HL Deb 19 February 1992 vol 535 cc1331-58

7.39 p.m.

Lord Ennals rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the care provided for children in children's homes and with their after-care.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must first of all say how sorry I am to be asking this Question because, as noble Lords will know, the Question had been tabled by my noble friend Lord Longford. I have the deepest respect for the noble Earl and that is why I feel honoured to be standing in his place as an inadequate substitute for him.

In my view the nobility constitutes titles. However, in the case of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, it is a true description of his life and character. We do not always have to agree with the noble Earl, but I am sure that all of us would wish to pay tribute to him. He is a remarkable man and he will continue to be a remarkable man. The noble Earl has had an accident and has had an operation from which he is making a good recovery. I am sure that all noble Lords wish to send their good wishes to the noble Earl. As I have said, I recognise that I am an inadequate substitute for the noble Earl in this debate. However, I am delighted to see that there is a large number of speakers in this debate and I am delighted that such experienced noble Lords are to take part.

This week I have been studying a report that is soon to be published. It has been produced by the Co-operative Movement and it is entitled Teenagers at Risk. The report explores the attitudes of children and young people towards features of modern society which concern them. Those features also concern us. The report examines such features of modern society as violence, bullying at school, drinking and driving, the dangers of irresponsible sex, smoking hazards and solvent abuse. I am sure that we shall all find that the report makes interesting reading. I hope it will encourage the Government to be more proactive in tackling some of the problems that affect young people today.

Most children, of course, rely on their parents to give them a good start in life. In our society today an increasing number of children are brought up in homes where there is only one parent. That is a great disadvantage, although the single parent involved may be fulfilling his role as a parent as best as any human being can do. Circumstances are hard. High levels of unemployment and poverty do not help. In many cases the family is unable to fulfil the responsibilities which normally go with parenthood. For some, therefore, the state has to take on the role of parent. What a heavy and difficult responsibility that is.

Increasingly, evidence suggests that too often the state is failing the children entrusted to it. That is not a criticism of any particular group of people. It is very difficult to be a substitute parent and to provide an institution which is able to act as a substitute parent.

It is encouraging that the number of children in residential homes now totals only 13,000. I remember when it was 51,000. That is a very important step forward. I welcome that, and I played some part in bringing it about. The way in which foster parents have stepped in is extremely important. There has been important progress.

However, I do not have to remind your Lordships of the succession of reports on the quality, or lack of quality in some isolated cases, of child care. "Pindown" revealed some of the worst elements of institutional control. There have been many such reports. I shall not summarise any of them because we have often debated them. They all reveal a particular situation which existed at a certain place at a certain time and certain people who may have been responsible. None of us would say that those cases represent the generality, but nevertheless there is deep concern about the quality of child care.

So what is to be done? There is no one single answer. No one would know that better than the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who I am delighted is to speak in the debate. It is not only a question of finance and resources. There are many ways in which one can try to improve the situation. In the same way as when I was Secretary of State I appointed a Minister for the disabled, in my view and in the view of my party, there should be a Minister for children and an independent children's rights commissioner to monitor and investigate the exercise of children's rights and the way in which services are provided for children in care and for other children in need. I should like to add how much I welcome the fact that the Government have now ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child. That is something for which we are all grateful. Such a Minister and commissioner would have an important role to play. They would evaluate the role of the Social Services Inspectorate. The report of Sir William Utting was important, and I pay tribute to him and his contribution to the social services during his time in the department. I believe that the task of a Minister and a commissioner would also be to watch over the way in which local authorities carry out their responsibilities in order to monitor and ensure the effective implementation of legislation.

Another improvement is the fact that the Children Act is now on the statute book. That was also a very important step forward.

The fact that the numbers in residential care is small may add to the problems of those who are in residential care. In my view residential child care is the Cinderella of social services. Staff are often undervalued, undertrained and under stress. The children themselves, the consumers of a personal social service which can take the form of a home run by the local authority, under licence by a local voluntary organisation or by a private company, have little say in how their lives are organised. I believe that Government, local authorities and Members of Parliament in both Houses should be more willing to listen to the views of children and understand their attitudes towards the situation in which they exist. When I was a member of the Social Services Select Committee in another place considering child care I was much impressed by the quality of some of the youngsters in the National Association of Young People in Care. They did a fine job.

Many children in residential care are unhappy. The Children's Society estimates that 98,000 children run away from home every year. Over 40 per cent. of those are running away from residential care. Many are persistent absconders. A recent study revealed that one-third of young homeless people aged 16 to 19 had been in care. Two further studies showed that 50 per cent. of youngsters begging in the streets—which is something we see far too often these days—and 66 per cent. of young male prostitutes had a care background. Young men fresh from care are over-represented in our prisons and remand centres. If that is the end product of years within the care system clearly something is very wrong.

All too often young people experience residential care as a form of dumping ground. That may be a consequence of poor planning, faulty decision making and insensitivity to the individual needs of the children themselves. All too often residential care seems to be the last resort when all else has failed. All too often it is provided by inexperienced and unqualified staff in settings which are geographically remote and isolated from the children's own local community. It is often an exercise in containment, not of character development.

We have to ask ourselves why, after years of accumulated experience, official inquiries and legislation and the enduring commitment of most residential care staff—and we would all wish to pay tribute to those who carry out a very difficult task and who are not usually well paid—we have failed to develop residential services which offer children a positive experience. We know that the smaller the numbers in care the more likely it is that they are the most difficult children to cope with.

One of the reasons must be that we do not value highly enough the people—the consumers and providers—within the service. We do not consult the children on their experience within the care system. Nor do we place a high value on quality staff by insisting on appropriate training and rewarding them with appropriate salary levels. Neither is it properly recognised that the economic and social pressures resulting from the last decade of this Government have presented real planning problems to those entrusted with providing quality services.

The statutory instruments governing residential care issued by the Department of Health in July (Nos. 1505 and 1506 of 1991) have been criticised by children in care for being too vague. They talk of "adequate" standards, accommodation "suitable for the children's needs" and food in "adequate quantities" and "properly prepared". Where they are specific, little seems to have changed. Children can still be held in secure accommodation for up to 72 hours without the sanction of a court compared to the limit placed on the police of 36 hours' detention for adults without court authority.

There are many problems which have to be faced. I should like to spend a few minutes considering some solutions and how we might improve the quality of care which is provided and making suggestions to which the Minister may be able to react.

Every local authority should provide a simple guide to the rights of children in residential care. The Government are committed to patients' rights, so I am sure that they will want to look at the question of children's rights. Such a guide should state the rights of children and explain how children can complain if those rights are infringed.

In my view every local authority should appoint a children's rights officer. Most local authorities have welfare rights officers. Two of my own children are welfare rights officers and both have worked for local authorities. Every local authority should appoint local panels to assist in monitoring standards. It is most important that the community itself should understand the problems of children in care and should seek to help by providing some of that care. They need advice, help and family support. Support and encouragement should be given to groups that directly represent young people in care, such as NAYPIC, which I mentioned a moment ago.

Parents should be encouraged to become actively involved in the care process. The Children Act provides for parents to retain parental responsibility even when a court order has been made committing children to care. In many cases continuing contact between children and parents is very important. Parents may well have views about the quality of care that their child receives. I am sure that we all wish to encourage the involvement of parents in the welfare of their children. Involvement is absolutely crucial.

A deadline needs to be set by which time all staff working in residential care should be trained. There are many other proposals but time does not allow me to mention them. When I was Secretary of State, I launched the project Intermediate Treatment to avoid, where possible, the need for children to go into care. That was based on my experience with a voluntary organisation of which I was chairman. I warmly welcome the work being done by several Members of this House to promote Intermediate Treatment. I mention only the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, who I am delighted to see will speak in this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton.

It disturbs me to hear that the Government intend to phase out all financial support for Intermediate Treatment. That is very unfortunate. I hope that the Minister will say something about that matter. If she confirms that such is the case, I urge the Government to think again. I look forward to hearing the Government's policy and the Minister's answer.

I understand that the Prime Minister does not want to appoint a Minister for Children or an independent commission. I hope that we can persuade him to change his mind. If not, we may be able to take the decisions that need to be taken. I am glad to have had this opportunity to raise the matter. I have not used the same words as my noble friend Lord Longford would have used. He would have spoken from his warmth and experience much better than I have done. However, if no one else reads this discussion, I am sure that he will read everything that we have said. It has been an honour for me to open the debate. I feel sure that the remaining speeches will be of a higher quality than mine.

7.53 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, will not mind when I say that I regret having to follow his speech. I should very much have liked—I am sure that all noble Lords would have preferred—to have heard the noble Earl, Lord Longford, ask this Question, but he could not have found a better substitute. I hope that this debate will cheer him on in hospital. We all hope to see him back in his place very soon. He spent much time and trouble in preparing this debate and is particularly unhappy at not being here to open it.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, concentrated mainly but not entirely on children in care. I shall concentrate my remarks almost entirely on children after they have left care. As the noble Lord so kindly said, I have an interest in his initiative of the IT fund and also in its continuance. I am also chairman of a group called Action on Youth Crime which brings together the statutory and voluntary services in an endeavour to keep young people out of prison.

First and foremost, therefore, I look at the issue from that point of view. It is very unnerving to find that in prison there is a disproportionate number of young people who have been in care. The noble Baroness will be glad to hear that I do not in any way wish to attack the Government. In some ways I wish to pay them a compliment. I want to stimulate them into fulfilling their obligations—indeed, the obligations of us all—under Section 24 of the Children Act. Those obligations should be fulfilled.

Incidentally, in passing I should like to pay tribute to the Home Office. It recently sent round a circular which gives young people leaving care as an example of a possible project under the heading "Preventing Criminality". That is one of its key themes for 1992–93 when giving grants for innovative projects on crime and criminality. That document emerges from the programme unit of the Home Office. I give the Home Office all credit for it. It is clearly conscious of the problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, mentioned that the percentage of prisoners who have been in care is disturbingly high. He did not give the percentages, which I can now do. In the prison population those who have been in care are hugely over-represented. They represent 23 per cent. of the adult population of prisoners and, I regret to say, 38 per cent. of young prisoners. That is a deplorable statistic. On the other hand, although the percentages are high, the number of young people leaving care is small enough for the Government —I should like to stress on an interdepartmental basis—to concentrate on and help effectively. In the year to 31st March 1989 just over 6,000 young people in the United Kingdom left care on reaching the age of 18. Another 5,000 or so left care at the age of 16 or 17. The total number in that year was 11,000, which is not an unmanageable figure.

That small group is extremely vulnerable. Those young people face a level of disadvantage much higher than school-leavers of their age. In 1986 one study (I can give the reference if required) found that 80 per cent. of young people leaving care were unemployed after two and a half years. That is a deplorable revelation. A more recent and as yet unpublished study found that 40 per cent. of those leaving care were unemployed after two years. That is one measure of their disadvantage. That latter study also found that one quarter of children leaving care did not have any educational qualification. That compares with 89 per cent. of school-leavers in the areas studied. Again it is a measure of their disadvantage.

What are we to do to help those young people who are clearly disadvantaged and who leave care without having any family support, which is yet another disadvantage that they suffer. I mentioned the need for the Government to co-ordinate some proactive initiative. I adopt the adjective of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals. Departments should get together to tackle the problems of those leaving care and seek solutions. To my mind the departments concerned are the Home Office, housing, health, social security, education and employment. Nothing less than those departments getting together will do. They should concentrate on that special group and have power to allocate enough resources for the after-care budget. Those people need our help and that can only be given effectively by a positive interdepartmental drive. Only in that way will the social services—the main agent for putting the necessary action into place—be enabled to do so and thus fulfil all our obligations, in particular those of government and social services under Section 24 of the Children Act.

I believe that there is an officially approved representative to whom children in care can turn. I strongly support the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, that a children's rights commissioner, armed by statutory authority, should have powers to look after children's interests in the broad way that the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, outlined. That is the best way to follow our agreement to the United Nations conventions on the rights of the child.

In addition, I should like to see a direction from central government that housing or hostels should be available for those leaving care. I heard only recently from the Stonham Housing Trust that where it has housing available for single people it is now no longer able to provide it for young people leaving care partly because of the perfectly understandable pressure by local authorities to put families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation into those single housing units, thus depriving single young people coming out of care of the very accommodation which was meant for them. It is a serious situation which only aggravates their difficulties.

I am sure that everyone in the House agrees that we shall never tackle the disadvantages of children leaving care unless they are given enough to live on. The denial of income support to young people unless they have a placement in education or training must be put right. It is tragic that one in 10 of those who claim for severe hardship have been in care. What a start to life in the big wide world. We must do better for them.

I have not touched on problems in care because they have been so well dealt with by the noble Lord who opened the debate. However, clearly the statistics that I gave earlier about education mean that young people in care must have better access to suitable education. They must have education in life skills for when they leave care. There must be some relief from the sense of isolation from the community which those young people experience when they are in residential care. Children in residential care clearly need befriending. They need to be befriended by sympathetic outsiders who cannot only give them a day out but perhaps become a substitute for the parents whom they lack.

I was amused by and sympathetic to the splendid phrase used by the Minister for Health when she said that such young persons really need street-wise grannies. I rather like that phrase. I am sure that there are large numbers of street-wise grannies who would be only too happy to put their declining years at the service of those people, to take them out or to be available to talk to them on the telephone and so on.

In conclusion, I have asked for an interdepartmental proactive initiative. I can think of no one better to lead that initiative than the present Minister for Health, Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.

I hope that the noble Baroness who will reply will agree that I have not attacked the Government. I have paid them a compliment at the beginning and end of my speech. I hope that my speech will be accepted in that spirit.

8.7 p.m.

Baroness Brigstocke

My Lords, I too send my good wishes to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I should love him to hear that we miss him but we are doing our best in his absence. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, for the able way he opened the debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, I wish to concentrate on the after-care of children who have been in children's homes.

It may seem an obvious point to make but it is worth emphasising that children in an institution—however loving and caring those running it may be —miss not only the love of parents but also the training in daily life. The noble Lord called it "life skills". I refer to mundane items such as shopping for food, running errands, or even the responsibility for a pet such as children might have in their own family unit.

Parker and Millam put it well in the introduction to their research Organisation and Accountability for State Intervention, which was published in 1989. The report stated: The characteristic of parental love is that it is partisan, unconditional, does not cease, does not have cut off points, is long suffering and does not evaluate. The state cannot replicate this, few parents are indifferent to their children, but the state with its emphasis on fairness and equality cannot get too emotionally involved". The lack of preparation for life after being in care is poignantly expressed in a poem by a young man called Peter who belongs to an in care group, part of the Who Cares project, the National Association of Young People in Care (NAYPIC). Peter writes: Constant years of very tight held hand and dominant guidance. Following bewildered on the red tape lead of Borough policies. Systematically filed, regularly tested. Separate safely to a distant spot, Suckling an eager breast of care, Sympathetically cuddled, caressed, enclosed, to what end this mothering protection? To produce a weak, unprepared inexperienced child, to face a hostile world. Young people who have taken part in the Who Cares project have spoken of being a child until one is 18 and not being prepared for the world outside. Children come into care in widely differing circumstances. A few have been abandoned as babies. Some are in a crisis of adolescence. Many have been neglected or offended against. What they have in common is the need for the care or control normally given by a parent.

Care leavers are not a homogenous group in terms of their care histories, needs, culture and ethnic backgrounds. Care may have been valued by young people. It may have helped them. But it may also have contributed to other problems including problems of identity stemming from a separation from and a lack of knowledge of their past. That may be amplified for black young people brought up in a predominantly white care system. On leaving care between the ages of 16 and 18—paradoxically much younger than non-care young people leave home—loneliness, isolation, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, movement and drift are likely to feature significantly in many of their lives.

A number of studies have suggested that about one-third (that is, 33 per cent.) of young, homeless people aged between 16 and 19 have been in care. That represents a significant over-representation of young people from care in the homeless population because less than 0.75 per cent. of all young people have been in care. When care leavers become homeless, they are exposed to danger from ill-health, crime and prostitution. There is also disturbing evidence to show that a high proportion of beggars (50 per cent.) and, as the noble Lord said, of male prostitutes (66 per cent.) have had experience of local authority care. A number of studies have demonstrated a strong link between care and offending.

Despite all the problems, imaginative and effective projects are being developed. I shall mention three rays of hope. The first is The Children's Society. It is a national voluntary childcare organisation which runs more than 150 projects throughout England and Wales. They include ordinary housing for young people with disabilities and representation for young people in court proceedings through its guardian ad litem schemes. It has recently begun to organise a series of workshops and meetings for some of the young people leaving care in preparation for their independent living projects. In addition, it is responsible for projects which are working face to face, providing accommodation, support and advice for young people who are literally on the streets. It also undertakes projects for those who are leaving the care of local authority social services departments.

Secondly, there are a number of agencies which work with the single homeless in central London. One of those is The London Connection. It was recently awarded a grant of £29,000 by the 1990 Thames Television Telethon. It was to help to tackle the problem of homelessness facing single young people leaving care. I was chairman of that 1990 Telethon. I also worked closely with the Peabody Trust and the London Enterprise Agency which are working on a most exciting project in the Waterloo area of London. The project guarantees accommodation, training and employment in the Waterloo area. When in 1993 it is complete, it will provide the opportunity for 220 young people at any one time to break through that vicious circle of no home therefore no job; no job therefore no home. They have no money to pay the rent.

The £9 million capital project of the Peabody Trust and the London Enterprise Agency received its initial funding by way of a grant of £800,000 from the Telethon. That encouraged Her Majesty's Government to invest £3.7 million of its single homelessness initiative in the project. The Corporation of London, in addition to selling the two sites to the Peabody Trust, has pledged £1.6 million as a grant to make the project a reality. I am delighted to tell your Lordships that the land is about to be purchased and the building contract let.

I wish to pay tribute to the Children Act. It provides an opportunity to establish a genuine multi-agency partnership at local level which can ensure effective and flexible service delivery to young people in need who would otherwise be homeless. Finally, I must say that if there is to be a list for streetwise grannies, I should love to have my name added to it.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, recently children's homes have had a bad press and they are in danger of getting a worse name than they deserve. We are rightly worried about the instances of abuse and cruelty that have been uncovered. They have occurred because of the ability of perverts and cranks to find employment in some children's homes. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, whose absence I too regret, for giving the House the opportunity of putting into perspective the excellent work which children's homes carry out. We pay tribute to the staff whose esteem and morale has too often been unreasonably and improperly damaged. They do a sterling job in looking after the children and young people committed to their care.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, referred to the decline in the number of community and voluntary homes. At present there are some 13,000 youngsters in residential care; about one-third of the number 10 years ago. He described that as encouraging. It is encouraging only up to a point because the reasons for the decline are a mixture of good and bad. On the good side is the desire to move away from the institutional flavour of large, multi-purpose children's homes. There is a desire to keep children within the community, where possible in their own homes or in foster homes, attending their own schools and playing with their friends. That must be good, but we must recognise that it is not a cheap alternative to residential accommodation. The shift away from large multi-purpose homes to small, specialised normal homes should be welcomed in an unqualified way.

However, one of the bad reasons underlying some of that development has been the desire of some local authorities to save money. Their wish to do so is understandable. The pressures that they face as a result of the poll tax, rate capping and even the imposition of new duties to provide community care are understandable. However, the fall in numbers, the closure of homes and the decline in the number of referrals illustrate not only the desire to improve the position of the child within the community but also the desire to save money. I suspect that at present the closure of homes is occurring more precipitately than is good for the children.

I am vice-chairman of the National Children's Home which during the past six months has closed two major children's homes. We are not alone in that respect. The closure of two children's homes means the loss of between 100 and 120 places for youngsters. The costs of providing places in those homes have risen sharply in recent years. It costs a great deal more to keep a child in a good residential home than to send him to Eton. The costs have risen because not only the NCH but also local authorities, which refer children to those homes, have been insisting—and rightly insisting—on extremely high standards.

Not only are those changes difficult to finance and manage if the process of acceleration is too rapid, but one wonders what is happening to the children who are kept in the community or who are returned to their communities. There are no centralised records of what is happening to them. I suspect that it will be possible to draw conclusions from exclusions from schools and from juvenile court records unless those children are carefully and sensitively managed in their communities.

Therefore, the emphasis has become more concentrated on meeting two types of need, as has been said already: first, the care of troubled and troublesome youngsters. Most children in children's homes are not tiny tots but are mostly teenagers, and 12-plus is a typical age. As the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, so graphically pointed out, they are emotionally disturbed. They are damaged and often abused. They are aggressive and in desperate need of help. They often come into residential care in their early teens from broken homes or because they have been rejected from other placements. By the age of 11 or 12 they have become unmanageable. Receptions into NCH homes with a background of 10 breakdowns in care and foster care are by no means unusual. Those youngsters feel rejected by society and, in turn, they reject the values of society. They seek their identity in offending and in bucking the system. They need highly skilled care and, indeed, a one-to-one staffing ratio is by no means excessive for such youngsters.

On the other hand, there are the children who are profoundly handicapped—mentally, physically or both. They are often ex-long-stay hospital patients who also need one-to-one staffing ratios, which is a characteristic of most of the homes provided by the NCH. Those youngsters may be long-stay or in need of respite care. However, the need is for small specialised homes catering for three, four, five or six children and adapted for those special needs.

Therefore, as has been so well said already, the average youngster in care is much more demanding than was previously the case whether because of handicap or behaviour. That is the case at a time when resources are being squeezed out of the system and voluntary organisations are caught between the two millstones of falling funds from voluntary sources because of the recession and falling funds from local authorities because of government pressure, the growth of other demands and the desire to keep down the rates. The result is that we are trying to run our children's home system on the cheap, in particular as regards staffing.

I very much welcome the committee which has been established under the chairmanship of Lady Howe to look at salaries and conditions of employment. We must start by looking at what are the needs of the young people. That must be the starting point for all inquiries, as it is the starting point for the Children Act.

We must ask what is the pattern of working hours which is necessary. At present they are geared to industrial hours. Surely we need a means of providing total cover and a response to children who may need a response at any hour of the day or night. That means working unsociable hours; and that means increasing pay and reversing the present situation. Pay systems must be introduced in which workers in residential homes are paid more, rather than less, than field workers, as is the case at present. Above all, salary levels are needed which will retain staff and give stability in a situation where stability is critical to the care of those young people. If staff are better paid it will be possible to demand a better performance.

Central to that is the question of higher qualifications and proper training. I understand that something like one quarter of employees in children's residential homes at present have professional qualifications. I hasten to say that the figure is much higher for the National Children's Home. It must be right that as a minimum the head must have a Diploma in Social Work plus a management training qualification. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, and my noble friend Lord Ennals are right to say that we must set a target for increasing the number of employees with a Diploma of Social Work and a NVQ. Indeed, some homes—homes which specialise in the handling of seriously sexually abused children—will need 100 per cent. highly trained and qualified staff. Therefore, training must be a high priority.

In the NCH 4 per cent. of the staffing budget is spent on training. We have our own training centre. However, we are a target for those who do little training themselves. They take our staff who have been trained. We are spreading benefits throughout the community in that way but that is rather hard. The Government should consider a system of government grants or a grant levy system may be appropriate involving local authorities and quality organisations which carry out their own training.

If staff are to be more expensive, perhaps local authorities and voluntary organisations will be more careful as regards recruitment. How do they avoid recruiting the Frank Becks of this world who are often impressive can-do, hands-on operators? Sadly there will never be a guarantee, but the methods of interviewing and examination need to be improved. They also need to be backed up, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, by effective monitoring and effective complaints procedures.

Complaints procedures must be independent and acceptable to young people. They must be separate from the management structure. Young people and staff must have access to someone whom they trust. Again I cite the NCH as an example. We have a complaints procedure which is run by an employee of Barnardo's who is seconded to us whom we pay. He is totally independent from the management structure. However, I remind your Lordships that Leicester had a complaints procedure for seven years and that did not produce the results which one would have liked to see. Therefore, there can be no guarantee. Certainly complaints procedures must be reinforced by effective inspectorate work and by local authority intervention.

One other area which I should like to address—and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, emphasised it—is education provision. That is an area in which many homes have fallen seriously short. Children in care generally have a poor record of achievement at school. In residential care in particular they have a raw deal. Many suffer not only as a result of their own deprived background, often distressing and traumatic, but also from the low expectations of staff, who regrettably are often poorly educated, and from inadequate liaison with schools.

A research project by Sonia Jackson at the end of the 1980s came to the conclusion that each child should be given a key worker whose responsibility it would be to liaise with the school and who would be an educational advocate for the child and that each home should have an education liaison officer charged with supervising the activities of the key workers. We introduced that system. I am sure that if we place more emphasis, as the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, said, on education and training, it will be the beginning of giving the children a better chance when they come out of care.

I do not wish to traverse the ground already covered so well by others. However, I should like to emphasise that in relation to after-care we need to ask what our own children and grandchildren expect when they leave home. They want somewhere to live; they want work or further education; they want and expect to receive advice and support during the transition from home to living in the community; and they want somewhere to return to when they encounter a problem. They may need somewhere to spend time in the vacations from college training, for example. We take all that for granted as parents and grandparents. But we should seek to make the same provisions for young people leaving care. It is difficult; it is probably unattainable, but that should be our target and should guide our actions—to provide the standard of care that the child would receive in a normal loving home.

We are talking about a relatively small number of youngsters but youngsters who are in desperate need. Unless we respond, they will be a threat to themselves and society. It is not simply a matter of throwing money at the problem. Resources are scarce and need to be spent effectively and with care. However, as other speakers have said, resources, premises and skilled staff must be found if we are to provide proper support in the community for those who are no longer referred for residential care, if we are to provide the capital and running costs of purpose-built or adapted homes and if we are to support young people as they take up an independent life in the community of which both they and we are a part.

8.32 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, for initiating this debate. It was splendid of him to take over from the noble Earl, Lord Longford. The noble Earl came to me before Christmas and told me of his plan to visit children's homes throughout the country in order to inform himself of the conditions. For that reason we feel extraordinarily sorry not to benefit from what he learned in the homes that he visited.

The answer to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, is clearly that Her Majesty's Government are not satisfied —and rightly so—with the care provided for children in children's homes. Otherwise, Her Majesty's Government would not have asked Sir William Utting, the then Chief Inspector of Social Services, to produce a report following the inquiry in Staffordshire. Her Majesty's Government are aware of the after-care needs of children, otherwise they would not have financed the National Leaving Care Council Advisory Service known as First Key. I shall come to that later.

In the arena of residential care for children all parties—the Civil Service and local authorities—must bear a heavy responsibility for the unfortunate events which have occurred in some local authorities over the past few years, perhaps notably in Staffordshire and Leicestershire. For at least 30 years residential work has not received the recognition it deserves. The system deserves better training and pay for field staff.

The present Government are tackling better care for children in children's homes and their after-care. However, throughout the country there are staff in residential establishments doing splendid work often unacknowledged and their praises often unsung. I shall not go into the wise recommendations made in the Utting Report. I cannot comment on the report not yet published of the committee chaired by Lady Howe looking into the pay and conditions of service of residential staff. My comments in this speech are based on my past experience as a children's officer, as a director of social services, and my present experience as a governor of two residential establishments, a vice-chairman of Barnardo's and a patron of a group of homes in the private sector.

The type of child or young person coming into the care of a local authority or voluntary organisation who has received love, affection and security in early life is more likely to be able to sustain close personal relationships. Those children are now fostered or cared for by a child minder. Older children coming before the courts can now live at home and attend intermediate treatment centres, as was stated by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson. I believe that the noble Lord also said that the present government policy, started by the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, has reduced the number of child offenders in residential care by 50 per cent.

The children and young people who have not received love, affection, stability or security in their babyhood or young years, but who have been cruelly treated, sexually abused or who are emotionally deprived, often present disruptive, indeed wild, behaviour. They experience difficulty in sustaining personal relationships and are emotionally deprived. They are troubled children and troublesome children. For those children a residential establishment meets their needs provided that the staff are people of quality who have been trained and are skilled to deal with those difficult children. I say again that it cannot be underestimated how difficult those children are.

What are their needs and how are they to be met? First, we need a staff structure. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Murray, in that regard. If staff are to experience satisfaction in their work, achieving a measure of success, their conditions of service must meet the needs of the children and young people. That was a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Murray. For instance, my committee in Oxford gave each member of staff two days and three nights a week off work; the rest of the week they were on duty. The children knew when the staff were away and when they would return and could therefore contain their worries and anxieties.

I remember visiting a children's home and meeting a child miserably sitting in the corner. I asked whether there was anything I could do to help. She said, "No. I want Auntie Sylvia but Auntie Sylvia is coming back on Friday and I will tell her all about it then". The system of staff working to the pattern of nurses in a hospital does not do. For staff to be on duty some hours and off others means that children do not know when they will see the members of staff they want to see. When they know that on certain days a member of staff will not be there they can contain their anxieties. That is important. Perhaps I can also say, on behalf of the staff, that when they go off duty one night and are off duty for the following two days, coming back in time for breakfast on the third day, it means that they have time, say, to go to a tennis club or to be in their own homes; they are sustained and rested. Both the children and the staff must be considered.

Secondly, a child or young person needs to have a personal relationship with someone who is not on the staff of the home—I underline "personal relationship". Sadly, the local authority's social workers who place children in homes no longer visit the child or take the child out and they do not sustain a relationship with the child. That is a real loss in the child care service. In one establishment with which I am connected, the Caldecott Community, we have a psychiatrist who visits on a sessional basis to discuss with staff the handling of difficult children. We have a psychologist from the University of Kent who visits and talks to the children. They know him and love him. He is not on the staff and the children know that. A complaints procedure is, of course, valuable, but what is required is a personal relationship between the child and someone outside the home. That did not happen in Staffordshire or in Leicestershire. No children's home should be an island unto itself.

My third point concerns the homes adviser on the staff of the local authority. That post is crucial. Sadly, in some instances such advisers are themselves untrained. The adviser should be a constant visitor to the home. He or she should be known to the children and have a supportive relationship with the staff. He or she should attend the case conferences which should be held in the children's home with the child and, if possible, the parents—though often that is not possible—as well as with the staff.

My fourth point concerns training and pay. I am given to understand that Her Majesty's Government are dealing with the training of residential staff. I believe that the Council for Education and Training in Social Work is also looking into this closely. Residential staff have one of the most difficult tasks to perform and yet in training, status and pay they are rated below that of field staff. It is a cause for concern that the excellent advanced course for residential staff run by Mr. Christopher Beedell at Bristol University closed down. We inquired why that outstanding course, which enriched all those who attended it, had been closed down and were told that it was because the local authorities would not pay residential staff to go on the course.

I am perhaps going outside the terms of reference of this debate in saying that the field staff have only two years' training. That is less than any other country in Europe. I regret bitterly that they have not got a three-year training course. They are given a two-year training course, go back to the local authority and then take a post-training course. That is failing because the local authorities do not release the staff and will not pay for them to continue training.

My fifth point concerns the role of the local authority. In the management structure the council, through its social services committee and director of social services, is responsible for the work of the department. It is the duty of councillors on the social services committee to visit the residential establishments. I am not going to give examples except to say that at one children's home the councillor visits after he has played golf on a Sunday. He just drops by. That will not do.

That brings me to my sixth point which concerns the public inquiries which have been held by local authorities. I do not include the Butler-Sloss inquiry. I pay tribute to those who have conducted or who are conducting those inquiries. However, I question with diffidence the justice of the reports which, while criticising the roles of the councillors, nevertheless placed blame on the individual social workers in no uncertain terms. For instance, in the case of Staffordshire the director, now retired, and the committee placed complete confidence in the social worker responsible for the "Pindown" procedure. Indeed, he was promoted three times between 1983 and 1991. I should have thought that he had the right to think that he had the confidence of his committee and staff. However, when the report was published the blame fell far more heavily on the social workers than it did on the councillors and the local authority. Many of the staff—I do not necessarily disagree with this —have been dismissed. As regards Staffordshire, what about the chairman of the council? He is still in post and yet the people for whom he was supposed to be responsible have been dismissed. That is the management structure turned upside down. We will not recruit good social workers, and parents will not want their children to be social workers, if that kind of pillorying attitude is taken. We should look very carefully as to how we are going to deal with such situations.

That leads me to my seventh point. As I said, the requirements of the present method of public inquiries set up to deal with malpractices in residential children's homes —and perhaps as importantly, preventing the necessity for such inquiries—could be met by the setting up of a general social work council. The work of such a council would be to promote good practice, to register and to discipline and, where necessary, to strike off the register staff who do not conform to good practice.

Professor Roy Parker of Bristol University produced a valuable report two years ago which was funded by the Rowntree Trust. He recommended that there were strong grounds for consideration of a regulatory body for the social services. I pay tribute to Her Majesty's Government because they gave £30,000 to an action committee, based on the National Institute for Social Work, to look into the specific proposals and carry out a feasibility study. At present there is no body charged with monitoring and enforcing professional standards in the profession and neither is there a body in the profession which deals with ethics and values in the social services. That should be done by the social workers themselves.

The doctors have the British Medical Association, the Law Society has its own regulatory body and I have lately learnt that the nurses, midwives and health visitors have their council. It is true that the teachers do not have a council, but many of them want it. I am sure that they are working towards it. As regards residential care and children's homes, all these points must he met.

I now come to after-care. My noble friend Lord Brentford makes his apologies to the Minister and to the House. He put down his name to speak in this debate, but he cannot be here. I promised that I would say what he would have said had he been here. He says, "I am very concerned about the high proportion of homeless teenagers who have been in care. Is the Minister satisfied with the preparation given by children's homes to teenagers before leaving care? On the surface, it does not appear adequate. Do we not need a committee of Parliament to review the cause and condition of the homeless young?"

I have to say—and I agree with other noble Lords who have spoken—that the real difficulty is that there are many people involved. First, there is the preparation of the children leaving children's homes. I count myself at fault. On one occasion a boy was found drunk and the police brought him to me. When he came round he said, "Well it's all your fault. You never taught me not to mix my drinks". Another boy came to me and said, "What am I to do? I have won the football pools". He had, too, but he said, "I don't know what to do with the money. How do you open a bank account?" I had not taught him how to open a bank account. There are many very basic things which we fail to teach the children in our children's homes.

From the point of view of the present situation I support what other noble Lords have said. There are several ministries involved. There is the Department of Health which is responsible for the care of the children; the Department of the Environment which is responsible for their housing; and the Department of Social Security. I support the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, when he says that these children are not paid enough. My noble friend Lady Brigstocke also referred to that. There is also the Department of Employment. There is a great need for all those departments to get together to work out a policy for young people—all young people—but especially for young people in care.

There is one point that I wanted to make which as yet I have not made. I should like to pay tribute to the Department of Health for financing the National Leaving Care Advisory Service called First Key. It is an organisation financed by the ministry to help local authorities to set up good schemes in their authorities for helping children who are leaving care. I pay tribute to that organisation.

I believe that Her Majesty's Government have made great strides in providing better care in this country for children, particularly under the Children Act 1989. I know that they are anxious, and willing, and want to improve conditions in children's homes and in the after-care system.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, for pursuing this Question. Like other noble Lords I wish the noble Earl, Lord Longford, a swift recovery.

It is valuable to have such a debate, especially as it is not taking place in the immediate aftermath of some crisis, some scandal, that has come to the surface, or after the publication of a report on some such scandal or failure in the child care system. On those occasions we tend to concentrate on things that have gone wrong. As several noble Lords have quite rightly pointed out, things do not always go wrong. There is a large number of dedicated social workers working day and night, literally, to make sure that things go right, within the resources available to them. There are people such as those referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull—outsiders who are approved "befrienders" of children in care. That is a particularly valuable service which I hope all local authorities will encourage.

The Question asks whether the Government are satisfied with the care provided in children's homes and with after-care. So far as children's homes are concerned, I hope the answer will be that the Government are never satisfied, because no Government, however vigilant, can ever be sure that proper standards are consistently maintained in all homes where children are cared for. It is never possible to be sure that unacceptable practices are not going on somewhere. Obviously there should be no room for complacency. That is not to criticise the responsible reaction of the Government to the Staffordshire child care inquiry.

In some ways it was fortunate that at the time of the inquiry into the Staffordshire situation the Children Act 1989 had been enacted, but much of it and much of the subordinate legislation had yet to come into force. Thus it was that the Children's Homes Regulations 1991 were able to be adopted to take in some of the recommendations of the "Pindown" report. The Children Act 1989 has also introduced a much improved legal framework and a much improved ethos for all those involved in the care of children. I should like to pay particular tribute to the initiatives of the National Children's Bureau in seeking to increase awareness of the principles of the Act among those responsible for children's homes.

The Government, too, have produced valuable guidance and I hope that they will indicate what machinery they have, or will have, to ensure that the policies and procedures of the modern legislation are followed consistently by local authorities in the future. Indeed, I want to broaden that question to ask the Minister to state how the Government see their role and their responsibilities in relation to children's homes. If one reads, or rereads, the debates in another place on the 3rd June last year, just after the "Pindown" report, it is clear that the Government were putting much of the blame for the failures of the past and the problems of the present on local authorities. A large part of the problem in Staffordshire was the failure of the local authority. As the noble Baroness has just said, it was a serious management failure at various levels of that authority. That was clearly stated in the "Pindown" report. But if such failures arise out of poor and weak local authority management, the need for firm direction and support from central Government becomes all the more necessary.

The calibre and training of social workers are also directly influenced by central government. Workers in homes have to work long hours in not always attractive circumstances. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Murray, that the Government must recognise, as I hope they do, that pay and conditions will always be highly relevant to the recruitment and retention of residential social workers. In the debate in another place in June last year the Minister acknowledged that too many social workers see residential care work as a stepping stone to a career elsewhere. I hope that the Government will always see it as their concern to ensure that there are enough social workers of the right quality in post in residential homes.

The "Pindown" report also showed failures of inspection. I hope that the Minister can indicate what improvements in inspection have been introduced as a result of the shortfalls demonstrated all too clearly by "Pindown". It is vital that there should be a truly independent element in inspections. It is also vital that there should be unannounced spot checks on children's homes. Any hint of a cosy relationship between the inspectors and the inspected must go. Again, the Government have an important role in supporting the powers and the morale of the SSI.

Finally, the Question asks about after-care. I do not wish to repeat what has already been so well said; but again, the "Pindown" report shows clearly that in every home, or group of homes, there must be someone responsible for looking ahead and for career development. The dismal alternative is that children leave children's homes to join the homeless and become part of the crime statistics. It is deeply depressing—if it is correct—that 40 per cent. of young people become homeless after leaving care. I agree with the model of parental care, albeit an ideal, suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Murray, in a conventional family setting. Parental concern does not just dissolve when the children reach 16, 18 or some other artificial age; it is a continuing process.

The most depressing article that I have read for a very long time appears in the latest edition of Childright. It analyses how the severe hardship provision fails to provide an adequate safety net for many of the most vulnerable young people in society. I refer to the 16 to 17 year-olds who are without homes, jobs, family support or qualifications and often without basic self-esteem. At the end of the depressing article the authors make the point that was made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson: The question is not whether, in the short term, we as a society can afford to restore Income Support to 16 and 17 year-olds, but whether we, in the long term, can afford not to".

9 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond from these Benches to the debate on the Unstarred Question tabled by my noble friend Lord Ennals. As he said, he has taken over the matter from my noble friend Lord Longford who is unfortunately unwell following a recent accident. I join with other noble Lords in sending him very good wishes and hoping that he will soon be restored to us. Of course, we miss his compassion and his commitment on such issues.

Children in care, and particularly in residential care, are among the most vulnerable in our society. They are only in care because their own families are unable or unwilling to care for them. The necessary care and security has to be provided somewhere else. But children in care need love and security just as much—perhaps even more—than children growing up in their own families. Too often that love and security is not provided, although I acknowledge what my noble friend Lord Murray said about the numbers of committed staff who look after children in care and provide a very good service.

Nevertheless, as my noble friend Lord Ennals said, many children in residential care are very unhappy. But sometimes that only surfaces when there is a nasty scandal such as the "Pindown" affair. The children subjected to that system suffered the desperate humiliation of the forfeiture of all their personal possessions; they endured isolation and the frustration and boredom of being separated from all communication and companionship. It was institutional control of the worst possible kind. It was a real attempt to make non-persons of the children entrusted to the care of those in charge of that residential home.

My noble friend Lord Ennals made reference to the statistics provided by the Children's Society to the effect that about 90,000 children run away from home each year and that about 40 per cent. of them are running away from residential homes. That must give us cause for a great deal of anxiety. Apparently many of them are persistent absconders. It has already been mentioned that about 50 per cent. of youngsters begging on the streets today have a care background as do many young males who are in prisons and remand homes. We must all be most worried about such statistics.

However, it is hardly surprising that a child subjected to the sort of "Pindown" regime, or similar, should grow to maturity with a grudge against the kind of society that allows this to happen. When young people are brought up not to value themselves very highly, it is not surprising that they drift into prostitution or petty crime. It seems fairly clear that at least parts of the present system are not working very well. Instead of setting up further inquiries, perhaps we should look at what our past experience already tells us; and, in particular, what children would tell us themselves if ever they were asked.

It so happens that some groups have made it their business to find out what children really think. Very often the care provided is by way of containment—awkward children are simply being "tidied away". Sometimes the care is provided by inexperienced and overworked staff in settings that are some way away from the children's own communities. That further emphasises the sense of isolation that the children must feel.

My noble friend Lord Ennals made reference to the statutory instruments governing residential care issued by the Department of Health in July. He criticised them as being too vague and referred to the fact that they talk about "adequate" standards; accommodation "suitable for the child's need"; and food in "adequate quantities which is properly prepared".

My noble friend said that that sounded rather vague. I agree with him. He also pointed out that children can still be held in secure accommodation for up to 72 hours without the sanction of a court, compared to the police limit of 36 hours' detention for adults without court authority.

There is a case for asking children what they want and listening to what they say. Often all they want are the things that many of us take for granted; for example, privacy, a space of their own where they can have books and pictures, some pocket money, a choice of clothes and meals, a homelike atmosphere and a sense of being cared for and bothered about.

There should be a code of practice for caring for children which accepts that children in residential care have the same rights and the same needs as other children. We should look at why the image of children's homes is so poor so that residential care is seen as a last resort. Quite clearly, that must affect the way children see themselves and their future prospects. They are in residential care and not seen as important; they simply feel that they have been dumped. Residential care ought to be a positive rather than a negative option.

We ought to look at the role of the social services inspectorate and local authorities in monitoring and inspection. That point was made by several speakers, including the noble Lord, Lord Meston. There should be locally-based panels which look critically at homes within the area and report on children's views and worries as well as the traditional areas of inspection. Those panels might consist of a local child care solicitor, a paediatrician, a local justice of the peace, a social worker, a child psychologist and perhaps a member of a group representing young people. Such a panel should operate publicly and openly and publish its reports.

Local authorities should become more fully involved. I share the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, about the obligation on local authorities in this regard. They should provide a user-friendly guide to the rights of children in residential care, explaining how to proceed if those rights appear to have been infringed. I also agree that every local authority should have a children's rights officer.

Furthermore, all staff should receive proper training. I concur with the view that was expressed by both my noble friend Lord Ennals and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, that a deadline should be set by which that training should be completed. The staff must be properly remunerated because a proper system of remuneration encourages the right kind of people to come forward for training. The right sort of career prospects and career progression are also needed so that the staff recognise that the profession is regarded as worthwhile and that it enjoys a great deal of social respect, as it should.

Programmes need to be instituted so that the transition from a home to the world outside can be accomplished effectively. Information about benefits, housing, further education and training should be made available so that every encouragement is given to enable those young people to make the transition to the adult world. Again, I support what has been said in that regard by several of your Lordships. The children concerned need to have adequate financial support. From these Benches, I have repeatedly opposed the Government's policy of not providing adequate income support for 16 to 18 year-olds on the basis that there is a youth training placement for everybody who wants one. We know that that is not the case. Proper financial support must be provided. I believe that all those who have spoken have emphasised that point, and I should like to do so again.

Staff in residential homes should be vetted prior to appointment to provide a basic measure of protection. Individuals and companies applying to set up children's homes should be required to supply extensive background information before they are allowed to do so.

An improved system of residential care will need adequate resourcing, but substantial savings could be made following a thorough audit of the residential care system, including the expanding private sector, to ensure that unjustifiable profits are not made at the expense of the local authority and the children. In any event, such expenditure—whatever it is—must be worthwhile. No one likes to see youngsters sleeping rough or begging on the streets. No one would live like that if any other option appeared available. The fact that so many of those youngsters have previously been in care should cause us to look critically at the system not only of providing care for children who cannot for whatever reason obtain it in their own homes but also for ensuring that there is sufficient aftercare to make sure that those young people can take up an independent place in society as part of our community, not as outcasts.

I join other noble Lords in commending the Government on the Children Act 1989, which we supported. We on these Benches have a specific programme in this area. We have said that we should like a Minister for Children to be appointed so that these issues can be dealt with at the highest level. Other noble Lords have referred to the fact that responsibilities in this area are split between a number of departments. We should like a Minister to bring all that together and to be responsible for it.

We also believe in the appointment of an independent children's rights commissioner to monitor and investigate the exercise of children's rights and the delivery of services for children. As I have repeatedly said, we believe in consulting the children themselves. We should like to ensure that support and encouragement is available for youngsters leaving care as a first step in their achieving independence. That is the kind of framework that we should like to see. I commend it to the House and await the Minister's response with interest.

9.13 p.m.

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

My Lords, I join the whole House in wishing the noble Earl, Lord Longford, a speedy recovery following his recent fall. I thank him for instigating this debate. It once again demonstrates the concern for vulnerable members of our society for which the noble Earl is so well known and respected. Thanks are due also to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, for stepping into the breach and to all noble Lords for their informed and valuable contributions to the debate.

It is true that the disclosures of abuses in recent months in Staffordshire and Leicestershire have left many of us almost shell-shocked in disbelief. Our distress at those events is of course as nothing compared to the trauma suffered by the children.

We have been reminded—and it is well that that is so—that the stress also affects the staff of children's homes. In the past decade or two their world has undergone what is probably best described as a metamorphosis. There are now far fewer children in care—a smaller proportion of these are in homes—there are fewer homes and there are fewer residents in each home. Qualified social workers have tended to move on quickly to the more mainstream fieldwork. At the same time, children have tended to enter care at an older age and in circumstances where they have, as has been acknowledged by many of your Lordships, been too difficult to be coped with in the preferred family placement. Where those children are being looked after by unqualified, inexperienced staff, often not much older than themselves, there has almost inevitably been trouble, whether resulting from too little control, as in Grove Park Home, Camberwell, or too much control as in "Pindown" and Leicestershire.

Coping with children in those circumstances is an extremely demanding task. I have no hesitation in agreeing wholeheartedly with the proposition put forward by many of your Lordships that the dedicated staff of children's homes are performing an irreplaceable service and need help. But what kind of help? Training is an obvious answer, as has been said. The department's training support programme, under which £29 million will be available in 1992–93 has as a focus the training of residential child-care staff. A special aim is to secure that all officers in charge of children's homes are qualified to the level of a diploma in social work; and £2.5 million has been provisionally reserved for that special initiative in 199–93. In that respect I say to my noble friend Lady Faithfull that the decision to limit qualifying training for social workers to two years was not taken solely on the grounds of cost, although the resource implication of the three-year qualification would have been considerable, but because we judged it preferable to seek a balanced programme of training improvement for all sections of the social services workforce at both vocational and professional levels.

We firmly believe that training should not end at qualification but should extend throughout a career. Our investment in post-qualifying training through the training strategy enables that to take place. While I agree that sustained care is essential and that paper qualifications, even when obtained by courses of study that include practical work, are not enough in themselves, on balance we believe that it is important that staff should be properly qualified to undertake that difficult work and that at least those in charge of homes should be expected to be qualified as a matter of course.

Staff in homes, including the officers in charge, also need support from those who have management responsibility for them. That is where the new regime of regulation and guidance under the Children Act —which came into force last year, as has been said —emphasises the need for the proper management and supervision of homes, as well as providing helpful and practical guidelines for staff. Those guidelines, for example, encourage the good practice of involving children in mundane matters such as shopping, washing and cooking referred to by my noble friend Lady Brigstocke. I agree that that is important. When I visited a home in Westminster recently the children there were encouraged to take part in the domestic tasks I have mentioned. That is obviously important to help them prepare for the day when they will have to run their own homes.

While on the subject of guidance, the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, suggested that local authorities should provide guidance on children's rights as well as appointing more children's rights officers. Guidance on the Children Act advises that every child looked after by a local authority should be given an information pack about his or her rights and how they can complain if they have a problem. I am pleased that more children's rights officers are being appointed.

Regarding children who have no contact with their families and parents, the Children Act also requires that independent visitors be appointed. As for monitoring the implementation of the Children Act —a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Meston—the department will monitor its implementation, including the regulations on children's homes, with a view to reporting on the first nine months of the working of the Children Act to Parliament around the turn of the year. So the points reiterated by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, about vagueness may or may not be substantiated.

The noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, and others suggested that residential care staff are underpaid. He recognised, however, that the Department of Health is not the employer of staff in these homes. The local authorities are the employer. The national joint council for local authorities' administrative, professional, technical and clerical services has appointed an inquiry under the chairmanship of Lady Howe. It will examine pay and conditions of service for residential care workers and various other management issues. We expect its findings to be valuable.

On the subject of resources, I do not wish to rehearse the well-known figures, but it is a fact that expenditure on personal social services overall has increased by 59 per cent. in real terms since 1978–79. In saying that, I recognise that additional responsibilities have been placed on local authorities by the Children Act, but substantial additional funding has been included in the settlements for 1991–92 and subsequent years. Not all the different new duties require additional expenditure.

In his report last year Sir William Utting said that pay and conditions of service are not the most serious matters affecting residential care. The major problem, he said, is that residential care of children is regarded as an unimportant residual activity. That is one of the problems which we have to tackle.

Regarding after-care, which was dwelt on by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, and my noble friend Lady Brigstocke, as well as others, the Children Act brought improvements in the provisions governing this important area. Those responsible for homes have a clear duty to prepare all the children whom they accommodate for the time when they will leave care. There are powers to make grants towards education and training, to which the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, referred, and towards accommodation expenses. Clear guidance has been issued by the department on how those responsible should undertake their after-care responsibilities. We are also grant-aiding the new national leaving care advisory service provided by the organisation First Key, to which my noble friend Lady Faithfull referred.

Nevertheless, every child leaving care is an individual with different needs and problems. Some will have been looked after by local authorities for only a brief period, others will return to a stable home environment. It is only a minority who leave care each year who for a variety of circumstances have to live independently. Nevertheless, we feel it would not have been appropriate for us to have—

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Has she any figures? My impression is that there is a high proportion of children leaving care who have no home to go back to.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I do not have the precise figures now. However, I have been informed that it is only a minority who go on to live independently. It was for that reason that it was considered inappropriate to impose any blanket duty on local authorities, irrespective of the child's individual circumstances. Similarly, if one is going to impose a duty on local authorities to give grants, that would not mean anything unless one also dictated the minimum level of the grants. What we have done is to provide local authorities with a clear, comprehensive framework within which they can tailor the financial assistance they can give to those who have left care which will be appropriate to the individual child's needs. That matter will be considered as part of the overall monitoring exercise referred to in the Children Act.

Reference was also made to the rules governing income support, particularly for those aged 16 and 17. The Government believe that in general it is better to give young people the positive options of education, employment or training instead of the negative option of reliance on benefits. Young people who are vulnerable, such as those who have been in care before their 16th birthday, are entitled to income support for up to 16 weeks after leaving school. There are also provisions under which income support can be provided at any time for any 16 or 17 year-old who is at risk of unavoidable hardship. In addition, the Government propose to introduce legislation to provide that care leavers who are living independently and continuing in full-time education will become automatically entitled to income support.

On the question of housing, the Children Act puts the responsibility on social services departments to provide accommodation for any child in need aged 16 or 17 whose welfare is likely to be seriously prejudiced if they do not provide him or her with accommodation. Local housing authorities may be requested by social services departments to provide accommodation on occasion. The Housing Corporation allocated £13.8 million to schemes that will assist young people at risk in 1991–92. That compares with £4.66 million allocated to such schemes in 1990–91.

As a specific contribution to the alleviation of homelessness among young people—this matter was referred to by my noble friend Lady Faithfull and others—the Department of Health last year launched its single homeless young people initiative under which £3 million is being made available over three years. Some 14 individual projects will be funded under that initiative and they will provide help of various kinds in their local areas to young people at risk of homelessness when they leave home or care. In addition, we have given a grant to Centrepoint, Soho's national development unit, to produce and publish a regional resource checklist. That information pack will be launched in the spring and is designed to stimulate and guide the development of services to prevent homelessness.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, also made reference to the new arrangements to divert young offenders from prison under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I understand that, in practice, only some 50 to 100 juveniles are remanded to penal establishments at any one time. Nevertheless, a national steering group has been set up to address issues of developing alternative arrangements within the community and within the child care system.

A number of noble Lords have referred to Sir William Utting's report entitled Children in the Public Care - A Review of Residential Child Care in which he made recommendations for action to improve standards of public care. Some of the recommendations are for central government consideration while others are for the consideration of local government and training bodies. Authorities have already been advised that the Government accept the main recommendations in the report and they have been asked to undertake the groundwork for preparation of children's services plans, the inspection of children's homes, training and management. A joint implementation group has been set up to monitor the taking forward of Sir William's recommendations.

I must also refer to the inquiry set up by the department following the Beck incident and other incidents in Leicestershire under the chairmanship of Norman Warner to consider the selection and appointment methods and criteria for staff working in children's homes. The inquiry is due to report its recommendations to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State by July 1992.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to a Minister for children. In the past we have not seen a need for interdepartmental machinery on children's issues in general but there are a number of regular meetings on particular subjects. Those are at present child abuse, under-fives and juvenile delinquency. There is also the family law administration working party and a group on the world summit for children.

Now that the United Nations convention on the rights of the child has been ratified we are looking at the possibility of a forum in which progress can be reviewed interdepartmentally. Under the articles of the convention we are obliged to send a report two years after ratification to an interdepartmental monitoring committee which has been set up to examine the progress made by signatory states towards meeting the obligations imposed by the convention. Most aspects of the monitoring of the Children Act will be covered in those fora, but Ministers here would not rule out the need for further action on particular subjects to fulfil their remit on co-ordination in relation to the Act as noted in the Prime Minister's minute.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, referred to the department's decision to phase out its financial support for the Intermediate Treatment Fund. The original agreement between the department and the Rayner Foundation to establish the Intermediate Treatment Fund in 1978 included a government commitment of three years' financial support. In fact we shall have consistently grant-aided the fund for 15 years when our current three-year grant totalling just over £1 million expires in March 1993.

During that period the fund has become increasingly successful in securing additional funds for intermediate treatment projects from non-government sources. Local authorities have increased their expenditure on intermediate treatment from some £3 million in 1978–79 to some £36 million in the period 1990–91. My honourable friend the Minister for Health met the chairman and representatives of the members and officers of the fund on 6th March last year to discuss arrangements. She offered a further meeting this autumn to review the matter in the light of the fund's progress in securing alternative sources of funding to meet its core costs.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, asked about independent inspection. I confirm that the local authorities' inspection units are independent of those responsible for the operational management of children's homes.

I hope that I have succeeded in giving an update on government thinking in this area, as the noble Lord, Lord Meston, in particular requested. I believe that I can say with justification that, while recognising that no amount of legislation or resources can be guaranteed to remove the possibility of abuse or neglect, the Government consider that their policies and programmes in relation to children's homes, including after-care, demonstrate the high priority we give to this hitherto rather neglected area of social service provision. I hope that the various measures introduced will result in the provision of greater protection of children in homes, a very vulnerable group in our society and one deserving our closest attention.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before ten o'clock.