June 15, 2008

Children and Young People’s Bill

John Bercow welcomes the Bill but supports some additions such as the need for an independent advocate as an entitlement for a child in care especially those with special educational needs.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), to whose indefatigable and outstanding work, in particular on behalf of runaway children, I should like to pay the warmest possible tribute. I was delighted also to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) reiterate her commitment to securing a ban on smacking, and for the avoidance of doubt I can say that if such an amendment to the Bill is tabled, I, for one, will be pleased to support it.

I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will understand if I reserve my most effusive words for my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who is newly arrived in this place. It is customary, on occasions such as this, that hon. and right hon. Members, irrespective of party, should reflect upon the strengths of the Member and of the speech. In these circumstances, that poses no difficulty for me, because I echo the generous but thoroughly justified tributes that have already been paid to my hon. Friend. He spoke with wit, with eloquence, with passion and with wisdom— wisdom and discernment born of a direct experience of the care system, a hands-on involvement that gave him the knowledge that allowed him authoritatively and pithily to contribute to debate on the Bill. I, for one, welcome him as a new colleague and look forward with interest and respect to his future contributions to our proceedings, and I suspect that I will not be alone in thinking in those terms.

I welcome the Bill, which is an excellent measure. Doubtless, as so often these days, I shall contribute in my non-partisan way, which will provoke great suspicion and a certain amount of excoriating criticism from people who think that it is absolutely to be expected that one should try to behave in as tribal a manner as possible. For my own part, I have really no interest in doing so; when a measure is good, I believe in saying so. I think that this is a good measure, in terms both of purpose and, predominantly, of content, and the Government should be applauded for what is, unquestionably, an advance.

I hope that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who knows the very high esteem in which I hold her, will not take it amiss if I choose, therefore, to focus my remarks not on the excellent contents of the Bill, about which much has been said, but on those additions to it, or amendments of it, that in my view could make it better still.

I must say that I enthusiastically endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), which was underlined in interventions by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and others, including the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), about the merits of—indeed, the requirement for—the insertion of a commitment to independent advocacy. That is not, in any sense, to belittle or dismiss the important improvements in arrangements in relation to independent reviewing officers. Much thought has been given to that subject, it has been open to consultation, Ministers have reflected on the matter, and Lord Adonis conducted himself in the other place with a diligence and breadth of mind that most of us who know him have come to expect from him.

I simply put it to the Minister of State that the role of the independent reviewing officer is important, but it is a discrete role. The role of the independent visitor is important, but it is a separate function. The role of an independent advocate should be established, valued, supported, extended and made an entitlement for people in care because of its own merits. It seems to me that the significance of the role of the advocate is that he or she would be genuinely separate from, uninfluenced by and independent of the decision-making process that his or her services on behalf of the child or young people could hope to influence.

Ministers have said that, yes, they can see the merit of advocacy, but they seem to be slightly timid and apprehensive about making a commitment to independent advocacy an entitlement. The argument has already been powerfully made. I think it could be contended quite forcefully—I am not a lawyer; I say that as a matter of some very considerable pride—that article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child would probably make a potent case in support of the establishment of independent advocacy. Moreover, I feel that particularly strongly in relation to those children in care who have special educational needs. The House will be conscious of the fact that that is something to which I attach great importance.

There has been a litany of statistics already in the debate; I simply want to underline one figure that was included in an earlier speech: 28 per cent. of children in care have statements of special educational needs, as compared with 3 per cent. of the school population as a whole. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, in a compelling speech, gave the example of those children who have communication difficulties. They might have learning disabilities; they might also suffer from severe physical disability, but they might not. I want to underline the fact that children or young people with speech, language or communication difficulties of a significant intensity should be regarded as suffering from a disability every bit as anxiety provoking, debilitating and potentially life or potential limiting as would be a physical impairment or a mental disability. For children who probably know what they want, know what they need, know what their interests are, know what they want to be done for them and know how they wish to contribute to its being done to be unable themselves to articulate it is quite the most breathtakingly frustrating state of affairs. For such children, the right to independent advocacy could make a decisive difference.

The Minister of State has probably heard me make the point before that in relation to special educational needs—I respect the fact that the Government do not agree with me on this point—I feel that local authorities are in a virtually omnipotent position, in the sense that they assess, decide, pay for and more often than not provide what the child gets by way of special educational needs provision. My own view—it is shared by some although not by all contributors to the special educational needs debate—is that it would be wise to separate the assessment of need from the funding of provision. Whether or not that is desirable, I put it to right hon. and hon. Members that, if the average child with SEN is in a bit of a difficulty in negotiating with either a recalcitrant or simply a cash-strapped local authority, we should think how much worse it is for a child in care who does not even have the advantage of a parent or parents articulating, advocating, agitating, lobbying and campaigning on his or her behalf.

In those circumstances, there is a compelling case for independent advocacy, and I would go further, as did the hon. Members for Stourbridge and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, in saying let there be an extension of looked-after status from those formerly described as being in care to those who are permanently resident a significant distance from home within the education system. Decisions will be made on their behalf. Events are unfolding. Judgments have to be made. Advocates are required. It is not too late for the Government, during the passage of the Bill, to reconsider their position.

What I am bothered about above all is the concept of the unchallenged omnipotence of the public authority. Against that, one needs a counterbalance.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend suspect that there are occasions when the outcome of an assessment can be informed by the availability of funding to provide the right treatment?

John Bercow: There is absolutely no doubt that some judgments are determined on the basis of available resources rather than on the extent of the need. If I am to be fair to the Government, I must say to my hon. Friend that in probably any imaginable system some regard will have to be paid to resources. There has to be some limit; it is not possible to satisfy every demand. It seems to me, however, that the difference at the moment is that there is an inbuilt incentive to keep costs down and perhaps in some cases, inadvertently and subliminally, to put the issue of the purse before the requirement of the child or young person.

Reference has been made to the educational provisions of the Bill. I welcome what has been said about the designated teacher. The Government will want to take care to ensure that it is not automatically assumed across the country that, for example, the post should be taken up by the special educational needs co-ordinator. It might be advisable for that to happen, but it should not be assumed as a matter of course. If the SENCO already has an extensive miscellany of responsibilities and rather limited time in which to fulfil them, there might be merit in having somebody else perform that role.

There could be a need for training. That will involve a cost. It will require backfilling so that that member of staff can go away and receive the necessary training, advice, instruction and practical experience before coming back to deliver. There is thus a world of difference between the proclamation that such a thing should happen and the observable evidence on the ground that it is happening, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of that. We have to start somewhere and I welcome the inclusion of that measure in the Bill.

I share the concern that there is a mismatch between the commitment to an entitlement for those going into higher education provided for in clause 21 and the reference in the context of those seeking to go into further education to assistance to enable them to do so. Those words were not chosen accidentally. They clearly denote a difference in terms of the intent and scale of ministerial commitment. Let me be absolutely clear: the Government are right on higher education, and the measure is consistent with the agenda of trying to raise aspiration, to lift young people up and to say that there should not be some sort of artificial ceiling. Of course, historically, the figures for participation in higher education by those in care have been lamentably low. Although they have somewhat improved of late, they remain grossly unsatisfactory. That has been the case under successive Governments.

I do not knock the commitment that the Government have made. Moreover, I think that the chosen figure of a couple of thousand pounds is not entirely arbitrary. It has been chosen on the basis of the expected debt levels of someone coming from care into higher education and so on and on the financial disincentive that the present arrangements apply. That makes sense, but we are in danger, if we do not amend the Bill, of discriminating against those who want to go into further education, vocational training or apprenticeships. I cannot see any merit in doing so.

Comment has already been made on the fact that large numbers‚Äîby far the majority‚Äîof people in care leave before the age of 18. If they are still in care and leave at the age of 19, if memory serves me 30 per cent. enter the not in education, employment or training‚Äîor NEET‚Äîcategory. There is a concentration of need among those leaving the system who are uneducated, untrained, unqualified, often historically and currently unwell, and unable effectively to equip themselves to contribute to their own personal fulfilment or the strength of the economy or public services. We ought to be saying, “Let’ support them if they want to go on to further education.” Not to do so constitutes unwarranted, if unintended, discrimination, for the reason that I gave. I put it to the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), that that seems illogical.

One could be forgiven for thinking, if one were a cynic—but I do not because I am not—that the Government were minded to provide higher education funding on the grounds that there will not be that much take-up, so the cost to public funds will not be all that high. That would be an unworthy basis on which to operate, but the Minister is nothing if not worthy, conscientious and dedicated, so I do not think that that can be the reasoning; however, that is how it looks to the cynic. We should make a comparable commitment to those seeking to go on to training, further education or apprenticeships; we will then be applying an equal standard to both categories.

I add my support to those who say that it was right for the Bill to have been amended in the other place, courtesy of the efforts of my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton. I agree with new clause 7: it seems entirely right that the list of organisations subject to a public duty to promote the welfare of the child or young person should include what was the Border and Immigration Agency and is now the UK Border Agency. If right hon. and hon. Members look at the Children Act 2004, they will see a plethora of organisations that will be subject to a duty to promote the welfare of the child, although their primary purpose is something other than the promotion of that welfare. We are talking about the national health service, the education service, children’ service providers, the Prison Service, the probation service and the police service. To my knowledge, it is no longer argued about any of those that the imposition of that duty would somehow prevent them from fulfilling their primary purpose, or would dilute their effectiveness in seeking to do so. If they can combine their wider responsibilities with the fulfilment of that duty, I see absolutely no reason why the UK Border Agency should not be able to do so.

The Minister has distinguished experience in other Departments, including the Home Office. I ask her not to let the Bill be driven by the preconceptions or apprehensions of the Home Office. I appeal to her to be bold. There is sometimes a concern that one has to appease the red-top tabloids—that the media are obsessed with the level of immigration and that, to some extent, one has to diffuse the tension, allay the anxiety and remove the opportunity to be beaten with the tabloid stick. The Government should be bold about that. There will be cross-party support if the Government accept the Bill as amended in the other place.

What is more, public opinion on such matters is more sophisticated and enlightened than colleagues sometimes suppose. Yes, people are concerned about uncontrolled immigration, and it is right that that should be addressed, but they are also concerned about the rights, treatment, entitlement and pursuit of the welfare of children. No one is more vulnerable than a child who has been trafficked into the country, or who is a persecuted, timorous, frightened but hopeful asylum seeker. I appeal to the Government to consider the matter. In other respects, they have tightened up on judicial review; if they are worried that it will not be possible to return children to their countries of origin under any circumstances, that fear is not justified. I appeal to the Minister at least not to close the door on the subject, but to consider the merits of cross-party discussions and an agreement to retain the Bill as it is.

I agree with what has been said by other hon. Members about extending the provision of foster care, as requested by the Fostering Network and the national organisation that offers advice and support on the subject. I am not sure that we need so many pilots. The Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety operates a miscellany of schemes, the results of which are clearly observable. There is a patchwork of other such provision in other parts of the country, too. We should not delay for the sake of delay. If we think that there is a reasonable evidence base, let us go with it. The cause is progressive, and it should be celebrated.

My final point is about the architecture of the Bill. I do not cavil at it, but it carries an implication. As Members will notice if they look at the Bill clause by clause, of the 45 clauses no fewer than 13 provide for secondary legislation such as order-making powers and statutory instruments. One of the two schedules allows for such provision, too. That is sometimes necessary—sometimes it is not—and that is the case in many instances in the Bill. Fair dos—I am content with that—but if substantial parts of the Bill are to be dealt with later by secondary legislation, and we are advised that many of those provisions will be subject to the negative procedure of the House whereby, unless there is a specific request to debate them, they are not debated, there is an obligation on Ministers to try to introduce draft regulations before the Bill completes its passage through the House.

That is an habitual war cry on my part, but the difficulty otherwise is that we are to some extent voting for a pig in a poke. I would like to know more of the positive detail of that secondary legislation. Let us see it. It is a good Bill, and it is under the stewardship of an immensely capable ministerial team. I wish it well, but it can be made a little bit better, and I hope that my comments are taken in the constructive spirit in which they are intended.

9.16 pm

| Hansard