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Earl Howe: My Lords, I should like to reinforce the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. The phrase "keep in touch" is not just colloquial; it is also vague. It really is not clear to me--nor, I suspect, to others reading the Bill--what that expression means. However, "keeping in contact" carries the
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is not present this evening. I know that he is very exercised about the use of the wording "keep in touch". I offered in Grand Committee to look into the matter, and I have done so. However, despite the best efforts of the noble Lord and the noble Earl, I feel reinforced as regards the use of the expression "keep in touch" in this context.
The key point here is that there is no disagreement between us in one respect. Whether we describe it as "keeping in touch", "keeping in contact", or whatever, it is quite clear that this will be an important responsibility on local authorities. It is not an issue of policy upon which we are disagreeing; it is more a question of language. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, spoke of the importance of using the right language. I agree with him. It is certainly important to get the language right. That is why I have given most careful consideration to the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, described the expression "keep in touch" as being rather "colloquial". As I suggested in Committee, I think that it could actually be regarded as good plain English, which is what many noble Lords are always seeking to insert into the legislation that we discuss in this House.
The term "keep in touch" is used not only in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to which the noble Lord referred; it appears also in the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Act 1991 and the Powers of Criminal Courts Act 1973, which I am very glad to pray in aid. I accept that one could argue that the phrase could mean different things in different contexts, but I do not see that as a source of weakness; indeed, it is actually a source of strength because we need some flexibility in these arrangements to take account of the needs and wishes of each young person as an individual.
For some young people, keeping in touch will require only a "light touch", but the door should always be open for more intensive support if it becomes apparent that that is needed. However, a much higher level of support will be needed for other young people who are more vulnerable or more at risk. In that sense, the duty to "keep in touch" allows for both those extremes and everything in between.
On the more substantive issue of how this will actually work, perhaps I may make it clear to noble Lords that we shall be issuing guidance to local authorities about what is expected of them by way of the "keep in touch" provision and what reasonable steps they will be expected to take to re-establish contact if they lose touch. This, together with the performance assessment framework, will ensure that keeping in touch is the proactive and rigorous approach that we all want to see. I can assure noble Lords that through the performance monitoring and
I should like to take this opportunity to mention that the duty will fall on the local authority. It will be up to the local authority to decide who is to discharge the duty of keeping in touch on its behalf. We expect that that would normally be carried out by the young person's adviser, but there might be circumstances under which the duty is discharged by someone else; for example, if the young person and his or her adviser had had a falling out. To allow for this and to clear up any doubt, we shall be tabling an amendment at Third Reading to make it clear that regulations may set out the functions of the personal adviser in respect of all the groups of children and young people who may be entitled to one, but that they may also have other functions conferred on them by the local authority. This would allow the local authority to include keeping in touch as part of the adviser's functions but the ultimate responsibility would remain with the authority.
Although I sense that we disagree about the use of language here, there is absolutely no disagreement at all about this being an important function of the local authority in these arrangements. We shall ensure through guidance that local authorities know what is required of them and we shall through our performance assessment mechanisms ensure that they perform those tasks effectively. Where they do not do so, we shall be able forcefully to remind local authorities of their duties.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I thank the Minister for a much more persuasive and detailed response than was given in Committee. He has gone into much more detail as regards the "who" and the "how" of the "keep in touch" duty. I very much appreciate that. The use of the relevant words in a 1973 Act shows that some parliamentary draftsman was well ahead of his time in the use of language. Be that as it may, I appreciated the Minister going through with such care all previous legislation containing the relevant words.
I took comfort from the Minister's comments on how the practical duty would be monitored and from his comments on guidance and performance monitoring and assessment. I believe that that is of great importance. I am glad that the Minister announced that an amendment would be introduced at Third Reading with regard to the duties of young persons' advisers. It is tremendously important to clarify the nature of their duties. I thank the Minister for making that provision clear at this stage so that we can be prepared for it.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, for me, and I suspect other noble Lords also, this amendment represents one of the two principal issues at stake in this stage of our deliberations on the Bill. I refer to the critical importance of giving young people leaving care the financial support that they need to pursue a course of education or training or to find a job. The Bill, as it stands, gives local authorities a power to provide such assistance. Through this amendment I propose that this power should be turned into a duty.
Why do I make this proposal? The reason is that we already know from the implementation of the Children Act that a permissive power is simply not enough. There is in the Children Act an almost identical power for local authorities to provide assistance to care leavers for the purpose of education, training or employment. That power is hardly ever used for the simple reason that most local authorities cannot afford to do so.
I come back to a point that I made earlier this evening. Children leaving care are not just children in need of support; they are damaged children. They are children whose trauma often has led them to a raft of mental health problems. We should never allow ourselves to forget the extent to which children leaving care need all the opportunity they can get for a stable start in life and for acquiring a measure of self-esteem. Some 75 per cent of care leavers leave school with no educational qualifications at all. The mountain that those children have to climb in terms of achieving employability and financial independence is truly enormous.
What care leavers generally want is not nannying; it is hope, and the opportunity to find their own level in life--the opportunity to make a mistake in the direction they may first decide to take, just like any other normal young person, and not to be consigned to the scrapheap if they make such a mistake.
In that context I ask the Minister a question. In the old days, when children in care were typically retained in the care system until the age of 18, it used to be possible, and quite common, for local authorities to foster constructive relationships with local employers, and for those employers to be ready to give young people that essential lift on to the first rung of the employment ladder. Often the loyalty worked in both directions, with the young person determined to make the most of what had been given him.
Nowadays, with children leaving care at 16 or younger, those relationships with employers have largely fallen away. What thought have the Government given to encouraging employers to take on young people who leave the care system? We are right, of course, to place emphasis on education and training, but there is no doubt that getting a job is the single most important lever that a young person can deploy to lift him out of the culture of dependency. It is the route to self-esteem.
I hope that the Minister can go a little further than he did in Committee. If there is already a general power in the Bill to provide assistance for education and training in the terms of new Section 24B, and if, as the Minister has said, the Government want local authorities to use these powers wherever appropriate, the question arises: is funding really a difficulty here? Will not the funding have to be provided anyway? Let us be clear, this is not an amendment that extends the scope of the Bill in the same sense as does Amendment No. 3. The scope to provide assistance is already there. Therefore, I put it to the Minister: what is to be lost by making this provision into a duty; and, is there not much to be gained? I beg to move.
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