?

Yvette Cooper

For the record, I was in the Chamber and heard every detail of the hon. Gentleman's speech. His language is perhaps revealing when he talks about seeking levers for compliance. The idea of the pathway plan is that it is to be agreed with the young person and is meant to provide support. We must accept that the plan may change many times and that these are young people who may need a lot of support. Clearly, the young persons' advisers and the local authority support network will need to be able to respond to changing needs. We are not talking about sanctions or compulsion; this is about an agreed pathway plan to provide young people with the support and opportunities to which they have a right.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand), spoke of the need to support other vulnerable teenagers, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) referred to the possibility of having young persons' advisers for disabled teenagers.

We are keen to extend to other groups the principle of support through young persons' advisers, and that is why the Department for Education and Employment is piloting the connexions scheme, which aims to provide a personal adviser for all young people aged 13 to 19 to help them to move into a career, and to provide more intensive support for those who need it most. We will need to build on that.

The transfer of benefits to the local authority, with financial support for the authority, gained a lot of support during the consultation, not least from the Foyer Federation, which pointed out how completely baffling the benefits system, designed for adults, can be for 16 to 18-year-olds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) had some concerns about transferring support to local authorities. I can reassure her that care leavers will not be worse off and that we will set minimum standards. The aim is to improve the support for young people and to get around the perverse incentive for local authorities to shift people out of care and on to benefits because that does not block up their balance sheet.

Dr. Brand

The Minister rightly castigated hon. Members for wanting inappropriately to use levers, but if young people are not to have a choice about whether to accept a package from the local authority or through the benefits system, is not she establishing an even more powerful lever that can be used against the wishes of the young person?

Yvette Cooper

We are talking purely about the arrangements up to 18. After 18, the benefits system will continue to work as normal. People have the right to maintenance, accommodation and support. Arrangements must be made in discussion between the young person and the adviser. This is not about compulsion; it is about providing support. Frankly, most of the young people to whom this will apply require more than simply a cheque at the end of the week. They need proper support, help and advice.

Several hon. Members expressed strong support for the changes introduced in the Lords to strengthen support for 18 to 21-year-olds—and upwards—in education. I welcome that strong support, because it must be the right thing to do. With the age of majority at 18, there is clearly. a difference in the support that we provide for under-18s and for over-18s. However, it is also clear that needs stretch far beyond 18 when it comes to providing support, advice and guidance for care leavers in the way that a family would.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge expressed concerns that that support might constitute monitoring and be intrusive. I strongly disagree with him on that, and think that his concerns may rest on a complete misunderstanding of the approach for over-18s. The obligation is on local authorities to keep in touch and on the young person's adviser to contact the teenager, and the duty is to provide assistance as agreed in the pathway plan. If a young person does not want help or to discuss a pathway plan, nothing in the Bill would compel her to do otherwise. There is nothing in the Bill about compulsion, monitoring or tracking. The Bill is about keeping in touch, providing support and ensuring that young people do not simply disappear, with no one knowing or caring where they are.

Mr. Hammond

Does the hon. Lady agree that there is something in the Bill requiring a local authority to make reasonable efforts to get back in touch with a care leaver with whom it has lost touch?

Yvette Cooper

Exactly so; it is absolutely right that local authorities should take reasonable action to get back in touch, and the young person's adviser has an obligation to do exactly that. The hon. Gentleman seems to be talking about tracking down young people in London, with visions of police using dogs to search for leavers. That imagery is entirely out of touch with the ideas expressed in the Bill.

Mr. Dawson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the cracks in the consensus are clearly showing, and that, if the United Kingdom had had the grievous misfortune, on 1 May 1997, of seeing Conservative Members winning the general election, we would have none of the policies on young people in care that the Government have introduced?

Yvette Cooper

It is certainly true that the Bill's provisions are long overdue, and that young people leaving care have been left in a very vulnerable situation, with no support, for far too long. As has been said, the Bill is not rocket science and could have been introduced long ago. It is well overdue.

Mr. Hammond

In view of the hon. Lady's provocative remarks, would she just remind the House of when Sir William Utting reported?

Mr. Dobson

Remind the House about when he was chief inspector of social services.

Yvette Cooper


Mr. Graham Allen (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)

Give way to our right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I think that the Minister should respond to the initial intervention.

Yvette Cooper

The concerns expressed by Sir William Utting, at the end of 1997, were clearly important in informing the Bill. However, it should not have required Sir William Utting to point out that care leavers were in a vulnerable situation. It should not have required Sir William Utting to point out that care leavers were far more likely to be unemployed, to become teenage parents, to leave school with no qualifications and to be in grave need of support. Young people leaving care have been denied the opportunities that they have a right to and which other young people have been given. This is about social justice. It does not require magic to work out that it is a serious problem that should be dealt with.

Mr. Dawson

Does my hon. Friend accept that the issues of leaving care that we have discussed today—such as the inadequacy of preparation for young people before they leave care and the lack of support available to them after they leave care—were raised with me by young people in 1988?

Yvette Cooper

I am sure that those issues were raised with my hon. Friend in 1988, and that they have long been raised with hon. Members. It is about time that we addressed them.

Hon. Members have discussed the need to introduce provisions for 18 to 21-year-olds as soon as possible. I assure the House that that is our intention. However, we shall not place duties on local authorities that we cannot resource. That is why we have indicated our commitment to provide extra resources through quality protects. For future years, we will depend on decisions made in the spending review, as hon. Members mentioned earlier.

Several questions were raised about the possibility that Scotland could become a magnet or a honeypot if it retained its benefits system provision.

Mr. Shaw

Does my hon. Friend agree that most young people leaving care lack the confidence to travel much? People who travel the world have a firm background and a lot of confidence and support. The idea that young people will travel from Meriden to Musselbrugh to seek extra benefits is for the birds.

Yvette Cooper

It is true that claiming that young people will travel some distance in pursuit of benefits assumes that they have the confidence to travel and a sophisticated knowledge of the benefits system. In practice, many of them find it complicated and baffling.

I shall clarify the situation in Scotland. Until clause 6 is implemented there, Scottish looked-after children who come to England will be supported through the benefits system. England will not be a magnet for Scottish young people, but neither is Scotland likely to be regarded as a magnet for English looked-after children. To state otherwise assumes that the present benefits system in some sense gives beneficial and preferential treatment to looked-after children. I do not believe that.

The new arrangements will provide better and more easily accessible support, including financial support and cash, than the present benefits system provides. That is why the proposals were so warmly endorsed throughout the consultation period.

My hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) referred to advocacy. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has already mentioned that we issued a consultation paper recently on the complaints procedure stemming from the Children Act 1989, which covers advocacy issues. We will certainly use the powers in this Bill to ensure that care leavers have advocates to speak on their behalf.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North referred to the need for real educational support going beyond a pathway plan and providing real opportunities. I agree: that is why the Bill introduces duties to provide general assistance and to assist with education and training that goes beyond the age of 21.

That is what proposed new section 23C of the Children Act 1989, in clause 2, is all about, and it deals with one of the most important matters of all. We know that children who are looked after tend to have very poor educational records. It is especially important that pathway plans are not confined to immediate material and emotional needs, but that they also look to the longer-term opportunities that teenagers leaving care have been denied for far too long.

The Bill is about giving care leavers a second or even a third chance to return to education and to the activities denied to them in childhood, but not denied to other children and teenagers. It is about providing a strong framework to encourage young people to go back into education and catch up on qualifications so that they have the educational foundation that will serve them throughout their lives.

Examples of best practice exist around the country already. The hon. Member for Southend, West referred to some. I can tell him that I have visited the signpost project in Wakefield, which supports teenagers and care leavers from my constituency. The work done there, by the local council and Barnardos in partnership, is very impressive, not least because young people there say that the support that they receive, and the advice on housing, jobs and training, is essential.

More importantly, however, they have somewhere to go back to, where there is someone they can talk to, and keep talking to. The most impressive thing of all is the way that the signpost project helps young people to develop ways to support each other. As a result, they are providing mentoring and friendship to other care leavers, teenage parents or other young people in need.

Similar examples exist throughout the country, but we must build on them. The Bill gives us the framework to do exactly that. It meshes with a range of initiatives across the board to tackle social exclusion, and to ensure that all our young people get the best chance in life, and the best help to take those chances.

The Bill is about providing opportunity for every young person, regardless of background or start in life. All young people deserve those opportunities—not just the few.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).