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The Earl of Listowel moved Amendment No. 2:

("(2A) In section 20 (provision of accommodation of children: general) after subsection (11) insert--
"(12) A local authority shall continue to provide accommodation to any child who has reached the age of sixteen unless that child can demonstrate that he is ready and willing to cease being looked after by them."").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to place a duty on local authorities to continue looking after children that they may have accommodated and to see that they do not discharge these young people before they are ready to take on independence. This amendment relates to accommodated children only, and refers to those aged 16 and over: thus the concern of the Minister at Committee stage that local authorities might be unwilling to provide short-term care for a young child whose parent, for example, is in hospital would come within the scope of the amendment and would be addressed. This consequence was certainly not intended and obviously should be avoided.

The Minister said that this Bill's new provisions will act as a disincentive to local authorities discharging children prematurely from care, because the same authorities will now take on financial responsibility for these young people when they have left care. We feel the balance is right. However, I believe that this amendment is still very important, for the following reasons. It represents a direct statement of government principle and policy, as opposed to relying solely on a new system which may or may not be adequate. It imposes a legal duty on the local authority not to discharge a young person from accommodation unless that young person is ready and willing to leave. It is the experience of the Children's Consortium that, without the imposition of express duties, local authorities frequently do not provide what is owed, thus thwarting the Government's good intentions.

While the provisions in this Bill are considerably stronger than at present, there are still uncertainties about how the Bill will work in practice. In particular, there are uncertainties about the financial arrangements for young people. So far the Government have given no guarantee that minimum standards of financial support will be incorporated in regulations. This is a matter which causes great anxiety to young people about the changes to be introduced by this Bill.

This amendment is not designed to force young people to remain accommodated against their will. The queries from looked-after children to Voice from the Child in Care, for example, are invariably about how to avoid being prematurely ejected from care rather than about being held in care against their will. The purpose is to ensure that young people are not discharged prematurely. There are stronger protections in law for young people who continue to be looked after, affecting important matters such as decisions with siblings, being kept near home and wishes to be in contact with their families, friends or other significant people. In view of the failures that

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there have been in the past in the care of vulnerable young people, I hope the Minister will agree about the necessity for such a precaution. I beg to move.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I rise to support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel for two reasons. This amendment gives to local authorities a necessary flexibility. Young people of the age of 16 who have been in care face two situations: first, the disruption of moving from accommodation that provides them with a personal support programme; and secondly, leaving school and entering the world of work, which is a huge change in their lives.

In many of our debates on homelessness we have talked about people needing time to adjust and to gather different life skills. Moving one's residence from somewhere that is secure and supportive as well as dealing with the challenge of starting work is extremely difficult for people whose lives have been full of disruption. Therefore, I believe that this amendment should be supported because it will give young people stability for a longer period, and they will not be denied that stability at an arbitrary cut-off point. It also enables those working with them to plan the support accordingly. For those reasons, I believe there is much to commend the amendment as it stands.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for allowing us to debate these important issues again. On minimum financial arrangements, we intend, through statutory guidance, to issue minimum standards, which will include financial standards. I hope that that meets the point raised by the noble Earl.

I certainly understand the point raised by the noble Earl and the noble Baroness. One of the great motivations in all we seek to do in this Bill is to ensure that young people in care do not leave before they are ready to do so. That is the whole purpose of the delicate balance that is placed in the Bill as now before the House. I believe that real risks are involved if this amendment is passed, in that young people would be forced to remain in care against their wishes. It may have the perverse result of giving them an incentive to run away.

I believe that the construction of the Bill as now before the House is the best way to go forward. It provides for the removal of perverse incentives for local authorities to encourage young people to leave, the close involvement of young persons' advisers in decisions about their lives and the future, the pathway plans and the package support from local authorities.

I accept that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has suggested that we need a rather more forceful approach alongside what is contained in the Bill as it now stands, but I believe that such an amendment is unnecessary. First, the neediest young people--those under a care order--will in any case remain in care until they reach the age of 18 unless the order is discharged by a court. For those who are accommodated voluntarily, assessing the optimum time when they should leave care is clearly a very

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important matter. It is also a matter which must allow for some choice on the young person's part, recognising that they cannot be forced to remain in care if they are accommodated on a voluntary basis.

I recognise that some young people may well continue to leave the care of local authorities before they are ready to do so, despite the best efforts of all concerned to point out that it will not be in their best interests. However, I feel that it would be wrong to insist that a child who is voluntarily accommodated should remain in care against his or her wishes. As I said earlier, it seems to me that that would do no good and might make a difficult situation worse. Where persuasion and argument are ineffective, coercion is unlikely to improve matters.

I believe that it is preferable for young people to remain in care until they are ready and willing to leave. No one could disagree with that proposition. I believe it is a proposition on which much of the philosophy of this Bill is based. However, I cannot agree that a young person should be forced to stay in care when he or she is determined to move on.

It is also the case that those young people who leave care will no longer be able to step into the streets and disappear. Nor will their local authority be able to forget about them. The responsible authority will be under a duty to support and accommodate young people who leave care wherever they choose to live in the country. Their young person's adviser will be in touch with them and they will still have a pathway plan, regularly reviewed and updated.

As I stated in Committee, at the heart of the Bill is a determination to provide the right kind of support for all young people who have been in care. That includes the recognition that, while each will have different abilities and requirements which must be met in different ways, all of them need the security of having someone responsible for their welfare. The new duties placed on the responsible authority are designed to provide just that. On that basis I invite the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.

The Earl of Listowel : My Lords, I thank the Minister for his full reply. Of course I am reassured also by his response to the first amendment, which suggests that careful attention will be paid to make sure that the results of the Bill come through as intended. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 3:

    Page 2, leave out line 33 and insert--

("(c) is between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 3 ensures that local authorities are under a duty to meet the continuing assessed needs of young people up to the age of 21 who have previously been in care. The amendment would provide a safety net for those young people who leave care and get into difficulties later on. It is clear that this matter is of great importance to those on these Benches, as on other

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Benches. We had a long discussion on this matter in Committee. It is an important proposed amendment to the Bill.

The background is that Paragraph 19B introduces a new duty on local authorities to assess and meet the needs of eligible young people aged 16 and 17. On 10th February in the debate in Grand Committee, the Minister expressed his agreement with the principle of the need to extend the proposed new duty to care leavers up to the age of 21. He said that the Government were committed to doing that as soon as possible. However, the problem, as he expressed it, was essentially one of timing. Of course, on these Benches, we understand the timing difficulties faced by the Government and the fact that the Comprehensive Spending Review round two has not yet pronounced. We remain firmly of the view that this amendment, together with a later amendment in relation to education, work and training, should be put on the face of the Bill.

Our view is that if the amendment is not accepted now, we may well be overtaken by new and pressing concerns--that is the nature of the beast--and that young people in care will revert or risk reverting to their former low priority. A powerful moral and practical case for pressing ahead has been made by Sir William Utting in the House of Lords at a meeting in January. He concluded,

    "a better time for pressing ahead is unlikely to occur. If it is not done now, can it ever be done?".

I wholeheartedly agree with that.

What is the case for extending the duty to 21? Young people leaving care have to cope with the challenges and responsibilities of major changes in their lives at a far earlier age than other young people. Yet they face additional problems purely as a result of having been in care. Difficulties faced by young people in care in fulfilling their potential were discussed in Grand Committee. In response, the Minister commented that,

    "there is no reason why the local authority would refuse an extra year of foster care".--[Official Report, 10/2/00; col. CWH 33.]

Yet there are numerous examples of local authorities which do exactly that.

Let me give the House a case study. John Wells, an experienced foster carer from Kent, spoke to First Key--a well-known voluntary organisation in this field--in relation to David (not his real name). Although David was previously considered to be under-achieving and "lazy", with a settled foster home life and encouragement from his foster carers his standards improved drastically, to the extent that he got nine good grades at GCSE. He is now studying for A-levels and intends to go to university. Yet, with the approach of his 18th birthday in January, he risked losing all of that and the achievement of something he once thought unattainable.

The authority was proposing that, once he was 18, he should leave home and move into his own flat. Only after the intervention of a local councillor, the local MP, the submission of a formal complaint, persistent efforts by his foster carers and the personal interest of

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the Head of Social Services, was the matter settled. In the words of his foster carers, it would appear that once young people in care reach the age of 18, the system changes from "care to don't care". The authority has reduced the level of financial support and expects David to move into independent accommodation as soon as his exams are over. As John said,

    "We would be interested to know what level of care we should reduce whilst he is still at school and studying for 'A' levels. We never reduced our level of care to our own children between their 18th birthdays and 'A' levels and cannot see any satisfactory reason to reduce David's just because he is in the care system".

John is worried about how David will manage in the future without their intensive support and advocacy on his behalf.

That is a powerful case study. It cannot be right that we expect young people in care to go to such lengths to obtain the opportunities that other young people take for granted. The powers local authorities presently hold must become duties if care leavers are to achieve their full potential.

Let me give another, shorter, case study. Carol--again, not her real name--is another bright young woman who is also sitting A-levels and hopes to go to university. Again, her future is uncertain and she may be forced to move home because she is living in foster care and will be 18 in April. It is unclear what support will be made for Carol once she is 18, which is unsettling in itself. The uncertainty is adding considerably to the stress she is under as she revises for exams.

I shall not go into the costs of the provision from 18 to 21 if this amendment were passed; I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will do that. But let me conclude by saying that it cannot be right that children and young people leaving care have to fight for financial and practical assistance to stay on a course, in a job or a home where they feel secure and happy. The cost of eradicating social exclusion manifested in problems like homelessness and unemployment is enormous. Now is the right time to make the change and extend local authorities' duty of care to 21. This amendment is supported by the Association of Directors of Social Services. That in itself indicates that this is a clearly practical, clearly desirable course of action and I urge the Government to accept the amendment. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, when we debated this issue in Committee, the need to cost the provision of additional support was the reason given as to why the changes advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, cannot be made now. We are dependent, so it appears, on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review before we know whether or not what we want and what Ministers say they want, can be afforded.

I should like to know what estimate the Department of Health has now made of the cost of this change. Yet I wonder whether there is a net cost attached to it at all. There is sound independent research evidence that

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spending additional money on proper leaving care support and assistance saves money in the long run. Independent research by Barnardo's into the outcomes of leaving care schemes concludes that the schemes work,

    "particularly well in respect of accommodation and life skills and to some extent in furthering social networks, developing relationships and building self-esteem".

In a major survey of 3,308 young people leaving care across 46 leaving-care projects, major improvements were identified in relation to young people's housing options. The same survey identified positive outcomes in relation to the reduction of unemployment levels. One leaving-care team in Lewisham reduced unemployment levels among the 325 young people participating from 46 per cent in 1993 to 26 per cent in 1996. There is additional convincing evidence that focused, leaving-care support may also contribute to reducing potential future offending.

Findings like those reaffirm the importance of taking into account the cost of not extending the duty as proposed, a cost measured in higher benefit bills, increased health expenditure and reduced tax revenues, quite apart from the cost to the life chances and opportunities of young people themselves.

Research shows that placement stability and the provision of supporting foster care placements are closely linked to educational achievements. Where authorities have utilised their powers to assist with access to education--for example, in some of the authorities recently achieving a Beacon Council award in leaving care--the results have been very positive. The National Fostercare Association worked with the London Borough of Brent to pilot the provision of focused foster care support together with guaranteed financial support for the young person's first year at college or university. According to Sue Mathews from the London Borough of Brent,

    "Everyone benefits. Carers and workers have been delighted to see such successful outcomes--teaching, fashion design, law and engineering are just some of the courses the young people have completed. Many are now living in their own flats and making the most of life's opportunities".

We must not overlook one important fact about children in care. They are not simply needy children or children who will be all right so long as we give them an adviser. They are often very damaged children; sometimes children with mental health problems who are vulnerable and emotionally scarred. Let us be in no doubt that for the state to support such children is and should be an onerous task. It is as onerous as normal parental responsibility, if not more so.

To remove support for a care leaver at 18 flies in the face of everything that Ministers have said about accepting the state's public parental role. At 18 there is little room for error or failure. The risk of a young person of 18 dropping out of the system is considerable. Once we have to pick up the pieces of social exclusion, homelessness and unemployment, the cost is substantial. By comparison, early preventive support has to be seen as both effective and affordable

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as well as socially just. Now is the right time to make the change and extend local authorities' duties to care to 21.

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