HC Deb 31 October 2000 vol 355 cc679-85

Amendment made: No. 23, in page 10, line 29, after "from" insert "section 7(5) and".—[Mr. Hutton.]

Order for Third Reading read.

8.10 pm
Mr. Hutton

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

At the heart of the Bill lies one simple but powerful idea—that children in care deserve the same chance to get on in life as any other child; but that has never been the reality. Very few young people in care have ever enjoyed the opportunity to thrive and develop. The facts speak for themselves.

Children in care make up 25 per cent. of those sleeping rough on the streets of London. Young men previously in care make up 22 per cent. of the prison population and that figure rises to 39 per cent. of those under 21. Fewer than one in three leaves care with a single GCSE pass, compared with 95 per cent. of children overall. That is not the failure of the child in care; it is a failure of the system of care. At long last, we are now beginning to address that.

The Bill, together with the other measures we have taken to strengthen and improve children's social services, will lay the foundations for new opportunities for young people in care to get a good education and a good job, to have a stake in and some hope for the future, and to enjoy the same on-going support and help that other children receive as they become adults and move towards independence. It has been in those areas that the care system has let down children in care, often with terrible consequences.

By passing the Bill tonight, we have the opportunity to say that we will no longer tolerate those failures in the care system, that we have acknowledged our responsibility to see to it that young people in care get a decent chance in life, and that what is good enough for our own children must, in future, become good enough for every child in care.

Children get only one chance in life to grow up—and for them to grow up safely and realise their full potential, they need the active care, help and support of their parents. The new duties and responsibilities placed on local authorities under the Bill will, I believe, help to ensure that looked-after children receive this from their corporate parents.

We all recognise that achieving those objectives will take more than a change in the law. Neither can we afford to be complacent about the scale of the challenge, which is real and significant, but the changes made by the Bill will provide a strong impetus to the new approach and culture that we want to see spread across children's social services, where we have higher ambitions for looked-after children so that social services provide young people not just with care, but with a real chance and opportunity in life, equipping them with the skills and knowledge that they need for their future success.

The Bill will allow local authorities to do all that for the children in their care and, backed by the new resources for children's social services in the spending review, we are now taking the necessary and essential steps towards meeting the collective responsibility that we owe as a society to looked-after children.

Many people have helped ensure that we have taken those steps forward—not only with the Bill tonight, but with the Government's other measures in this area. I should like to thank in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), for both his leadership and his commitment to children in care throughout his time as Secretary of State for Health. He, more than any other person tonight, is entitled to take credit for the Bill.

I should also like to thank young care leavers such as Marie Piper and Tommy Turner, who helped us to prepare the Bill and make sure that it addresses the concerns of children in care. Finally, I should like to thank members of the Standing Committee for their positive and helpful scrutiny of the Bill.

The Bill marks the beginning of a new deal for young people in care. It signals our determination not only to end the all-too-obvious failures of the past, but to build a new and brighter future for some of the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged people in our country. It is a good and decent Bill and I ask the House to support it tonight.

8.14 pm
Mr. Hammond

I welcome the Minister's remarks. All Opposition Members support the idea of a level playing field and seek to redress some of the disadvantages that children leaving care clearly face compared with those who have been more fortunate and perhaps have had more opportunity to enjoy their childhood and prepare for adult life.

We welcomed the Bill when it was introduced. We have consistently welcomed measures that improve the protection of vulnerable children in our society, but that does not mean that we have no significant issues to raise. Some of those issues involve important points of principle, but there has never been any doubt that we support the underlying purpose of the Bill. The Minister has acknowledged that on many occasions.

My noble Friends in another place played an important part in mapping out the final shape of the Bill. It builds on the Children Act 1989, which remains the basis of our system of child protection and child support. I am glad to say that there has been a large degree of consensus even when we have needed to debate the details. We have identified weaknesses and failures in a system that is supposed to protect vulnerable children, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged that it is time to correct those weaknesses and failures or collectively share the responsibility for allowing them to continue.

I am grateful to the Minister for his offer to consult Opposition parties on the regulations. As so often happens, an unnecessary level of tension is created during the passage of the primary legislation because we do not have sight of the regulatory structure that will inform its operation. We have to assume the worst, but I hope that we will be satisfied and reassured by the regulations in respect of many issues on which we have expressed grave concern. In general, if it were possible for Departments to produce draft regulations for hon. Members to consider alongside the primary legislation, we might find that we needed to spend rather fewer hours arguing about things that might never happen, but which we cannot be sure will never happen until we see the precise form of the regulations.

I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising his desire for consensus throughout the proceedings on the Bill. As I have said before, I believe that on a matter such as child protection we can only proceed by consensus. The Opposition certainly hope that we will proceed in that way in future, to continue to strengthen and reinforce the body of child support and child protection legislation.

8.18 pm
Mr. Dawson

It is useful to spend a little time reflecting on the importance and qualities of what everyone should regard as a fine piece of legislation. It is a particularly fine measure not only because the Government have drafted it well, prepared it well and consulted on it well in the first place, but because they have altered it and improved it in response to well-informed opinion. Frankly, the best-informed opinion and the highest quality of advice that the Government have received have come from young people with experience of the care system.

I dismiss entirely the view that the Government are arrogant or do not listen, and I can cite examples of some of the most vulnerable young people in our society who have been welcomed by Ministers and civil servants and have been fully involved in the crucial work of the Department of Health on areas of concern about which they know so much. That is tremendously to the credit of the Government and those officials.

This is very fine and much-needed legislation. I first had formal responsibility for young people in care in 1987. We had in-care meetings and conferences, and young people's concerns about leaving care were always the same. They were left bereft and felt that they were pushed out into the world without support, training or induction or any on-going involvement from local authorities. They were expected to cope independently at an age at which none of us in the Chamber would have been able to cope.

It is a testimony to their bravery and resilience that a proportion of those young people came through that experience successfully. Some of the finest people I know have been through the care system and coped with experiences that would daunt anyone, in care and after leaving.

There are some individuals who make great efforts. A woman in my constituency runs a children's home, and every Sunday young people and adults as old as their late 30s go back to the home to visit. That is a matter of working way beyond the call of career and duty, through professional and caring values. Of course, we also try to find solutions and put measures in place with housing authorities.

I started working with young people in care before the Children Act 1989. There have been many references to that Act tonight. It is a great piece of legislation, embodying the finest principles and making children the focus of concern, with their needs made paramount, but it was left full of holes. Section 24, in particular, which gave powers to local authorities, did not change the situation for children leaving care.

There are good and decent people of all parties in the House, but the care system in which I worked up to 4 April 1997 was a disgrace. It was completely inadequate. There may be consensus now on the broad basis of the way forward, but the Labour Government inherited a care system that had palpably failed. When I was working in the system, it did not seem that the Government were listening to our concerns. They seemed not to care about the vulnerable people in the system. They had other values, expressed in statements about there being no such thing as community or society. Their priorities did not include young people in care.

When I came to the House, I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to try to change the care system. At a conference three years ago, I outlined what changes I wanted in the care system. I wanted investment, and we are getting an extra £290 million in a five-year programme through quality protects. I wanted attention to standards, and we are getting that through the Care Standards Act 2000. I wanted more money for training, and we are getting that. I wanted attention to be paid to children's rights, and the Government, to their enormous credit, are funding a children's rights director and a new national organisation for children and young people in care. I wanted attention to be focused on the issue of leaving care. If there is one outstandingly excellent thing about the Bill, it is the extension of statutory duties to local authorities for young people up to the age of 21. That is profoundly important and good, and the Government should receive the great credit that they deserve for this excellent measure.

8.27 pm
Dr. Brand

I join the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) in rejoicing in the Bill. We have gone a long way since the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) gave evidence to the Health Committee and made a commitment to extend local authorities' duties of care to people up to the age of 21. We have had a hiccup or two, but I am glad that we have arrived where we have.

There are one or two disappointments. It is sad that the collective brilliance of parliamentary draftsmen could not come up with some way of describing this group of people as young people, rather than children. Nowadays, when people reach 16 they no longer see themselves as children, although technically they might still be so. It is a pity that we have to stick to old-fashioned definitions even when we are discussing what is undoubtedly progressive legislation.

Our debates here and in Committee have been very interesting. The concept of a local authority as a corporate parent interests me greatly. One could interpret that in more than one way. One could be corporate in the sense of being a corporation. Sometimes, one got the impression that we were discussing not care plans but business plans, that something had to be delivered against a target, and that there would be no reward unless the target was met.

I hope that the framework is firm enough where it has to be, but flexible enough in other areas, so that the corporate parent can act as a tolerant parent. My experience of young people in care is that they are there because their parents were either totally intolerant of them or ignored them, neither of which is very acceptable. The worst situation would be to have a rigid framework in the care planning that disaffected the young people even further.

That raises my main concern about the implementation of this excellent Bill. How will it cope with the care leaver who is not motivated to be the good son or daughter of an excellent corporate parent? Most of us have the privilege of 16 years' experience before we start looking after a 16-year-old. It will be a very hard learning curve for local authorities to be able to meet this very important responsibility, which goes far beyond handing out resources and telling people what they can or cannot do. Careers advisers or representatives of the Benefits Agency can do that, but more is involved in the task facing local authorities.

Resources are important, and there will never be enough cash resources, but I am more worried about having enough human resources. The Minister has been most helpful in that he has not been too specific about what type of human resources are required. However, the human resources involved should be of high quality, and they should be supported. Our deliberations have not touched on the need to support the advisers and social workers who will have to implement the Bill and work with the children involved.

The House has done its best with the Bill, which will pose major headaches and responsibilities for local authorities. We must be tolerant of those authorities and support them as their new role evolves. It is easy to pass legislation that tells people what to do—but much good legislation has failed because the difficulties of implementation have not been resolved. Many hon. Members have experience of the real world. However, I hope that Ministers, who have been so flexible in the guidance that they have created, also understand the need to support the people charged with the vital task of helping children leaving care.

Finally, I congratulate the Minister on steering the Bill through the House, and all the members of the Standing Committee. The Minister will not wind up the debate. I am used to ending my contributions by saying that I look forward to what he has to say, but I have heard it all now—often more than once, but then the question has often been asked more than once too.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Yours have.

Dr. Brand

I am usually pretty selective in my questions. However, I and my party support the Bill entirely. I hope that its implementation will be a great success.

8.33 pm
Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I shall be brief. I welcome the Bill very much. Like other hon. Members, I was a social worker for many years, in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. In that work, I saw how much we failed the young people in our care. I can think of young people who were cast adrift on society and who ended up in prison or on the street. The Bill is a tremendous tribute to the Government, and I rejoice in its passage through the House today.

I am especially keen to pay tribute to the young people who came up from Wales to the House. They put their views forcibly to hon. Members, from Wales and elsewhere, and were instrumental in some of the amendments that have been made to the Bill in its passage through the two Houses of Parliament.

The consultation on the proposals for regulations is taking place in Wales, and issues remain to be worked out. For example, three local authorities have suggested that professional advisers should be volunteers, while others have suggested that they should be paid. Such matters need to be sorted out, in consultation with the young people.

I hope that children will never again be cast out into society in the way common when I was a social worker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and everyone involved in the Bill—and especially the young people whom I mentioned earlier.

8.35 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas

I, too, welcome this Bill. I am pleased that it has gained so much consensus in the House, and I look forward to its early implementation.

Some of the worst care scandals happened in Wales, but it has since been revealed that similar problems have happened in England as well. One of the Government's primary tasks was to restore the confidence and trust of the public—especially of young people—in the care system. That had been lost over the years, for reasons that hon. Members set out in the debate tonight.

This Bill and the Care Standards Act 2000 mean that that trust is being restored. The Government are paying attention to what young people and hon. Members have said, and the Bill is part of a package of measures that will improve the lot of young people in care, and of those leaving care.

The Bill is slightly better now than when we first considered it three months ago. I welcome the amendments that the Government have made, especially the one that takes account of the need for further education to be considered alongside higher education. That was an important issue, especially for young people leaving care in rural areas.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) said, much of the Bill's implementation depends on the guidelines that the Government will set out. The situation in Wales is slightly different from that in the rest of the country, as devolution means that the National Assembly for Wales will decide what those guidelines should be. The hon. Lady mentioned advisers, but the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) also made an important point about advocacy. I hope that the guidelines in Wales, at least, will seek that independent voice in the advocacy services. The right organisations exist in Wales to provide that service, if they are given the right responsibility under the Bill.

I am pleased that the Government have resisted the more sanctions-based approach advocated by some hon. Members, and that they have rejected an approach that is based more on the stick than the carrot. Although some young people may not be able to cope with the pathway plan and will not therefore emerge from the system with the proper support, the Bill means that every effort will be made to encourage those young people to work in co-operation with the people charged with looking after them.

That is a much better approach. We have to accept that there will be some failures in the care system, but we must ensure that the legislation that we pass is as permissive, enabling and empowering as it can possibly be. The Bill goes a long way towards achieving that.

My one concern is that the Bill misses an opportunity to assist former relevant children—young people leaving care—by helping them with training and education up to the age of 24. The Bill is permissive on that account, but I should have liked it to place a duty on local authorities to offer that support.

We have some experience of the permissive and discretionary role that local authorities have, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) mentioned the opportunities in the Children Act 1989 that have been missed. That small chink in the Bill was explored in Committee. I know that the Government are keen to ensure that it does not become a gaping hole, but the Bill could have placed a duty on local authorities to support former relevant children up to the age of 24. We know that 75 per cent. of care leavers have no qualifications, and one of the Bill's primary tasks is to provide a framework to improve their lot.

However, that is the only weakness that I can detect in the Bill. That is a wonderful thing to be able to say. The Standing Committee discussing the Bill was my first experience of such work, and I was very pleased to serve on a Committee considering such a progressive and empowering piece of legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

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