Previous Section Index Home Page

16 Jun 2008 : Column 720

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary condemn all the Members of the European Parliament who are refusing to respect the verdict of the Irish people?

David Miliband: Anyone who refuses to respect the decision of the Irish people is obviously not doing justice by the systems that exist. I have not seen the quotations to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I am happy to look at them.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary think that the British people feel any more warmly towards the Lisbon treaty than the Irish did last Thursday?

David Miliband: I only wish that 80 per cent. of the British people— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has been giving a running commentary on the whole exercise. Much as I like the sound of his voice, I do not think I like it as much as he does. Perhaps he could give us a break for a while.

I wish that 80 per cent. of the British people agreed in the same way the Irish do that the European Union is a good thing, but sadly we cannot hope for quite such dizzy heights in this country.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Foreign Secretary rightly said at the outset that he did not want to bully the Irish people, but surely pursuing the ratification process in this country while working with the French and Germans to ensure that other countries ratify the treaty constitutes subtle playground bullying tactics, intended to ostracise Ireland and try to persuade it to think again.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman underestimates the Irish people if he thinks that talking to the French and Germans—as if that were some kind of sin in the European Union—will bully them into anything. However, I can tell him one thing that will make him happy: I had an excellent discussion with the Polish Foreign Minister today about the plans for each of our countries. The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for the presence of Poles in this country and Polish participation in the European Union, and I can assure him that the Polish Foreign Minister and I were absolutely agreed on the next steps forward.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What does the Foreign Secretary think about the fact that Britain and its European allies are actively preaching the importance of the rule of law to various parts of the world, yet when it comes to the Lisbon treaty, Britain and those same European allies are actively conspiring to circumvent the rule of law?

David Miliband: There is no circumvention, active or otherwise. There is no question of anyone trying to take away the democratic rights of the people of Ireland. If they do not pass the treaty, the treaty will not come into law. Nothing could be clearer than that. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has waited all this time to ask a question that I have already answered at least a dozen times during this question-and-answer session.

16 Jun 2008 : Column 721

Orders of the Day

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

[ Relevant documents: The First Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 359,Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]; and the Government response, Third Special Report from the Committee, HC 711; and The Fifteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny, HC 440, and the Government’s reply, letter of 4th June from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Children, Young People and Families) to the Chairman of the Committee. ]

Order for Second Reading read.

6.16 pm

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Every child should have the right to be happy, healthy, safe and successful, and we must help families to stay together and achieve the best for their children. When that is not possible, however, it is our duty to ensure that an outstanding system of public care is in place: a system that is ambitious for children, provides them with good parents, puts a premium on their needs and wishes, and will accept for those children no less than we would want for our own. Many Members in all parts of the House have promoted the interests of children in care, and I welcome the support that the Bill has received. I am sure that today’s debate and our deliberations in Committee will continue that constructive dialogue.

As well as introducing specific measures for children in care, the Bill enables a statutory duty, for the first time, to be placed on the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children, complementing the existing duty to promote educational achievement and embedding the principles of Every Child Matters at the heart of government. As with all duties, uses of the duty for significant long-term commitments will always be subject to the usual parliamentary procedure and authority, but this unequivocal commitment to all children, a landmark in any terms, matters most to those for whom the state has parental responsibility.

Approximately 60,000 children are in care at any one time, in most cases because of abuse or neglect. They need the highest standard of care to help them to overcome the multiple disadvantages that they often face—disadvantages that all too often contribute to a host of poor outcomes. For example, looked-after children are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs, eight times more likely to be excluded from school and nine times more likely to have special educational needs. Just under half have a mental health problem, and a quarter of adults in prison today have been in care.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): While I welcome the Bill, I believe that if we are to achieve its central aim of improving outcomes for children in care, we must improve the quality of inspection of children’s homes to ensure that they provide the best possible care for young people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current review of national minimum standards should include an obligation for inspection reports to contain a summary of proper evaluations of all incidences of running away,
16 Jun 2008 : Column 722
assault and criminal damage, so that placing authorities are better able to assess whether a home is meeting the Staying Safe criteria?

Beverley Hughes: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work, and the expertise that she has acquired in helping us with our proposals. I am particularly grateful to her for examining what happens, or currently does not happen, to inspection reports. I know that she has discussed the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). We shall want to explore with her ways in which the use to which inspection reports are put can include the elements that she has mentioned, and thus become a much stronger lever for improvement in the quality of care.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): On outcomes for children in care, I welcome the provisions on support for those in higher education, but will the Minister give more support to children who want to go into vocational education or apprenticeships in the way that I did?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, that is equally important. The current provisions allow for the funding of first-time level 2 and level 3 vocational courses, and also for local authorities to contribute to children’s subsistence costs when they go into vocational education—and I am pleased to say that more of them are going into that. The real issue at present, however, is that only 6 per cent. go to university, which is why we have placed an emphasis on enabling them to do so more readily.

The figures I was citing mean that a child in care is more likely to end up in custody than at a university. That is not to say that outcomes for children in care have not improved over recent years; they have done, as a result of measures introduced by this Government. The five-year Quality Protects programme began the reform of children’s services, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was designed to delay young people being discharged from care until they are ready, and the Children Act 2004 and the Every Child Matters programme are transforming multi-agency arrangements for vulnerable children. Indeed, the Every Child Matters programme and the children’s plan have given us the essential platform for the further reforms in this Bill.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and for the great leadership she has shown in this area. On the vulnerability of young people leaving care, is she going to mention the possibility of extending the care period beyond the age of 18? If she is not going to mention it, has she nevertheless considered it?

Beverley Hughes: I will refer to that shortly, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

In addition to the measures I have mentioned, there has been significant extra spending. Between 2001-02 and 2006-07, Government funding rose from £1.3 million to £2.1 million, during a period when the number of children in care levelled off.

All this has made a difference. The proportion of such children in education, employment or training at 19 has increased by 8 per cent. and educational attainment continues to rise. The truth is, however, that although
16 Jun 2008 : Column 723
the life chances of all children have improved, those of children in care have not improved as fast, and although their poor outcomes are undoubtedly significantly related to the serious problems with which they come into care, for too many children they are also exacerbated by the very experience of care itself. Multiple placements, successive social workers and moving school at crucial times all militate against the stability and strong attachments that these children need in order to thrive. Therefore, our priority in this Bill is to achieve a step change in the improvements we have already begun to see for children in care, to enable them to progress further and faster and, crucially, to close the inequality gaps between them and other children.

The Bill follows the Care Matters White Paper that we published last June, which set out our strategy to transform the life chances of children in care. It drew on detailed and extensive research and a wide-ranging consultation with children and young people themselves, parents, carers, local authorities and voluntary organisations. The Bill and the White Paper enshrine four key principles: good parenting from every person involved in these children’s lives; the voice of young people being at the heart of the system; stability and continuity as its hallmarks; and an uncompromising culture of high aspirations.

We all understand the importance of strong, warm, interested parents in developing happy and successful children. When a child lacks that support from their own parents, we have not just a legal, but a moral responsibility to look after children in care as well as any good parent would. The Bill embeds good “corporate parenting” across the whole care system—from carers, teachers and social workers to directors of children’s services and elected lead members. As the Care Matters implementation plan makes clear, everyone in the system must not only care for looked-after children, but also care about them. Replicating the care that a child would normally receive from parents means a change of culture, which we expect directors of children’s services and lead members to drive forward. It also means a relentless focus on the quality of care in the places children live.

Despite some excellent provision, only a quarter of residential homes meet 90 per cent. of the national minimum standards. That is completely unacceptable. The Bill therefore gives Her Majesty’s chief inspector more power to take swift and decisive action when standards are not met. Clause 26 allows her to issue a “compliance notice” to providers failing to meet expected standards, while clause 27 allows the chief inspector to restrict admissions to residential settings where necessary. Simultaneously, we are reviewing the national minimum standards to make them clearer and more focused on outcomes for children. The Bill also addresses foster care approvals, establishing an independent review mechanism similar to the current mechanism allowing prospective adopters to challenge decisions by adoption agencies.

Improving quality also means developing a truly world-class children’s work force. In social care, that means a stable, motivated work force who are appropriately trained, skilled and confident in their abilities.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I am listening with interest to the Minister’s comments. She will be aware that the heading of clause 8 is “Well-being of
16 Jun 2008 : Column 724
children and young persons”, yet parliamentary hearings in May 2000 recommended that staff in all social service departments should receive further training on female genital mutilation. It is thought that about 98,000 girls under the age of 15 have either undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, female genital mutilation, yet there has not been a single prosecution since the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 became law. Therefore, we are failing those children.

Beverley Hughes: More might need to be done to raise the level of awareness and consciousness among social workers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will pay attention to whether that is necessary in his work on the work force reforms. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree, however, that we have taken the necessary action to outlaw that practice, but I agree that social workers need to be alive to the possibility of it happening.

Alongside the provisions in the Bill, the Government are investing £73 million over the next three years to improve the quality, capacity and supply of social workers for children and families. I am sure that other Members will wish to join me in paying tribute to the social workers, foster carers, residential workers and others who contribute so much to children in care. They are on the front line, keeping children safe every day, yet they are often in the firing line for critics and headline writers. We must be relentless in eradicating poor practice, and we will be, but we should also applaud the talent and commitment of those doing the caring, without whom the measures in this Bill could not be achieved.

Part 1 of the Bill will also enable the piloting of new social work practices, allowing local authorities to delegate some of their social services functions to more autonomous agencies. We want to explore through these pilots whether additional flexibilities and freedoms will deliver a more personalised and effective service to children. We will be working closely with partners to implement the pilots, and we will commission an independent evaluation before deciding whether to extend these social work practices nationally.

Effective corporate parenting depends upon close contact between practitioners and the children. Clause 16 places a duty on social workers to visit regularly all children in care, whatever and wherever their placement, and including those in custody. Clauses 18 and 19 also require regular visits by social workers to disabled children placed away from home long term, as well as support for the family at home.

The second key principle of the Bill is that the child’s voice should be central. In future, the child’s views must be actively solicited and taken fully into account, as any parent would do.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome the clauses that give more powers and responsibility to independent reviewing officers and more independent visitors to children, but will my right hon. Friend also look at improving the availability of independent advocacy to these children because, through independent advocacy, their voice will definitely be better heard?

Beverley Hughes: I am well aware that my hon. Friend has long championed this issue and I pay tribute to her role in supporting the interests of children in care. The
16 Jun 2008 : Column 725
measures in the Bill on independent reviewing officers will go a very long way toward making sure that children have a stronger say. I certainly want local authorities to appoint independent advocates where that is necessary, but I point out to my hon. Friend that, in this Bill, we are trying to get everybody involved with children to see themselves as advocates for those children. That, to me, is what the system lacks at the moment, and that is what we are hoping to achieve.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): On independent advocates, whom I have dealt with myself, does the Minister not accept that where the local authority is paying their salary, that creates a conflict of interest? Does she not further accept that a child who is Gillick-competent should be permitted to appoint their own solicitor from the age of 12-plus, rather than the guardian ad litem coming in and ignoring the views of the child?

Beverley Hughes: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise; nor do I think that that does a true service to the people who undertake the independent advocacy function. They are perfectly capable of representing the views of children and advocating for them, which is why they want to do that work. It does not matter terribly much who is paying for that, and I do not think that it compromises at all their ability to press the interests of children.

Clauses 11 to 15 lay the foundation for a systematic refocusing of the independent reviewing officer’s role and practice. They make a single, named IRO responsible for monitoring the performance of the local authority and overseeing the care planning process, so that it is fair and reasonable and gives proper weight to the child’s wishes. The IRO will not only spend time with the child before a care planning review, but will check that other professionals are also listening and responding to the child. I considered carefully whether we should now, at this point, make the IRO fully independent of the local authority, and I can tell Members that it was a finely balanced decision. If these reforms do not quickly achieve the step change that we require, we will go further, which is why the Bill includes an enabling power to make IROs fully independent of local authorities if necessary.

Stability is the foundation for any child’s development, and yet the experience of care for many children is one of instability and unpredictable change. Looked-after children are five times more likely to move schools in years 10 and 11 than other children. Some see as many as 30 social workers or go through nine or 10 care placements within a few years. Children cannot be happy and they cannot do well at school or be ambitious for the future when they are subjected to such regular upheavals.

Next Section Index Home Page