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Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as I did not give him notice of my intention to intervene. I welcome what he is saying about education. Will he join me in welcoming what the Government are doing by broadening vocational education to GCSE level, which is likely to engage the young people that he is talking about much more in school-based activities? It is a constructive approach. Children who are at present alienated by an excessively academic curriculum may be re-engaged as a result of that initiative.
Mr. Pound: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. People of my generation who were divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11, who suffered the agonies of the grammar versus secondary modern school system and were often marked for life by one afternoon when they were 11 have concerns about a wholly vocational alternative in secondary education. Hon. Members may be amazed to hear me say this, but I think that the Government have got it absolutely right. They have managed to find the via media between those old extremes. They have recognised that vocational training meets the needs of particular groups of people, and by making that available while at the same time not making it a matter of stigma, they have managed to excite the support of even the hon. Member for MidWorcestershire (Mr. Luff)and I never thought I would be able to say that in this place. I am delighted to join him in that.
Two years ago, we were extremely fortunate to have the Minister's predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), open our one-stop shop for children in care and for care leavers. The Ealing drop-in centre has gone from strength to strength and underpins Ealing's approach to the Government's new legislation, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which has been implemented with additional Government resources from last September. The drop-in centre is led by young people in partnership with staff and Ealing's elected Members.
Furthermore, Ealing's commitment to improving outcomes for children in care through the corporate parent panel, which is chaired by my old friend and colleague, John Cudmore, the leader of the council, has been an innovative and very successful model of ensuring that
This is the third year that young people in Ealing are organising their own consultation day: a day to demonstrate their talents and abilities. The event is called the Ealing outerlimits day and takes place at the Questors theatre. It is a mixture of serious events, such as a drama production on children's experiences of the care system and how it can be improved, and a presentation on their educational achievements. It was extremely successful last year Marks and Spencer agreed to lend a lot of new clothes for a fashion parade, but unfortunately we were bombed two days before and its shop was inside the exclusion zone. A number of people, including myself, had to produce some of our older and more exciting garments, which the children could wear with some humour, not as high fashion. The day shows their talents in dance, arts, sports and music, and culminates in a talent contest ofdare I say it"Pop Idol" style and a barbecue and party. The event also ensures that all children can access information that they need on education, health and housing issues as well as arts, sports and music.
I suspect that the Minister knows what is coming. This year's event takes place on Saturday 10 August. I appreciate that she may have a prior engagement with the Salford motor cycle club on that day, but if she is able to drag herself away from her two-wheeled weekend pastime, I would be delighted to invite her to attend and open the event and to meet some of Ealing's talented looked-after young people. She will also see the Government's radical policy programme translated into real action.
I started by talking about the components of the wider problem that we describe as antisocial behaviour. I said that we should consider what makes up the groups of children and young people whom we stigmatise and, let us be honest, from whom we sometimes suffer. We do not deserve to suffer, but they do not deserve to have us lump them together in one group.
Mr. Luff: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, especially what he said about not stigmatising a particular group. In Droitwich Spa, where there are real concerns about antisocial behaviour, it is clear that we cannot categorise the young people who are causing the problem of bad behaviour. They come from across the social spectrum, and not from one particular group. We must not assume that just because a child is underprivileged, he or she will necessarily be a leading light in antisocial behaviour in a town. That is certainly not my experience in Droitwich.
Mr. Pound: I am slightly worried that my membership of the Labour party may be in doubt if I continue to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I remember a group of overpaid City-employed hooligans known as the Flaming Ferraris.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that social background is no determinant of antisocial behaviour. However, there is ample statistical evidence, particularly in the work done by Louise Casey in the rough sleepers unit as recently as two years ago, that an enormously high percentage of people who are homeless and suffer from drug and alcohol abuse problems are products of what we call the care system. We owe it to that group of people to identify their needs and present solutions. We owe it to this country and this Parliament not to stigmatise them and lump them together.
In Northolt in my constituency, the problem was, I sincerely hope, one of transition. Young people were moving away from the warehoused care homes and orphanages of the past into a modern, more specific and better tailored way of resolving and addressing their needs. In transition, severe problems were caused. I reiterate my earlier comment that the organisation is now in partnership with the London borough of Ealing and the local residents, which will, I hope, be in the interests of all people.
I ask the Minister to consider the points about hostel definition, cross-borough accreditation and the assessment and checking of standards. I also ask her to accept my assurance that in Ealing we address the needs of young people as well as the concerns of the community, because ultimately they make up society. If antisocial behaviour confronts and affronts society, we need to remember that these vulnerable young people are not only a part of society but a part that we should value, cherish and recognise.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) on raising an extremely important issue with his usual sensitivity and common sense. He commended many things to us this evening, particularly the practices in Ealing. His description of Ealing seeing itself as a corporate parent was extremely interesting. He has brought a great deal of new information to the debate.
The Government recognise that many communities are concerned about antisocial behaviour by young people. There can be no Members who do not regularly see people at their surgeries who suffer from such problems. As the hon. Member for MidWorcestershire (Mr. Luff) said, these problems are not confined to people from particular social backgroundsthey are many and varied. That is one reason why, since 1998, we have introduced a range of initiatives to tackle antisocial behaviour, along with various programmes to tackle crime. Crucially, the fear of crime caused by low-level antisocial behaviour often does more damage to communities' sense of self-confidence than more serious and isolated criminal behaviour.
This is about getting the balance right. Throughout our period in office, as well as introducing initiatives to tackle antisocial behaviour, we have tried to demonstrate our commitment to improving opportunities for young people
Those policies are expressed in the quality protects programme and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. Both measures have promoted support for care leavers so that they have the same opportunities as other young people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) introduced the Act with passion and common sense. He said that families do not suddenly stop taking responsibility for children when they are 16; that responsibility continues until they are 18, 21 and even beyond, when children regularly come back home looking for support. My right hon. Friend said that if our children come back and ask to borrow a tenner, we respond quite naturally, as we do if they come back with their washing or looking for emotional support. Equally, our responsibility as corporate parents means that we must continue to give support to children who leave care.
We try to ensure that children leaving care can fully participate in the life of their local community as citizens, through education, training and opportunities to work. The quality protects programme has been welcomed by local authorities. I was particularly interested in my hon. Friend's description of what has been happening in his council. The quality protects programme has not only been delivered as a central Government policy but has been owned by the local authorities, which have been able to build on the principles in that programme to come up with ways of working that suit their community. The author of a report on evaluating local responses to the programme, Diana Robbins, has said
Our most recent data show that more children in care are being adopted and that looked-after children are experiencing fewer changes of carerfor many children in the care system, having different sets of foster parents and home settings has been extremely disruptive. There has been a complete reversal of the trend that had seen more and more young people discharged from care when they reached 16, whether or not they were ready for independence. We are now assessing young people on their skills and potential and providing them with the right level of support.
We have also introduced the Adoption and Children Bill, which will overhaul the outdated Adoption Act 1976. It will modernise the existing legal framework for domestic and inter-country adoption. That change underpins our drive to speed up the process and provide many more looked-after children, who cannot return to their families, with a fresh start and the opportunity to live in and be part of a new family.
The Care Standards Act 2000 established the National Care Standards Commission to ensure that vulnerable children and adults get the protection they need and that all care providers have high standards. There are now national minimum standards for the services to be regulated, and we hope that that will ensure that vulnerable children will have confidence in the quality and safety of the care that they receive.
Local authorities have a duty to ensure that they place children in accommodation that conforms to national standards and meets their needs. That applies whether the placement is in their own authority, elsewhere across London or in any other part of the country. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 transformed the powers that councils had to support young people into duties. It became mandatory for local authorities to make sure that they followed through their responsibilities. That is relevant to the issues raised by my hon. Friend because the 2000 Act requires local authorities to assess and meet the needs of care leavers and, crucially, to stay in touch with them, not simply abandon them when they reach the age at which they can leave care. The duty continues wherever a young person moves to.
The Act also provides that young people should have a pathway plan, setting out the support they will need and what help the local authority will offer them if things go wrong, so that they have confidence that they will continue to be looked after even when they are living independently. The plan has to include arrangements for young people to live in suitable accommodation.
Councils should take steps to ensure that young people have the best chance of succeeding where they are living. Arrangements for their accommodation should be linked to other arrangements for support. As my hon. Friend has said, in his own local authority, the support is keyed in to issues of accommodation, education, transport and housing. All those services need to be connected and in place to give young people the best possible launch into their adult life.
My hon. Friend mentioned some of the difficulties that had occurred locally and I entirely understand his concerns about the impact of young people on local residents. A group of young people left local authority care and almost all of them were placed in Ealing by other local authorities. That sends a key message: we must ensure that those authorities continue to take responsibility for the children whom they have placed. They must also share information with each other; they should work together in such situations rather than acting in isolation.
Local people living near those youngsters associated their presence with nuisance, intimidation, vandalism and other criminal acts. Although it may be hard to prove a direct link between the young people and every incident that has occurred, the residents have real concerns and they were right to express them.
I appreciate the fact that it seems to local people that an entirely new establishment housing nine young people has been imposed on their neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the status of the property is of nine self-contained independent flats, each with its own entrance and facilities, so the service is not defined as a hostel under current planning regulations. The scheme is thus not covered by planning law and would not qualify for inspection by the National Care Standards Commission.
My hon. Friend raises legitimate concerns about a group of nine young people leaving care who are all vulnerable and need intense support, yet difficulties are caused because their accommodation does not fall under the narrow definition of a hostel. I can reassure him that the Government are considering ways to establish best
Through the quality protects programme and the other initiatives to which I referred, the Government stress that councils should try to take the same interest in the young people whom they have looked after as a reasonable parent would take in their own children who face the challenges of adulthood. It is important that the local authorities which placed those young people in my hon. Friend's constituency assure themselves that those young people are being offered adequate support. Like any reasonable parent, the local authorities should ensure that the young people can engage in constructive activity so that they are not left to drift and get involved in antisocial behaviour. They should be offered sufficient education and training to achieve their potential. Any parent will understand that even if support is available, young people inevitably push at the boundaries of behaviour, but it is important that local authorities which place young people maintain consistent contact and continue to provide regular support.
The issues raised by my hon. Friend are not of the sort that can be easily and neatly resolved by central Government policy. They need to be resolved locally by all the parties getting together and involving local people. Young people are entitled to suitable accommodation with appropriate support, but their neighbours are equally entitled to go about their business free from harassment and intimidation and not to be subject to antisocial behaviour. The young people themselves have a responsibility to behave properly. They must recognise and act on their responsibility to be good neighbours.
Where there is evidence of crime, antisocial behaviour and vandalism, the police have obligations to uphold the law and to protect the local community. Tackling antisocial behaviour locally requires co-ordinated action and the full use of all available resources. That could include the use of antisocial behaviour orders, if necessary, as well as acceptable behaviour contracts, which are being piloted in my hon. Friend's constituency. Young people enter into a contract about their future behavioura structured way of achieving the right balance.