HC Deb 31 October 2000 vol 355 cc654-60
Mr. Hutton

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 6, line 25, leave out "registered" and insert "private".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 14, 20, 19 and 21 to 23.

Mr. Hutton

I am rather sorry that I have to move the amendments. They are necessary only because the Care Standards Act 2000 received Royal Assent before this Bill and we had assumed that this Bill would reach the statute book first. I assure the House that the amendments are technical.

The Care Standards Act amended the definitions of residential care homes, nursing homes and registered children's homes to care homes, independent hospitals and private children's homes. I am sure that the hon. Members for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) will remember the debate on that point—I will never be able to forget it. This Bill, in restating section 24 of the Children Act 1989, deployed in the proposed new sections 24(2)(d)(ii) and 24C(2)(c) the existing definitions of such homes because it was introduced ahead of the Care Standards Bill.

Amendments updating those references were made to the Children Act in the Committee considering the Care Standards Act. As I said at the time, those amendments were drafted on the reasonable assumption that the amendments to the Children Act made by the Children (Leaving Care) Bill would become law first. In the event and as we all know, that did not happen so the amendments refer to new sections of the Children Act that did not, in fact, exist at the time the Care Standards Act obtained Royal Assent. The consequence is that the amendments have no effect. We therefore need to amend this Bill to bring the references to such homes into line, and to remove the now incorrect amendments to the Care Standards Act.

I hope that I can assure the House that the amendments are simply technical: they have no new policy implications of any kind. They are necessary simply because the Care Standards Act received Royal Assent before this Bill.

Mr. Hammond

This is a complex series of amendments to achieve, as the Minister said, precisely nothing in policy terms. We are happy that they achieve their technical purpose and do it well.

I am moved to pass a comment because in the previous debate the Minister felt able to remark on the turmoil, as he saw it, among Conservative Members. What turmoil is going on among Labour Members that enables a Minister of the Crown to say, "We were assuming that the Children (Leaving Care) Bill would reach the statute book first"? Who are the "we" who made that assumption? The "we" have to be the Government. Presumably, the Government could determine which of those two measures reached the statute book first.

6.30 pm

It is a bit rich for the Minister to say that the Government drafted the Bill on the reasonable assumption that one Bill would reach the statute book before the other and that the Bill must now be amended otherwise it would not make sense because, by implication, someone else arranged that that would happen the other way around. If any turmoil is being revealed, it is that which lies at the heart of the Government's management of their overcrowded legislative programme.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 14, in page 6, line 31, leave out from "any" to second "or" in line 32 and insert— 'care home or independent hospital'.—[Mr. Hutton.]

Mr. Hutton

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 8, line 11, after "full-time" insert "further or".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 16 to 18.

Mr. Hutton

We all know by now that the Bill is all about improving the life chances of young people who have been in care. Of course, education is the best way to do that—helping them into jobs, careers and a fulfilling and productive role in society. Skills and knowledge are now the commanding heights of the new economy. We want looked-after children to have exactly the same opportunities to receive a good education as anyone else. That is why the Bill is assiduous in creating duties to help with education and training even beyond the point at which young people leave care.

The new duties for qualifying care leavers aged 18 and over specifically include a duty on councils to assist with education and training to the end of the agreed course, even if that takes a young person past the age of 21. The Bill, as originally drafted, backed that up with a new duty to provide vacation accommodation for care leavers in higher education. That duty was introduced because we were aware of cases in which young people who had left care were unable to take up university places simply because they could not find somewhere to live during vacations. That is why the duty applies to all care leavers, not just those to whom the rest of the Bill applies.

While the Bill has being making its passage through Parliament, we have been made aware of the fact that vacation accommodation can be an issue for some further education students as well. I am grateful to those who have drawn our attention to what might have been an omission in the Bill's drafting.

For the most part, students take further education courses near to home at their local school or college, usually studying from home. Those students do not usually have special accommodation needs during vacations, and these amendments do not affect them. However, some agricultural, horticultural and arts courses are run at residential colleges and those students are clearly in the same position as many university students during vacations in needing to find alternative accommodation. Therefore, following the representations made in Committee and elsewhere, we have decided explicitly to extend the duty to provide vacation accommodation to care leavers who require it to those further education students as well.

Under amendment No. 18, the Secretary of State will be allowed to make regulations defining further education for the purposes of the Bill and the intention is to define it in terms of the sort of residential FE courses that I have described.

Amendment No. 16 will add the qualifier because his term time accommodation is not available to him to establish the reason why a student would need to call on that duty. Most students have the option to return to their family home during vacations—an option that is not available to care leavers. These amendments are intended to create a more level playing field by ensuring that care leavers are not left with nowhere to go during vacations.

Mrs. Spelman

I have hung on the Minister's every word because this parliamentary occasion is a first for me. I have seen the Bill through Committee to Report and, as an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, I have articulated the need to amend the Bill to include further education. Therefore, I was interested to find out how the Government would handle the fact that the Opposition had previously drawn their attention to the need for such an amendment. In the human transactional way of things, I suppose that what the Minister has said is the closest that we will get to an apology.

The Opposition first brought the proposal to the Government's attention in Committee, where they rebuffed it but, on reflection, they have now accepted it. That is an important point for the Opposition. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will know that an Opposition make great play of an amendment being accepted in Committee. We go to the country and say, "Hooray, draft legislation has been changed because we brought something to the Government's attention."

Therefore, it is disappointing that the official Opposition have not been given adequate credit. The Minister spoke of those who had made him aware of the matter, but the word "those" refers to me. Others may have been involved, but the fact is that I and my hon. Friends tabled the amendment in Committee, and we should have liked to have heard about that. Obviously, the most important point is that the change has been made.

I do not wish to embarrass the Minister too much but, in Committee, he said that further education accommodation was not a significant problem…New express duties are not required.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 13 July 2000; c. 110–11.] He also said that any adjustment would be made "through additional guidance."

I rejoice at a parliamentary occasion on which, for once, we have achieved a change in the Bill. That is important because much of the Bill represents an empty box and the Opposition have had to depend on the guidance that is produced to understand its implications. We welcome the amendment because the label on the box will be clear to everyone.

For the benefit of hon. Members who were not present at the initial debate in Committee on the need to include further education, let me emphasise that only 1.1 per cent. of care leavers enter higher education and, therefore, the requirement on the local authority or the corporate parent—the term that we chose to use—to provide vacation accommodation will be taken up by a small percentage of care leavers. Of course we should like more care leavers to enter higher education, but the reality is that a far larger percentage enter further education. The Minister said in Committee that 40 per cent. do so.

The amendment represents an important change in the Bill, which is why we welcome it strongly. As I said, this is the first parliamentary occasion on which I have had such an experience, but I should have preferred credit to be given in the right quarter. I have no doubt that other organisations brought to the Minister's attention the need to include higher and further education, but the official Opposition tabled the original amendment, which was rebuffed in Committee. It would have been nice if the apology had been fulsome, but I welcome the change. It was certainly part of our policy ambition that further education should be included and there is no doubt that a much higher percentage of care leavers will benefit from the provision than would have been the case if the Bill had not been amended.

Dr. Brand

I certainly welcome the amendment and share the delight of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) in having had some output from the many hours that we spent in Committee. It is important to make residential provision available not only for particular courses but for people living in isolated or rural areas. I gave specific examples in Committee, as did the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas). Therefore, I totally support the Government's change of mind. I hope that it will achieve a tremendous amount; it is probably the one proposal that will make a real difference to the life chances of young people leaving care and help to encourage them into the further education that they need.

Mr. Shaw

I very much welcome the amendments. It will be quite a challenge for local authorities to implement plans before a course starts for a young person who will need accommodation during a vacation. In order to complete a course, one certainly needs to know where one will live during the summer. We do not want a young person to approach the end of term saying, "I've nowhere to live; I'd better ring the council." With the best will in the world, no council would say, "There's the accommodation; we've sorted it out immediately."

The remarks of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) were not particularly fair to my hon. Friend the Minister. On a number of occasions during proceedings in the Committees considering this Bill and the Care Standards Bill—the hon. Lady and I served on both Committees—my hon. Friend conceded points, sought further information to reassure her and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), and changed the Bill as a result of amendments that they had tabled. For example, during proceedings on the Care Standards Bill, the hon. Gentleman made a point about including residential schools, and my hon. Friend immediately responded and made the necessary changes.

We ought to recognise that, as has been said, further rather than higher education is the principal route at the moment for most of the young people about whom we are talking. We hope that, as a result of the Bill, more such young people will enter higher education.

In July, my hon. Friend the Minister met a young man, Mark Kane, who was a care leaver, in further education and a member of the board of management for Kent county council's 16-plus service. He was a strong and passionate voice for care leavers throughout the county. He had not always received the best deal in services but, rather than be angry for himself, he chose to channel his energy into something positive to bring about changes for young people. He was very much a positive role model for many young people leaving the care system in Kent.

Sadly, on 26 September, Mark Kane took his own life, leaving his friends, social workers and all those who were associated with him devastated. He was a young man who had great hopes and someone to whom we thought we could point as a success of the care system. Despite his confident persona, that articulate young man clearly had difficulties and problems, which resulted in such a tragedy. He would very much have welcomed the amendment, as he would the whole Bill. I had a couple of opportunities to discuss the Bill with him. I hope that its powers will serve as a campaign in Kent in his memory. The amendments are very welcome.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I shall be more generous in my thanks to the Minister than the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was correct in saying that she and the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) tabled in Committee the original amendment, which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) and I were delighted to support. The Government have listened and tabled the necessary amendments, and that is welcome. They do not have an excellent reputation for listening to rural voices at the moment, but on this point they have done so.

The point that I made in Committee was not just about vocational courses, such as those offered in Aberystwyth, where the foremost agricultural college happens to be located, which I know many students travel some distance to attend. If rural-based students are to access the best courses, including vocational ones, they will need to travel. Some of my constituents travel 60 miles to Carmarthen, for example, in order to undertake the right vocational course, which means that they must stay there during the week. There are obligations to provide vacational accommodation for such people, and I am pleased that the Government have listened on that point.

In Committee, the Minister had the unenviable task of trying to defend shades of difference between further and higher education, when his Government are in fact increasingly blurring the distinctions. Certainly in Wales, with the abolition of training and enterprise councils and the establishment of a new sixth-form system of education over the next few years, we shall see the difference between further and higher education alter greatly.

Care leavers' access to such education will change too. I would imagine that one aim of the Bill is to encourage more care leavers to access both further and higher education. We must acknowledge further education as the route, on occasions, into higher education, particularly for care leavers who may have fewer GCSEs, and so forth, to start with.

The amendment is essential, and I am pleased that the Government have listened. The Bill will be seen, certainly in rural areas, as stronger as a result, ensuring that there are not more examples of rural social exclusion about which, on occasion, we must argue.

6.45 pm
Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken on the amendment and for the support that they have expressed for the changes that we are making. Obviously, I am less than pleased with the comments of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), but I dare say that I will get over that. I say to her and her hon. Friends that this is probably not one of those occasions on which we should worry so much about who should take credit for the changes. The important issue is that the Bill will be amended.

I acknowledged the comments and arguments put to us. We have listened to those observations, and changed the Bill accordingly. That is the right, responsible way for Governments to act. We have tried to discharge our responsibilities seriously and fairly, and I hope that, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said, the Bill has been strengthened as a result.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 16, in page 8, line 12, after "vacation" insert— 'because his term-time accommodation is not available to him then'. No. 17, in page 8, line 14, leave out "then" and insert "during the vacation".

No. 18, in page 8, line 18, leave out ""full-time higher education"" and insert— 'full-time", "further education", "higher education'". No. 20, in page 8, line 31, leave out "registered" and insert "private".

No. 19, in page 8, line 35, leave out from "any" to "or" in line 36 and insert— 'care home or independent hospital'. No. 21, in page 8, line 44, at end insert— '() If subsection (1) comes into force before the commencement of section 11 of the Care Standards Act 2000

  1. (a) until that commencement, the references to a "private children's home" in sections 24(2)(c) and 24C(2)(a) of the 1989 Act as substituted by subsection (1) are to be read as references to a registered children's home; and
  2. 660
  3. (b) until that commencement, the references to any "care home or independent hospital" in sections 24(2)(d)(ii) and 24C(2)(c), as so substituted, are to be read as references to any residential care home, nursing home or mental nursing home,
and paragraph 14(4) of Schedule 4 to the Care Standards Act 2000 (which amends section 24 of the 1989 Act) is repealed.'.—[Mr. Hutton.]

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