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The Green Paper did not go so far as to suggest that children entering custody should not lose their looked-after status. It did, however, suggest that children entering custody should be needs-assessed, and that individuals should continue to be supported as if they were a child in care. But any reference to children in custody was watered down in the “Care Matters: Time for Change” White Paper, to a requirement for social workers to visit previously looked-after children while in custody. The continuity of that arrangement is something of a postcode lottery.

Over the summer recess, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that you noticed and read from cover to cover the report produced by the Centre for Social Justice entitled “Couldn’t Care Less”. That excellent report was the result of a lot of research and interviews with people involved in the care system and the children themselves. The report states that the methods by which a child arrived in care should not influence the level of oversight and care that local authorities exercise over children in care who go into custody. Surely all children within the care system should be equal in the eyes of their corporate parent.

Let me quote some passages from the report, which are relevant to the need for specific action to be taken to give extra support and status to children in care in the custody system. It states:

effectively getting into a cycle of despair.

Mr. Kidney: In a little while, I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak about new clause 26, which relates to support for children on the edge of care. However, the hon. Gentleman talks about support for children at risk of going to prison, but there is one stage missing on the list that he has read out. It would be immensely helpful if social workers turned up at court with the children for whom they are responsible, so that magistrates effectively had the representative of the parent in front of them.

Tim Loughton: As is often the case, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I completely agree with him. We need to do far more preventively to keep children out of the custody system. That means better, closer working with consistent social workers, who are able to have a closer relationship. For those at the edge of custody, however, it also means ensuring that the key support person gives assurances to a court that steps could be taken to keep that child out of custody. That would require all the support packages on which he and I agree and to which his new clause alludes.

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The trouble is that 3,000 children are already in the custody system, of whom a majority are from the care system. When they get out, we need to make sure that they are supported appropriately and can go into a setting that will ensure that they do not return to custody, and that they get back into the mainstream as quickly and smoothly as possible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would fully agree with those intentions.

I do not want to read out the whole report, although some of its contents are startling. Another statistic that came out, however, is that only 2 per cent. of the current care population in prison

They are not career criminals, but deeply damaged children from deeply damaged backgrounds, who find themselves caught up in a vortex of unacceptable behaviour, the only response to which is an unsmart, unsophisticated one of banging them up. That is not good enough, and it is also highly counter-productive given the recidivism rates.

For a child in the justice system—whether they are from the care system or not—at a young offenders institution, if placed on a sentence of less than 12 months, the recidivism rate is 92 per cent. That was the last statistic I heard. It is therefore virtually guaranteed that a child going into the system will make a career of offending. That cannot be right or helpful to the child, or to the community that must temporarily host that child before they get back on to the conveyor belt into crime.

We must consider the extra stresses on young people in prison. The Mental Health Foundation, for example, has estimated that rates of mental health problems among children and young people in the youth justice system are at least three times higher than those in the general population. Children in the care system are much more likely to have mental health problems, and are exponentially more likely to have mental health problems when they go into the justice system.

A vicious circle of deprivation exists. There is a triple whammy: perverse financial incentives to provide inappropriate kinds of custody; poor care, education and training in custody to prevent reoffending; and inadequate planning for release and support after leaving custody.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am sorry that I have not read the report from which my hon. Friend has quoted. How much does it cost to keep a child in custody per year?

Tim Loughton: It is— [Interruption.]—a six-figure sum; that is what I am being prompted to say. Usually I have the figures at my fingertips. For someone who reaches the age of 18 who has gone into the youth custody system, I had a figure of well in excess of £1 million for all the costs of looking after them and of police investigations and detention. It is a substantial sum and much higher than the amount that could be put into prevention and early intervention to keep them out of the youth custody system in the first place. I am sure that the Minister would offer to write to my hon. Friend with the exact figure.

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John Bercow rose—

Tim Loughton: If my hon. Friend has the figure at his fingertips, it will save the Minister writing the letter.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful. I am not in the business of preventing a letter from being written, but pursuant to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), may I put it to my hon. Friend that it is often a question of spending now in order to save later? Does he not agree that the fact that there are 11,000 people in our young offenders institutions, of whom typically more than 60 per cent. suffer from speech, language and communication problems that prevent them from gaining access to education or training courses, is a damning indictment? Do not those people perhaps need an independent advocate or A. N. Other to trigger the provision of a relatively inexpensive service which will do those people and the country great good, and prevent the vastly increased costs that would otherwise be incurred at a later stage?

Tim Loughton: I thank my hon. Friend, not for saving the Minister from having to write the letter but for the point that he has made so well. He and I, along with other Members, discussed precisely that problem during a Westminster Hall debate this morning. We all agreed that, however the process is triggered—and there are different ways of triggering it—it is essential to ensure that early intervention support services are available to those with speech and language difficulties, autism and associated special educational needs. A disproportionate number of children in the care system suffer from communication difficulties of that kind which might have been avoided—or at least alleviated—through early intervention.

I want to make a few more points about new clause 19 before turning to the other new clauses and amendments in the group. It is the largest group on the list, so—as I am sure you will be relieved to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I shall not be as verbose as this later.

If we are truly to help our most vulnerable young people, the children who are already looked after on entering custody should not cease to be looked after. They should be entitled to all the benefits conferred by section 20 of the Children Act 1989, bar perhaps the provision of accommodation by the local authority. That would ensure that all looked-after children entering custody did not become even more disadvantaged. In 2005-06, about a quarter of the number of boys and half the number of girls in custody were held over 50 miles away from their homes, according to the Youth Justice Board. Again, continuity of care in such circumstances is all-important. The new clause would ensure that local authorities were in a position to provide suitable accommodation and support for looked-after children leaving custody.

The new clause is also important in safeguarding the longer-term provision of support for many extremely vulnerable children who at present should qualify for leaving-care assistance under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. A child is eligible under the Act if he or she is aged 16 or 17 and has been looked after by a local authority for 13 weeks or more, provided that the period began after the child had reached the age of 14 and ended after he or she had reached the age of 16.
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The 13-week period does not need to be continuous, but a series of pre-planned short-term placements of under four weeks at the end of which the child returns to the care of a parent, or a person who has responsibility for him or her, will not count. Periods during which a child is remanded in the care of the local authority or in remand in a secure training centre will count, but remand to a young offenders institution will not.

There are anomalies in the system, and it will often be difficult to determine whether or not a child is eligible. At present, a typical scenario that needs to be considered would involve a young person being placed under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 owing to his or her chaotic circumstances, possibly as a result of court proceedings and bail requirements, but then being remanded to a young offenders institution or sentenced to custody before the 13-weeks were up. The child would thereby lose any entitlement to leaving-care rights. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) may wish to comment on that, as it is an issue of which he has a great deal of experience.

Ensuring that those accommodated under section 20 do not lose their looked-after status on entering custody will entitle such vulnerable children to the support that they need to make the transition from childhood to adulthood and independent living, hopefully at liberty as well. The implications for successful resettlement when they leave custody are clear. However, as things stand there is a perverse incentive working in the system. I do not say that it is being taken advantage of or that it is happening a lot, but there is a perverse incentive for a children’s services department to foist a child in care on to the youth justice system so that the department no longer has responsibility, let alone financial liability, for the child. That is an enormous waste of money, and such deckchair-shifting is certainly not in the interests of the child—which, as always, must be our primary consideration.

2.45 pm

The points made by the hon. Member for Stafford in new clause 26—along with, I am sure, the points that he will make in his speech—echo points made in Committee, and I sympathise very much with them. The hon. Gentleman’s aim is to increase support for “family and friends” carers. We have long championed—I tabled many amendments in Committee, which were supported by a number of members of all parties—the need to ensure that kinship care becomes a much more extensively used resource. It is still the case that only 4 per cent. of social worker-initiated placements are with kinship carers, which cannot make sense.

Despite the requirement that kinship carers should be at the top of the hierarchy of placements, they are still not getting enough of a look-in. Many of us will have been visited in our surgeries by, typically, grandparents who have offered to take on the care of a grandchild whose parents are deemed to be incapable of doing so, but are having to battle to gain that responsibility—and if they do gain it, many must then battle to obtain proper support and remuneration.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): My hon. Friend has just given the House a shocking figure relating to the number of placements with kinship carers. Why does he think so few people gain access to
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children with whom they have blood relationships? That seems absolutely bizarre, and perhaps answers the wider question of why children in care in the United Kingdom do so badly.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend has raised a good point, which she also raised—and we discussed—in Committee. It is a complicated problem, but I think that ultimately it is simply easier to place a child with a non-connected foster carer who may be on the local authority’s books, and whom a social worker may know to be a safe pair of hands. The extra work involved, and the extra risk that may be involved, in taking on a new and unknown quantity in the form of a kinship carer can be enough to tip the balance.

I am not trying to attach blame to social workers; the blame lies with the system. As we know from last year’s report by our own commission on social workers, they are still under severe pressure. The lack of continuity among them makes it very difficult for them to form the close attachment to a case that should be required for, particularly, very vulnerable children. In Denmark some 40 per cent. of placements are made with kinship carers, which shows that it can be done, but for some reason our system militates against it. All the evidence shows that that lack of investment is a false economy, and that children placed with kinship carers fare as well as, if not better than, children raised by unrelated foster carers.

Miss Kirkbride: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to pursue the point. He is a great expert on these matters. Clearly, when a local authority goes out to look for foster carers it exercises a rigorous process of selection to ensure that the children involved will be safe and well looked after, in line with the high standards that we seek in a foster carer. Inevitably, if a child is placed with a kinship carer, the standard of parenting is likely to be lower because of the compensatory factors involved in the existence of a kinship relationship. How can local authorities solve that difficult conundrum?

Tim Loughton: I thought that my hon. Friend was going to mention a specific case that she and I discussed yesterday. A degree of political correctness had crept in: although the potential foster carers or, ultimately, adopters appeared largely to fit the bill in that context, some of their views were rather less acceptable. In fact, there is a degree of political correctness in the whole issue. We should be more willing to take a risk when there is a chance that a child may have a solid second chance of a stable life with a kinship carer.

We debated the matter for many hours in Committee. Anything that we can do to re-establish some stability in a familiar environment, with familiar friends and with family members who one can trust, must be preferable, unless there is a clear risk of harm to the welfare of that child, which must always be the overriding consideration, to placing a child with an unknown foster carer.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I wonder how widely family group conferencing, which is mentioned in new subsection (2)(a) of new clause 26, is used among local authorities. It was used by Essex county council when I was a councillor there. I understand that
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the concept started among the Maori community in New Zealand, where the idea of kinship was extended even further and a group of people were brought together who were involved in that child's life but were not necessarily family members. Those people worked together to prevent the child from being taken into care. I wonder whether there is a requirement on local authorities to investigate family group conferencing or is it a voluntary thing? How widely is it used?

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend knows that we have raised the subject of family group conferencing before. It gained a lot of support from Conservative Members, and I think that other Members also felt that its use needed to be expanded much more. We tabled an amendment to reinforce the desirability of pursuing family group conferencing, but, alas, the harshness of Mr. Speaker’s selection process has not allowed it to be debated today. I am sure that he is right in his decision; it is just a shame that we have not been able to debate that amendment. However, we have had an opportunity, through my hon. Friend, to say how much we support family group conferencing and getting everyone around the table: extended family members, close friends and all the agencies and professionals involved. That must be the best way to determine what is the best and most appropriate action for the child, because it means that all the opportunities are explored at the same time and kinship carers who want to put themselves forward can do so at the beginning and all the pros and cons of that option can be investigated, rather than adopting the all too common “We’ll get back to you” approach. I seem to be lingering too long on a new clause which is not mine, but the hon. Member for Stafford will gather that there is support for what he is trying to achieve.

New clause 28 was tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) with whom I concur about the paucity of information about accommodation arrangements for 19 and 20-year-olds. Once again, we are frustrated by Government replies that say that those figures are not collected centrally, because we need that intelligence if we are to discover the extent of the problem, especially given the fact that it does not exist just to the age of 16 or 18.

I am aware that there is an amendment on the selection list tabled by the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), on which we will reserve judgment until she has spoken about it. I will not try to pre-empt her, as I have the hon. Member for Stafford, but we had advance warning of what he is trying to achieve.

Amendment No. 13 is not rocket science and what it proposes is not new. In fact, we went back to the matter on numerous occasions in Committee. Basically, it is about trying to put a cap on placements. I know that that is fraught with problems, but there is a strongly held view that the biggest issue undermining the chances of looked-after children getting a decent second chance is instability in their placements. If they are constantly being pushed from one foster placement to another, for the convenience often of the system rather than for their convenience, because it is easier to take a child in care from one foster parent to another some miles away than to try to provide the support package that that child needs to enable them to stay with the first foster parent—the child may have complex needs—that must be detrimental to that child's ability to get back on the
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straight and narrow. It must also be detrimental to efforts to secure some stability in the child’s education, particularly when a new placement means moving from one school to another.

The amendment repeats the principles that we supported in Committee by trying to cap the number of placements that a child can have, other than in exceptional circumstances, particularly for those children who are reaching the last year of their compulsory schooling, when such moves can obviously have a detrimental effect on their capacity to take their exams and to pass them.

We know that the educational outcome figures for children in care remain appalling. In school year 11, 64 per cent. of looked-after children obtained at least one GCSE or GNVQ, compared with 99 per cent. of all school children, and 13 per cent. obtained at least five GCSEs or equivalent at grades A to C, compared with 62 per cent. of all children. That gap has been widening. Although the achievements of children in care have been improving, that has not happened at nearly as fast a rate as among children in general. That is unacceptable.

The amendment would fix a cap on the number of placements, and if that cap were breached, it would be judged an exception to the rule and the local authority would have to give a full explanation of why that had been allowed to happen and what had been done to prevent a repetition. Fostering is the backbone of the care system. Seventy-one per cent. of children in care are now in foster placements, but a National Foundation for Educational Research report found that 29 per cent. of children in care had had three or more placements during their secondary school years, and 25 per cent. of them had had six or more placements. Some survey work for a report by the Centre for Social Justice revealed that almost one in 10 of care leavers interviewed had experienced more than six placements before they were 16 and that some had been in as many as 30. It also found that 41 per cent. of foster carers thought that stability would make the biggest difference to children in care. As David Holmes of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering said:

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