HL Deb 09 March 2000 vol 610 cc1243-74

8.4 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Further duties of local authorities towards children whom they are looking after]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 16, leave out from ("seventeen") to end of line 20.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, we debated at the start of Committee stage one of the most important issues—indeed, one of the pivots of the entire Bill—the definition of "eligible child". Our understanding from the Government is that the prescribed period referred to in new paragraph 19B(2)(b)—the period which will determine whether or not a child leaving care is entitled to the support from local authorities for which the rest of the Bill provides—will be a minimum of 13 weeks after the age of 14. In Committee, I argued that the Government had a duty to justify the 13-week criterion. In particular, I suggested that a hard and fast cut-off point of 13 weeks—or, for that matter, any other period—risks disadvantaging some children, either by separating them from their families when that need not happen or, perhaps more seriously, by denying them the support they badly need or deserve when a return to the family is not possible.

I recognise that the three-month criterion was specifically advanced as a proposal in the Government's consultation paper, but the one consistent message in most of the responses was a wish to see clearly defined eligibility criteria in place. Whether there was widespread agreement about the proposed period of 13 weeks is another issue. My understanding is that opinions varied on that point quite considerably. In plumping for 13 weeks, the Government have sought to do no more than to strike a balance. In so doing, I believe that they must recognise implicitly that a period of 13 weeks, while it carries the merit of pragmatism, will never be a perfect solution for all conceivable situations for children in care.

In his reply, the Minister emphasised that the power to make regulations conferred in new paragraph 19B(2)(b) provides Ministers with one significant advantage above all: flexibility. I recognise that. The Minister indicated that the close way in which the Bill will be monitored when it becomes an Act will enable Ministers to make changes to the eligibility criteria should it become apparent that too many deserving cases are slipping through the net.

I pay due heed to that comment. Obviously, I should like to take it at face value. Therefore, I must ask the Minister how the system will be monitored in practice. How complete a picture will the Department of Health have of the pattern of discharges from care across the country and how quickly will those statistics become available to it? I hope that the Minister will reassure me on that matter. I should like to believe that the Government will be in a position to react and respond quickly to any worrying data which may emerge. If that is the case, we can be confident of local authorities being left in no doubt that a failure to abide by the spirit of this legislation will, in the end, lead them nowhere. But we need to know from the Minister that close monitoring is feasible and that it will be carried out. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I strongly support the spirit of the noble Earl's Amendment No. 1. Indeed it was grouped with a not dissimilar amendment of my own at Committee stage. The essence of it is the kind of assurance that the Minister can give us. In a sense, there is room for argument, as the noble Earl said, as to whether 13 weeks is the correct point. In the early stages one has to make a decision about the correct point, but it is absolutely vital that, if there is abuse and local authorities are discharging young people too early from care so that they do not become eligible and do not have all the liabilities that attach to young people who have been in care for 13 weeks, we should know that, and we should know it soon. It is essential to have information-gathering mechanisms in place. These mechanisms should not become operative three years after the Bill has been in operation but should be part of regular monitoring operations so that the department has that information to hand and will take steps if abuse is demonstrated. It is those kinds of assurances that are sought tonight, and I very much support the noble Earl.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, may I first thank both speakers for their constructive comments. I well understand the concerns which were raised at Committee stage about the eligibility criteria. As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has pointed out, there is a balance to be drawn between, on the one hand, open-ended criteria which would have the effect of embracing children who do not need support and which would risk diverting the energy of local authorities away from children who do need it. On the other hand, we clearly need to avoid criteria being drawn so tightly that they exclude children who ought to receive the support that this Bill envisages.

Also, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has intimated, we want to ensure that we have enough flexibility so that, if in practice the eligibility criteria are found wanting or we find some perverse incentives in the system which at the moment are not envisaged, we can act quickly and effectively. I believe that the Bill allows for this but I also accept that it is right for me to give reassurances as to how we intend to monitor the situation.

First, I want to reassure noble Lords that we do intend to monitor the effects of the criteria very closely. Let me say straightaway that if there is evidence of abuse or of the sort of problems that were referred to at Committee stage we will take the necessary steps to make effective adjustments to the regulations.

The intention is to monitor the working of the legislation through the framework which the Government have set for the overall performance of social services authorities. We will be able to gauge the particular effect of the qualifying period through the Department of Health's statistical collection on children looked after by local authorities. This database can be used to monitor trends in the lengths of time care leavers have been looked after, and to spot changes in those trends after the implementation of the Bill, including, for instance, the length of time that children have been looked after from a particular age. For instance, if 30 weeks was to be the actual figure, it would be necessary to identify whether there were an abnormal number of children who were spending 12 weeks in care. Another example would be that of an abnormal number of children leaving care at the age of 15. I quote those as just two examples where we should be able to pick up those kinds of trend and look into the reasons for them.

If, as we intend, the Bill is implemented in April next year, we would expect to have robust data available towards the end of the year 2002—say, about 18 months from the date when the Bill comes into operation. The data we shall be using will be derived from a one-third sample of all local authorities in England, which, I am assured by those who know about statistics, does give a good overall estimate of trends. Where in addition there are concerns about individual authorities, these will of course have been identified through a wider performance assessment framework, through the inspections by the social services inspectorate of individual local authorities, the joint SSI audit commission reviews and annual reviews of social services by the Department of Health's social care regional offices.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords that we are as anxious as they are to ensure that this Bill delivers what we want it to deliver and that we do have the ability to monitor what is happening. If we come across instances where we see that the eligibility criteria are not coming up to scratch, we have the ability to take fairly quick action.

8.15 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, that is a very helpful and full reply and I am grateful to the Minister for it. I personally have not been in any doubt as to the Minister's commitment to seeing that this particular provision works properly. It has no doubt been a difficult balancing exercise for him and the department to arrive at a sensible conclusion. This is something that clearly we shall all have an interest in, watching over the months ahead following the Bill's enactment. I can only say that the commitment of all of us here to see the entire Bill work should not be doubted. I am grateful to the Minister for the trouble he has taken and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Listowel moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 2, line 17, at end insert— ("(2A) In section 20 (provision of accommodation of children: general) after subsection (11) insert— (12) A local authority shall continue to provide accommodation to any child who has reached the age of sixteen unless that child can demonstrate that he is ready and willing to cease being looked after by them."").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to place a duty on local authorities to continue looking after children that they may have accommodated and to see that they do not discharge these young people before they are ready to take on independence. This amendment relates to accommodated children only, and refers to those aged 16 and over: thus the concern of the Minister at Committee stage that local authorities might be unwilling to provide short-term care for a young child whose parent, for example, is in hospital would come within the scope of the amendment and would be addressed. This consequence was certainly not intended and obviously should be avoided.

The Minister said that this Bill's new provisions will act as a disincentive to local authorities discharging children prematurely from care, because the same authorities will now take on financial responsibility for these young people when they have left care. We feel the balance is right. However, I believe that this amendment is still very important, for the following reasons. It represents a direct statement of government principle and policy, as opposed to relying solely on a new system which may or may not be adequate. It imposes a legal duty on the local authority not to discharge a young person from accommodation unless that young person is ready and willing to leave. It is the experience of the Children's Consortium that, without the imposition of express duties, local authorities frequently do not provide what is owed, thus thwarting the Government's good intentions.

While the provisions in this Bill are considerably stronger than at present, there are still uncertainties about how the Bill will work in practice. In particular, there are uncertainties about the financial arrangements for young people. So far the Government have given no guarantee that minimum standards of financial support will be incorporated in regulations. This is a matter which causes great anxiety to young people about the changes to be introduced by this Bill.

This amendment is not designed to force young people to remain accommodated against their will. The queries from looked-after children to Voice from the Child in Care, for example, are invariably about how to avoid being prematurely ejected from care rather than about being held in care against their will. The purpose is to ensure that young people are not discharged prematurely. There are stronger protections in law for young people who continue to be looked after, affecting important matters such as decisions with siblings, being kept near home and wishes to be in contact with their families, friends or other significant people. In view of the failures that there have been in the past in the care of vulnerable young people, I hope the Minister will agree about the necessity for such a precaution. I beg to move.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel for two reasons. This amendment gives to local authorities a necessary flexibility. Young people of the age of 16 who have been in care face two situations: first, the disruption of moving from accommodation that provides them with a personal support programme; and secondly, leaving school and entering the world of work, which is a huge change in their lives.

In many of our debates on homelessness we have talked about people needing time to adjust and to gather different life skills. Moving one's residence from somewhere that is secure and supportive as well as dealing with the challenge of starting work is extremely difficult for people whose lives have been full of disruption. Therefore, I believe that this amendment should be supported because it will give young people stability for a longer period, and they will not be denied that stability at an arbitrary cut-off point. It also enables those working with them to plan the support accordingly. For those reasons, I believe there is much to commend the amendment as it stands.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for allowing us to debate these important issues again. On minimum financial arrangements, we intend, through statutory guidance, to issue minimum standards, which will include financial standards. I hope that that meets the point raised by the noble Earl.

I certainly understand the point raised by the noble Earl and the noble Baroness. One of the great motivations in all we seek to do in this Bill is to ensure that young people in care do not leave before they are ready to do so. That is the whole purpose of the delicate balance that is placed in the Bill as now before the House. I believe that real risks are involved if this amendment is passed, in that young people would be forced to remain in care against their wishes. It may have the perverse result of giving them an incentive to run away.

I believe that the construction of the Bill as now before the House is the best way to go forward. It provides for the removal of perverse incentives for local authorities to encourage young people to leave, the close involvement of young persons' advisers in decisions about their lives and the future, the pathway plans and the package support from local authorities.

I accept that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has suggested that we need a rather more forceful approach alongside what is contained in the Bill as it now stands, but I believe that such an amendment is unnecessary. First, the neediest young people—those under a care order—will in any case remain in care until they reach the age of 18 unless the order is discharged by a court. For those who are accommodated voluntarily, assessing the optimum time when they should leave care is clearly a very important matter. It is also a matter which must allow for some choice on the young person's part, recognising that they cannot be forced to remain in care if they are accommodated on a voluntary basis.

I recognise that some young people may well continue to leave the care of local authorities before they are ready to do so, despite the best efforts of all concerned to point out that it will not be in their best interests. However, I feel that it would be wrong to insist that a child who is voluntarily accommodated should remain in care against his or her wishes. As I said earlier, it seems to me that that would do no good and might make a difficult situation worse. Where persuasion and argument are ineffective, coercion is unlikely to improve matters.

I believe that it is preferable for young people to remain in care until they are ready and willing to leave. No one could disagree with that proposition. I believe it is a proposition on which much of the philosophy of this Bill is based. However, I cannot agree that a young person should be forced to stay in care when he or she is determined to move on.

It is also the case that those young people who leave care will no longer be able to step into the streets and disappear. Nor will their local authority be able to forget about them. The responsible authority will be under a duty to support and accommodate young people who leave care wherever they choose to live in the country. Their young person's adviser will be in touch with them and they will still have a pathway plan, regularly reviewed and updated.

As I stated in Committee, at the heart of the Bill is a determination to provide the right kind of support for all young people who have been in care. That includes the recognition that, while each will have different abilities and requirements which must be met in different ways, all of them need the security of having someone responsible for their welfare. The new duties placed on the responsible authority are designed to provide just that. On that basis I invite the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his full reply. Of course I am reassured also by his response to the first amendment, which suggests that careful attention will be paid to make sure that the results of the Bill come through as intended. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 2, leave out line 33 and insert— ("(c) is between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 3 ensures that local authorities are under a duty to meet the continuing assessed needs of young people up to the age of 21 who have previously been in care. The amendment would provide a safety net for those young people who leave care and get into difficulties later on. It is clear that this matter is of great importance to those on these Benches, as on other Benches. We had a long discussion on this matter in Committee. It is an important proposed amendment to the Bill.

The background is that Paragraph 19B introduces a new duty on local authorities to assess and meet the needs of eligible young people aged 16 and 17. On 10th February in the debate in grand Committee, the Minister expressed his agreement with the principle of the need to extend the proposed 'new duty to care leavers up to the age of 21: He said that the Government were committed to doing that as soon as possible. However, the problem, as he expressed it, was essentially one of timing. Of course, on these Benches, we understand the timing difficulties faced by the Government and the fact that the Comprehensive Spending Review round two has not yet pronounced. We remain firmly of the view that this amendment, together with a later amendment in relation to education, work and training, should be put on the face of the Bill.

Our view is that if the amendment is not accepted now, we may well be overtaken by new and pressing concerns—that is the nature of the beast—and that young people in care will revert or risk reverting to their former low priority. A powerful moral and practical case for pressing ahead has been made by Sir William Utting in the House of Lords at a meeting in January. He concluded, a better time for pressing ahead is unlikely to occur. If it is not done now, can it ever be done?". I wholeheartedly agree with that.

What is the case for extending the duty to 21? Young people leaving care have to cope with the challenges and responsibilities of major changes in their lives at a far earlier age than other young people. Yet they face additional problems purely as a result of having been in care. Difficulties faced by young people in care in fulfilling their potential were discussed in Grand Committee. In response, the Minister commented that, there is no reason why the local authority would refuse an extra year of foster care".—[Official Report, 10/2/00; col. CWH 33.] Yet there are numerous examples of local authorities which do exactly that.

Let me give the House a case study. John Wells, an experienced foster carer from Kent, spoke to First Key—a well-known voluntary organisation in this field—in relation to David (not his real name). Although David was previously considered to be under-achieving and "lazy", with a settled foster home life and encouragement from his foster carers his standards improved drastically, to the extent that he got nine good grades at GCSE. He is now studying for A-levels and intends to go to university. Yet, with the approach of his 18th birthday in January, he risked losing all of that and the achievement of something he once thought unattainable.

The authority was proposing that, once he was 18, he should leave home and move into his own flat. Only after the intervention of a local councillor, the local MP, the submission of a formal complaint, persistent efforts by his foster carers and the personal interest of the Head of Social Services, was the matter settled. In the words of his foster carers, it would appear that once young people in care reach the age of 18, the system changes from "care to don't care". The authority has reduced the level of financial support and expects David to move into independent accommodation as soon as his exams are over. As John said, We would be interested to know what level of care we should reduce whilst he is still at school and studying for 'A' levels. We never reduced our level of care to our own children between their 18th birthdays and 'A' levels and cannot see any satisfactory reason to reduce David's just because he is in the care system". John is worried about how David will manage in the future without their intensive support and advocacy on his behalf.

That is a powerful case study. It cannot be right that we expect young people in care to go to such lengths to obtain the opportunities that other young people take for granted. The powers local authorities presently hold must become duties if care leavers are to achieve their full potential.

Let me give another, shorter, case study. Carol—again, not her real name—is another bright young woman who is also sitting A-levels and hopes to go to university. Again, her future is uncertain and she may be forced to move home because she is living in foster care and will be 18 in April. It is unclear what support will be made for Carol once she is 18, which is unsettling in itself. The uncertainty is adding considerably to the stress she is under as she revises for exams.

I shall not go into the costs of the provision from 18 to 21 if this amendment were passed; I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will do that. But let me conclude by saying that it cannot be right that children and young people leaving care have to fight for financial and practical assistance to stay on a course, in a job or a home where they feel secure and happy. The cost of eradicating social exclusion manifested in problems like homelessness and unemployment is enormous. Now is the right time to make the change and extend local authorities' duty of care to 21. This amendment is supported by the Association of Directors of Social Services. That in itself indicates that this is a clearly practical, clearly desirable course of action and I urge the Government to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, when we debated this issue in Committee, the need to cost the provision of additional support was the reason given as to why the changes advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, cannot be made now. We are dependent, so it appears, on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review before we know whether or not what we want and what Ministers say they want, can be afforded.

I should like to know what estimate the Department of Health has now made of the cost of this change. Yet I wonder whether there is a net cost attached to it at all. There is sound independent research evidence that spending additional money on proper leaving care support and assistance saves money in the long run. Independent research by Barnardo's into the outcomes of leaving care schemes concludes that the schemes work, particularly well in respect of accommodation and life skills and to some extent in furthering social networks, developing relationships and building self-esteem". In a major survey of 3,308 young people leaving care across 46 leaving-care projects, major improvements were identified in relation to young people's housing options. The same survey identified positive outcomes in relation to the reduction of unemployment levels. One leaving-care team in Lewisham reduced unemployment levels among the 325 young people participating from 46 per cent in 1993 to 26 per cent in 1996. There is additional convincing evidence that focused, leaving-care support may also contribute to reducing potential future offending.

Findings like those reaffirm the importance of taking into account the cost of not extending the duty as proposed, a cost measured in higher benefit bills, increased health expenditure and reduced tax revenues, quite apart from the cost to the life chances and opportunities of young people themselves.

Research shows that placement stability and the provision of supporting foster care placements are closely linked to educational achievements. Where authorities have utilised their powers to assist with access to education—for example, in some of the authorities recently achieving a Beacon Council award in leaving care—the results have been very positive. The National Fostercare Association worked with the London Borough of Brent to pilot the provision of focused foster care support together with guaranteed financial support for the young person's first year at college or university. According to Sue Mathews from the London Borough of Brent, Everyone benefits. Carers and workers have been delighted to see such successful outcomes—teaching, fashion design, law and engineering are just some of the courses the young people have completed. Many are now living in their own flats and making the most of life's opportunities". We must not overlook one important fact about children in care. They are not simply needy children or children who will be all right so long as we give them an adviser. They are often very damaged children; sometimes children with mental health problems who are vulnerable and emotionally scarred. Let us be in no doubt that for the state to support such children is and should be an onerous task. It is as onerous as normal parental responsibility, if not more so.

To remove support for a care leaver at 18 flies in the face of everything that Ministers have said about accepting the state's public parental role. At 18 there is little room for error or failure. The risk of a young person of 18 dropping out of the system is considerable. Once we have to pick up the pieces of social exclusion, homelessness and unemployment, the cost is substantial. By comparison, early preventive support has to be seen as both effective and affordable as well as socially just. Now is the right time to make the change and extend local authorities' duties to care to 21.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, many of the young people covered by this Bill will be institutionalised; many will be late developers; many will have learning difficulties such as dyslexia. The Minister said that there should be flexibility. This amendment gives just that. I strongly support it.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, it is a fundamental principle of childcare that the earlier an intervention is made, the more likely it is that a positive outcome will be reached. A recurrent theme of those who work with damaged children and young people is that of continuity and of maintaining a special and long-lasting relationship with a significant other adult person.

Perhaps I may report to the House my experience of meeting a young woman in Centrepoint's hostel for the homeless. She had a steel pin pierced through her chin. She talked to her friend of her many sexual encounters and her enjoyment of drugs. Later, she sat very close to a male staff member, a new acquaintance, and rubbed herself against him. If a child has not experienced a continuing significant relationship and has not known the love of a parent, she may well seek solace in promiscuity and drug taking or other kinds of vicious, self-destructive activity.

If a child who has been looked after by his foster parent is obliged to leave that carer before he is ready, he may lose out on life's single most important lesson; namely, how to sustain a loving relationship. It is that experience which teaches young people how to find a partner for themselves and to form a family of their own. Of course, foster family support is necessary for helping young people to find education and sustain their educational courses, but they also need help, not only practical but also emotional assistance, to be able to cope with the stresses of taking on a first job or perhaps resisting the temptation to enter into crime.

For that reason, I am concerned that if this amendment is not put on to the face of the Bill, there will be pressures on foster families—most young people in care are in foster care—to terminate such relationships or for those relationships to be diluted prematurely. That is why, as treasurer to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Child, I so strongly support this amendment.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, this is a significant amendment and an important matter for debate. First, I should like to say to noble Lords that I do not disagree at all about the importance of the points that they have put concerning 18 to 21 year-olds. In Grand Committee I believe that I made it clear that the question for the Government is not "if" but "when".

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to the possibility of what he described as "new and pressing concerns" overtaking the focus that we are currently placing on children leaving care. Perhaps I may reassure him that this matter will remain a priority for the Government. We want to bring about improvements as soon as possible. However, I reiterate a point that I have already made. We must ensure that proper funding is available, but as yet we not in a position to do so. Nevertheless, noble Lords should be in no doubt of our intention to impose the new duty for 18 to 21 year-olds on local authorities as soon as we can.

Before I turn to the substance of the argument, I should make a comment on the drafting of the amendment. I have doubts as to whether making such young people "relevant children" is the right approach. By extending the definition of "relevant children" up to the age of 21, it would mean that all the provisions of the Bill applying to relevant children would apply to all those affected until they were 21 years old. That would include the new financial arrangements, making people up to the age of 21 ineligible for non-contributory benefits. As the Bill stands, relevant children are taken out of the benefits system in favour of comprehensive support from their responsible authority. While I believe that to be absolutely right—indeed, it is a basic tenet of the Bill for children aged 16 and 17—I am not at all sure that that would be the right approach for young people aged 18 and over. Those young people are of course legally adults and, I believe, should be treated as such. However, I recognise and acknowledge the principle that lies behind the amendment rather than only its precise wording.

I believe that we should recognise that it is not the case that the Bill does nothing for care leavers aged 18 and over. In answer to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, when he told the House about the case histories of David and Carol, the Bill offers significant improvements for care leavers aged 18 and over. Section 23C sets out responsible authorities' continuing responsibilities towards former relevant children. They will receive the services of their young person's adviser until they are at least 21 years old. The responsible authority must continue to keep in touch with them until they are at least 21, which includes making efforts to re-establish contact with a young person who disappears. Young people will still have their pathway plans covering future plans and ambitions, including support which the local authority will provide until they are least 21.

I believe that the pathway planning process up to 21 and the young person's adviser will between them make it far more likely that a young person will have the assistance they need to meet their ambitions and to receive the kind of support that I very much agree is necessary. The prospects for care leavers will be significantly improved by the Bill as it stands. However, I agree with noble Lords that we ought to take the extra step to guarantee assistance and we will do so as soon as we are able.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, has tempted me to talk about estimates and detailed discussions in the spending review. He knows that I am not going to go down that path, but I well understand the point that he has made. The whole philosophy of this Bill is predicated on making the necessary investment in services to support vulnerable young people. The knock-on effect of that investment will be of benefit to individuals and to society as a whole. No doubt those arguments will be used to good effect in the discussions that will take place in the future.

I should like to reassure noble Lords that we take this matter very seriously. We are committed to imposing the new duty on local authorities to assist these young people as soon as possible. I can give an assurance that we will make the necessary arrangements as soon as we are able to do so.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his considered reply which, like his reply in Grand Committee to a similar amendment, is not unsympathetic. That is much appreciated and phrases such as, "not if, but when", the assurance that the needs of these young people will remain a priority and the further assurance that the Government intend to impose a duty on local authorities are all welcome.

The noble Lord has been helpful in elucidating the position of a young person over the age of 18 even where the new provisions do not come into effect. I accept his points about the amendment. There may well be other forms of words that can be used to introduce a duty to cover those over the age of 18 that do not deprive a young person of benefits in those circumstances.

However, while I appreciate what the Minister has said, the clear fact remains that essentially the only way to guarantee that a young person between the ages of 18 and 21 will be properly supported is to change the definition and to find a form of words to ensure that a young person does not lose his or her entitlement to benefits. For that reason, a change to primary legislation must remain our clear goal. The Minister is clearly relaxed about the cost involved. He has already made his estimates and the department has already submitted them—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong to assume from what I said that I am "relaxed" about estimates for future expenditure.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I would not want the Minister to blot his copy-book with the Treasury. Therefore, I entirely accept what he says. However, whether or not the Minister is relaxed about them, the estimates have clearly been made and they are in place. One hopes that the department has made a rattling good submission with all the right arguments behind it. I would make exactly the same arguments, but our timing is perhaps rather earlier than that for which the Minister has made the case. This is not the time for night-watchmen to be testing the opinion of the House, so I do not propose to press the amendment at this stage. Nevertheless, the Minister can rest assured that we shall return to the matter at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 3, leave out lines 5 to 8 and insert— ("(1) It is the duty of the responsible local authority to take reasonable steps to establish or maintain contact with a relevant child or young person at such times as are reasonable with a view to discharging their functions under this section, whether or not that child or young person is within their area.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the regrettable absence of the noble Lord, Lord Laming—he sends his apologies to the House—I shall move this amendment. Noble Lords will remember that we had some discussion on this matter in Grand Committee. The amendment before us is very close to the one that was moved at that stage. A number of noble Lords, including myself and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, raised questions about the meaning of the expression "keep in touch" and about the way in which the intention of the legislation would, perhaps, not be best implemented by such wording.

We are talking about a colloquial expression; indeed, it seemed to us to be a rather flippant one. For example, is sending a postcard adequate to keep in touch? I do not believe that that is a proper way to stay in contact with a young person, but it could be said that keeping in touch by a postcard could qualify under the terms of that section. Under new Section 23B (of the 1989 Act) there are other very concrete duties proposed in terms of both housing and income support. It is wrong that this expression should form part of that section.

When considering the type of continuing relationship that one needs to have with these young people, it is a matter of maintaining proper contact with them. It is not a case of simply keeping in touch, which could be very ambiguously interpreted. I also suggest that the phraseology of "each local authority" in the current subsection is confusing. As new Section 23A(4) refers to a "responsible local authority", it seems to me that that would be the appropriate expression. In Grand Committee, the Minister said that such phraseology appears in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. However, that does not mean that that is the right phraseology for this Bill.

The crucial importance of staying in contact under this Bill is undoubted. It is absolutely vital that that duty should be clearly imposed on a local authority. I do not believe that the use of the expression "keep in touch" contained in another piece of legislation is necessarily a definitive argument for the purposes of this Bill. The wording does not take into account the sensitivities, such as the amount of contact that is appropriate for the young person depending on his or her needs and wishes. The wording in the current amendment would certainly provide the kind of duty and flexibility that is needed in these circumstances. I beg to move.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should like to reinforce the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. The phrase "keep in touch" is not just colloquial; it is also vague. It really is not clear to me—nor, I suspect, to others reading the Bill—what that expression means. However, "keeping in contact" carries the implication of a two-way process. It also carries the implication of something rather more substantial than whatever ideas are normally denoted by the phrase "keep in touch". I wonder whether this is a matter that the Minister and his department should reconsider most carefully.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is not present this evening. I know that he is very exercised about the use of the wording "keep in touch". I offered in Grand Committee to look into the matter, and I have done so. However, despite the best efforts of the noble Lord and the noble Earl, I feel reinforced as regards the use of the expression "keep in touch" in this context.

The key point here is that there is no disagreement between us in one respect. Whether we describe it as "keeping in touch", "keeping in contact", or whatever, it is quite clear that this will be an important responsibility on local authorities. It is not an issue of policy upon which we are disagreeing; it is more a question of language. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, spoke of the importance of using the right language. I agree with him. It is certainly important to get the language right. That is why I have given most careful consideration to the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, described the expression "keep in touch" as being rather "colloquial". As I suggested in Committee, I think that it could actually be regarded as good plain English, which is what many noble Lords are always seeking to insert into the legislation that we discuss in this House.

The term "keep in touch" is used not only in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to which the noble Lord referred; it appears also in the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Act 1991 and the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973, which I am very glad to pray in aid. I accept that one could argue that the phrase could mean different things in different contexts, but I do not see that as a source of weakness; indeed, it is actually a source of strength because we need some flexibility in these arrangements to take account of the needs and wishes of each young person as an individual.

For some young people, keeping in touch will require only a "light touch", but the door should always be open for more intensive support if it becomes apparent that that is needed. However, a much higher level of support will be needed for other young people who are more vulnerable or more at risk. In that sense, the duty to "keep in touch" allows for both those extremes and everything in between.

On the more substantive issue of how this will actually work, perhaps I may make it clear to noble Lords that we shall be issuing guidance to local authorities about what is expected of them by way of the "keep in touch" provision and what reasonable steps they will be expected to take to re-establish contact if they lose touch. This, together with the performance assessment framework, will ensure that keeping in touch is the proactive and rigorous approach that we all want to see. I can assure noble Lords that through the performance monitoring and assessment procedures we shall be checking to ensure that local authorities adhere to the guidance and carry it out properly and effectively.

I should like to take this opportunity to mention that the duty will fall on the local authority. It will be up to the local authority to decide who is to discharge the duty of keeping in touch on its behalf. We expect that that would normally be carried out by the young person's adviser, but there might be circumstances under which the duty is discharged by someone else; for example, if the young person and his or her adviser had had a falling out. To allow for this and to clear up any doubt, we shall be tabling an amendment at Third Reading to make it clear that regulations may set out the functions of the personal adviser in respect of all the groups of children and young people who may be entitled to one, but that they may also have other functions conferred on them by the local authority. This would allow the local authority to include keeping in touch as part of the adviser's functions but the ultimate responsibility would remain with the authority.

Although I sense that we disagree about the use of language here, there is absolutely no disagreement at all about this being an important function of the local authority in these arrangements. We shall ensure through guidance that local authorities know what is required of them and we shall through our performance assessment mechanisms ensure that they perform those tasks effectively. Where they do not do so, we shall be able forcefully to remind local authorities of their duties.

9 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I thank the Minister for a much more persuasive and detailed response than was given in Committee. He has gone into much more detail as regards the "who" and the "how" of the "keep in touch" duty. I very much appreciate that. The use of the relevant words in a 1973 Act shows that some parliamentary draftsman was well ahead of his time in the use of language. Be that as it may, I appreciated the Minister going through with such care all previous legislation containing the relevant words.

I took comfort from the Minister's comments on how the practical duty would be monitored and from his comments on guidance and performance monitoring and assessment. I believe that that is of great importance. I am glad that the Minister announced that an amendment would be introduced at Third Reading with regard to the duties of young persons' advisers. It is tremendously important to clarify the nature of their duties. I thank the Minister for making that provision clear at this stage so that we can be prepared for it.

I shall, no doubt, consult other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on this matter, but in the mean time I thank the Minister for his reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 [Advice and assistance for certain children and young persons aged 16 or over]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 5: Page 7, line 13, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, for me, and I suspect other noble Lords also, this amendment represents one of the two principal issues at stake in this stage of our deliberations on the Bill. I refer to the critical importance of giving young people leaving care the financial support that they need to pursue a course of education or training or to find a job. The Bill, as it stands, gives local authorities a power to provide such assistance. Through this amendment I propose that this power should be turned into a duty.

Why do I make this proposal? The reason is that we already know from the implementation of the Children Act that a permissive power is simply not enough. There is in the Children Act an almost identical power for local authorities to provide assistance to care leavers for the purpose of education, training or employment. That power is hardly ever used for the simple reason that most local authorities cannot afford to do so.

I come back to a point that I made earlier this evening. Children leaving care are not just children in need of support; they are damaged children. They are children whose trauma often has led them to a raft of mental health problems. We should never allow ourselves to forget the extent to which children leaving care need all the opportunity they can get for a stable start in life and for acquiring a measure of self-esteem. Some 75 per cent of care leavers leave school with no educational qualifications at all. The mountain that those children have to climb in terms of achieving employability and financial independence is truly enormous.

What care leavers generally want is not nannying; it is hope, and the opportunity to find their own level in life—the opportunity to make a mistake in the direction they may first decide to take, just like any other normal young person, and not to be consigned to the scrapheap if they make such a mistake.

In that context I ask the Minister a question. In the old days, when children in care were typically retained in the care system until the age of 18, it used to be possible, and quite common, for local authorities to foster constructive relationships with local employers, and for those employers to be ready to give young people that essential lift on to the first rung of the employment ladder. Often the loyalty worked in both directions, with the young person determined to make the most of what had been given him.

Nowadays, with children leaving care at 16 or younger, those relationships with employers have largely fallen away. What thought have the Government given to encouraging employers to take on young people who leave the care system? We are right, of course, to place emphasis on education and training, but there is no doubt that getting a job is the single most important lever that a young person can deploy to lift him out of the culture of dependency. It is the route to self-esteem.

I hope that the Minister can go a little further than he did in Committee. If there is already a general power in the Bill to provide assistance for education and training in the terms of new Section 24B, and if, as the Minister has said, the Government want local authorities to use these powers wherever appropriate, the question arises: is funding really a difficulty here? Will not the funding have to be provided anyway? Let us be clear, this is not an amendment that extends the scope of the Bill in the same sense as does Amendment No. 3. The scope to provide assistance is already there. Therefore, I put it to the Minister: what is to be lost by making this provision into a duty; and, is there not much to be gained? I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I support the very important amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Howe.

Underlying both this and the previous amendment is the fear that unless the duty is stated in the primary legislation, local authorities will not deliver the support needed to these young people. The noble Earl was correct when he said that they were "damaged" on occasion. They are people who have had none of the advantages; quite often they have to take their opportunities rather later in life than many who have had a simpler and more straightforward family background.

We were fortunate to have the noble Earl, Lord Russell, contribute to our deliberations during the Grand Committee stage. He said: Whether I wear my political or my academic hat, I am committed to the ideal that educational opportunities should be open to all on the grounds of merit only—not of parental income. In the case of care leavers, I do not see how we can possibly say that". He meant that we cannot possibly say that at the moment we have a situation where care leavers have educational opportunities open to them purely on the basis of merit. He went on to say: According to the DETR study on that, a very large number of those simply cannot meet the shortfall by which their rent exceeds their housing benefit. A great many rely on family and friends to get them through".—[Official Report, 10/2/00; col. CWH 4.] He is talking there about the generality of students. If that is the case for the generality of students, then of course care leavers are in a far worse position. Students quite often can fall back on their families; care leavers have no such benefit. What they have to do—and what they should be able to do—is to fall back on their corporate parents. That is what the amendment is designed to do. It seeks to have that corporate parenthood survive through until the age of 24 in terms of education opportunities.

It is important to ensure that these young people—many of whom start their education rather late in life—have the full benefit of a proper higher and further education. The amendment is extremely important in the context of this Bill.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, as the House will know, many children in care are often moved about and foster placements often break down. Education is the most important insurance policy to fit them for adult life. It is very important.

When I visited a drug rehabilitation centre yesterday, I was very heartened to discover that it was encouraging young and not so young people—some of them were over 30—to go to colleges, to take courses and to be rehabilitated. I was pleased to hear that the local authorities were going to pay—or at least they hoped they were going to pay.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, these young people lack emotional security. When they are seeking an education, the least one can give them is financial security. With a lack of emotional security it may be difficult for them to concentrate, but at least they can give it a go.

As my noble friend Lord Laming pointed out in Committee, the implementation of the amendment may not involve a great deal of resource. Experience suggests that, sadly, relatively few young people from this group will choose to stay in education until the age of 24.

The figures underline the importance of the amendment. Nearly 4,000 of the 5,000 young people leaving care each year have no educational qualifications whatever. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, made that point very strongly. In the 21st century, young people simply cannot afford to be without an education. I strongly support the amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I recognise that the amendment runs in parallel with Amendment No. 3 and that it is as important. I have a great deal of sympathy with the substance of what all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate have said. We know that education and training is crucial to all young people, but how much more important is it for this particular group of people who have been so let down by both the care and the educational system in the past?

However, for the reasons I discussed in our debate on Amendment No. 3, I am not in a position to support the amendment because of the funding consequences. I shall say a little more about that in a moment. I want to assure the House that this is a case of "when" and not "if'. As soon as they are able, the Government will seek to extend provisions in relation to education and training to young people formerly in care up to the age of 21.

I should also like to inform the House that on Third Reading I shall be bringing forward amendments which will clarify a local authority's duties in respect of education and employment for relevant children aged 16 and 17. They will also cover assistance with employment, education and training.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to the statistics which we discussed at Second Reading and to the quite awful statistic that as many as 75 per cent of children leave care without a single educational qualification as against the national average of 6 per cent. That is such a striking statistic that it has to be addressed. As noble Lords will know, this has been picked up within the Quality Protects agenda, which has set targets for the educational outcomes of children in care. We certainly intend to build on that initiative and follow it through for young people who leave care.

Perhaps I may turn to a particular aspect of this discussion. As the Bill has gone through the House, we have realised that there is a lack of clarity about local authorities' duties on education and training for relevant children aged 16 and 17. It is important to be clear that this should be a normal part of the support to be provided by the responsible authority. I shall bring forward an amendment at Third Reading to ensure that there is the power to make regulations about assistance with employment, education and training for this group, as well as about advice, assistance and befriending.

With regard to the arguments for providing assistance with education and training, I have already said that we are determined that that should happen, but we run into the same problem as we have for general assistance for young people aged 18 and over. We cannot impose a new duty on local authorities without the funding to back it. I take the point of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who said that the funding would be relatively small because so few young people would get through to that stage of education. But I must enter a note of optimism here. We must build what we do in the future on the hope and expectation that, as a result of the changes both in the Bill and in the Quality Protects programme, more and more of these young people will be able to get access to education. That therefore means that the funding consequences will probably be more than the noble Earl suggested.

Although I cannot accept an amendment which would place a new duty on the face of the Bill, I can tell the House that I will be bringing forward amendments at Third Reading covering assistance with employment, education and training. We shall introduce a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations imposing a duty on local authorities to assist prescribed groups with the costs associated with employment. These regulations will be used to prescribe former relevant children up to the age of 21. We shall introduce a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations imposing a duty on local authorities to assist prescribed groups with education and training. Those regulations will be used to prescribe former relevant children up to the age of 21.

In addition, there will be a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing circumstances in which that assistance should continue beyond the age of 21. Those regulations will be used to ensure that a former relevant child will continue to receive assistance to the end of a programme of education, even if it takes him past the age of 21. That means that if a young person's pathway plan envisages that he might read for a first degree and then follow it up with a postgraduate degree, he would be assisted to the end of that entire programme.

The effect of the amendments that I will bring forward at Third Reading will be to make duties, though of course the crucial question then will be when those would come into operation. I am not able to give a specific date for the very reasons that we discussed both on this amendment and in relation to Amendment No. 3, but the Bill as amended will allow that to take place in the future.

These are significant commitments. I hope that they reassure the House of the seriousness with which we take this issue and our determination to address it.

9.15 p.m.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for an encouraging reply and an encouraging statement of intent on the part of the Government. He has provided us with a great deal more reassurance today than he was able to provide in Committee, particularly with regard to what he said about when and not if. I agree with him that at present there is a lack of clarity in the duties of local authorities. The provision of support for the purposes we have been debating should be a normal part of their activities. It seems that there is little between the Minister and myself and other noble Lords on this issue. We therefore look forward to the amendments that he has said he will bring forward at Third Reading and we shall examine them carefully. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 6:

Page 8, line 29, at end insert— ("(3) No local authority shall exercise the powers conferred by this section in respect of a child or young person who is not assisted by an independent advocate, unless having been informed of his right to an independent advocate, he has refused to avail himself of such assistance.".").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 8. These proposals relate to the second of the major issues referred to earlier by the noble Earl, Lord Howe; namely, the need to establish in the Bill a legal right of advocacy—and advocacy solely in relation to complaints procedures.

When the Bill was in Grand Committee, there was much discussion about a general right of advocacy. Since that time, the matter has been reconsidered at some length. On this side of the House, we have arrived at the conclusion that, although a general provision of advocacy may be unnecessary, the right of a young child to advocacy during a complaints procedure continues to be necessary.

The Minister is extremely fond of the word "balance". Those of us who meet the Minister in regard to a number of different Bills may perhaps be termed members of the "balance club". Perhaps we should have a self-denying ordinance to use the word "balance" only once. I want to use it now.

I have spoken on other occasions about balance but also about the idea of equation. A number of different factors need to be considered in relation to the word "balance". The more the Minister talks about devolving matters to regulation and guidance, the more some of us will continue to press for a right of advocacy. In that way we shall seek to ensure the correct balance to protect people's rights in all these matters.

Noble Lords may have heard me speak previously about the necessity of advocacy for certain groups of people. I remember once being very touched by a remark made by a middle-aged woman who was a chair user. She said that every major decision in her life had been taken where there was an oak table which smelt of polish. She said that she could not now look at oak table or smell polish without having a rising sense of fear about what was going to be done to her and about whether she would understand what was going to be done to her. That is an evocation of what happens to some people when they are in care.

The right to an advocate during a complaints procedure is an essential ingredient to make sure that the procedure works properly. It should deal not only with serious allegations but should also establish good practice. By the time someone in care has gone to the lengths of using a complaints procedure, that person has summoned up an enormous amount of courage to make the complaint and run the risk of being removed from what is his or her only home. In those circumstances, people have a right to support.

Why is it necessary to have an express right of support on the face of the Bill? Because, without such express provision, it simply will not happen. We have talked already about duties and expectations that will be placed on hard-pressed local authorities. Some of us have expressed doubts as to whether the many priorities that we see in relation to vulnerable people will come anywhere near the top of a local authority list of spending priorities.

I believe that the provision of an advocate in a complaints process is, apart from anything else, one of the key determining factors in good practice—good practice both in relation to people being enabled to express their views and their complaints, but also in providing protection for the staff who are subject to some of those complaints. We must bear in mind that often in residential care complaints are raised which are erroneous and vindictive. We have spoken about that in other circumstances. Having an advocate there has a two-way effect. I believe very strongly that we need to put this matter on the face of the Bill. The Minister has said before that the Government are sympathetic to this issue, but without it being written expressly into the Bill it will not happen. It will be like a Sam Goldwyn verbal contract and not worth the paper it is written on. Therefore, this is one of the key elements of making sure that this Bill works in practice. I beg to move.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I support these amendments. I believe that the noble Baroness has summed up the case very well and I do not intend to repeat the points that she made. As has been said on earlier occasions, there is no doubt whatsoever of the degree of user satisfaction for advocacy services. Their impact and benefit are immense. That was recognised explicitly by Sir William Utting in his review. The trouble at present is that the provision of advocacy services is patchy both in quality and quantity across the country.

Young people who are looked after are generally less emotionally mature and certainly less educationally accomplished than their contemporaries. They need to be able to look to an independent adult to stand alongside them and speak for them when necessary.

As the noble Baroness reminded us, the Minister expressed the Government's support for independent advocacy through their Quality Protects programme but resisted the idea of introducing a legal right. I found what the Minister said only partly reassuring. The problem is that without an express legal duty to do so, local authorities frequently do not provide what is hoped of them, whatever good intentions are there in the first instance.

I can only conclude that a child's right to advocacy when making a complaint should be enshrined in primary legislation. There is the point that the proposed right reflects Article 12(2) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It may also reflect Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government have made a commitment to the provision of advocacy support for 16 and 17 year-olds who come within the scope of this Bill. They have given no commitment to younger children who come within the remit of the Children Act. If the Government accept that advocacy is important for 16 and 17 year-olds, it is illogical not to extend that protection to all children who may be involved in making a complaint at some point. For all those reasons I support the amendments.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I attended a meeting this week about a commissioner for children. A Minister, Mr Paul Boateng, spoke out very strongly that the voice of the child should be heard. Can the Government say whether there is really joined-up thinking? How is the voice of a child in care to be heard? I would like the Minister to think how it would be heard unless there is an advocate to speak for it. It is very difficult. We have to look back at all the reports that have been made. The Welsh report was the last one. It said that nobody believed the child. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I speak to the point of low self-esteem in these young people. When one has had an unsettled childhood one is likely to have a lower self-esteem and be less assertive. They must be important factors in putting a duty on those who are the state parent, as it were, to provide a mechanism to ensure that the voice is amplified and that the child is supported in getting what it needs, and not simply fobbed off with what the state or local authority feels it convenient to give.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have been very persuasive in dealing with the impact and importance of advocacy services. While I am unable to accept the amendment, I hope that I can go a long way to meet the concerns that all noble Lords have expressed on this matter. I start by repeating what I said in Grand Committee. I am the first to acknowledge that advocacy can play a very important role in ensuring that young people receive the support that they need and deserve. It is very important that the Government and the nation learn the lessons that emerge from the Waterhouse report and the experiences of the young people described in those appalling cases.

In responding to the amendment it is worth rehearsing the various ways in which at present the Government make clear their support for, and encouragement of, the growth of advocacy services. Noble Lords will be aware that the Children Act itself includes provisions to respect the entitlement of looked-after children to be consulted and to have their views and feelings taken into account whenever there is a decision to be made about them. Further, a local authority must consider a complaint made to it by the child itself or others such as the parents or persons with a sufficient interest in the child's welfare. Many complaints are brought forward by people other than the child itself.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said that the voice of the child must be heard. I do not believe that any of us disagrees with that sentiment. Listening to children is a major theme of the safeguards review and the Quality Protects programme. Children's participation is a priority area for the special grant under the Quality Protects programme which is a major initiative to improve services for children. It has at its heart children's participation, listening to children and ensuring that their rights are fully protected. As part of that programme we are researching current provision in relation to advocacy. That will help us to inform future developments as we move towards an advocacy system of greater coherence and high quality.

I am the first to acknowledge the complaints made by noble Lords tonight about the current patchy performance of local authorities. As to those services which are currently provided by local authorities for children who leave care, one can point to excellent services but also very poor ones. Because of that the Government have asked local authorities to pay particular attention to the development of advocacy services.

The Department of Health's guidance to local authorities in October 1999 under the Quality Protects programme included independent advocacy services as one of six priority areas for the children's services grant. There are also a number of very good national advocacy services which undertake work with a wide range of children. The Department of Health supports that work. The DoH has funded the development of national standards for advocacy services through a grant to the National Youth Advocacy Service. There can be no question at all that the Government are committed to advocacy and will continue to encourage the development and use of a high standard of service. We do not, however, believe that it is necessary to include it on the face of the Bill.

I turn to the two amendments before us this evening. As the noble Baroness who moved the amendment suggested, the proposal raises specific points regarding the use of advocates when pursuing complaints. Amendment No. 6 would make local authorities unable to deal with any representation or complaint by a child or young person in relation to the provisions of the Bill unless he or she was either assisted by an independent advocate or had specifically refused such assistance. Amendment No. 8 makes similar provision with regard to the general complaints procedures about children's services including those for eligible children under the provisions of the Bill.

The first point that I wish to make is that we hope that our new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will reduce the need for complaints by being more sensitive to the needs of the child as an individual. But, of course, there will be cases—few, we hope—where the relationship, for instance, between the young person and his or her adviser breaks down and as a consequence the young person does not receive the support to which he or she is entitled. For those cases a complaints procedure will be required and we shall set this out in regulations. The accompanying guidance will make it clear to local authorities that they should make advocacy services available.

As is already good practice in many local authorities, we know that many, although not all, now entertain complaints brought by advocates on behalf of children. But the guidance we shall provide which will accompany the regulations will ensure that there will be greater consistency in the use of advocacy services.

With regard to the provisions for introducing advocacy services into the complaints procedure for looked after children, noble Lords will be aware that it has become apparent that the existing procedure is imperfect. Many noble Lords referred to the Waterhouse report which provided countless examples of children who attempted to complain about an unhappy situation but whose voices were not heard, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said. In relation to that, we are about to consult on how we might improve the situation. We expect to be able shortly to issue a consultation paper which will include the question of advocacy. For that reason, I believe that it would be premature to start now to introduce changes to Section 26 of the Children Act ahead of the consultation.

In conclusion, I hope that I have assured noble Lords that we are committed to advocacy in practice and in principle, but because of the measures being taken forward in this area at present, and the forthcoming consultation on the complaints procedure, we do not think that this is the time to write advocacy into the Bill.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his detailed and helpful answer.

The Minister said that local authorities have been asked to include advocacy as one of six priority areas for children's services. Where will advocacy come in the list of those priorities? Local authorities are struggling hard to meet many different responsibilities being passed to them. When push comes to shove at local level, advocacy may not make it to the top of the list.

I thank the Minister for his comments about consultation as a result of the Waterhouse report, about which many noble Lords are greatly exercised. The Minister did not specify the consultation period. I urge the Government to include provision for any recommendations arising from the consultation before the Bill completes its passage in another place. All those concerned with children in residential care want urgently to ensure that nothing on that scale ever happens again and wish to put in place good practice as quickly as possible. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 9, line 26, at end insert ("and (b) after subsection (6) insert— (6A) Every local authority shall provide cash assistance to any relevant child in their area for whom another local authority is responsible under section 23A unless they are satisfied that his welfare does not require it."").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the amendment picks up an issue that was highlighted at Second Reading and in Grand Committee; namely, the financial predicament of young people who have become estranged from their local authority.

In Committee, I put the case for the retention of a safety net in the benefits system for that small minority of care leavers who, for whatever reason, have lost contact with their responsible local authority. I argued that the safety net could take the form of a discretionary right to support via the severe hardship allowance.

In reply, the Minister made a number of powerful points. In particular, he drew attention to the perverse incentive that would be offered to local authorities to push young people on to the benefits system when the better and often more difficult course would be to provide them with direct help and support. The Bill provides a mechanism for young people to claim support from their responsible authority and places a binding duty on that authority to give such support not simply in monetary form but, most importantly, in the form of the young person's adviser.

I fully recognise the advantages and significance of those provisions. However, the Minister said that he understood the concerns that had been expressed about the plight of disaffected young people. One of his arguments was that Section 17 of the Children Act gives a power to local authorities to provide emergency support to estranged young people. However, as I read that section, it confers on local authorities a discretion to provide assistance and only in exceptional circumstances to give assistance in cash.

In practice, there is a great variation as to the provision of Section 17 monies. What is needed for the group of young people that we are discussing is a duty to provide cash assistance. I believe that without such a duty, young people who for whatever reason become disaffected will be exposed to considerable risk; the risk of homelessness, involvement in crime and, as the noble Earl was right to remind us, involvement in sexual exploitation.

The amendment recognises the merits of placing a duty of support on local authorities rather than on the benefits system. It puts in place what to me is the missing piece of the jigsaw; namely, a guaranteed safety net.

It is probably right for me to admit that since tabling the amendment I believe that I have identified a difficulty with its wording. No doubt that could be improved if, as I suspect, it is likely to lead to unintended consequences. However, I am in no doubt about the central point at issue and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to it. I beg to move.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, I support the noble Earl's intentions. This is where we begin to understand what the failure to keep in touch can mean in practice. Young people leave the authority with which they have been in care for many reasons. It is not unusual for people to run away to major cities and to want not to be pursued. They believe that in their circumstances it is a danger to maintain a link with the authority from which they came. For those reasons, many young people turn to other local authorities for practical and immediate support. The noble Earls, Lord Howe and Lord Listowel, were right to identify the serious and immediate nature of the dangers which they face.

In those circumstances, it is reasonable to expect that the local authority to which they may present is able to make cash and other payments. Organisations such as that which runs the missing persons' national helpline will often tell how people's experiences with the local authority in whose area they grew up make it impossible for them to remain in touch. That is why they disappear. I believe that in those circumstances the local authority to which they move must immediately meet their needs. Therefore, I believe that we should support what the noble Earl is trying to achieve. Many of the people who leave care end up on the streets of cities with which they are not familiar.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for again raising this important question. Although I understand the issues that have been raised, I am not persuaded that we need to go in the direction suggested. I believe that mechanisms are provided which will enable the appropriate support to be given to young people in the circumstances mentioned. I also say to noble Lords that, as in relation to other matters in our discussions—I refer to our debate on Amendment No. 1 in relation to evaluating the criteria which are used—we shall, of course, keep these matters under review as part of the normal assessment process.

Certainly, I believe that one has to start by recognising that the situation in which young people will find themselves once the Bill has been enacted will be very different from the current arrangements. I believe that it is the current arrangement that leads noble Lords to express their concerns in this area. The whole point of the Bill is to ensure that young people will enjoy continuous support in whatever form is most suited to their needs and circumstances. That is why the concept of a responsible authority has been introduced. Therefore, it is absolutely clear where support is to come from for each young person. That is crucial because of the mobility of the very people whom we are discussing. Experience of the present system has shown that there have been problems and disputes between authorities over who should give support to these young people. The Bill clarifies absolutely which local authority is responsible.

Therefore, young people will be able to move around the country confident of where their support will be. I believe that, together with the benefits brought about by the young persons' advisers and pathway plans, this key change should cut drastically the number of cases where young people cut themselves adrift and turn up without support.

Of course, I recognise that the amendment is not aimed at the vast majority of cases where young people are working well with their responsible authority, but at those cases, which we hope will become fewer and fewer as the Bill's effects improve matters, where young people run away and lose contact. I share entirely the concerns that in those few cases assistance should be available immediately to tide the young people over until proper arrangements can be made to get them back on an even keel. Of course, none of us wants to see anything other than young people having that assistance.

It may be useful if I spend a moment or two explaining how we envisage that that emergency support will be given. Essentially, there will be two avenues open to young people who arrive in another local authority area in need of support. One port of call would be the social services department, which would, given that emergency support is commonly needed out of hours and at weekends, normally give assistance through the out-of-hours service. The other scenario might be for the young person to find his or her way or be referred, say, by the police to a voluntary organisation, probably in the homelessness sector. Either way, we would expect assistance to be given to the young person through the second authority, but only for as long as it takes that authority to contact the responsible authority, which would then take over the funding.

The basis on which the second authority would assist the young persons in the short term would be, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, Section 17 of the Children Act. I believe that, in looking at Section 17, we need to look first at Section 17(1), which places a duty on every local authority to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area. The Act then further states that the services provided in the exercise of that duty may include assistance in kind or, in exceptional circumstances, in cash. But the word to which I draw your Lordships' attention is the word "duty" in the first line of that section.

The other important component of the Bill is to turn perverse incentives which presently exist within the system into what I might call proactive incentives. Under the new arrangements, the second authority will have a considerable financial incentive to make contact with the responsible authority as quickly as possible and to agree a proper programme of support. In short, the incentive is there to keep the young person within the social care system.

To make sure that that works properly, we intend to cover the provision of emergency assistance in guidance to local authorities, including the payment, where necessary, of cash.

The intention of the amendment is clearly understood: to remove the discretionary element in Section 17 to ensure that relevant children are not left without financial means if their welfare requires it. But—and perhaps this is the point to which the noble Earl referred—it would have additional consequences, with wider implications both for local authorities and for the effectiveness of this new legislation. For example, it would require a local authority to undertake a needs assessment for every relevant young person for whom another authority was responsible.

The only point I make is that that would be a tremendous bureaucratic burden which is neither needed nor wanted. But I accept that the noble Earl is making the point that he wants to ensure that the kind of matters envisaged would be dealt with adequately in the circumstances which have been mentioned.

I hope that I have said enough to persuade your Lordships that while I appreciate the intention of the amendment, I believe that children's needs can be met in an emergency through the existing provisions of Section 17, backed up by the new arrangements and incentives which this Bill puts in place. On that basis, I invite the noble Earl to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that full reply. I shall read carefully in Hansard what he has said.

Essentially, he has indicated that this amendment is unnecessary in practice. I understand the concept and value of the responsible local authority. That is an extremely important concept. I understand that a local authority other than the responsible authority which provides support to an estranged youngster can claim reimbursement from the responsible local authority. What I term the missing piece of the jigsaw is the absence—at least as I saw it—of a specific duty on the second authority to provide the assistance.

The Minister suggested that there is already a duty in Section 17 of the Children Act. If he is right, it is doubly extraordinary that so many local authorities are not taking any notice of that duty. As I said, I shall study very carefully what the Minister said. I recognise that he has tried to be as helpful as he can. Between now and Third Reading I shall decide whether this is an issue to which we should return. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Interpretation, commencement, extent, Wales and short title]:

Baroness Masham of Ilton moved Amendment No. 9: Page 10, line 22, after ("Children") insert (and Young Persons").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment seeks to add the words "and Young Persons" to the Title of the Bill. I feel that this Bill is so important as we are dealing with the most vulnerable group of young people in our society, people who have been discarded by their families for a variety of reasons. Many of them will have been abused or have seen their mothers abused or unable to cope.

For many years I served on the board of visitors of a young offenders' institution. The young people concerned were between the ages of 15 and 21. About 40 per cent came from care. They were often institutionalised. Many of them had returned after discharge, having found the outside world too difficult to cope with and fallen into crime. Without support and interested people to keep such young people on the right road, that will continue to happen.

Many of the people whom the Bill sets out to help will be late developers. The support for many may continue under the pathway plans until they are 21. A person of 18, 19 or 20 is not a child. Such a person might feel insulted to be covered by a Bill entitled Children (Leaving Care), when the help is ongoing after they are no longer children. Local authorities may find a loophole by saying that the Bill is for children. How would that stand up in court?

Therefore, I suggest that the title of the Bill would be better if it was "Children and Young Persons (Leaving Care)", or perhaps, just "Young People (Leaving Care)". I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I have enormous sympathy with the spirit of the amendment since I have engaged in correspondence with the Minister on that very subject. I am sure that the Minister will reply even more cogently tonight than he did in his letter to me, in which he said that problems were created specifically by the fact that the Children Act contains particular definitions of "child" and "children" and so on. It would therefore be inconsistent legally with that Act, with which the Bill is almost wholly concerned with amending, to discuss "young persons" within the Bill itself. I understand that and I see the merits of that argument.

The part which I cannot see, however—this is where the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, seems to be entirely with merit—is why we cannot simply change the title of the Bill. In his letter, the Minister wrote, As for the short title, the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. I feel that we ought to leave it unamended in order to signal clearly that it belongs with the Children Act (rather than with the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act). Since, legally speaking, it is children who leave care this is also the logical approach". I must say that I do not find that argument persuasive. I find the language of the Bill's title as it currently stands rather patronising. It does not really reflect the fact that we are not talking mainly about children who are aged 16 or younger, but about young people who have left or are leaving care. I should prefer to give a clear signal that we are effectively treating such people as adults rather than children. The extremely slight risk of confusion with the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 is a price well worth paying to demonstrate that.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister will reconsider the matter. There is to be a "Take a child to work" day fairly soon. Care leavers will be coming to this House. It was originally to be called the "Take a care leaver to work" day, but the cared for children were then asked how they felt about it and they said that they did not really want such a stigma attached to them. The term "care leaver" sadly often carries a stigma with it. This is a similar kind of issue; are we going to infantilise those young people? I hope that the Minister will be able to think again about the issue.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I have thought again. Of course, I understand the substantive points which the noble Lords and the noble Baroness have made in their remarks. I think I would just draw a distinction between the terminology used in the Bill and the Title and the action that has to take place in the field to make sure that we provide the right kind of services. I should like to suggest that, whatever the Title is, the key issue for us is ensuring that young people and children get the kind of services that we want them to get, to ensure that they have a much better start to their lives.

Perhaps I may just go through the reasoning behind the Short Title of the Bill. The Children (Leaving Care) Bill amends the Children Act 1989 and, as your Lordships will know, as we have struggled at times to relate the provisions of this Bill to those of the Act, it has been framed in a style which has been consistent with that Act. I believe that anyone coming to the Act, as amended, should find the same terminology and definitions used consistently throughout.

I know the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said it might be worth some inconvenience to make the change, but for people outside Parliament who do have to consult legislation, it behoves us to make that legislation as clear as possible. I know those are sentiments which many of your Lordships have expressed when various Bills have been discussed in your Lordships' House. Section 105 of the Children Act gives the definitions of terms used within it. Those are the definitions that we need to use in the Bill. The definition of a child is a person under the age of 18 and the Bill is consistent with that definition. Where the Children Act itself is concerned with powers and duties in respect of those aged 18 and above, as in Section 24, it refers to a "person". We have reproduced that terminology in the Bill's restatement of Section 24.

Outside the legislation, of course, we have much more freedom with the language. The audience for the legislation itself and its Title is likely to be comparatively narrow. However, there will be a much wider and more varied readership for the guidance in other documentation that will shape and accompany implementation. I want to reassure the noble Baroness particularly that, in producing that documentation, we will take particular care with the tone and language that is used.

Turning specifically to the Short Title of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, quoted from a letter that I sent to him. He said he was not persuaded. I must say that I was completely persuaded by the logic of my arguments. The point is that the Short Title of the Bill serves for indexing purposes. We need to signal clearly that the Bill before us belongs with and amends the Children Act 1989 rather than the 1969 Children and Young Persons Act. That is where people will look to find the provisions of the Bill, and amending the title as proposed would cause unnecessary confusion.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, as a lawyer, can find his way through these things but I know that in my previous life I found working my way through these indexes very difficult. I think we should have a little bit of sympathy with those people in the field who have to find their way through this. For that reason I think it is unreasonable to change the Short Title. However, in saying that, I want to assure the noble Baroness that I have taken account of what she said and I shall want to ensure that the language that accompanies the Bill will be sensitive to the points she has raised.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken, together with the Minister. I thank them very much.

I tried to count in the previous amendment how many times the Minister spoke of "young people". He mentioned "young people" so many times that I lost count. I feel even more strongly that the Bill should have the words "young people" in its title. I do not want to do away with the word "children", but the Minister said "young people" on so many occasions that I believe he is trying to pull in the bad and the slack local authorities which may opt out of dealing with the 18, 19 and 20 year-olds. Therefore, before the next stage I shall get together with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—a small and dedicated group—and carefully read what the Minister has said. We may return to this point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at five minutes past ten o'clock.