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Sandra Gidley: First, I welcome the increased protection for 16 and 17-year-olds. Frequently, there is a gap in provision when someone hits that age, and it is unclear where that provision will come from. I welcome the extension to other areas. I have a small number of questions, however, about the group of amendments in relation to care plans.
I tabled new clause 12 a while ago in response to huge concerns expressed to the all-party group on children and young people in care about possible loopholes in the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. A great deal of concern has been expressed about young people who in other circumstances might be accommodated or looked after by local authorities. Instead of being taken into the care system, with all the implications that that has for the services provided under the 2000 Act, children of up to 21 or even 24 are denied that opportunity. Only their most basic needs for accommodation and food are met under section 17 of the 1989 Act, but they are not looked after by the local authority. They are encouraged to go into bed- and-breakfast accommodation rather than into foster or residential care. Essentially, they are offered a low-quality, low-cost half solution to their tremendous needs. Concern has been expressed that the Government's good intentions for young people in care or leaving care, as expressed in the 2000 Act, which amends the fundamentally important 1989 Act, could be thwarted by the action of adults usingand, frankly, abusingsection 17 for people for whom it should not be used. That would deny such people their rights.
Mr. Djanogly: That might not be the case, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that compared with the alternatives such as adoption, which has an immediate cost, the long-term costs of keeping a child in care are dramatically higher.
Mr. Dawson: I may not have expressed myself very well, but the hon. Gentleman has entirely missed my point. I was talking not about adoption but about the needs of teenagers. For example, because of circumstances such as family breakdown, one could argue that some 15 and 16-year-olds should be looked after by the care system. Instead, they run the risk of being fobbed off with a low-cost, poor-quality alternative. I was not talking about adoption for those young people.
As I said, reference has been made, in particular, to the young people who come to these shores as unaccompanied asylum seekers. The children who arrive in this country without adult support and in distressing circumstances often do not have the basic requisites of life. A few months ago, I met a couple of young people who arrived in this country without shoes; such young people require the most thorough assessment of their needs so that their best interests can be promoted.
Children are children are children wherever they come from. It is highly inappropriate that section 17 should be used to place young people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or poor-quality accommodation without their receiving the thorough assessment and support that they need in circumstances that many adultslet alone young peoplewould find difficult to face. I support the Government's proposal significantly to strengthen section 17, and I hope that we can move on and ensure that young people on their own who are offered accommodation under that section can have access to the excellent support that the Government introduced in the Children (Leaving Care) Act.
Similarly, I support the Government's proposal to place care plans on a statutory footing and the measures concerning the intervention of an independent person in the review process. That is the most important juncture at which one can intervene in the care system to affect the lives of children and young people, all of whom are entitled to a statutory review of their circumstances on at least a six-monthly basis.
Tremendous work has been done by advocacy organisations such as Voice for the Child in Care and the National Youth Advocacy Service, and by children's rights officers and their association. They have been able to deal with the circumstances of many children and young people in care. Organisations such as National Voice and the Care Leavers Association have been able to respond to children and young people who contact them, but if there can be statutory intervention with an independent element when care plans are being made or reviewed, which is a crucial point in the process, that will be of fundamental importance.
Amendments Nos. 132 and 133 refer to the need to provide independent advocacy to support children in making representations and complaints, which is another important juncture at which young people should be supported by independent organisations. The 1989 Act contains a provision for independent visitors. That is another example of how excellent intentions have not, with one or two exceptions, been fulfilled. It is tremendously important that young people in care have access to independent support.
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely important point. Will he clarify whether he is suggesting that independent visitors could provide the independent advocacy proposed in the new clause? Many Conservative Members would welcome that.
Mr. Dawson: Yes, indeed. We need to build on the Children Act to ensure that children have more access to independent visitors. It is not enough to say that we will try to ensure such access. Independent visitors often need the backing of advocacy organisations, good examples of which I have mentioned, and we need to strengthen the
If we are to ensure that young people's complaints and concerns about their treatment in care are represented properly and in a timely fashion, we should ensure that they have good access to independent advocacy and support in making representations and complaints.
Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made a thoughtful and constructive contribution. I agree with the Minister that the Government should take note of the so-called Lambeth judgment. The need for clarity and certainty was obvious.
I seek further clarification on one or two issues. The Minister spoke about the provision that would be made in relation to section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which deals with accommodation. Presumably, such provision would not relate to local authority homes, but would deal with help for children in private accommodation, whether in bed-and-breakfast establishments, with foster parents or elsewhere.
I take on board the Minister's point about assistance in kind or cash. In what circumstances would that additional assistance be made available? I would have thought it was important for direct help to be available as a matter of course and that it should not be difficult to apply for. The Minister also mentioned rent and expenses. Will she further clarify that point? Furthermore, the provision deals with a power for local authorities, but should not it introduce a duty? The new clauses give extra power and commitment to CAFCASS, but will it receive any extra funding? In the light of the Government new clauses and our short debate on the previous group of amendments, there appears to be a need to ensure that CAFCASS has some additional funding to enable it to take care of those additional matters.
On new clause 15 and care orders, I should like clarification on one specific point. Clause 113(2)(5), which refers to section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989, deals with interim care orders. Do care plans always arise from care orders? I am not clear about that; will the Minister give a few more details? Otherwise, I support the Minister. She is right to introduce the new clauses, which are a very constructive response to the House of Lords judgment.