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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill): Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all noble Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard.
The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in the Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.
I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, an unlikely event this afternoon. The Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will then resume after 10 minutes.
The noble Lord said: First, the Minister will notice from the number of amendments tabled to the Bill that they are very sharply focused. This is not the kind of Bill on which we have adopted any kind of scattergun approach. The amendments all deal with matters about which a number of organisations in the voluntary sector feel most strongly, so there are few probing amendments before the Committee today. I look forward to hearing the Minister's replies to a great number of these issues.
Amendment No. 1 pertains to eligibility and the duties of local authorities towards children whom they are looking after. All eligible children are in fact looked after children for the purposes of the Children Act. Consequently, all the provisions of the Children Act apply to those children in any event--provisions such as the duty to promote the child's welfare, consult
There is a requirement under paragraph 8, schedule 2 of the Children's Cases Regulations and in Section 24(1), which is now reproduced in paragraph 19A, to plan for a time when the child is no longer looked after by the authority. The purpose of 19B is to strengthen the duty of the local authority to plan for children when they leave public care and to do so by means of an assessment and the provision of a personal adviser. Those in this sector who have spoken to us believe it to be wrong in principle to exclude any "looked after" child from a duty to plan properly and effectively for his or her aftercare needs.
In this amendment, we propose that all 16 and 17 year-old looked after children should have a pathway plan, which is a development of the usual review process under the Children's Cases Regulations. The regulations should be amended to reflect this. We would also suggest that these regulations should specify that the pathway planning process starts at an earlier age--say 14 or 15--so that it does not interfere with study for GCSEs and the plan is in place by the age of 16. The Minister will, however, appreciate that there is no amendment to that effect.
Paragraph 19B(7) and (8) state that regulations may be made in relation to assessments. We propose that these should be mandatory and that the existing Children's Cases Regulations should be amended to incorporate these new regulations. I beg to move.
Earl Howe: I should like to lend my strong support to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. It seems to me that the Government have a duty to justify the 13 week criterion that they intend to prescribe under this subsection. I question whether eligibility should be defined in the way that the Bill defines it. Nobody would argue that care leavers, who have had a relatively brief contact with social services departments and whose future obviously lies with their own families, should be included in the support arrangements.
I am entirely behind the Bill's general direction, which is to pick up the principles of the Children Act and current family support policies, which reflect the aim that, wherever possible, children should be brought up in their own families. On the other hand, how is it possible to say that a 16 or 17-year old child who happens to have been in care for 13 weeks should be eligible automatically for support? Why 13 weeks? Some would argue that this is too short a period, because many family crises take at least three months to resolve and it is surely not desirable in those circumstances to encourage parents to believe that they are no longer responsible for the child's future.
By contrast, there may well be cases where 13 weeks is too long a period. For example, a young person may have been badly abused at home and is, as a result, particularly vulnerable. The chances of that youngster returning to his or her family may be nil in those circumstances. Is it right that we should deny that child the support that the Bill envisages?
I suspect the Minister will say that no cut-off point can be perfect and he may say that the Bill must strike some kind of balance. I am not sure that that approach looks at the issue in the way that it should be considered; namely, from the point of view of the needs of the child. Rather than have an automatic cut-off point which determines eligibility, yes or no, is not the right procedure to give every child in care an entitlement to a needs assessment and a pathway plan, and only on the outcome of that assessment determine his or her eligibility for a personal adviser? In whatever form, some flexibility needs to be built into the system if deserving cases are not to slip through the net.
I ask the Minister to explain the basis of the 13 week requirement when, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, already under the Review of Children's Cases Regulations 1991 there is a duty to carry out a review in any case. Can he say what additional burden is to be imposed upon a local authority to widen the scope of the review to consider a pathway plan? I cannot see the point of having two sets of arrangements, parts of which are in conflict with one another by virtue of the 13 week requirement.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that there is a strong case for giving younger children an entitlement to a pathway plan, not just children who become eligible when they reach 16. One has only to think of a child who leaves care unexpectedly at 16 and who does not have a pathway plan prepared. It would be much better to say that the duty to prepare a pathway plan should be imposed upon a local authority as soon as the child reaches the age of, say, 15.
Lord Laming: I shall not attempt to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, have said, because in my view they have put the case so overwhelmingly convincingly about why we have to have this restriction. The Children Act provides for all children to be looked after. I have seen
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