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Earl Howe: I add my strong support to these amendments. When Sir William Utting published his report and recommended that the duty to help care leavers should be extended until the age of 21 the Government said that they were minded to accept that recommendation. They need to explain why they seem now to have slid back from it. My understanding from what the Minister said at Second Reading is that it is purely a question of funding. Therefore, I do not believe that there is any argument about the principle.

The question appears to be "when" and not "whether". However, if we believe that the state has a moral duty towards care leavers that stands foursquare with the moral duty of a parent towards his or her child, to postpone the raising of the age to 21 under the Bill is merely to consign another generation to disadvantage.

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Incidentally, of those who are most disadvantaged, there are few more deserving individuals than disabled looked-after young people. Evidence shows that disabled young people remain in care longer than their non-disabled peers and, while the Bill encourages young people to remain in care until they are ready and willing to leave, there are implications for young people whose impairment may make it difficult to ascertain how willing they are to leave. These people need to know that the support will be there regardless of when they leave care. As the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said, I believe that now is the moment to say that the duty should be extended to the age of 21. Far be it for me to enhance the present Government's standing in the opinion polls but the tide of public opinion and public interest is undoubtedly in favour of such a move. If it is not done now when, if ever, will it be done?

I now raise a technical point on which I would be grateful to receive the Minister's comments. The requirements to satisfy for being a relevant child are that the child was eligible at the time of ceasing to be looked after, is now not being looked after and is 16 or 17. An "eligible child" is defined under paragraph 19B(2) of the Children Act as a child who is aged 16 or 17 and looked after during the prescribed period. I wonder, therefore, why the additional requirement that the child must be 16 or 17 has been included. It would appear to be a duplication of the age requirement. By imposing what seems to be a duplicate requirement there is an even greater limit upon who would be included within this definition. The child must have been 16 or 17 when looked after during the prescribed period and then must be 16 or 17 on ceasing to be looked after. The obvious way to overcome this is to remove the requirement in subsection (2)(c), or, as the amendment proposes, to substitute a different age; namely, 21.

Earl Russell: My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones very kindly has drawn to my attention that some of my remarks on Amendment No. 1 might have been more properly applied to this amendment. I can only say that if the Minister would be kind enough so to apply them, it would relieve me of any temptation to repeat them.

I refer only to one other thing. The Children's Society Report, which was debated in this House on the 20th of last month, is still running. I will not go into what happens to care leavers; clearly the Government are well aware of it, and if they were not they would not have brought this Bill forward. However, the other point in the study that struck me very forcefully is that children who go into care, very often by the nature of the circumstances which brought them into care, arrive there with a considerable distrust of authority. Easing that distrust is an important part of making them into useful citizens. This amendment addresses that need, and the emotional need here is perhaps quite as urgent as the material.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: I support the amendment, but the case of Melanie was so good, so typical of bad local authorities; for instance, inflexible

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and jealous. However, I wish to ask a question. If that young person had a young person's adviser, the young person's adviser might have told her to stay with her foster parents and to finish her course. What happens if the local authority turns round and says, "No", and there is a conflict?

6 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I recognise that this is a very important matter and I should wish to be as encouraging to Members of the Committee as I can. However, I suspect that I shall not be as encouraging as noble Lords would like. I understand that there is a very strong feeling that young people whom this Bill is designed to support are likely to need help beyond their 18th birthday. There is no doubt whatever about that, which is why the Government share this conviction and why we are committed to taking the existing power which local authorities have to support young people over 18 and converting it into a duty in respect of care leavers who have been "relevant children". The Bill contains a power for the Secretary of State to do just that.

There is no disagreement between us about the desirability of extending this support. The only question, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested, is one of timing. It is when, not whether. A new duty would impose new financial burdens on local authorities and we believe that it would be entirely unreasonable of us to take such a step without providing the resources with which to meet it. I go back to the point that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, made in our earlier debate.

Members of the Committee will not be unaware that the Government are in the process of conducting a new spending review, which is not due to be completed until the summer. The relative timings for this Bill and that review cause us some problems in relation to the new duty, which is why the Bill is drafted as it is.

I hope noble Lords will accept my assurance that the drafting does not reflect any softening of the Government's resolve to extend the support available to this group of young people. We fully intend to use that regulation-making power as soon as possible. At this stage, I cannot go any further in relation to the exact timing.

It is worth making the point that even as the Bill stands, it will offer support to young people who have been "relevant children". A young person who will have qualified to have a young person's adviser and a pathway plan will keep that entitlement until he is at least 21, or until he is 24 if he is being helped with education, training or employment. If in higher education, his responsible authority must provide him with vacation accommodation if he needs it.

I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who spoke eloquently. As regards the case of Melanie, there is no reason why the local authority would refuse an extra year of foster care. Again, under the new arrangements, the pathway plan would have addressed a number of those issues.

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In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, there is a process of negotiation between the young person, the young person's adviser, and the local authority. If, however, there were a situation where agreement could not be reached we have made provision for there to be a complaints system so that the young person would be able to make a complaint. Of course, I hope that it does not come to that because the whole purpose of having a young person's adviser is to enable a proper agreement to be reached between the young person and the local authority concerned.

In conclusion, I hope noble Lords will realise that I accept everything they say about the need to extend this Bill. I should very much like to say that we would do it, but it is the subject of discussions concerning finance and I am afraid that I cannot go as far as noble Lords would wish at this stage.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: I can picture young people queuing up with their complaints, with their advisers on their side. If an adviser is good, he will know what will be good for that young person and they will work their pathway plan out together. However, if the local authority says, "No, you cannot do that, because we do not have the money.", then it will be difficult.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: These arrangements will be better than the present situation. Part of the role of the young person's adviser is to help as an advocate. Equally, a young person's adviser is there to give advice to the young person on what it is reasonable to ask for.

The combination of that, and the skill of the people we wish to see appointed as young persons' advisers, should ensure a sensible conversation between the young person and the local authority. If that does not happen, then there is a complaints system as a longstop.

Lord Laming: I believe the Minister has deployed the same argument as the poor local authority deploys: that we agree with you, and we would like to help you, but we do not have the money. That is precisely why we need to have this amendment in the Bill. If this amendment is not included in the Bill, as earlier speakers have said very persuasively, we will let the poor authority which is not a good parent off the hook and not require it to carry out what ought to be its duty.

It is no good saying that we agree with all of this in principle but, until we have the money, we cannot do it. That is the counsel of despair and it encourages the local authorities about which we are concerned to do precisely that. They will follow the Government. I regret to say that they will hold the Minister as an example to be followed who they can call in aid of their position.

The reality is that none of us knows how much this will cost. In my view, it is a poor argument to say that we cannot put a figure on it at this stage. None of us can know how many young people will take up the offer to have support until the age of 21. My own view

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is that we could wish that more of them would do that but, unfortunately, many of them will feel that getting away from a local authority is a considerable advantage, and then get themselves into difficulty.

I do not believe it is possible to predict the cost. Even if we could, however, this would not be the first piece of government legislation that has been phased in over a period of time. It is absolutely essential that we get this right this time round, even if it takes the Government a year or two to implement it fully. If we do not take this opportunity, when will there be another to get this on the face of the Bill?


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