Local offer for care leavers

Part of Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Llafur, Birmingham, Selly Oak 2:00, 13 Rhagfyr 2016

I will briefly comment on the part of clause 2 that relates to the local offer, before turning to the amendments and new clauses. I will try not to detain you for too long, Mr Wilson.

I am not really clear on the local offer. The Minister has a great deal of experience of the local offer; he pioneered the approach in the Children and Families Act 2014. I am not entirely sure how different what he proposes in the Bill is from the offer in that Act. I took the trouble during the lunch break to look at the rather helpful report from the Children’s Services Development Group entitled “The Local Offer, Children and Parental Rights”. It has a nice foreword by Mrs Gillan, who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism. You will be delighted to know that I will not read the report to you, Mr Wilson, but there are some things in it that are worth noting.

The offer, as it exists in the Children and Families Act, was intended to help local authorities to identify gaps in provision and to make sure that they were addressed, and the report assesses how successful that has been. It found that there are significant variations in the offers made across the country, with some quite good examples in east midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and some very poor examples in the west midlands and the south-west. It also found that less than 4% of local authorities have a named person whom anyone trying to understand the local offer can contact, while less than half of all local authorities listed independent specialist schools on their website, despite that being a requirement that the Minister set out in the Act. There is also a significant variation in the information that is provided on those websites. The Children’s Services Development Group says that a best practice guide for local authorities and a mandated template for the local offer would be helpful.

I draw the Committee’s attention to that because the Opposition suggest that it would be helpful to the local offer in the Bill if there were minimum standards by which we could judge the progress of the Minister’s proposals. I asked him to look again at the experience of the local offer in the Children and Families Act and to check whether there is a risk that local authorities will simply seek to replicate that kind of approach in this piece of legislation. I am not saying that that approach is useless, but I am sure the Minister will share my disappointment that it has not been as successful as anticipated in its operation so far.

I turn to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn has just been tackling about the needs of children leaving care. The Minister and I obviously got into the wrong place before lunch when I thought that he was telling me that I should not be too concerned about the educational and mental health outcomes for children leaving care. If that is not what the Minister was saying, I am more than happy to accept that.

However, I took the trouble to go back and have a quick look over lunch at some of the things that we know. I looked at the report by Saunders and Broad which examined long-term mental health conditions—the very things that my hon. Friend has just been talking about—with a greater propensity among children in care and leaving care, who suffer from depression, eating disorders and phobias.

I looked at the mental health and wellbeing report produced by the Select Committee on Education in the fourth Session of Parliament. The first line of that report says:

“The mental health of looked-after children is significantly poorer than that of their peers, with almost half of children and young people in care meeting the criteria for a psychiatric disorder”.

That report, as the Minister knows, went on to recommend that child and adolescent mental health services should be made available for all looked-after young people up to the age of 25, in recognition of the distinct issues which this vulnerable group of young people experience as they attempt to leave the care system.

I also looked at the situation on employment. As I understand it, these are the Government’s figures: three-quarters of care leavers are inclined to leave schooling without any formal qualifications. Of the Government’s study of 26,340 former care leavers aged 19, 20 and 21, 40%—nearly 10,500 young people—were not in employment, education or training, compared with 14% of all 19 to 21-year-olds. The percentage of care leavers who could be described as NEETs has risen by 1% in the past two years.

To be fair to the Minister, I think he was talking about the improvements that he can show. It is fair to say that his own figures show that there has been a 1% rise in the number of care leavers who are able to access higher education, compared with the figures for 2014 and 2016. This is hardly a picture showing that things are okay and that we should feel relaxed about the progress that has been made. It tells me that things are far from okay; they are quite dire for some young people who enter the care system. They enter the care system expecting us, as their corporate parents, to do a better job for them. That is why we have taken them into care in the first place. They enter the care system with us saying that, as a result of making that order, we are going to make their life better. If at the end of that process their educational opportunities have not improved significantly, their mental health situation certainly has not improved and may in fact have deteriorated, it seems to me that we are failing these young people.

We are looking for a bit more beef and detail from the Minister. This is about an order that will actually make a difference for young people; from my point of view, it is certainly not about trying to score points. As I said earlier, I think we share the same broad ambition, but we have before us the replication of an approach that we saw in another piece of legislation for which he has a great deal of responsibility and that no one—I assume that includes the Minister—would describe as having been an outstanding success to date. Unless there is some attempt to learn from that experience in what we are doing now, all that is going to happen is that we are going to go round the same old loop. As I said this morning, the shelves of social work offices and establishments are littered with pieces of legislation that have the same impact. We are looking for something that will move things forward a significant step, so will the Minister give serious consideration to the amendments?