Local offer for care leavers

Part of Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2016.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education) 2:30, 13 Rhagfyr 2016

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. About 11% of children in care still have three placements—that is placements, rather than schools—or more per year. We already have priority school admissions for children in care, so there is no excuse for their not getting the right school.

I want to ensure that as part of the fostering stocktake we are now undertaking, which is a fundamental review of how fostering is working, we also look at stability—an issue raised by Opposition Members—and, specifically, its impact on children’s ability to form close and strong attachments, to build a social network around themselves and to have a strong and stable education, so that they can achieve what they are capable of in that environment. Part of that will be being clearer about what local authorities can do better, so that they can enhance the prospects of creating the stability that we know is a core ingredient of successful time in care.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at the direction of the fostering stocktake and at how we can better ingrain stability in decision making, particularly at the very start of when a child enters care. Often, that first decision on the school or placement has a consequential fall-out for the child or young person if turns out not to be the right one.

Amendment 27 would require the Secretary of State to develop and publish a national minimum standard for the local offer for care leavers. Although I fully appreciate the intention behind the amendment, I should point out that there is already a set of statutory duties in the Children Act 1989 that defines a minimum level of support for care leavers. Under those provisions, local authorities must provide a personal adviser for care leavers until the age of 21, and the Bill extends that support to the age of 25.

Local authorities must develop a pathway plan for their care leavers and provide assistance, both in general and specifically, to support them with education, training and employment. Care leavers are also entitled to request support from an advocate. The local offer is designed to include care leavers’ legal entitlements and additional discretionary services and support that the local authority may offer, with the legal entitlements being the minimum offer that must be provided. Beyond that—the hon. Member for South Shields will have anticipated my saying this—producing a prescribed local offer runs the risk of stifling creativity and creating a race to the bottom.

The issue gets to the nub of where we part company on the right approach. A prescribed local offer would not take account of local needs or circumstances—we want the opposite to happen, with local authorities actively providing the best possible offer and tailoring that to their local situation. We have already seen, in the likes of North Somerset and Trafford, that one outstanding care leaving service is a key beacon of good practice. To that end, local authorities will be required to consult care leavers, as well as other persons or bodies who represent care leavers, before publishing their local offer. That will ensure the offer is informed by the views of those who will use the services set out, as well as those providing the services and supporting implementation.

The risk with minimum standards is that everyone does the minimum and no more. To ensure local authorities are encouraged and helped to go beyond the minimum standards required by the law, officials at the Department have developed a prototype local offer that sets out the kinds of things local authorities can consider when designing their local offer, rather than specifying exactly what it should include. A copy of that prototype was sent to Committee members, and the intention is to publish it.

That in part answers the questions from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about practice guidance or a template from which local authorities can start to craft their own local offer. I am happy to share the prototype with him if he does not have a copy. It gives a clear direction of the areas local authorities need to cover, as a baseline for the development of their own local offer, but it does not prevent them from ensuring they provide one that meets the specific needs of their own population.

Some hon. Members asked how the SEND local offer may be different. I should say at the start that I disagree with the characterisation of the impact of the local offer for special educational needs and disabilities. That came out of a very substantial process involving young people and parents to identify what they were looking for from the new system. That was during the heady days of the coalition, when Sarah Teather was in this position, so it has a lot of history behind it. I do not know whether that reassures the Committee but, be that as it may, over the last two years of implementation we have seen the SEND local offer starting to embed and develop. We now have inspections of the new SEND system by Ofsted and the CQC. One example is a 2016 report on Enfield, in which Ofsted and CQC found:

“The local offer is informative and very helpful to parents and young people. It includes a wide range of information to help them identify where to get support and how to access available services. Over the last six months, increasing numbers of people have used the local offer to gather information.”

Representatives from parent-carer forums and SEND organisations

“are actively engaged in further improvements such as improving the local offer and making it more accessible to users.”

Brian Lamb, author of the 2010 Lamb inquiry, looking at parent-carer forums as the formal conduit for parents’ engagement, reported that around two-thirds of those surveyed were fully engaged in general strategic planning or in developing the local offer and that that was leading to significant changes in local authority practice in some areas. I accept that the measure has yet to achieve the desired effect right across the country, but the roots have been planted and we are getting evidence from those inspections of the difference that it is making in the engagement between families and services.

Finally, I turn to new clause 16. It seeks to introduce a national offer for care leavers that would include reducing the length of benefit sanctions under universal credit; making care leavers eligible for working tax credit; extending the exemption from the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit up to the age of 25; and exempting care leavers under the age of 25 from paying council tax.

I am familiar with the issues raised under the national offer and have had a number of meetings with the Earl of Listowel, who raised this issue in the other place. I have also had detailed conversations with the Minister for Employment, and I understand the concerns that have been raised around benefit sanctions.

Just last week, jobcentre staff were reminded about the challenges that care leavers can face. An article was featured on the DWP intranet, available to all staff, explaining the specific circumstances that care leavers can face and reminding work coaches—the interface between care leavers and the benefits system—to take account of any relevant circumstances and flexibilities when deciding whether a sanction was appropriate. What happens at that moment between the work coach and the care leaver could make the difference between that young person progressing towards employment and a retrograde step: it being more difficult for them to gain employment because of how a sanction has been applied.

The article also tells staff about the ambitions we have for care leavers as set out in “Keep On Caring”, the refreshed cross-government care leaver strategy, and clearly lists all the DWP support available to care leavers. I thank the Minister for Employment for taking this action. We will continue to work together to reassure the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston that we want to see what more we can do, so that the experience of the care leaver in that situation is much better.

At the heart of that is identification. If those who first see a care leaver coming into a jobcentre are blissfully unaware that they have come from the care system, inevitably, they will potentially miss taking a very different approach from the one they end up taking. Although we have a flagging system in the jobcentre computer network, it is based on self-identification. We want to do more work to see how we can ensure that, before a care leaver comes into contact with the benefits system, that is already flagged, so that we can get more consistency in the approach taken by jobcentres. Of course, we want to work towards no care leaver having to move straight into the benefits system. That is why the work to improve their opportunities for education and training and the expansion of the role of the personal adviser are all going to be important. However, these flexibilities can only be considered if Jobcentre Plus staff are made aware of a care leaver’s status in the first place. We will work hard to make sure that the situation improves on the ground.

On eligibility for working tax credit, I remind the Committee that we are currently rolling out universal credit—in case anyone had forgotten. That will replace the current system of means-tested working age benefits, including tax credits; it will replace tax credits for all new claims by October 2018. It is designed to simplify the benefit system and to provide in-work support and incentives to work for all claimants aged 18 or over. However, it is important to note that the requirement for workers to be aged 25 or over will not apply with universal credit. Care leavers aged 18 and over in low-paid work, who are currently unable to claim working tax credit, will be able to claim universal credit, subject to the normal rules on taking account of earnings. I have a case study, which I am happy to share outside the Committee, of a 19-year-old care leaver, which demonstrates the impact that will have. Those people will receive uplifts in the new system that they do not get in the system we have at present.

On the exemption from the shared accommodation rate, I have real sympathy with the hon. Lady’s arguments. I reassure her that this is something that we are looking at. As she said, we are exploring the evidence regarding the need for this change and have asked the Children’s Society to provide examples of how the current rules impact on care leavers, in the hope we can make some progress.