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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I thank the noble Lord for his constructive comments. Clearly we all want this to work. We do not want people slipping through the net who ought to receive the support that the Bill intends to provide. I should be happy to discuss those concerns with him and any other noble Lords who wish to do so between the Committee and Report stage to see whether we can deal with them. I believe that we have to go in for some prescribed definition and inevitably that may create a boundary so that there may be some grey areas. But the longstop is our ability to change the regulations if we come across that in the future. I should be happy to discuss that further.
My noble friend Lord Russell has suggested the possibility of a different form of eligibility which could apply to the period for when no financial assistance has been received from parents. One might be able to mix in that sort of definition. However, rather than think aloud, it would be best for me to withdraw the amendment, although there is a strong possibility that we shall wish to bring back at Report stage an amendment to reflect the concerns that have been raised. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
At short notice, I realise it is extremely unfair of me to expect any kind of sensible reply in the circumstances since Clauses 1 and 2 have different purposes. However, the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that disabled young people living away from home or estranged from their families are entitled to access to a personal adviser. There are approximately 360,000 disabled children living in the UK of whom approaching 47,000 live away from home. Local authority statistics for 1998 also indicate that up to a quarter of the looked-after population are disabled children and young people. A significant number of young people would not be eligible to receive services under the Bill as it stands at present.
These disabled and young people are placed in residential schools either on full-time placements or receive Social Services Department respite or health authority care for periods during school holidays, but are not officially looked after. They will spend most of their childhood living away from their families and are unlikely to return to live with their families when they finish their education.
The current transition planning requirements address the transfer from education and children's services to adult services, but there is no requirement for these young people to have an adviser or advocate, and decisions about their future are often made without reference to their wishes and feelings. Frequently, assumptions are made about their abilities and they are not given the opportunity to consider independent living or access to mainstream education and employment services. This is a group of marginalised and excluded young people who are denied rights available to others.
We would argue that this group also require intensive support and guidance as young adults through the transition period and that they are to all intents and purposes estranged from their families in the same way as young people leaving the looked-after system. Young disabled people may easily fall through the net of current transition services. Lack of choices in planning for adulthood can result in failure to achieve any satisfactory transition at all.
Approximately 25 per cent of the disabled people who are formally looked after also need to be considered in the provisions of the Bill. For this reason, Barnardo's among others would wish strongly also to support amendments which would extend the duty to age 21. However, that is for another occasion. In the meantime, I beg to move.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, said, these are children who are marginalised by society. All too often, decisions are taken about their future which are not based on any kind of formal assessment of their aptitude or their wishes. They are simply transferred, when they reach official adulthood, from one residential environment to another on the basis, quite often, of sweeping assumptions. What a difference it would make to those young people to have someone assigned to them who could defend their corner and argue for a meaningful choice in where they live and what they do. I hope the Minister will be sympathetic to the thrust of these amendments.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a specific question about what I consider to be the most vulnerable group of young people of all. I refer to those who go from care, get into trouble and go into the young offender system. They then come out again and go back into care. What is their position when they are in a young offender institution? This group aged from 15 to 21 are the most vulnerable, many of them having been discarded by their families or being classed as homeless.
Lord Laming: I support this amendment and, in doing so, I ask the Minister to consider why a young person needs to be in a residential setting for 52 weeks of the year. Many young people with special needs of one kind or another go to educational establishments but go home during the holiday periods. They do so because they have a home to go to and they have family connections. Many of these young people who are covered by this amendment do not have a home and, when it comes to holiday periods, they are found another residential establishment in order that they may be accommodated during that period. These young people are very much at risk and, were it not for the fact that they are in a residential school, they would need to be looked after by the local authority. In other words, it is only because they are accommodated elsewhere that they are not being looked after by the local authority.
This amendment does not say that all young people who are accommodated in residential schools should be covered by the Bill, but that the Bill should provide for those young people who are placed in a residential school or some similar place for 52 weeks of the year. Just imagine! These young people have no continuing
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This, again, has been a very important debate and I certainly share the concerns expressed by noble Lords for the groups of children who are placed in these circumstances. When one goes to the heart of this question--because those children will not be defined as children leaving care--the issue is what is the right route to ensure that they receive support in the future. It is my contention that because the Bill is based and solely focused on the definition of children leaving care, it is in fact difficult to develop the concept of the Bill in the way suggested.
I recognise that the challenge is then to ensure that children in that position get the support they require. The noble Lord, Lord Clement Jones, particularly spoke about the plight of disabled children and the difficulties that they can face moving from children's to adult services. I accept that more needs to be done for them. Many of them certainly have very special needs and it is important that these should be properly identified and properly addressed. The question is whether the amendment is the best or the right route to improve the experience of this group of young people.
The Bill is about improving the life chances of young people who have been looked after by local authorities. The new powers and duties for local authorities are designed to bring that about. Where, for instance, disabled young people have been looked after, those powers and duties will, of course, apply to them. We must make a distinction between those defined as being looked after and those who are not. Where a child is provided with accommodation by either the NHS or the local education authority for more than three months consecutively, the local authority must be notified. At that point, the social services department must take all reasonable, practical steps to enable it to decide whether the child's welfare is adequately safeguarded and promoted while the child stays in the accommodation. It also has to decide whether it is necessary to exercise any of its functions under the Children Act. The placing authority must also notify the social services department when it is proposed to end the child's placement. The current Section 24 duties and powers to provide aftercare support apply to these children if they reach the age of 16 and have been accommodated for at least three months. These provisions ought to ensure that those children who need the full protection of being looked after do in fact receive that support.
First, there is Quality Protects, which is a powerful driver for raising the standards of care for disabled young people. Quality Protects has now been running for a year and has made appreciable improvements to the standard of care offered by local authorities. The next phase of the programme will put the spotlight on disability. All health authorities have also been required to sign up to this year's Quality Protects management action plans. Specifically for young people, just last week my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced the new ConneXion service, which will provide personal advisers for all young people aged 13 to 19. These personal advisers will play very much the same role as the young persons' advisers which this Bill prescribes for care leavers. We will consider that particular question further, but that would mean the children who have been discussed in this debate would be in line for better support and more well co-ordinated services than they receive at present.
In relation particularly to disabled children's services, our objectives are that those services apply equally to disabled and non-disabled children. For disabled children in particular the objective is to ensure that children with specific social needs arising out of disability or health conditions are living in families or other appropriate settings in the community where their assessed needs are adequately met and reviewed.
Specifically, I might say to the Committee that my officials, in consultation with other departments, are developing the learning disability strategy. That strategy will not be launched until later this year, but in preparation we have been consulting user groups and voluntary organisations. One of the priorities identified by this process is the transition from school for learning disabled young people.
In conclusion, I hope that I have indicated that I accept and understand the points that noble Lords have raised. I do not believe that the Bill is the right mechanism for dealing with those children who are not defined as having been in care or leaving care, but I believe that there is a real challenge for us to ensure that those children receive the right kind of support. We will talk later about the much more stringent monitoring of performance of local authority social services departments which is being put into place, and I believe that that, ultimately, is the right approach.
Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, as we discussed at Second Reading, that it is intended that these provisions will apply to young offenders.
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