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Earl Russell: In supporting my noble friend's amendment, I should perhaps declare a non-pecuniary interest. In my capacity as a university teacher, I am at present haunted by the problems of finding sufficient financial support for students estranged from their families. That is, of course, a much larger category than the category of care leavers.
Having listened to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I would say that we can safely assume that the vast majority of care leavers, ex officio, belong to that category. Whether I wear my political or my academic hat, I am committed to the ideal that educational opportunities should be open to all on the grounds of merit only--not of parental income. In the case of care leavers, I do not see how we can possibly say that.
It is pretty well impossible for any students now to get through university on the amount of money officially provided for them. The availability of work during the vacations varies according to economic circumstances and geographical location. I remember, for example, one person explaining to me with some eloquence the difficulty of obtaining sufficiently well paid winter employment in Bournemouth, which is not an economy geared to that sort of thing--so it is no good simply saying that they can work. Quite apart from any academic effect, some of them can, and some of them simply lack the economic opportunity. Unless something along the lines of this amendment is done, we are accepting a situation in which care leavers simply are unable to get a proper further or higher education.
I am apprised here of one particular case of someone in further education and doing rather well, from whom the local authority cut off all financial support, instantly, on the day she reached 18. That was the breaking off of what might have been a quite promising career and I am sure stories like that can be repeated over and over again.
Of course, even for those who are not seeking further and higher education--and I think they should have an equal right to it--those who simply go out looking for rented accommodation on the market are faced with restrictions on housing benefit involved in single room rent. According to the DETR study on that, a very large number of those simply cannot meet the shortfall by which their rent exceeds their housing benefit. A great many rely on family and friends to get them through, but of course, again, care leavers
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that these are sharp amendments and I have no doubt we will have a sharp debate. This is a very important discussion. Noble Lords have raised a number of questions in relation to the eligibility criteria and have expressed concerns as to whether that which eventually is prescribed will be sufficiently flexible to meet all circumstances. I understand what noble Lords are getting at. I hope to assure the Committee, first, that in prescribing the eligibility arrangements we will continue to engage in widespread consultation and, secondly, because we have the regulatory provision in new paragraph 19B(2)(b) to make changes if in practice we find that people are slipping through the net.
The new arrangements for young people both in and leaving care are designed to provide proper support for those to whom the Government have a special responsibility as corporate parent. Young people who are brought up in care very often are liable to be less mature than their peers. If they have no family to fall back on it is important that the local authority acts towards them as a responsible parent. This is why the new arrangements are being brought in through this Bill and why we propose that local authorities should be responsible for the support, maintenance and accommodation of these young people.
The other side of the coin is that where young people have responsible families of their own the state should not interfere without good cause. Many young people are in care for only a very short period of time. They may be placed in care for a few weeks during a crisis at home--for example, if a parent has to go into hospital--and will return to the family when the crisis is past. These young people look to their families for support and it is right that they should do so. We do not feel that it would be in their best interests to bring them within these new arrangements if not practical to do so.
The power in sub-paragraph (2)(b) of new paragraph 19B, which the noble Lord's amendment seeks to remove, allows the Secretary of State to make regulations to ensure that the new arrangements apply to those children who need this help and do not inappropriately sweep up others who have families to take care of them. One important advantage of dealing with this issue through regulations rather than on the face of the Bill is that this provides greater flexibility. If we find that local authorities are taking action to avoid
I ought to remind noble Lords that one aspect of these new arrangements is that it takes children out of the benefit system after they leave care. This has been done for a particular purpose, in tandem with the new duties on local authorities to support them. However, we do not believe it appropriate to place the duty on local authorities to support children who may only have come into contact with them in passing. The Children Act makes other provision for young people aged 16 and over who have spent some time in care. Local authorities can provide assistance to all care leavers up to the age of 21, or in some cases 24, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested. There will still be a safety net for children who need extra help whether or not they have spent the qualifying period in care.
The Department of Health sets target dates for the maximum time that the full assessment process should take for all young people who have been referred to social services and that process alone would bring a young person within a matter of two or three weeks of the three months for which we propose to regulate.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about the proposal that young people should have spent a minimum of three months in care to be eligible for assistance. That was set out in the consultation paper Me, Survive Out There? In response to this paper, most voluntary organisations and local government bodies supported the proposal and recognised the need for clearly defined criteria. There were calls for the prescribed period of eligibility to be less than three months or, as some noble Lords have suggested, for it to disappear altogether. There are also calls for it to be set at six months. The noble Earl suggested that I use the word "balance". We believe that, on balance, this is about right.
We also believe that it would not be sensible to include in the new arrangements those young people who may have been looked after as infants and happen to return briefly to care after they are 16. That is why our regulations will set the age at which periods in care will count towards eligibility. Our thinking to date is that that age might be 14, but we shall take advice when we consult on the regulations.
I recognise that further discussions and debates are needed on the most appropriate period in care and the starting age to be prescribed, and I am grateful to noble Lords for raising that issue. I can certainly assure noble Lords that our intention is to consult widely to make sure that this is right. I reiterate that the power that we have to prescribe in new paragraph 19B(2)(b) will allow us to respond to unanticipated problems in the future.
Earl Howe: Before the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, decides what to do about the amendment, can the Minister, after that very helpful reply, throw any light on the point that I raised at the end of my remarks in relation to new Section 24(1) and new Section 24A
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: New Section 24 gives general powers regarding aftercare for a whole range of children including children in accommodation; for example by health authorities. We have intentionally retained that in the Bill. In a sense that covers children other than those leaving care, and it is important to retain that ability to provide support for such children.
Lord Clement-Jones: I thank the Minister for that considered reply. I am clear that he understands the concerns of those who want to see a greater degree of flexibility. After all, we have received briefings from those organisations which wish to see a higher threshold of six months, which would govern Clause 1, or new paragraph 19B of the Children Act. I accept his argument that the state should not interfere without good reason and that there will still be some kind of safety net under new Section 24. However, I believe that there is still a valid search for a greater degree of flexibility in this respect. There is a strong feeling among those organisations that have spoken to us that 13 weeks or three months is a somewhat arbitrary time, and our search will continue until Report stage to try to find a formula that will find favour.
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