“More children have been entering care because of maternal drug/alcohol misuse, and the impact of such use during pregnancy and later parental neglect have detrimental developmental effects. Attachment difficulties/disorders and the impact of early trauma have all risen to prominence and been linked with placement disruption.”

We need that research. We have a shortage of adopters, and perhaps more families would be willing to adopt if they could be reassured that they would get the support they need. We will need a range of different care models, including adoption, family-based and residential, to meet the complex needs of children coming into our care. Adoption will always be the best placement for some children. We need to do all we can to support the therapeutic parenting we are asking of many adopters.

In conclusion, we must also do more to improve the quality of all our care placements so that when children come into the care system because their parenting is not good enough, they are provided with the best possible opportunities and do not again face poor care because of poor parenting in the care system.

6.51 pm

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which has been interesting throughout. I congratulate former Ministers and the Secretary of State on their contribution to the Bill. In particular, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), on the way in which he presented the Bill today, on how he dealt with pre-legislative scrutiny by the Education Committee and on his general willingness to listen. If Ministers have the right attitude, the pre-legislative scrutiny approach is exactly the right way to go about creating legislation. With reference to another issue, I think that Ministers who listen to suggested changes and then change tack accordingly should be seen not as weaker as a result, but as stronger. It is about doing the right thing in the long-term interests of children, rather than trying to avoid political embarrassment on the day. Fortunately, pre-legislative scrutiny allows no such embarrassment anyway.

Although I broadly welcome all the provisions in the Bill, I will focus today on special educational needs, which the Education Committee has looked at. The

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Committee’s recommendations were addressed very thoroughly in the Government’s response, on which the Minister deserves to be congratulated. The regulations and the code of practice will be absolutely key to whether the legislation delivers for children with SEN, as we hope it will, but we are yet to have any sight of them. It will be so important that the Bill Committee looks at, understands and scrutinises those regulations as it does its work.

Of course, those regulations will include the detailed requirements on local offers, which will be critical. I think that I speak on behalf of the whole Committee when I say that we have no doubt that for those with education, health and care plans the framework set out in the Bill will definitely lead to an improvement, although not perfection. Getting it right for those on school action and school action plus schemes—in other words, not the 3% who have a statement now, but the 17% who are on other types of support—is critical, and that comes down to the local offer.

I am delighted that the Minister agreed to extend the pilots, but, in truth, as we scrutinised the legislation we had little information back from the pilots that would allow us to understand what local offers would actually look like. The regulations relating to local offers need to address our recommendation on the need to clarify what will be available for pupils with low to moderate SEN, particularly those with speech, language and communication needs, who make up a substantial group within the category. That is dealt with in paragraphs 52 to 53 of the Government’s response.

The Committee recommended having minimum standards for local offers in the Bill. We wrestled with the idea of a framework, so I was pleased to hear the Minister say today that there would be a common framework. I am not sure whether he will also be summing up at the end of the debate—

Mr Timpson indicated dissent.

Mr Stuart: No, that would be unusual. Perhaps the Minister who will sum up can tell us more about what the common framework for local offers means. Will that go some way towards our minimum standards? Will it create a formal basis to make it easier to compare provision in one area and another? It will be important to find out.

We are delighted that the Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation that the code of practice should be a statutory document and be laid before Parliament, although Her Majesty’s Opposition, doing their job, will rightly press on whether that should be by negative or affirmative resolution, which I am sure will be a useful debate to have.

The role of health remains unclear in the Bill, but not because Ministers are not trying their best; it touches on the issue I raised earlier about the NHS constitution. On the positive front, we are encouraged by the Minister’s clear determination to find ways to hold the NHS to account for how well it meets the needs of children. The Bill makes provision for time scales—they apply, for example, to responding to requests for assessments of SEN, and to carrying out the assessments—to be included in regulations, including provision for aligning time

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scales between local authorities and health. That is to be welcomed, because it is critical, but it needs to be watched closely when implemented.

The Bill will maintain many essential protections, entitlements and freedoms for parents and young people, including a specific right to request a statutory assessment. We also welcome the fact that the Committee’s recommendation that the detail in an education, health and care plan should be “specified”, as opposed to “set out”, was accepted by the Government and is in the Bill. The Committee’s recommendation on mediation being advised but not made compulsory has been accepted, for which I am grateful.

The Bill also shows a good level of commitment to ensuring the involvement of children and young people and their parents and carers in how provision is made for them. Explicit provision has now been made for regulations to set out how local authorities should involve young people and their parents in preparing and reviewing the local offer. The Bill now provides for more choice for young people with SEN and their parents about where they will receive their education. In response to the Committee’s recommendation on independent specialist colleges and independent special schools, provisions have now been included, so the Secretary of State can approve individual institutions for which parents or young people express a preference in their plan.

The Bill will entitle NEETs of compulsory participation age and apprentices to a plan, following the Committee’s recommendations, and I am again grateful to the Minister for listening and taking that on board. The Committee expressed concern about SEN pathfinders failing to involve colleges adequately in trialling the approaches to nought-to-25 provision. The Government’s response explains that pathfinders will redouble their focus on the post-16 sector, along with additional funding for well-performing pathfinders to advise others on implementation, but I ask the House to note that the Association of Colleges is concerned about the implementation of new funding a year ahead of the Bill’s proposed implementation. It states:

“The poor management of the funding changes are threatening the goodwill of Colleges towards the Bill.”

I hope that Ministers will take that on board. It might be something that can be looked at closely in the Bill Committee.

The Minister shares the Committee’s view that special educational needs co-ordinators should be required to be qualified teachers, and he has expressed his intention that regulations should make that a requirement in future. That, too, is welcome.

Briefly—I have 40 seconds left—the Committee’s recommendation was that disabled children with or without SEN should be included in the scope of entitlement to integrated provision and to education, health and care plans, but that was not accepted by the Government, which is disappointing. I accept that they made a cogent case as to why that was, but I hope that they might be able to look at that again. The Committee’s request for reassurance that ensuring statutory protections for 16 to 25-year-olds will not compromise provision for others has not been fully answered, so I hope that can be looked at as well. If we are to have the big improvement

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we all hope for, we must ensure co-operation and have seamless systems in place across all sectors, including health.

6.59 pm

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I recognise what the Minister is trying to do in seeking to reform important areas of law affecting children, young people and their families. New as I am, however, I am beginning to learn that the devil is in the detail when it comes to many of this Government’s Bills. I am not alone in that view. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, said that she supported

“the objectives of the Children and Families Bill”,

but was

“concerned about some of the detail. Some measures proposed could be interpreted as overriding the principle that all decisions are to be made in the best interests of the child”.

In preparing for today’s debate, I was deeply disappointed by the lack of an impact assessment of the full effects of the Bill. I found one on business, but I did not find any relating to how the provisions would affect the groups of children and their families to whom the Bill applies. I feel that that is deeply disturbing. Again, my views are shared by others, including the Association of School and College Leaders. Because of the Bill’s complexity and the range of areas that it covers, there is concern about whether proper parliamentary scrutiny can be given to ensure that it has no unintended consequences. I think we should listen to such organisations.

The Bill’s positive elements have been recognised, but a number of concerns have also been raised, and I would like to focus on a couple of them. Although the steps forward on adoption have been recognised, we have heard concerns about adoption and about the importance of ensuring that the interests of children are paramount in the family justice system and of the need to strengthen the independence and powers of the Children’s Commissioner for England.

If I may, I will focus in my remaining time on part 3, which deals with special educational needs. These provisions have been heralded as the biggest reforms to SEN provision in over 30 years. Replacing the dual system of assessment for children and young adults with a single system and the education, health and care plans is a positive change. I am mindful of what colleagues on the Education Committee said in their pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee observed that

“the legislation lacks detail, without which a thorough evaluation of the likely success of the Government’s proposals is impossible”.

Although some proposals, such as the pathfinders, have been supported and taken forward, Scope and other disability charities in the Special Education Consortium have continued to express their ongoing concerns, particularly about clause 30 and the local offer. The real concern is that, as the provisions stand, they allow for no more than a directory of services, with no duty on local agencies to provide what is set out in the local offer or to define service standards, although there has been some movement there. The risk is that the Bill’s objectives in seeking to improve educational outcomes for children with SEN and disabled children and their families will not be met. There is also concern that children with less complex needs will fail to reach

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the threshold for new education, health and care provision in much the same way as only the adults most in need of care services are able to access them.

Meg Hillier: One concern I have encountered a lot in my constituency is where a child has something that is difficult to diagnose or put a name to. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that unless we get this right in the Bill, those children, their parents and their teachers will not have any better provision than is currently on offer?

Debbie Abrahams: I do indeed share that concern. Similar issues have been raised with me in my discussions with different charities.

We know that one in eight families has a child with SEN, and it is estimated that one in six will not be provided for under the Bill. We already know that 1.4 million children with SEN do not have a statement and will not be eligible for EHCP—education, health and care provision—under the Bill. Approximately 87% of all children with SEN are currently supported through school action or school action plus—in the provision of speech and language therapy, for example. With the abolition of these programmes, those children will rely totally on the local offer, so we must ensure that it is strengthened.

I want to refer quickly to accountability, which is still an issue in respect of these services. We need to make sure that children and their families can hold people to account and be engaged in the provision of their services, and the monitoring review of those services. Simply publishing the comments of parents and young people does not really do what is needed. We need to ensure that the engagement is meaningful, as reflected in the UN convention of the rights of the child.

This Bill is inadequate not only in the proposals it puts forward, but in its failure to recognise the policy context that surrounds it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke about that context, which includes complex legislation on welfare reforms and health system reforms, as well as massive cuts in local authority funding. It remains to be seen how well those local authorities will cope with that.

I want to conclude with a reference to one of my constituents: the mum of an eight-year-old son with Down’s syndrome. She says that taking him to all the various appointments he needs, whether for physiotherapy or speech therapy, or even for accessing an appropriate shoe service, given that he needs to wear corrective boots, has proved to be a full-time job in itself. Such demands on her time meant she was forced to give up work. As the household income has dropped with her loss of earnings, her husband has taken a higher-paid job in Scotland to make ends meet. Now the family is together only for the occasional weekend. Joanna says:

“I am not naive, I don’t expect services to exist just for me, or facilities to be for my convenience. The frustration comes from the possibility of services being made easier.”

This is an example of the stress experienced by families across the country in raising children with disabilities and special educational needs. Positive though some elements of the Bill are, it does not reassure us that the particular pressures that these families face will be addressed. I hope that the Government will look again at how to strengthen the provisions.

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7.7 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to welcome the Bill, which covers such a broad range of areas. I hope Members will forgive me if I focus on special educational needs, as so many others have done.

I know from my own life story how important it is to get this right. I was one of the pre-1981 report children whose parents had to fight to get me into a special school, and then fight again to get me back into a mainstream school a few years later. The special school was not far from the Minister’s own constituency, in Hebden Green. When I was in the mainstream school, my parents had to fight to get the speech therapy I needed to make the most of being in that mainstream school.

It was with some distress and dismay that when I first got elected to this House, I found that the first three cases of my very first constituency surgery were all about parents fighting for their children to get the special educational help they needed from their schools. Thirty years on, nothing much seemed to have changed. That is why I welcome the Bill, as it starts to introduce some level of change. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who is sadly no longer in her place. What she did with her Green Paper was to raise expectations, perhaps even to create a rod for the Government’s own back in a strange way. None the less, she needs to be congratulated on that.

I know not just from my own life story, but from what I see on the ground in Blackpool, how important this issue is. When one of our council officers—the head of inclusion and access—gave evidence during the Education Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny process, she explained why this matters so much in Blackpool, where we have such a high transient population, with four times as many young people than the national average entering the town already having a statement—9.8% versus 2.8%. Yet Blackpool manages not to make it an adversarial experience; in fact, it has fewer tribunals than the national average. I can see that situation working itself out in my constituency surgeries and in my casework.

As always with legislation, the temptation is to focus on the elements that one is not completely happy with. I will try to resist that temptation and look at the wider picture. I am very privileged to chair the all-party group on young disabled people. What strikes me in that role is that society no longer puts a lid on expectations for our young disabled people and tries to limit what they can achieve. If anything, the only lid that is placed on their expectations is the bureaucracy in the system. Society is changing, but the structures of governance need to change as well to enable them to keep pace. That is why the Bill is so important.

When I meet groups of these people, I am struck by the fact that so many of them do not just want to go into work when they reach 18—they want to go on to university, to go and live their lives. I welcome what the Education Committee and the Minister have said about those who are in apprenticeships or are not in education, employment or training having access to EHC—education, health and care—plans. However, I have a twinge of disappointment about the fact that apparently those who want to go on to university will not have access to those plans. I share the Committee’s concern that we

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need greater clarity over what this provision should look like for the 19 to 25 age group and how the local offer should be structured in this regard. We have made great efforts in the draft Care and Support Bill to ensure that those who wish to attend university can take their social care package with them from their home local authority to where they seek to go to university. That was a bold and ambitious move that excited many young people, and I want to make sure that what we do in this Bill has the same level of sophistication.

Equally, I urge Ministers to look again at the issue I raised in an intervention—how we treat disabled young people who have a health need but no specific educational need. I realise that it is very difficult to place duties on the NHS. None the less, having had such a revolutionary Bill that is going to change the landscape, it would be a shame if we missed this opportunity to get it right for all our young people.

One of the big things that excited me about the Green Paper was that it finally tackled the issue of transition—the cliff edge that many young people, and their families, come to when they transfer from child services to adult services, whether they be wheelchair services, community and mental health services, or so many other services. As people reach the age of 16, child services start to tail off and there is never any confidence that adult services will then kick in. People get very concerned about that. I urge Ministers to embrace this opportunity to resolve that cliff edge. Families have a fear of the unknown because of the threat of uncertainty and fragmentation. On my reading of the Bill, children with health needs but not educational needs will not get an EHC plan. That is wrong given the spirit of the Green Paper.

I support charities such as Together for Short Lives, which represents the children’s hospice sector, and the Communications Trust, which represents people with augmentative and alternative communication, where interaction between health care and education is not just important but crucial to the role played by the machines that assist them.

I should like finally to focus on clause 69, which seeks to exclude a particular group of people for whom we, as legislators, have responsibility—people in custody in the youth justice system. Again, on my reading of the Bill—I am happy to be corrected—those in youth custody will be specifically excluded from having an EHC plan and will be frozen in a no man’s land.

Debbie Abrahams: Is it not the case that children who are in detention are more likely to have special educational needs than those in the population as a whole, and so denying them access to support in the Bill is a real discrimination against that group?

Paul Maynard: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; she is right. We must recognise that the Minister has moved substantially on the issue, but it is still important that clause 69 specifically recognises this group. Communication delays and speech and language needs lie at the heart of the offending behaviour of many of these young people, and it seems perverse to exclude them, because that will not help their rehabilitation.

Having picked out every bit of the Bill that I do not like or disagree with, it is important that I emphasise how important it is, how much I welcome it, and how

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pleased I am that this Minister will pilot it through, because he has a very strong personal commitment to and excellent understanding of these issues. I have great confidence that as the Bill goes through Committee much of what I am highlighting can be teased out, made clear and made fit for purpose. I want us to remember that the Green Paper raised such hopes among disabled charities, organisations and young people, who thought that it was the moment to make sure that Warnock was built on and, indeed, that many of Warnock’s inadequacies were corrected.

I welcome what the Minister has been trying to do and what I know he will continue to do. I even welcome the constructive comments from Labour Front Benchers and the shadow Secretary of State. This should not be a partisan issue—an opportunity to bash political parties over the head—because it is too important for that. I am sure that all of us in this Chamber have parents coming to our surgeries to try to get the support that their children need. This is our chance to work together to solve these problems so that in 30 years’ time we do not all have to come back again to try to make it right.

7.16 pm

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who raised several important issues that I hope will be considered.

This is an important Bill that will impact on children and their parents—on how families function and how the state supports them in so doing. I support many aspects of the Bill and the spirit of this debate, which has been conducted in a very comradely fashion. Some of the Bill received pre-legislative scrutiny, and it is much better for that. However, there is concern inside and outside the House about some of the proposed changes, particularly to child care, that are being foisted on a sector that is fairly united in its opposition to them. It is therefore disappointing that so much of that aspect did not go to consultation before the Bill came before us.

For many families in the current climate, life is tough and getting tougher as they are paying the price for this Government’s failed austerity drive, and the Bill does little to alleviate the pressure on them. However, I raised a number of these issues in a recent Adjournment debate, so I will not go into them now.

Reform of the adoption system is welcome, especially if it means that more children can be placed with a loving family more quickly. However, as always seems to be the case with this Government, progress comes with a price tag. I am concerned about local authorities such as my home authority, Manchester, which will lose 44% of its early intervention grant to help to pay for these adoption changes. Cutting the early intervention grant by £150 million a year—not increasing it, as the Minister stated—to pay for adoption changes is more than robbing Peter to pay Paul: it is counter-productive.

Mr Timpson: I hope that the hon. Lady heard me refer to the adoption reform grant, which was recently made available to local authorities to the tune of £150 million to bring about the reform of the adoption system that we need. That money is being specifically targeted to bring about the changes that she wants to see.

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Lucy Powell: I thank the Minister for clarifying that, but he might want to refer to his Department’s own website, which says that the money for these adoption changes is coming from a cut to the early intervention grant. If he wants to bring forward other changes, I am sure that all Labour Members would welcome that.

Early intervention work with families prevents them from entering the care system in the first place, saving money for local authorities and the state. The Government are in danger of failing the early intervention test and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) will continue to hound them on that issue. I add my voice to his efforts on behalf of vulnerable children and families in my constituency.

I am also worried, given the context of this debate, about the safeguarding of looked-after children. The Bill is a missed opportunity. The Government need to do more to shore up safeguarding capacity in the system, particularly given the massive cuts to local government, and social workers need to be given more support to carry out their duties and to safeguard our children.

Catherine McKinnell: My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument. The Minister seems to be shaking his head at what she is saying. I have visited local Sure Start centres in my constituency and they are all earmarked for closure in 2016. Does my hon. Friend share their concern and mine about the capacity to safeguard children without that network of centres?

Lucy Powell: I agree with my hon. Friend. In addition, my local authority in Manchester is experiencing a huge cut to its children’s services budget, which is having a massive impact on how the local council provides for children in care. That is particularly worrying.

As I said in my recent Adjournment debate on child care, the child-care crisis is one of the most fundamental issues facing families today. Part 4 of the Bill relates to child care and many elements have been met by a chorus of disapproval. Childminder organisations have welcomed the changes to allow Ofsted to charge for early reinspection at the request of the provider, but there is deep concern at opposition to plans to create new childminder agencies. Providers, the third sector, parents and the Government’s own advisers also have deep reservations about measures to change child-care ratios. Indeed, an unpublished report being sat on by the Secretary of State apparently says that changes to ratios will lead to a deterioration in the quality of care and will not help parents reduce their costs. I have previously asked for that report to be published and I repeat that request tonight. The Minister is in danger of driving down quality while costs balloon.

There are many concerns about the proposed childminder agency changes, and I echo those raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). Childminders are concerned that agencies could charge them high fees for registering and that plans for Ofsted to cease inspecting agency-registered childminders could confuse parents. Indeed, the Pre-School Learning Alliance has questioned why the Government would create another layer of bureaucracy that will see many parents and childminders pay more while duplicating the work of several organisations.

I am also concerned about plans to remove the existing duty on local authorities to assess the sufficiency of child care in their area. I have spoken before about the

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child-care crisis facing families hit by the triple whammy, including a reduction in the number of places. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has highlighted the closure of Sure Start centres in some parts of the country and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) also raised that point earlier. More than 400 centres have been lost since this Government took office and 4Children has highlighted that 55% of children’s centres no longer provide any on-site child care, while 50% of those that still do report that those places are massively over-subscribed.

Sufficient child care is a prerequisite for parents—mainly mothers—returning to work. Removing the duty on local authorities to ensure sufficient child care will not help parents who are trying to get back into the workplace. It is a backward step that sends the wrong message to families who struggle to find the right child care.

Involving fathers more in bringing up their children is important and the Government’s proposals for sharing leave are positive, provided that safeguards are in place for women. Indeed, there are still many issues to resolve for women to achieve equality in the labour market, especially returning mothers. I welcome the move to extend the right to request flexible working. It is a further important step to ensure that work for parents pays and it builds on the revolution in family-friendly practices introduced by the previous Labour Government.

Given the unprecedented pressures faced by parents and carers today, it is important that we create a system where families and individuals are able to manage home and work life for the economy as well as for themselves. However, I am not convinced that watering down guarantees for employees, with provisions being transferred from statutes to a code of practice, is the best way to highlight the importance of flexible working for family life.

The Government say that this Bill is about supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) has said, one group is conspicuous by its absence. Young carers do an amazing job caring for relatives such as parents, siblings or grandparents who have a disability or a mental health issue or who suffer from substance misuse. Although new rights for adult carers are proceeding in the draft Care and Support Bill, the Children and Families Bill does not include equivalent provisions for young carers. Many are concerned that this is a missed opportunity. The Bill is a key opportunity to consolidate and simplify the law for young carers and to provide them with rights equivalent to those given to adults. I hope that the Government will take note of the many representations that are being made on the issue and introduce proposals to ensure that young carers will be covered by the Bill. I look forward to debating the Bill further in Committee.

7.25 pm

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): I congratulate all Ministers who have been involved in this Bill, past and present, on many measures that appear to be a huge step forward. I look forward to monitoring its progress through to fruition.

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I want to discuss the role of the virtual school head teacher. Virtual school head teachers are a tried and tested method for improving the attainment of looked-after children. They have been shown to have a positive impact when they are well resourced and focused. The Bill contains a new statutory requirement for local authorities to appoint at least one individual to promote the educational attainment of looked-after children, and it is intended that such people will be the virtual school head teacher. As the chairman of our local charity in Calderdale, Together for Looked-after Children, and of the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers, I welcome this important step forward, because although the attainment plight of looked-after children has been acknowledged in the past, this Bill finally puts accountability for such attainment on a level playing field.

The local authority duty to promote the education of looked-after children does not cover young people over 18, but local authorities continue to have some duties to support the educational achievement of care leavers up to the age of 25. This support is especially important as care leavers are less likely than their peers to achieve traditional testing points throughout their educational life. Research by Catch22’s national care advisory service and the Who Cares? Trust shows that it is vital that the education of care leavers benefits from the same strategic overview provided by virtual school head teachers as that of looked-after children.

For that reason it is important that the Bill Committee looks carefully at doing one or two additional things to strengthen the role of the virtual head teacher. It should either extend the duty on local authorities to promote educational achievement to include care leavers, or include a new clause to require a strategic overview of duties regarding the education of care leavers between the ages of 16 and 25.

Such an amendment would have several benefits. It would provide a strategic oversight of educational provision for all looked-after children and care leavers, and a framework to link education to broader career planning and the employability responsibilities of schools and local authorities. It would provide efficiencies in service delivery by linking, not duplicating, existing pre-16 and post-16 provision. It would provide a framework to monitor systematically the effectiveness of educational provision for individuals and cohorts beyond the age of 16, supporting local authorities to deliver on the extended performance indicators that will be introduced next year. It would also provide a framework for capturing and supporting the educational needs of looked-after children who enter care post-16, such as the homeless 16 and 17-year-olds under the Southwark ruling and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as well as care leavers.

The proposal would improve joint working and information sharing with further education, higher education and other employment, education and training providers. It would also provide educational expertise to train, advise and support social workers and personal advisers who work with care leavers to deliver EET support, including through input into pathway plans and post-16 personal education plans. The proposal would also avoid gaps in the educational support provision of local authority children’s services. For example, one local authority reported recently that young people were unsupported during the summer holidays post-GCSEs until the 16-plus service took over their case.

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The proposal would meet the improved standards of accountability under the forthcoming revised Ofsted framework, which will require local authorities to demonstrate how they would support the education of care leavers until they are 25. Ofsted has already had an impact, with one local authority reporting that the remit of its virtual school head teacher had been extended in response to criticism in a previous inspection.

The beauty of these tweaks is that they are achievable with little additional resource. Many local authorities already deliver an extended service, but I accept that there are concerns about the resource implications of an extended statutory duty. Local authorities would be free to decide the extent to which they used the remit of the virtual school head teacher to provide enhanced services to care leavers. The Who Cares? Trust and the National Care Advisory Service envisage that virtual school head teachers will provide strategic oversight of the educational support that local authorities must provide to care leavers, rather than direct casework, unless local authorities find that that would improve services.

More importantly, the proposal would protect the investment in leaving care support by providing a framework to monitor systematically and review the effectiveness of educational support post-16 and providing the evidence needed to evaluate services in order to enable better targeted support and to eliminate ineffective interventions. It would protect the investment in young people’s educational achievements at an earlier age by ensuring that they were supported to complete further and higher education and given the tools to achieve and maintain future economic well-being.

The proposal would also provide a framework for establishing better links with other EET providers, including further and higher education providers and training providers. Local authorities would be able to make better use of the resources for vulnerable groups. For example, they would be able to negotiate effective systems to access bursaries, support services and other schemes that support educational achievement.

This slight change to the Bill would not only join up services for this vulnerable group of young people, but would be cost-neutral in the long run.

7.32 pm

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I welcome many of the changes in part 1 of the Bill to streamline the adoption process and the provisions in parts 6, 7 and 8 to introduce new employment rights for women and men who have young children.

As one of the first people to argue in this place for a Children’s Commissioner for Wales, I support the commissioner’s response that his remit should be extended to include some reserved matters so that he can better represent the children of Wales. I hope that that provision can be looked at in due course.

My remarks will focus on part 2 and the impact that the changes that it introduces could have on family justice. I declare an interest because I practised in family law for more than 35 years and draw some of my opinions from my experience in the courts, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who, although not of my vintage, practised in the same area of law and on the same circuit.

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I sit on the Justice Committee, which undertook some of the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. Regarding the public law clauses of the Bill, the Committee was supportive of the Government’s intention to reduce delay in care and supervision proceedings. We applauded the example set by some local authorities and courts in cutting timetables. We have heard about the Norgrove report, which recognised the terrible delays of 61 weeks in care centres and 48 weeks in family proceedings courts. Such delays can obviously cause unnecessary strain and distress for the most vulnerable children.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Like the right hon. Gentleman, my background is in law, although not in family law. I know from my surgeries that my constituents will welcome the simplification and shortening of the process. However, does he share my concern that we must ensure that the judiciary have the right training and perhaps more training so that when we have the shortened hearings, the right results ensue?

Mr Llwyd: Mr Justice Ryder, who is in overall charge of this area, gave evidence to the Justice Committee not long ago and the hon. Lady should rest assured that he is on the case. There has been progress of late in that area, but I am sure that there will be greater progress. I thank her for that intervention.

In evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry, Barnardo’s stated:

“Two months of delay in making decisions in the best interest of a child equates to 1% of childhood that cannot be restored.”

Thus, the principle of introducing a 26-week time limit is obviously to be welcomed. However, as the Family Law Bar Association noted in its evidence, the practical consequences of the provision might result in further delay in the courts, because cases will still be likely to take longer than 26 weeks to complete and so will be repeatedly referred back to the court for extensions. The evidence of the NSPCC drew attention to the importance of granting adequate time to work with families in cases where intervention projects are utilised, such as in the family drug and alcohol court in London, without the extra burden of having to apply for extensions.

The Committee recommended that the draft provision should be amended to allow judges some leniency to identify cases that are likely to take longer than 26 weeks and to exempt them from the 26-week time limit. That may well reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and expensive extension hearings. I urge the Minister to think further about that, as I am sure he will.

The Justice Committee was concerned about the provisions on child arrangements orders in clause 12 and recommended a number of alterations. It is important to remember that the UK has had equality of parental responsibility since 1989. That principle was introduced to reduce conflict in courts over contact arrangements and to remove the perception that there are winners and losers in such disputes. The Committee was unconvinced that merely changing the wording from “contact order” and “residence order” to “child arrangements order” would eliminate the perception that there are winners and losers in the family courts.

The Committee was also concerned that the changed wording would cause confusion in foreign jurisdictions and recommended that the Government reconsider the practical difficulty in interpreting the clause in the

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context of international law. The concept of “rights of custody” is well established in The Hague and in EU legislation. There is justifiable concern that the introduction of CAOs could cause confusion about the nature of parental responsibility, unless the orders specify that the person with whom the child is to live has rights of custody.

My greatest concern and that of the Committee relates to clause 11. We heard a debate about this matter earlier and the Minister became animated when we came to it. The explanation of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) comforted me. The Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation that the title of the provision should be changed from “shared parenting” to “parental involvement”. However, the Government did not accept that the term “involvement” should be defined in the Bill to remove any implication that involvement equates to a parent’s right to a set amount of time with a child.

In their response to the Committee’s report on the Bill, the Government stated:

“Whilst it is not a specific policy intention to change the outcome of court decisions in particular cases, we anticipate that the amendment will encourage parents to adopt less adversarial and entrenched positions in relation to the care of their child.”

I hope that that is right, but evidence suggests that, to the contrary, the change might prompt people to assume that they have rights and could lead to courts undermining the paramountcy of the welfare of the child, inferring instead that equal access to both parents will have a beneficial impact on all children. As Gingerbread pointed out in its briefing on the Shared Parenting Orders Bill, which failed to be passed during the last Session, there would be problems with

“any form of legal presumption that assumes a particular outcome—that is, a parenting arrangement of near equal or equal time—before the consideration of a child’s best interests”.

Mr Timpson: I appreciate that this is a Second Reading debate, but it may be worth the right hon. Gentleman acquainting himself with page 21 of the explanatory notes, which deals with the issue and states explicitly:

“It is not the purpose of this amendment to promote the equal division of a child’s time between separated parents.”

That is clear in the explanatory notes and was made clear when I gave evidence to the Justice Committee.

Mr Llwyd: I am afraid that does not explain why some corners of the press still believe that to be the case. I accept what the Minister says, however, and I certainly accept the useful explanation given earlier by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

Tim Loughton: Repeating the misconceptions in the press does not help. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that if it is crystal clear that both parents are expected to be involved with their children, they are less likely to have to go to court for that to be enforced?

Mr Llwyd: I have been practising in the courts for quite a time, and as I understand it, there is a presumption in the courts that the involvement of both parents is good, provided that it accords with the overall principle of the children’s welfare being paramount. Nothing will

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change drastically, but my concern is that some people who do not have any contact with their children for various reasons will suddenly think that there is now shared parenting and they have a right to do this, that and t’other. I may be wrong, and I hope so.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for the parent with residence not to freeze out the other parent. That is absolutely right, but a recent report by the universities of Oxford and Sussex, “Taking a longer view of contact”, states that structural factors such as the frequency and format of contact are relatively unimportant compared with the quality of contact that children experience with both their resident and non-resident parent. It further observes:

“Parenting arrangements after separation cannot be considered in isolation to the patterns of parenting established in intact families.”

It stresses that no contact is better than bad contact, and that there are circumstances, such as when abuse is present, in which no contact should take place.

We know that fewer than one in 10 cases in which parents divorce or separate come before a family court for a decision on contact. It is estimated that between a third and half of the cases that do come to court include allegations of violence or abuse. I believe that the provision in the Bill is more about creating a perception than anything else. This has been a good debate hitherto, and I do not want to fall out unnecessarily on this point, but I simply do not understand why we are legislating to change a perception. At the end of the day, family courts are manned by experienced judges who start with the principle that it is always good for both parents to be involved when it accords with the all-important principle of the welfare of the child being paramount.


7.43 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I want to address a couple of points relating to the special educational needs reforms in the Bill. There is a lot of consensus on the matter on both sides of the House. Indeed, the debate has been so good that there has been a lot of consensus on the Bill anyway, and I am not going to disturb that consensus.

I start with a quotation from Barnardo’s:

“Barnardo’s is supportive of the Government’s intentions, which aim to support better joint working between agencies and introduce unified Education, Health and Care plans for children and young people.”

One of the key components of the Bill, therefore, is better joint working across a range of agencies. There is much to be welcomed in that, although I have some concerns—I have noted that other Members do, too. I should say en passant that giving children, young people and their parents care of the funds through personal budgets is an excellent way of proceeding and has to be right.

Everyone has acknowledged that the integration of education, health and care plans is widely approved, but I wish to raise a question about how it will work in practice. How will the role of health be captured and delivered in the process? That question was put to me by the head of Woodeaton Manor special school in my constituency, which I recently visited. She doubted that the joint education, health and care plans could be delivered without a statutory duty on health services.

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That was a great disappointment to her, because she was very much in favour of them and wanted to give them a good run. I understand that the constitution of the NHS and the way in which it operates mean that that has not yet been possible to achieve, but I encourage Ministers to continue their dialogue with their NHS colleagues to find a way of sorting this out. Unless they do that, there will be no certainty that the education, health and care plans can be delivered, and that will be an enormous shame.

I urge Ministers also to ensure that one person is appointed to look after a child’s interests. My experience is that when more than one agency is involved, the need for a person to look after the child often falls through the cracks and we end up with nobody looking after the child. In some cases the relevant person will clearly be the education sponsor, but that will not necessarily be true in other cases, particularly when we are dealing with those who are not in education, employment or training. It would be extremely useful to have a provision along those lines in the Bill.

The education, health and care plans replace statements. The accusation has been made that too many assessments are a bad thing and that they are time-consuming, and I agree with that, but the more fundamental point is that statements are a very blunt instrument that can be open to misuse. I pay tribute to the staff of Woodeaton Manor school for the fantastic work that they are undertaking there. When I visited, they were preparing with some children with difficult autistic conditions to take cakes to a cake stall at a local market. The head made the point that the concentration on statements leads to too many children being statemented as autistic. That not only inhibits the best use of resources but dilutes the focus on those who really need help. The misdiagnosis of SEN, or of the level of SEN, leads to the easy solution that everybody ends up with a statement or with SEN provision.

Autism is an important issue in both the south and north of my constituency, where there are two organisations. The problem always comes when the child leaves school. They come to a cliff edge at 16, or perhaps at 18 when provision is taken up to that age, when it is left to individual organisations such as Thomley Hall in my constituency to help shape that young person’s future. That is why I am particularly pleased that the Bill’s provisions extend to the age of 25 so that that cliff edge can be smoothed out. Will the Minister confirm that that will be the case for children with autism?

The new special educational needs code of practice will be important. It will give statutory guidance on the provisions in the Bill, and I hope that it will also set out how those who do not require education, health and care plans will be supported. Providing funding for that is important. Oxfordshire now has a good range of high-quality cost-effective local provision for young people aged 16 to 25 across special schools and colleges, but that is in stark contrast to many other areas. Although it has developed local provision that has significantly reduced expenditure on out-of-county placements, there still seems to be disagreement on how the SEN block grant should be treated and I urge Ministers to look at that. It is simply not acceptable that so many families struggle to get the help and support that their child needs to receive a first-class education. Every child has the right to fulfil their potential, and I believe this Bill will ensure that that happens.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Owing to the number of speakers, I am going to drop the speech limit to seven minutes.

7.50 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As I indicated in an earlier intervention, I wish to focus on the serious impact that the Bill could have on kinship care arrangements. I hope that the Government will seriously engage with and address concerns raised by groups such as the Family Rights Group, and take the opportunity to amend the Bill in Committee.

Recent research by Bristol university estimates that around 173,200 children are being raised by family members or friends of their parents because their parents cannot look after them. That equates to one in every 77 children in the UK, and in Bristol rises to one in every 59 children. These children have often experienced tragedy or trauma in their life due to the death or imprisonment of a parent, or to a parent’s alcohol or drug misuse or mental health problems. Sometimes, the parent has simply walked out on them and disappeared. Most of those children are being raised by grandparents, but sometimes siblings, aunts and uncles, and even friends and neighbours or a parent’s ex- partner, step in to help. Many of these placements occur when a crisis arises. Children benefit hugely from remaining within their wider family units and with people they know and who love them. That helps them to maintain contact with family members and sometimes, where appropriate, with their parents. Often, it also means they can stay at the same school and keep in touch with their friends.

Roughly half the children who enter kinship care have behavioural and emotional difficulties, but around 80% improve after placement—the same figure as for foster care. Despite the fact that support for family and friends carers is inadequate or non-existent, children in kinship care are as safe as and do as well if not better than children in unconnected foster care in terms of health, school performance and attendance, self-esteem, and social and personal relationships. There is also a marked improvement in emotional and behavioural problems. Family and friends carers are more likely to be highly committed to the children in their care than unrelated foster carers, as well as more likely to match their ethnicity, leading to more stable placements.

Only an estimated 6% of children raised in the care of family and friends are looked-after children. The huge majority live with relatives and friends outside the care system, either with their parents’ agreement or under a residence or special guardianship order granted by the courts. Such arrangements save the state approximately £12 billion, which is what it would cost for the children to go into independent foster care.

I first became interested in this issue when I heard the story of Paul on “Woman’s Hour” a couple of years ago. Paul is now 26 and from the age of 22 has raised his six younger siblings. He had to battle the system for more than a year and see his brothers and sisters taken into care and put into foster homes before the courts accepted that he was the best person to look after them. I was fortunate to meet him in June 2011 when I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to assist kinship carers, and I was struck by the extraordinary love and determination he has shown towards his younger siblings,

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and by the sacrifices he had made in his own career and personal freedom to look after them. He was adamant that he had to step up to the plate and that he was the best person to look after his siblings, and so far that has proved to be the case.

Clause 1 states that when a local authority is considering adoption for a child in the care system but is not yet authorised to place them for adoption, it must consider placing that child with a local authority foster carer who is also approved as a prospective adopter. The local authority will no longer be required to give preference to placing the child with their parents or a wider family network. The Family Rights Group has undertaken detailed research into the impact of the proposals on family and friends care, and set out some careful and reasoned amendments that I hope the Government will consider. Clause 1 could apply to any looked-after child, even those in care by agreement with the parents, despite there having been no due legal process by which the threshold for the state to remove a child from their parents and/or place the child for adoption is fully established. In voluntary accommodation and pre-birth cases there will have been no legal proceedings at all, and kinship carers in such circumstances are unlikely to have had legal advice.

The court’s final decision on whether a child should be removed from their family will be pre-empted by the child forming attachments to the prospective adopters. Any court that later considers the case would not be able to resist the status quo argument—that it would be better for the child to stay with the adopters than return to their parents. That problem is further compounded by the lack of any legal duty to work with parents to help them resolve their problems before or after the child is looked after. It has been suggested that the measure might squeeze out potentially suitable family and friends carers because again the status quo argument would militate against moving a child from prospective adopters to a relative’s home.

It is vital that court decisions on whether to remove children permanently are not pre-empted. In addition, the Government’s proposal to limit the time frame for care proceedings to 26 weeks as set out in clause 14 might be imposed at the expense of getting it right for children. I am aware that that aspect of the Government’s changes to adoption has not received a proper airing because so far the debate in the media has been on efforts to reduce the emphasis given to ethnicity, culture and so on when matching a child to an adopter parent. However, given that this Bill makes provision for children to be removed from their families without due legal process being observed, I am slightly surprised that it has not caused more alarm among Government colleagues, who are normally quite exercised by the concept of an overbearing state interfering with people’s lives. I hope that the Government will reconsider clauses 1 and 6, and that they will take the opportunity to introduce amendments set out by the Family Rights Group that could support kinship care arrangements. I hope that such matters are considered in Committee.


7.56 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I congratulate Ministers and ex-Ministers on this Bill—the way it has proceeded and been put together—and on their willingness

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to discuss it. Ministers will be aware from the discussion this evening that much of this Second Reading debate has turned into a Committee stage. I do not intend to continue that and will say merely that this broad Bill is about looking after children—something I have been interested in since the early ’80s when I was on a social services committee in an inner-London borough.

The point I want to pick up briefly and congratulate Ministers on concerns adoption. The social services committee was looking after a broad spectrum of issues—everything one could possibly expect in inner London, with all its problems—but one point that struck some of us was that an awfully large number of looked-after children were in homes. Although those homes were good and tried hard, there was a turnover and no parental influence, and the opportunities for children to progress were not good. Some of those children were not suitable for adoption, but the whole council attitude changed and we pushed towards fostering and adoption with huge success.

As I have said, that took place in the early ’80s in the days before political correctness came in. We saw some extraordinary and beneficial changes and I will relate a small story as an example. As councillors, we met all the adoption and fostering people regularly, including one young couple who had adopted two boys—they were pre-school age, just. The father was English and the mother Australian, and one of the two boys was white and one black although both were exactly the same age. The success of the family was striking, and by that I mean even the extended family. The grandmother in Sydney knitted pullovers for both boys, each with his name across the front. On the first visit to grandma, they flew into Sydney. The boys decided that they were going to fool grandma so they swapped their pullovers which, if you think about it, is actually about a big smile. What I am really getting at is that the change and opportunity for those kids once they were adopted were striking.

Through my constituency actions and going back to that local authority, I was staggered at the way the system had gummed up and how children and those who wished to adopt were not getting the opportunity to do so. Progress had stopped. As speaker after speaker has pointed out, that space of time is short for us but long for those children. Therefore, succinctly, I congratulate Ministers on going ahead and taking on those problems, and on having the courage to tackle the political correctness while recognising an element of truth in what people say.

8 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): It is vital for our children and young people that the Bill delivers the change that they want and need, with the necessary resources, safeguards, directions and clear lines of accountability. Failure to deliver on those factors will mean that the Bill will not be worth the paper it is written on. Worse, it could lead to deterioration in service provision and huge variations in the quality of service offered to children and young people in different parts of the country.

I do not doubt that Ministers have every good intention with the Bill, but good intentions are not enough to satisfy the needs of our community. Government cuts have caused a lack of specialist services and professionals since 2010. It is for Ministers to explain how the reforms

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will work in that context. The Education Committee carried out pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill’s SEN provisions, but the sector still has concerns that funding cuts in different areas will undermine the positive impact that elements of the Bill could provide to those who need support.

The SEN clauses have created deep-seated cause for concern in the sector, possibly because of the lack of detail in the Bill. They include measures that will shift us from statements to health and social care plans. The key difference between the outgoing system and the new one is that the new plans will extend beyond the mandatory school age, which I welcome. However, the system of education health and care plans does not include a greater degree of legal entitlements than the system it replaces.

Parents with children who have SEN are rightly concerned that current problems will not be solved without a single point of accountability for parents seeking redress. That must be put right. For example, Ambitious about Autism proposes changing the Bill to include a duty that requires local authorities to conduct a review of support available to young people aged 19 to 25 when they fall out of education. That would give them the best possible chance of re-engaging in learning and accessing future employment.

I am pleased that the Government have responded to the Education Committee’s suggestion for an extension of such entitlements to apprentices and, in specific circumstances, to young people who are not in education, employment or training. However, the Government have not taken that promising first step to its logical and desirable conclusion. We should support each and every young person with an EHC plan up to the age of 25, including those in supported employment. Under the current provisions, young people at university will cease to be eligible for EHC plans as soon as they begin their courses. Surely the Government do not want to abandon such young people when they are facing the biggest change in their lives. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on that. Is that a simple oversight that will be corrected? Campaign groups such as Every Disabled Child Matters and the Special Educational Consortium have observed that disabled children without learning difficulties will not have access to the new plan.

Scope says that the Bill represents an important opportunity to alleviate some of the strain on families with disabled children. I agree with Scope’s objective of amending the Bill to include a guarantee of better support for disabled children and their families in their local area. The Bill requires local authorities to publish information on the services they expect to be available in their areas to children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities—both with and without education, health and care plans. However, the Bill does not say what they must provide. Why are the Government reluctant to provide a national framework of minimum standards for local offers? A greater degree of guidance from the Government would improve accountability and set higher standards for local councils to fulfil their obligations under the new system.

We need assurances from the Government that the new SEN system does not evolve from an informal postcode lottery to a formal one. The National Union of Teachers has concerns that, although local authorities retain a welcome role in SEN provision, the gradual

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shift away from local oversight of schools will undermine the ability of local authorities to carry out their SEN functions. What is the role of academies in that context?

I am pleased that the Government—I seem to be very pleased with them tonight—accepted the Education Committee’s suggestion during pre-legislative scrutiny that the new code of practice should be laid before Parliament, but the Bill requires that it is laid under the negative resolution procedure. It is not clear why the code will not be subject to the positive resolution given the importance of its contents. I am also concerned that the Secretary of State will meddle with the service by changing regulations.

People in the sector have shared concerns about the scrapping of school action and school action plus— the current graduated response approach to meeting the educational needs of children at school. As other hon. Members have said, around 17% of school-age pupils are on one of those programmes, and concern remains on whether their replacement with a single SEN stage will deliver what young people need.

The Minister should consider the case for expanding the definition of “vulnerable children” to include children living in custody and separated children who are seeking asylum or who have been trafficked, as recommended by the Children’s Society. It is right that action is taken to find more and better adoptive homes for children, but I hope that speeding the process up can be done without compromising the quality of child placement. Speed should never come at the expense of getting that right. No hon. Member wants an increase in the number of failed adoptions. I would be interested to hear more on the safeguards, to which the Minister has referred, for ensuring that speed does not come at the expense of getting it right.

I do not agree with the Minister and the Government that the bedroom tax is not a problem in the context of the Bill. It most certainly is a problem, particularly for foster parents, who rely on having that room available. How many places will be lost for foster children if the bedroom tax is implemented?

Bill Esterson: I am glad my hon. Friend mentions the impact of the bedroom tax on foster carers. Has he considered the impact on prospective adopters? A prospective adoptive family must have bedrooms available for children moving in with them. Any prospective adoptive parent who lives in social housing will be in the same position as adoptive foster carers in social housing.

Alex Cunningham: My fellow member of the Education Committee makes a strong point. The Minister must address the impact on the rooms of potential adoptive and foster families.

The changes to how child care works are proposed against the backdrop of the rising cost of living, depleted public services such as Sure Start, and benefit changes that penalise hard-working families. The Government have announced grand plans, but Ministers must know that they cannot deliver with less money—although perhaps they will tell us that the Chancellor will reverse the cuts and invest to help rather than hinder our families.

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The Bill is a mixed bag. Some measures are welcome, such as some of the changes on flexible leave and on the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Sadly, it does not live up to its initial promise to end the battle for support for children with special educational needs. I look forward to the Government working in Committee to fulfil that promise.

8.7 pm

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): This huge and important Bill intends to improve services for vulnerable children and to support strong families. It intends to reform the systems for adoption, looked-after children, family justice and special educational needs—my comments will focus on special educational needs.

As a constituency Member of Parliament for three decades, I have too often met parents who have felt that they have had to battle for the support they need. They have been passed from pillar to post, and bureaucracy and frustration have faced them at every step. Being a constituency MP and hopefully helping people is a great privilege. For example, I was grateful to the parents of a 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter who both had Asperger’s syndrome. The parents recently wrote to me that

“after years spent battling with LEA and schools to get some SEN support for our son and daughter, it wasn’t until your personal intervention Sir Tony that we were actually listened to. As a result, our daughter was successfully placed in a specialist school near Oxford and today is Head Girl. It was sadly too late for our son and the damage has been immense”.

They went on to ask:

“how will the County Council work to ensure that Government proposals to reform the SEN systems are implemented and that our children get the right levels of support to get the education they deserve”?

Hon. Members agree that it should not be necessary for parents to feel constantly that they have to battle the system, and/or that the only way they will make progress is by enlisting the help of their Member of Parliament. Everyone welcomes the fact that the Government want to put in place a radically different system to support better life outcomes for young people, and to give parents confidence by giving them more control and transferring power to professionals on the front line and in local communities. It is good news that the Government clearly want to bring about better life outcomes for young people from birth to adulthood by helping professionals to identify and meet children’s needs early; by ensuring that health services and early education in child care are accessible to all children, and that those services work in partnership with parents to give each child support to fill their potential; and by joining up education, health and social care to provide families with the package of support that reflects all their needs. But there are still many questions, to which I am not sure that I yet have all the answers—and actually in this regard I see myself just as a typical constituency MP wanting to make sure that I can give help, support and appropriate advice to any parent who comes to see me with questions or concerns.

I do not expect the Minister to have time in his winding-up speech to respond to all my questions, but I hope that he might in due course write to me. Who will

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be responsible for ensuring that parents understand the process of the combined education, health and care plan? How will schools prepare themselves for when parents are much more in control of the SEN budgets? What will happen to those children who do not quality for the EHCP and those children whose difficulties are often not diagnosed until later on in their school life? Among the health and social service professionals needed in some instances to support children with special educational needs are educational psychologists and speech and language therapists. Do we have enough and how do parents access them? Are we sure we are giving teachers adequate training to teach children with a whole range of conditions, particularly those on a wide scale such as autism? How can we ensure a more consistent approach is taken across all local education authorities? How do we improve the transition from primary to secondary education? How do we improve the selection and training of special educational need co-ordinators in schools?

Parents of children with special educational needs raise two further issues with me. First, they feel all too often that their children are being bullied at school. I hope that we can do more to explain to students, perhaps in year 7, about the various neurological disorders and other disabilities that they might find among school friends, which I hope would then reduce bullying by increasing understanding.

The other concern is the number of exclusions of children with special educational needs. I think I am correct in saying that pupils with a statement of special educational needs are at present nine times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than those without. Of course, SEN is not some sort of label that can be used to excuse bad or unruly behaviour in schools, but I would have thought it sensible that, if it was thought appropriate for any child to have either a temporary or, in particular, a permanent exclusion, very serious thought be given to whether that child has special educational needs and whether those needs are being properly met.

Many parents are concerned about what happens to their children when they leave school. As one parent put it to me:

“What is the vision for the future for our children to be able to live productive, independent and supported lives when currently post-18, there seems to be little more than part-time college courses for their continued education and properly supported residential places to enable independence and learning of life skills are all out of county”.

I support the notion that parents should be given greater choice, but they must also have the choice of being able to send their children to specialist schools—depending on their needs and disability—such as the National Star College, or the Royal National College for the Blind.

There is a specific issue in respect of Oxfordshire, simply because when the Learning and Skills Council was created and the SEN block grant was first established, there were no post-16 places in maintained special schools in Oxfordshire. As a consequence, no funds were included in the SEN block grant. This is an issue on which I know that Oxfordshire county council has written in detail to officials in the Department for Education and, in anticipation of today’s debate, I have also written to Ministers. What Oxfordshire is requesting is that the Education Funding Agency treats Oxfordshire in a way that is broadly consistent with other local authorities.

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Finally, as co-chair of the all-party group for carers, I want to echo the hopes expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that in Committee Ministers will think about whether provision can be made in the Bill for young carers to mirror the provision for adult carers in other legislation. Young carers are a very vulnerable group. Otherwise, this is an excellent Bill, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing such a huge and encompassing Bill that will do so much to help vulnerable children.

8.14 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this high-quality debate today on a Bill that we on the Opposition Benches broadly support, albeit that key improvements and changes need to be made. In the short time available, I wish to concentrate my comments on the SEN provisions.

I recently held an Adjournment debate on the SEN provisions in the Bill, and while I welcome some of the improvements made on the draft Bill, such as including academies and free schools in the provisions, unfortunately it seems that in many other areas the Government are still not moving far enough, despite what I am sure is an attempt to do the right thing with this legislative opportunity.

I remind colleagues that this is not a marginal issue. There are some 700,000 disabled children in England and some 1.7 million children are said to have special educational needs. However, far too many of these families feel they live close to crisis point, and MPs are all too familiar with the cases of parents who are forced to fight through a seemingly endless bureaucratic nightmare in order to get the support they so desperately need for their children.

At the heart of the struggle faced by families with disabled children and those with SEN is the unacceptable lack of support for these families close to home. Recently, a report by Scope found that the biggest issue facing families with disabled children is a lack of local support services. More than six in 10 parents of disabled children say they are not able to get the services that they and their child need in their local area. Child care, respite care and therapeutic services, such as speech and language therapy, are often just not readily available. This lack of local accessible services can have a devastating impact on a family’s quality of life. Research has found 80% of families with disabled children who cannot access the services they need locally report feeling anxious and stressed, and more than half said they missed out on doing family activities together as a result.

This situation is getting worse, not better, with local authorities now facing cuts of up to 30% of their budgets. Many councils are therefore being forced to cut services for disabled people, making an already bad situation worse. For example, more than half of councils have cut spending on respite breaks for families, and 77% of local authorities are either making cuts or efficiency savings in services for people with a learning disability. The fundamental question underlying today’s debate is where the money will come from to make the improvements promised by the Bill.

The Government have said that that their reforms to SEN provision will reduce the adversarial nature of the system, putting an end to the frustration of parents having to fight to get the support their children need. I welcome the Bill’s intentions, particularly the requirement

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for local authorities to publish a “local offer”, to better enable families to find the education, health and care support they need. I also welcome the duty on local agencies to jointly plan and commission services for disabled children—something long overdue in a system that tends to compartmentalise children and their families. But I cannot help but feel that while the Government’s proposed reforms are well intentioned, they very much lack the ambition to truly improve the support available for families with disabled children.

Clause 30, for instance, requires a local authority only to produce information on the education, health and care services “it expects” to be available locally. Many organisations in the field do not believe that this will reduce the battle that families face in getting the support they need. Unfortunately, the local offer stands as little more than a directory of services, with no legal compulsion on the part of local agencies to actually provide what is set out in the offer. Furthermore, if the local offer is to work, it is vital that families with disabled children and children with SEN are able to hold local agencies to account for the delivery of the services contained in that offer. Without that accountability, families with disabled children will have no way of ensuring that the services they need are available. However, the Bill is totally inadequate in this respect, with local authorities being required only to publish comments by parents and young people on the local offer. That will not be enough for parents to hold local agencies to account, nor will local agencies be under any obligation to improve the services contained in the offer, and the chances are that parents will continue to battle with local authorities as they have in the past.

It is even more important for the local offer to be strengthened if Parliament consents to the clauses that abolish the school action and school action plus programmes, as children under those categories will be totally reliant on the services contained in the local offer. Currently, almost 1.4 million children with SEN do not have a statement and will not qualify for the plan under the proposed reforms—87% of the total number of children with SEN. Those children are currently supported under the school action and school action plus programmes. Often they have distinct needs, such as speech and language difficulties, which will have to be met solely by services contained in the local offer. If that offer is weak and unaccountable, those children could miss out on the support they currently receive or will need in the future.

Unfortunately, the Government have not listened to experts in the field, nor have they properly considered the views of the Education Committee, which said in its pre-legislative report:

“The importance of getting the Local Offer right cannot be overstated.”

The Committee recommended that the Bill should establish a national framework for the local offer, together with improved accountability measures by which they could be evaluated. Unfortunately, the Government have so far chosen to ignore that advice, but it is not too late.

I do not oppose the Bill, which I see as an opportunity, but the Government need to respond—to listen to the experts and to make the improvements necessary as it goes through Parliament. Only then will the House be seen to legislate in a way that is truly meaningful to the lives of children with SEN and their families.

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8.21 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I shall concentrate my few words, before my voice gives out, on special educational needs. The Bill is to be welcomed, because while there are examples of good practice, the current system of SEN is not fit for purpose. I have been advised of examples where young, vulnerable people and their families have been let down; there are cases in which children have been excluded from activities, such as sports days and swimming, and in which schools have failed to provide support for a child until a medical diagnosis has been received, despite accepting that the child was struggling to access the curriculum. In contrast, there are other schools where completely the opposite service is being provided, with schools being super-supportive despite no diagnosis. There have been cases where parents have had to attend schools themselves to provide one-to-one support for their child, and where parents have been asked to take their child home at lunchtime due to staff shortages.

The Bill provides the framework to transform the system for children and young people with SEN to ensure that a consistently high service is provided across the country, with the examples of poor practice provided being consigned to history. It is right that young people and their families should have greater control and choice in decisions that affect their lives. It is right that the health service should play a full role in improving the planning, commissioning and provision of services. It is very much a step in the right direction that young people will be on the same footing whether they attend a maintained school, an academy, a further education college or a sixth-form college. Replacing statements with a single assessment process and combined education, health and care plans is to be welcomed.

As I said at the outset, there are examples of good practice. Scope currently works with Suffolk county council to provide Activities Unlimited—a brokerage service that negotiates inclusive short breaks and leisure services for children, their families and their carers. By using the purchasing power of existing local service users, Activities Unlimited has increased the availability of local services such as youth clubs, swimming pools and play centres for families across Suffolk, including those in my constituency. It is important that this type of service becomes the norm, rather than the exception.

The Bill provides the opportunity to do that, but I would be grateful if the Government considered some issues in Committee and on Report that will improve the Bill. First, everyone who needs a plan up to 25 should get one. Provision should not be restricted to those with a statemented SEN. As other hon. Members have said, it is also necessary to consider higher education. The local offer needs refining, and should be backed up with a national framework. There must be accountability for delivering the local offer, and while the education health care plans are welcome, more work is needed. Consideration should be given to how best to commit health authorities to delivery of their new responsibilities. One should also bear in mind the changing role of local authorities in education. With the rise of academies and free schools, local education authorities do not have the powers they once had. The Bill should be future-proofed to take account of the fact that the role of local education authorities may change still further in the coming years.

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I commend the Government for introducing the Bill. In doing so, they are seeking to address an inequity and an injustice that has gone unnoticed for too long. Some amendments are required for the Bill to achieve its objectives, and I urge the Government to continue to pursue the collegiate approach that they, and in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), have pursued to date. Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker—my voice is going.


8.26 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) who, despite struggling to find his voice, has made his points effectively.

There is sometimes a gap between the rhetoric we display in here and the reality outside. In the Scunthorpe area, 22% of children are defined as being in child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that families with children are the group being the hardest hit by the current cuts, with the poorest families with children under one having already lost approximately £1,000 a year. That is the context in which the children and families who need the most help are struggling.

I pay tribute to all staff in schools and colleges up and down the land who work extremely hard to achieve the best possible support and outcomes for young people with special educational needs. As the hon. Member for Waveney said, bad practice needs to be consigned to history. However, we need to celebrate good practice and recognise the efforts made by people on a daily basis—that is important.

One of the most significant problems with the current system is the fact that two different systems operate: pre-16 and post-16. That has resulted, more often than we would like, in students enrolling in college at the age of 16, but the college receiving little or no information about special educational needs. The establishment of a seamless system for everyone up to the age of 25 should be a step in the right direction, but the change raises a number of concerns because it will come into force in September 2014, a year after the September 2013 changes to the way in which post-16 special educational needs provision is funded.

Colleges are finding that the process of preparing for the 2013 funding change is exceptionally complicated, and it is regrettable that this proposal was not trialled in advance. There is a real danger that students are going to miss out on their education of choice. As the Education Committee Chair said, the poor management of the funding changes risks threatening the good will of educational institutions towards the good intentions in the Bill. There is confusion about the funding for young people with SEN in respect of preparation for the change in 2013 in post-16 funding.

Local authorities are taking very different approaches, with the worst practice being where they are allocating funding based on their assessments. Such authorities are acting as commissioners and deliverers of the service, and that is endangering the quality of the service. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government expect that, at the very least, local authorities should continue to fund current students until they have completed their course. It is important that that commitment is given by the Government to provide assurance in the system, so that there is the confidence to build on the

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Bill and it is not undermined by the September 2013 changes. I hope that the Minister who will be making the winding-up speech has picked up on that point and will respond to it. Although the post-16 sector is enthusiastic about the principle, it is very concerned about the practice in respect of the funding changes for 2013 and there is a real danger that confidence will be undermined, even though the Bill seeks to do the right thing.

I wish to pick up on one or two other issues. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) drew attention to the exclusion of young offenders from this Bill. I hope that the Government take the opportunity in Committee to re-examine that, because it seems, for reasons he expressed better than I could, that these young people need all the support they can get. Education for over-18s is not supported strongly in the Bill; it says that local authorities “can” take account of that when developing provision. That means that they might not take it into account, so the Government could also look to strengthen provision in that area.

Finally in my list of small issues, I would like the Government to examine the higher education provision. Young people with these additional needs should surely be supported in higher education, too, but the Bill deliberately excludes young people in higher education. Some young people’s higher education will be provided by further education colleges, and there is a lack of clarity about the position for that group in particular. I hope that the Government take the opportunity, either in response to this debate or in Committee, to examine these things in greater detail.

I welcome the excellent way in which the Minister began the debate by saying that he wanted to engage with issues and take the opportunity to improve the Bill. A number of hon. Members have mentioned the good intentions of the Bill and touched on the real issue, which is that with the changing landscape of free schools, academies, studio schools and so on—the hon. Member for Waveney mentioned that—there is a dislocation and dismemberment of a service, and we end up with a series of ad-hoc provisions. The Bill recognises the need for a proper service, but providing it is a challenge, because whereas Every Child Matters has a clear and direct philosophy behind it, the philosophy behind this Bill is at variance with the philosophy behind many of the other educational changes the Government are pushing forward. The Bill provides an opportunity for this skilled Minister to knit things all together, and I wish him luck.

8.33 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): This Bill is clearly close to the hearts of Ministers, hon. Members and many of our constituents. Unlike the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who has just made a typically well-informed contribution, I am not an expert in this policy area. Most of what I have learnt about it has come through the tuition of a very good organisation in the New Forest, Supporting Special Children and their Relatives and Friends—SCARF. It has alerted me to one particular aspect in the Bill, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) when he talked about the cliff edge encountered by young people when they reach 16.

SCARF is composed of parents of children with serious learning difficulties. They cope, and in most cases they cope quite heroically, but they need a degree

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of certainty in order to plan their lives. They told me that young people aged up to 16 were guaranteed five days of tuition per week, and were subsequently classified as adults. They had been receiving the full range of support to proceed to further education on what might be regarded as a full-time basis—for at least five days a week—but over the years since 2008, first under Labour and then under the present coalition Government, further education funds had been successively cut, and they were able to receive further education provision for their children with special needs first for just four days a week, and then for three. A ravine, or chasm, had appeared between the ages of 16 and 18. Families who had worked out a way of coping beforehand, and could cope afterwards, were suddenly confronted with an additional severe burden which could disrupt all their plans and hopes over that two-year period.

This is not the first occasion on which I have raised the issue in the House. I must say that I have been very impressed by the response that I have received from the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), and I think it is a measure of Ministers’ commitment to the Bill that he appears to have been present since the beginning of the debate. I was also struck by the fact that the Secretary of State was present for the first two hours, although he would not be participating directly in the debate, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who will wind up the debate, has been present for the vast majority of it. I therefore have no doubt about the seriousness with which these problems are being taken.

I originally raised the matter in an Adjournment debate on 22 October last year. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich sent me a very helpful letter on 13 December, at the end of which he wrote—it was the first occasion during all my time in Parliament that a Minister had done this—“If you would like to come and talk this over with my officials, please do so.” I did, and the meeting took place on 13 February, less than a fortnight ago.

A particular point emerged from those discussions. I shall observe the principle that one should only try to make one main point in any given oration; at least, that is what Mr. Speaker always used to tell me during the years when we were practising our speaking techniques before entering this place. I understand that, whereas in the past funds have been effectively guaranteed on the basis that a minimum of 450 teaching hours a year will be supplied for young people with special educational needs, that minimum will rise to 540 hours, with an average of 600. What was impressed on us by the Minister’s officials at the meeting was that that should mean that any further education college delivering those hours should deliver them over a period of at least four days, rather than three.

Let me make a simple suggestion. It relates, I suspect, to clause 37(4) of the Bill, which states:

“Regulations may make provision about the preparation, content and maintenance of EHC plans.”

I think that we need either an amendment at a later stage, or a commitment from a Minister that those regulations will specify that the minimum number of teaching hours —now, I believe, guaranteed to be 540, with an average of 600—shall be delivered over no

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fewer than four days. That would be a major step in the right direction, because it would mean that those parents—with all the burdens that they bear, all the efforts that they make, and all the courage that they show—could be assured that, for at least four days a week, their children could receive appropriate stimulation and support. As they point out, the last thing someone aged between 16 and 18 wants is to be nursemaided by their parents. They need stimulation and support. The Government are offering the extra hours—all praise to them for that—but they should ensure that the local authorities are instructed to deliver them over a minimum of four days a week.

8.40 pm

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): The Bill covers such a medley of issues about which I and many of my constituents care deeply that it was difficult to know where to start. I have raised many of them previously in the House from both the Front Bench and the Back Benches, including the adoption process, the importance of supporting all looked-after children, the reform of the family justice system, how to enable parents to create a better work-life balance and the protection of Sure Start services, which I am alarmed to see being put at risk by some of the Government’s local authority cuts. All those issues are incredibly important, as they not only have a direct effect on our constituents but impact on the welfare of society as a whole. However, I decided to focus on the reforms to the system for children and young people with special educational needs, including those who are disabled, so that, in the words of the Department for Education,

“services consistently support the best outcomes for them.”

The Bill’s aim to provide support from birth to the age of 25 through the new education, health and care plans is laudable and deserves cross-party support. We all know from our constituency casework that the provision for families and children with special educational needs is often not up to scratch and, too often, the support that is available must be fought for extremely hard by parents. I welcome the move towards EHCPs, but I support the concerns expressed by several special educational needs organisations that as the Bill is drafted they will offer no more legal entitlement to support from health and social care services than statements. I know that organisations such as the National Autistic Society—including its Newcastle branch, which I met recently—are very concerned that the health and social care aspects of EHCPs should be put on the same statutory footing as education, with greater duties in health. If the Government are serious about delivering a joined-up system of support to families across all services, that concern must be addressed and acted on.

I am keen to focus today on personal budgets, the idea of a local offer of support and, more particularly, how that will be delivered on the ground in the current climate of austerity and cuts to local services. Earlier this month, Mencap published its latest report into the provision of short breaks, commonly known as respite care, for family carers of people with a learning disability. That excellent report makes sobering, indeed difficult, reading. Its key finding is that eight out of 10 family carers are still reaching crisis point due to a lack of breaks from caring. The Minister should be particularly

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concerned by the report’s findings that, in the past three years, four out of 10 family carers said they had experienced cuts to short breaks and four out of 10 felt their short breaks services had got worse. Three out of 10 councils had closed short breaks services for adults and children, more than half had cut spending on short breaks and six out of 10 had provided short breaks services to a smaller proportion of children with a learning disability in their area.

I know from my constituency just how important short-break provision is to families with children, including adult sons and daughters, with learning disabilities and special educational needs. In Newbiggin Hall in my constituency, we are hugely fortunate to have Cheviot View, a purpose-built and extremely impressive facility that provides overnight residential short-break care for children and young people with disabilities aged 6 to 18. The city council area also has Castle Dene, which is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) but is used by many of my constituents and provides a very similar service for people over the age of 18.

I had the privilege of visiting both centres and meeting the families who use the extremely high-quality facilities, which have been described as an example of best practice. The short breaks provided by the centres to children and young people with a wide range of different and often very complex needs enables them to develop friendships, be independent and take part in activities in which they simply would not otherwise have the opportunity to take part. More than that, short breaks provide their often exhausted and isolated families with much needed respite, not a holiday, just the opportunity to take a break from their full-time caring role and do the everyday things, such as shopping, cleaning, having a full night’s sleep and spending time with their other children, that most of us take for granted. By doing that, the centres undoubtedly help to prevent family and relationship breakdown, and there is no doubt in my mind that they provide an absolute lifeline to many local families.

My recent meetings with families who see those facilities put at risk were invariably moving and emotional. The reason for my visits was the proposed closure of those centres by Newcastle city council as part of its draft budget for the period 2013-16. Following the cuts to local authority funding, the city treasurer estimates a funding gap in the city of about £100 million. Newcastle is not alone. Other northern cities and the poorest London boroughs are bearing the brunt of many of the local government cuts; the areas in most need of support are being hardest hit.

The respite centres in Newcastle were therefore considered for closure, as that would go towards the £100 million of required savings, alongside a whole raft of other savings. I am pleased to say that since the budget consultation closed, and following an incredible campaign run by local people including Nicola Vose, the tenacious mother of two children who use the facilities, the council is revisiting its decision and has announced that the centres will remain open until 2014 and, I very much hope, beyond. Part of the reason the centres may be able to stay open is that many local authority areas around Newcastle are closing their centres and may now need to access services in Newcastle.

The issue is also national, and it needs to be considered, so although I fully welcome the intentions behind the Bill, I ask the Minister to confirm how much consideration

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has been given to the implementation of its provisions in a climate of austerity, and whether offering children and their families personal budgets will have as much value if there are no services for many of the most vulnerable people.

8.46 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill, albeit briefly. I offer my apologies for not being in the Chamber for the beginning of the Minister’s comments; I was upholding the honour of the parliamentary hockey team, which is why I am now limping.

There are many things in the Bill to support. It takes forward much of the work done over our past few years in government, and indeed when we were in opposition, especially on adoption and parenting, and I shall talk about those two subjects in particular.

I very much welcome the special educational need reforms, and I think the Minister is open to amendments to tweak and improve them. I welcome the Children’s Commissioner reforms, on the basis of John Dunford’s excellent report. I also welcome the innovative proposals on parental leave and flexible working, especially in respect of adoption. The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) should be complimented on her private Member’s Bill a couple of years ago, which brought the matter to the attention of the Government.

I welcome those provisions, but a number of things could be done better. The subject of shared parenting, or parental involvement, as we are now to call it, has a lot of history. We put forward proposals for the 2006 Children and Adoption Bill. I was disappointed that although more than half of Labour MPs, and Liberal Democrats, supported an identical early-day motion, they voted against proposals that could have brought in the provisions in 2006.

The Bill should be seen in the context of many other things that the Government are doing on private law cases in the justice system, such as better mediation services, better relationship support upstream and better enforcement. The Chairman of the Justice Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, seemed to think there was not a problem. There is a perceived problem and an actual problem. In research on children who do not live with both parents, resident parents reported that between a quarter and a third of the children rarely, if ever, see their non-resident parent. That is a real problem. In 2011, despite serial breaching of contact orders in the many cases that as constituency MPs we see week in, week out, only 53 enforcement orders were granted for non-resident parents to have contact with their children.

Charlie Elphicke: We know there is a problem, do we not, because these cases so often fill our constituency surgeries. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in helping to bring forward this part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful. It is a problem that we have all known about, but have shied away from doing something about. This is a real opportunity at last to do something about it. It is not about parental rights; it is about parental responsibilities. That includes the

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responsibilities of parents who have done a runner. The legislation will make it clear to them that they have a responsibility to their children, whether they are on the scene or not. The provision does nothing to dilute the principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child; that is absolutely clear. If it did anything else, I would not support it. It is in clause 1; it is subjugated to that very important paramountcy principle in the opening section of the Children Act 1989.

The Bill must send out a very clear message to warring parents—to the 10% of cases who still go to court: “If you think you can play winner takes all, and freeze the non-resident parent out of your child’s relationships and childhood, forget it. Think again, because both of you will have a responsibility to the children, or will be expected to play as full a part as possible in their upbringing.” That is what the provision is all about; it does not dilute the welfare principle.

A lot has happened on adoption in the past few years. This legislation builds on the work of the adoption action plan and the adoption gateway. It was encouraging to see the early glimmers of a reversal in the trend in adoption numbers since 2007; we saw a tick up in 2012, but it is early days. I very much support the measures on fostering for adoption, or concurrent planning, as we used to call it. Coram in particular has done some excellent work on that. It is about a seamless transition for a child, with the risk being taken by the prospective parents, not the child, and about maintaining continuity of care, which is so important to a child in care in the early years.

I strongly support the adoption support services mentioned in the Bill. Peri-adoption support services are probably the most important thing in ensuring a good-quality, lasting placement. As the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) said, we absolutely need to do more research on those adoptions that are disrupted. I am afraid that it is also necessary for us to do more around ethnic matching. As to whether we need legislation to do it, I do not know, but we absolutely need to make it clear that first and foremost a child needs a safe, loving, stable environment from a family. If that family happens to be an ethnic match, that is a bonus; it should not be a deal-breaker for the child.

I am concerned that the £150 million taken from the early intervention grant may mean that provision is taken away from children who remain in care. Even if we double the number of children going into adoption—that is not a target—90% of children in the care system will remain in it, in foster care and residential homes, and will not go into adoption. Yet the only measures in the Bill relating to looked-after children are those for virtual heads, which I welcome, and those on contact arrangements. Why do we not extend personal budgets to foster carers? Why do we not do more to give children in care priority access to mental health services? Half of children in care suffer from mental health problems. That is probably the single biggest contribution we could make to giving them greater stability and a chance to do well at school.

As the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said, half of children who come into care because of abuse or neglect suffer further abuse when they return home, with up to half of them returning to care. If we did more to support them, so that they could stay with their families, we would have fewer kids in care.

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We need to do more. Where I take issue with the Government is on recruitment. We desperately need to recruit more prospective adopters. We desperately need voluntary agencies to recruit more adopters, but it is too early to compel local authorities to take away the responsibility for recruiting adopters. It has been only a year since the adoption scorecard came out. They are three-year track records, and they are always retrospective. We need to give local authorities a greater chance to show that they can recruit more adopters and work in partnership with voluntary agencies. One thing that we could do to help those agencies is create a bounty fee; voluntary agencies would be paid for recruiting prospective adopters. At the moment, the more they recruit, the more they have to pay to retain and train them. They do not get paid until they receive the inter-agency fee. A bounty measure would incentivise voluntary agencies to do more of what they so successfully do to recruit. The Bill risks de-linking adoption from other permanent options.

Finally, I would like to see more measures for supporting young carers, as many hon. Members have mentioned. I would like to see an effective independent complaints or ombudsman system in adoption, for those cases that have gone badly wrong. I would like to see child performance regulations in the Bill—which my ten-minute rule Bill will propose—as it is the only opportunity that we have had and probably will have in this Parliament to introduce them. I would also like to see us do more to compel local safeguarding children’s boards to publish their serious case reviews and to commission them in the first place, as we do not have any primary legislation to do that. There are many other things that I would like to see, but I have run out of time.

8.55 pm

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) served with distinction in his role both in opposition and in government. Members in all parts of the House appreciate the work that he did and the passion that he showed for the issues being debated today. I commend him for that. We heard some good ideas from him that could improve the Bill.

I shall say a few words about special educational needs, before concentrating on adoption, and make my own comments about the excellent practice throughout the country, not least in my borough, Sefton, where schools work on the basis of inclusion and work closely together to make sure that children with special needs get the best deal possible. I have seen that from personal experience in my own family.

I add my concerns to those expressed by a number of Members about the impact of a local offer without minimum standards. Lack of minimum standards could be the undoing of the intention behind it. With falling budgets it will be very difficult for local authorities to deliver on education, health and care plans without national minimum standards. A number of speakers have commented on changes to school action and school action plus. The Government will need to address in some detail the concern about children who are receiving the services now potentially missing out as a result of the change.

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On children in care and the plans to speed up adoption, the Government have made much of the delays in adoption. Two and a half years, as the Minister pointed out, is the average time it takes for a child to be adopted. It is right to point out that for young children delay in making secure, long-term, safe relationships can be as damaging as the neglect or abuse that caused them to be taken into care in the first place. For children who are adopted and for families adopting, where the right match is made between child and family, yes, everything should be done to speed up the legal and administrative process.

There are problems with the speed of the court process, with the understanding of the courts, with the case loads of social workers, and with the understanding of some professionals of the impact of delay or the impact of children moving from birth family, sometimes to multiple foster carers. Understanding of the long-term psychological damage done is improving, but there are still delays at all stages. However, just speeding up adoption placements is not the full answer. Some 90% of children in care do not go on to be adopted. I agree that where adoption can be speeded up, it should be, and so should decisions about long-term foster care, kinship care, special guardianship and keeping families together. These should all be made in a timely fashion. In short, we need a system of care for children which is for the many, not just the lucky few.

The idea that adoption is the gold standard, followed by lesser options for other children, is not good enough for the most disadvantaged group of children in our society. Just because a child ends up in a children’s home does not mean that they should receive a lower level of care or support than one who is adopted. Speed is not always the answer. Getting the placement right is tricky. Adoption placements, sadly, break down. Just as with children who are in foster care or residential care, children who are adopted are often severely damaged, physically or psychologically, and it can be very difficult for them to build relationships with adoptive or foster parents.

In the understandable and desirable clamour to speed up the adoption process, another factor needs to be taken on board. I mention Every Child Matters in this context. When it comes to children in the care system, that should apply just as much as to children in other circumstances. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the presumption that the child is put first is incredibly important, and I glad that he pointed out that that is not affected by what is proposed. If it is in the interests of the child for adoption to be rushed through, that is great, so let us do all we can when a child and prospective adopters bond, but when it is not so clear, a little more thought needs to be given. It must be worse for a child to be placed with a family only to find out months or even a few years later that they have to move to another placement.

The importance of identity and the need to form stable attachments are crucial to the well-being of each child, and the long-term impact on children who have gone through the care system cannot be underestimated. In the long term, the impact is there for all to see in the high number of young people who were in the care system and whose life chances have been permanently damaged. Sadly, children who are in care are all too likely to end up with few or no qualifications, which has a seriously damaging impact on their job prospects and

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increases the chances that they will have mental health problems, will be homeless or will struggle to build stable relationships later in life. Of course, far too many people in our prisons were in care as children.

It is crucial that everything is done to support children in care to ensure that they have a stable, loving home, whether through adoption or not. In order to achieve that, we need to look at those adults who are expected to support the children in the care system. We have heard a lot about social worker case loads. We need to recruit and train more social workers.

I want to talk about foster carers, adoptive parents and the recruitment of the adults who could look after so many more of the children going through the care system. What I want to see from the Government are ideas on how we can get far more adults to be adoptive parents. It is about being honest and up front with them about the difficulties they will face, the emotional challenges of children who are severely damaged, and all the challenges, stress and problems that can be caused for a family taking on such vulnerable children. Being up front is the way to go, but training and support is also important. If we are to have professionals in teaching, in nursing and in social work, why not make people professionals when they come forward to adopt or to care as foster carers? Why not express formally that they are professionals and put in place the money to support them, and not just in the support services, but in the funding they get themselves?

9.2 pm

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I start by paying tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), for the exceptional way in which he introduced the debate and took the House through the detail of the Bill, of which he has such an incisive grasp. It is an excellent Bill, particularly when it comes to the rights of children to have a relationship with both their parents, an issue on which I have brought a ten-minute rule Bill before the House. I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his part in helping to prepare this Bill.

Some 3 million children in this country are growing up in families that have separated, and around 1 million of them have no contact with one of their parents. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has been criticised in the past for having a heavy case load and for too often not being timely enough, so the provisions in clause 10 relating to mediation are extremely welcome.

Clause 11, most of all, is dear to my heart. It will give children the right to know, and to have a relationship with, both their parents. We need the understanding that the child must have the right to a relationship with both parents, because too often it is about mums’ rights and dads’ rights, but this is actually about the rights of the child. It is not right that a parent should sink their child’s right to know the other parent in a sea of acrimony when they split up. From my point of view, that is a very timely and welcome reform. I have had so many complaints about that from constituents, such as Mrs A of Wootton, who wrote about her son’s experience. She said, “Each time a visit is due, their mother creates a great deal of hassle, never being able to give a precise date etc., and she has twice prevented the visit completely.”

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It is not simply about mothers with residence. There are cases in which the father has had residence and has blocked the mother from seeing the child. What I have to say is that it is wholly wrong in both cases, as it is an abuse of the child’s rights. It is a child’s right to know and have a relationship with both parents because both parents have love, affection, knowledge and mentorship to offer—and the law should not stand in the way of that; the law should assert and assist that and make it more possible.


9.4 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The general view of the House is that the Bill is a good one that could improve the quality of life of large numbers of children. It is not the revolution, to be frank, that some of us wanted, and there is also an underlying fear that the austerity measures being introduced might undermine the Bill’s potential. Let me say to the Minister that if the Bill requires a battle with the Treasury, he has allies on all sides to fight the fight over resources.

As we legislate, we need to learn lessons. For a Bill that relies so heavily on regulations and codes of practice, we need to learn the lesson that it would have been better to have those regulations and codes of practice available to us on Second Reading. I know that it will happen in our Committee consideration, but it would have been good to have them before us today, as without them we will be working on some issues in the dark until the detail of the regulations is revealed over the next few weeks.

I shall concentrate on two elements: family justice, and children and young people. We have all received many briefings on family justice, and I think we should thank those who supply them to us. On the family justice side, I have received briefings from the National Association of Probation Officers, or NAPO, and the Public and Commercial Services Union, which organises Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service workers and others.

I have three issues to raise. The first is about mediation in clause 10. I raised the issue earlier, but we need to know in some detail how mediation is to be organised in the regulations. Who will undertake the mediation; how will it be structured and organised; how will it be resourced? In addition, I raised the point in an intervention, and it was taken up by the Chairman of the Justice Committee, about the qualifications of the mediators. How will they be trained, and what accreditation will they have? They will have to deal with issues such as the safeguarding of children, the identification of domestic abuse and other matters. That is a professional role; it needs to be professionally resourced.

On the child arrangements orders in clause 12, I am anxious that this new procedure is being introduced at a time when legal aid has been cut. I am concerned that in complex cases adequate legal aid must be available to ensure that the children are properly represented by guardians. It would be worth exploring that further with the Minister in Committee; we must have confidence that the resources will be available to protect children and ensure that their voice is heard.

As for clause 15, I am concerned that the Bill amends the Children Act 1989 so that the courts focus on the central issue of whether the child should be removed from their parents, and the scrutiny of the detail of the

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care plans is to be left to local authorities. Frankly, when local authorities are under significant financial pressure, my anxiety is that that scrutiny might be influenced by that fact. I welcome the role of the courts in that respect. We sometimes need the independence of a judicial view on these matters.

On the special needs elements, I am grateful for the briefings we received from the Association of Educational Psychologists, my own local group the Hillingdon Autistic Care and Support society, and the National Autistic Society itself. Future work will be based on the foundation stones of the assessment procedure. The regulations or the code of practice need to be explicit about what is expected in the assessment. There will be a requirement to draw on very specialist services. I would welcome it if those services were spelled out in some detail in the regulations—for example, that there will be recourse to educational psychologists and to speech and language therapy. It should be obligatory that that sort of service will be part and parcel of the assessment procedure. Again, I fear that in this economic climate some local authorities, for example, might be tempted to save money by using less rigorous assessment procedures or by using under-qualified or inappropriately qualified staff to save money. That can be overcome, I think, only by central direction from the central Government in regulation.

Time limits will be important in these assessments. I am anxious that there are no time limits in the Bill and hope that they will be determined in more detail in regulations. We should set out in regulations the specific time limits on responses to parents’ requests for assessment, on providing a mediation certificate, and on when a plan is to be put in place. There also need to be regulations on the form and content of the plans, because there are anxieties not only about a postcode lottery, as others have said, but about the possibility that form and content could vary across the piece. That could not only create difficulties for parents but make it difficult for the Government to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of the plans.

On local offers, the regulations need to be very specific not only about what local authorities are saying exists, but about what should exist, in individual services—best-quality standards rather than minimum standards. The regulations should also ensure that schools are required to set out what they are making available in terms of their local offer. Now that school action plans, among others, are no longer to exist, parents will require that information to make their judgment about the placement of their child within a school setting.

With regard to tribunals, I reiterate the point that others have made about the lack of enforceability with regard to health and social services. I cannot understand why we have a different system from Scotland, where there is some enforceability over health and social services in the development of plans. I welcome the encouragement towards mediation services. I am grateful that the Government have listened to parents so that we do not have an obligatory form of mediation, but having dropped the element of compulsion they have introduced a cumbersome certification process that ultimately can only delay matters.

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I fear that personal budgets will not cover the specialist services that are required, particularly in educational psychology. We need to be much more specific about how those personal budgets will be spent to ensure that they can draw in the expertise that children need.

9.11 pm

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who made very important points about the need to make sure that the regulations that follow the Bill protect and enhance not only the rights of the children and young people concerned but the rights of their parents and families. Accountability must be at the heart of this process. It was the lack of accountability and the resulting problems that we all encountered as constituency MPs—and, indeed, as parents—that led to the developments that have seen the introduction of this welcome Bill. I am delighted to support its Second Reading. I am very encouraged by the degree of cross-party support that we are seeing in the Chamber and will, I hope, see in Committee.

The road to the Bill has been a long one, and many of us who have a great interest in these issues were sometimes champing at the bit for the pace to quicken. However, having seen the results of the extensive consultation process and the hard work of the various Select Committees, I am pleased that we have reached this Bill at last rather than at first, as it were, which will make it a better and stronger piece of legislation.

As a member of the Justice Committee, I took a particular interest, with colleagues, in the family law provisions, particularly the debate about parental involvement, as it will now rightly be called. However, I will deal mainly with the provisions relating to special educational needs, which form a large part of the Bill.

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on special educational needs, particularly autism. Does he share my view that children with a middle to low special educational need such as pragmatic language disorders, dyslexia and autism are often short-changed by local authorities, and that the more we can do to strengthen the hand of parents, the greater the amount of provision that will be available to those children?

Mr Buckland: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. A large cohort of children and young people with disabilities that have been diagnosed will not be covered by the new plans. Some, but not all, were formerly covered by the school action and school action plus programmes. I hope that the Bill will be a catalyst, not only to improve the lot of those young people who will be subject to the new plans, but to improve training and awareness and the system so that it encourages the earlier identification and diagnosis of such problems so that they do not develop to a degree that necessitates intervention in the form of a plan later on.

That is why it is vital that we do not regard this as merely an education Bill—it is also a health Bill and a justice Bill, and it relates to social care. The joined-up thinking—not just at Government level, but at local level—that I and many others have been talking about for so long is vital if we are to make real progress. The

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provisions that impose a duty on local authorities to work jointly with other agencies, such as the national health service and local health bodies, are absolutely key to make sure that we can deliver for young people.

As I have said, early identification of disabilities such as speech, language and communication disorders— I think that will be enhanced by the expansion of the health visitor system with the injection of another 4,200 health visitors by 2015—will be an essential part of the work that will have to accompany the passage of the Bill. If we do not achieve a fully integrated health and education check at the age of two and a half— I know that that is one of the Government’s key ambitions—we will miss an important trick.

When the all-party group on autism, which I have the pleasure of chairing, reported on these proposals last year, we looked in particular at the need to address the question of transition. Although I am delighted that the Bill extends the provision of education, health and care plans for young people up to the age of 25, it is essential that 25 does not become the new cliff edge. More work needs to be done to ensure that duties are imposed on local authorities and others to provide for those important transition years. Many young people with special educational needs take time to develop. They do not abide by the usual milestones, but go at their own pace and do things in their own time, which is why the extension is so important. We do not want to see the good work that can be done up to the age of 25 wasted by a lack of provision for the transition to adulthood. I also hope that the Bill will make provision to support those who fall in and out of education—a number of people do so for various reasons, some of which are health-related—to get back into it.

Much has been made of clause 69 and the sad exclusion of young people in detention. That, to my mind, is something of an admission of defeat. More than 70% of young people in detention have some form of speech, language or communication disorder. We cannot ignore that cohort. In fact, we ignore them at our peril. I want concerted action to be taken, not only by the Department for Education but by the Ministry of Justice, to make sure that effective provision to address the special needs of those in custody keeps pace with the welcome reforms.

I look forward to the publication of the draft code of practice and hope that the new code will be much more of a living instrument than its predecessor, which has not kept pace with changes in provisions or in priorities. It has to be a living document that will adapt and change over time.

Much has been said about the local offer. It must combine the enterprise and initiative of many local authorities and agencies with a national framework from which those who commission services can seek guidance and support. Blending those two factors will be essential, for example for families with children with special educational needs who, for work or for other reasons, have to move around the country and want to see similar provision in the town or city in which they are going to live. That form of passporting is important in ensuring that there is consistent provision across England.

The position of those who do not fall within the care plans is of genuine concern to us all. However, it is my belief that the Bill, which is the most important reform of special educational needs provision since the

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Education Act 1981, goes a long way towards addressing the genuine concerns of professionals, parents and all those who have campaigned so assiduously in the sector. I pay tribute to the Minister and his colleagues for the commitment, passion and hard work that they have put in to make this a very useful foundation for success.

9.20 pm

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): I begin by supporting the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). In Rotherham, a prosecution for child sexual exploitation collapsed because the young person found that the horror and trauma of going to court outweighed their desire for justice to be served. I am deeply sympathetic to that young person’s choice, but I urge the Minister to use the Bill to make reforms that prevent other children from having to go through similar horrors.

I broadly welcome the Bill. However, I will focus on how it will impact on life-limited children and children with cancer because I am concerned that they might be overlooked in such a large Bill.

From my experience of working with such children, the care system is often disjointed and baffling. Families routinely deal with more than 30 professionals from education, social care, health and other services. It was standard for families to tell me how frustrated they were that they had to say the same thing over and again to different professionals because the information was not shared between departments, let alone between other agencies. Communication between agencies is generally inadequate, leaving families burdened with the stress of having to navigate their way through an unco-ordinated system. All that happens at a time when many families are overwhelmed by their child’s situation. Unfortunately, that experience is common among families of all disabled children.

If a child’s life is likely to be shortened, the time that is wasted negotiating through the system can be particularly distressing. The Bill must prevent that. As one constituent said:

“Unless you shout and fight you don’t get anything. And, to be honest, I’d rather be spending that time with my child instead of battling the system that should be helping us.”

All the evidence suggests that the best outcomes for children with life-limiting conditions are achieved when there is an effective partnership between parents and the services. As many Members have said today, it is imperative that care is co-ordinated around the needs of the child.

The Bill includes a series of clauses that aim to reform the provision for special educational needs and disability in England. The original SEND proposals were included in the 2011 Green Paper, which set out a vision of improved outcomes for children and young people who are disabled or have SEN. The aim was to reduce the