HL Deb 03 December 1992 vol 540 cc1452-5

3.11 p.m.

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to ensure that all local authorities provide 16 to 18 year-olds leaving statutory care with the continuing support which they need.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, we are closely monitoring how local authorities are exercising their powers and duties under the Act as a whole, and the Government will be reporting to Parliament on this in the new year.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that on Monday the programme "World in Action" brought consider-able evidence to bear on the fact that some local authorities at least are not fulfilling their duties and responsibilities as alternative parents to young people in care, in preparing them for independent life and in supporting them when they move out into independent living? Will the Minister please tell the House what action the Government will take to ensure that all local authorities, not just some, take the necessary action to prepare children properly so that they can participate as citizens—we hope successfully—in the life of the country?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, none of us watching the programme could have failed to be moved by the experiences of the young people concerned. But it would be wrong to conclude that no support is at present being provided to care leavers. There are many thousands of young people leaving care each year who are being supported in various ways by local authorities. However, I agree with the noble Lord that the support varies widely, so the Government are monitoring the situation through specially commissioned research, new statistical returns and a survey undertaken by the social services inspectorate earlier this year. The survey results will form the basis of the Government's report to Parliament on implementation of the Act early next year.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, does the Minister agree that at the moment youngsters are forced to leave care, not when they are able and ready but purely because of financial pressure to free places? That is the root cause of many of the problems and difficulties which confront the youngsters when they are thrown out, quite unprepared, into the world. Would it be a good idea to reconsider the criteria, even if that means keeping youngsters in care until they are able and prepared to leave? Also, it would be a good idea to fund the foster carers for a much longer period, until a suitable situation prevails.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I very much appreciate the views expressed by the noble Lord. Under the new Act, local authorities have the power to give advice and befriend young people up to the age of 21. I believe, though, that we have to accept that there are enormous variations between local authorities. The challenges in Islington are different from those in Suffolk, for example. There are also enormous variations between young people. We know that they come into care for a multiplicity of reasons; some may remain in care for just a month or two, while others may spend a whole lifetime in care. Therefore we must leave the discretion to local authorities as to how they plan the future for each individual young person.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does the Minister share my anxiety about the high percentage of young people leaving care and going into young offenders' institutions?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, if the percentage is high then I am concerned. I have figures, but I do not have that one.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does the Minister agree that beside the humanitarian point of view, there is an extreme waste of resources? Being in care is expensive and unless children and young people are helped with finding both jobs and homes, as well as having supportive relationships, some, though not all, are likely to become homeless and ultimately to become a charge to the state security system. Is this not a waste of resources?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is an expert in the field and will be well aware of the costs involved in keeping children in care. It is because the Government are aware of the costs that the standard spending on children's services in the current year—which is the first year of the Children Act—is over 14 per cent. higher in real terms than 1990–91. The recent settlement that has been announced for next year provides a further increase of nearly £200 million. That means that over the past three years, personal social services total spending will have risen by one-fifth in real terms. I believe that that is a proud record of commitment.

Lord Desai

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree with many children's care organisations that in view of the variations in different local authorities and the circumstances, we should set up a national institute with powers to monitor and set standards for the Children Act?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, the Children Act is being carefully monitored. As the noble Lord will know, there is a duty on the Secretary of State to report every year on the outcome of the Act. This year I know that my noble friend the Secretary of State wants a detailed report on its first year of implementation to go to Parliament. So I believe that the Act is being carefully monitored and therefore there is no need to have a national organisation to do it.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, will the Minister ask her right honourable friend the Secretary of State to consider setting up an independent national inspec-torate to ensure that all children's homes in the country offer an acceptable standard of physical and pastoral care and prepare their young people for living independent lives and becoming responsible citizens?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I believe that the Act is being carefully monitored. The social services inspectorate does a good job and I do not believe that there is a need for additional monitoring.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the important work of the Children's Society? For more than 100 years it has been the principal agent of the Church of England's work among young people both in care and leaving care. Does she agree with the conclusion of that society that because social security legislation has been enacted largely without reference to the provisions of the Children Act, the good provisions of the Act for 16 to 18 year-olds leaving care have been made ineffective?

Does the noble Baroness further agree that the text: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth", is good for those giving alms, but disastrous when observed by government legislators, as appears to have happened in this case?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it would be a brave person who would debate the text of the Good Book with the right reverend Prelate, so I shall not do so. I believe that the voluntary organisations have a key role to play. Many of us are great admirers of the Children's Society; and, under the new Act, local authorities are required to work closely in partnership with voluntary organisations. I believe that is happening in many instances, although not all. The Government are aware of the enormous contribution that voluntary organisations make and that many children leaving care do not wish to keep their links with local authorities but welcome the support given by others.

Lord Elton

My Lords, when my noble friend looks at the statistics she has promised to consider on behalf of my noble friend Lady Masham and discovers there is indeed a steady flow of young people from care into custody, will she reflect that a local authority spending a lot of money on a young person in care and then letting him or her go without guidance into the community is like a manufacturer spending a lot of money making a motor car and then pushing it down hill without a driver? Will she please therefore follow up her recognition of the importance of the voluntary sector by encouraging her colleagues to support them with the funds which they now need increasingly as they diminish from other sources?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I give my noble friend that assurance.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, will the noble Baroness—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, the noble Lord should be the last.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, I give way.