New Clause 24

Part of Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 3 Gorffennaf 2008.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families; Minister for the North West), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children and Youth Justice) (and Minister for the North West) 2:45, 3 Gorffennaf 2008

I agree with the hon. Lady that the issue concerns everybody, particularly when we are talking about children who are not only separated from their families but may have been trafficked. I shall say at the outset that the matter was considered in detail in 2004 when we implemented the European Union reception conditions directive, which called for minimum standards on the reception of asylum seekers, including children. Article 19 requires states

“to ensure the necessary representation of unaccompanied” asylum-seeking child by legal guardians or

“representation by an organisation which is responsible for their care and well-being”

We took the view then, and it is still our view, that the care and support that children receive from local authorities, under the same statutory arrangements as other children  in need, mean that the UK is fully compliant with that directive. Therefore, we do not believe that a system of statutory guardianship is necessary, or indeed desirable, to achieve that goal. However, I agree with the hon. Lady that services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, particularly those who have been trafficked, need to be improved. The provisions of the Bill, alongside some other measures that I will touch on briefly, will deliver some of the necessary improvements that she seeks.

First, it is important to make the point, in relation to the hon. Lady’s concluding remarks, that we are discussing children. All children should have the same rights under the law. I agree with her. Children’s legislation makes no distinction between children who are separated, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or other children. The duties under the Children Act 2004 depend simply on the levels of assessed need. They are not affected at all by immigration status or other factors of that nature. As she will know, last year the courts made it absolutely clear in a robust judgment that it is not acceptable for local authorities to make any distinction in service provision on any basis other than assessed need. That was in relation to a case involving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Secondly, the reforms in the Bill and the wider “Care Matters” programme will challenge local authorities to improve their practice. That will benefit unaccompanied asylum-seeking and trafficked children who have grown up in this country. I recognise that the experiences of these children will be distinct in some important respects and that they will require more specialised services and care than the generality of looked-after children.

For that reason, the UK Border Agency has proposed that children should be placed not right across the country, but with a limited number of specialist local authorities so that we can be sure that they receive that specialist level of care and expertise. The training of IROs and social workers in those authorities can be given in relation to the dimensions that the separated and immigration statuses give such children. We will therefore develop some specialist areas of expertise. That fits in with the reforms of the UK Border Agency set out in “Better outcomes: the way forward”, which was about improving the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and was published in January this year. It also fits in with the code of practice, “Keeping children safe from harm”. I think that that is the way to ensure that the special needs of such children are dealt with in practice.

We will also update the statutory guidance to recognise and deal with the particular needs of this group. In revising the Children Act guidance for local authorities, we will reflect the significant increase in the number of these children in the care system since the guidance was originally written in the early 1990s. There will be a real focus on this group in that guidance.

On the other hand, I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that it is not clear what benefits there would be from an extra system of guardianship. This matter reflects the debate on advocates for every child. The reality for most of these children is that they already encounter a long list of individuals, many of them charged in one way or another with representing them, such as their solicitor. They are all referred to the Refugee Council children’s panel, which provides advice and assistance. They have  their local authority social worker and the enhanced role of the IRO will apply to them, which we have discussed in this Committee. As I have said, if they are located in specialist authorities where the IRO is given special training in the circumstances and needs of such young people, they will get a better service.

We have had this argument before. I do not think that the legislation needs to be adjusted. I accept that we need to adjust practice and we must spotlight the needs of these children and train people to be better in meeting their needs and recognising the issues that come with their immigration status. However, that is a matter for practice and not for legislation in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that the measures I have outlined will meet her aspirations sufficiently and will therefore withdraw the motion.