Looked-after Children

16 Nov 2005
Welsh Assembly

The Deputy Presiding Officer: I have selected amendment 1 in the name of Jocelyn Davies, amendment 2 in the name of David Melding and amendments 3, 4 and 5 in the name of Kirsty Williams.

The Business Minister (Jane Hutt): I propose that the National Assembly for Wales notes the actions taken by the Welsh Assembly Government to improve support for looked-after children and care leavers. (NDM2674)

We welcome the opportunity for Assembly Members to consider the actions taken by the Welsh Assembly Government to improve support for looked-after children and care leavers. I thank David Melding for initiating this debate to raise the Assembly's awareness of the work being done to meet the needs of one of our most vulnerable groups of children and young people.

When the Assembly came into being, one of our earliest tasks was to respond to the tragic events set out in Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report, 'Lost in Care'. Waterhouse described a regime peopled by unscrupulous individuals operating against a background of institutional neglect. Little interest was taken in the lives of those young people looked-after in children's homes across Wales apart from by those who sought to abuse them. In the main, public authorities did not have any regard for these children, often blaming them for the circumstances in which they found themselves and not believing them when they reported what was happening to them.

This Government and this Assembly have done a great deal to focus attention on the circumstances of children and young people looked-after away from home. We have achieved much in raising the standards of care available to them and ensuring that those standards are maintained.

At the heart of all our policies, as they affect children, including those looked-after away from home, it is the Assembly Government's commitment to the rights of the child. The United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child is important, not only in establishing that children have a right to live without the degradation and fear of abuse but also in establishing a child's right to have their voice heard on matters that affect them. Being able to tell someone what is happening to you and being listened to when you have something to say is vital to being able to protect children.

In 2001, we established the post of the Children's Commissioner for Wales—a lead since followed by the three other countries of the UK—to ensure that children and young people had a champion to hear their voice and to independently advocate for them. The Act also introduced arrangements for the registration, regulation and inspection of care settings in the setting up of the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales. The chief inspector's report was debated and commended last week while acknowledging weaknesses which we are addressing.

In 2000, we commissioned Lord Carlile to review safeguards for children treated in the national health service and set up a review of children's safeguards led by Gwenda Thomas. We anticipate that the review group will report early next year.

Our ambitions for looked-after children are not limited simply to protecting them from further harm. We also want to do what we can to improve the life chances of those looked after. The Children First programme has been a major change agent in driving forward developments. Over £150 million of additional resources in specific grants and revenue support for local government has been committed since the programme's inception. A sum of £47 million will be available next year to deliver further targeted improvements.

The benefits of the investment are beginning to be felt. Last year, 46 per cent of children left care with at least one qualification. These are marked improvements from when we started the programme. Then, over 75 per cent of children left care with no qualifications. The Government recognises the importance of education to looked-after children. Education is one of the surest ways of protecting children from the disadvantages that sometimes follow from a disrupted and unhappy childhood. Quite often, the education of these children has already suffered as a result of the very circumstances which brought them into care. Against a background of abuse, parental neglect or psychological difficulties, these young people may not have received all the attention that we might wish. Going into care may aggravate this through disruption of school attendance.

The introduction of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was revolutionary in placing new duties on local authorities and making them accountable for children leaving care. They now support more than 1,600 care leavers in Wales. A recent Assembly Government survey of more than 300 care leavers found that the majority felt that they were getting a good service from their local authorities, and that few had experienced difficulties finding accommodation. This demonstrates the effectiveness of good policy when put into practice. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 introduced several major changes to improve adoption, fostering and care services, including new arrangements for monitoring children's care plans by local authority independent reviewing officers and new rights to advocacy for children in need, including looked-after children and care leavers.

The Children Act 2004 will strengthen children's partnerships at local level and bring greater accountability through the appointment of lead directors and elected members—who will have a key role in championing improvements in services for vulnerable children—and by fulfilling their corporate parental responsibilities towards looked-after children. The lack of attention paid to looked-after children by those in a position to do something about the situation was a major theme of the Waterhouse report. At every opportunity, we reinforce to elected members their corporate parenting duties.

In September, we issued the national service framework for children, with specific standards and actions for children in need, including looked-after children and care leavers. Despite the difficulties faced by children in care and those who look after them, there has been measured progress in many areas. However, we all recognise that more needs to be done. The Assembly, through Children First and the wider improvement agenda, is working with the Welsh Local Government Association, local authorities and their partners to look at ways to develop and embed further improvements. One of our key initiatives with the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services is a 'Making the Connections' project to set up a children's commissioning support resource. This will comprise a national cross-sector database of available placements, to assist local authorities in placing children, and a support and development function.

Despite all that has been achieved, it would be unrealistic to expect rapid improvements in outcomes for this group as a whole. Many have life-limiting problems that will impair their capacity to develop, learn and thrive. Others will come into care late, having experienced abuse and disadvantage and having missed opportunities. However, those most in need, most vulnerable and with the least powerful voices in society have a strong call on our attention and our resources. Many looked-after children fall into that category. My ministerial colleagues and I are strongly committed not only to protect children in care, but to promote their interests, and to find the means to ensure that they achieve our ambitions for them. We are making steps in the right direction, and I invite Members to debate the motion.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas: I propose amendment 1 in the name of Jocelyn Davies. Delete 'the actions taken' and replace with:

with concern the lack of support given.

I accept what the Minister has said about the Government's intentions. It is good to hear about those intentions, and we look forward to seeing some of these ideas put into action in this important area.

However, it must be acknowledged—and I hope that you would agree, Minister—that this area, traditionally, has been underfunded, that support, traditionally, has been insufficient, and that there is a great need for us to look urgently at putting more resources into supporting this area.
I will refer to three aspects where we have real concerns. You referred to the achievement targets for looked-after children, and I accept what you say that the history and background of these children and young people often mean that it is difficult for them to realise levels of achievement. However, we must express concern at the current levels. We saw this a few weeks ago in the Health and Social Services Committee when we considered the inspectorate's report on care homes. The achievement of these children is low, and our expectations should be higher. The resources provided to ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve higher levels should increase. If their needs are great, the resources provided for them should respond to those needs, in order to give them a real opportunity in life.

The other aspect that I will refer to is looked-after children who have special needs or intense needs, and, in particular, children who have mental health needs. There is a problem in terms of the opportunities available to place these children in situations where they will receive the appropriate care. I hope that the Minister, in responding, will tell us what the Government's intentions are in terms of trying to increase the number of settings available for children who have these kinds of needs. The Minister will be aware that the children's commissioner has expressed general concern about the kind of care and provision available for children and young people who have mental health needs. I hope that he will have specific things to tell us in terms of what is offered to looked-after children who have these problems.

The final point is the need to look with some urgency at the need to ensure that every child who leaves care receives a care assessment. There is a danger in believing that all of a child's problems have been solved by the time that he or she leaves the care setting. These children go out into society and into the world of work, but that care assessment does not follow them. Therefore, the provision often ends when a child reaches the age of 16 or 18.

We are prepared to acknowledge that some things are being done, but, generally, the resources targeted at this area in the past have been lacking. At present, the Government is not getting to grips with this problem. That is why, therefore, we tabled this amendment, which notes with concern the lack of support for looked-after children.

We will also support the amendments tabled in the names of David Melding and Kirsty Williams.

Jonathan Morgan: I propose amendment 2 in the name of David Melding. Add a new point at the end of the motion:

believes that a sustained improvement in the educational attainment of looked-after children and care leavers is a key objective.

We will support all the proposed amendments and the motion, regardless of whether it is amended. We need to put the debate into context. This debate is entitled 'Looked After Children', but, in fact, we are debating the services, care and attention and opportunities for a group of young people who, in the initial years of their lives, have faced the most miserable and distressing circumstances that we can imagine.

We are talking about a large group of young children—a group that, sadly, has increased in size quite substantially in recent years. There has been a 54 per cent increase in the past six years in the number of looked-after children. These children have faced very difficult and challenging circumstances, perhaps as a result of bad parenting, or of physical, mental and perhaps even sexual abuse, from members not just of their immediate family, but their extended family. Some young children will have been the subject of very complex care proceedings in the family courts, involving barristers, social services, CAFCASS and the like. That is a really miserable start to life.

We must put the debate in that context because the Assembly has an opportunity—through the Minister's quite exciting, cross-cutting brief—to ensure that the children who face some of the most severe disadvantages and who are vulnerable, in all senses of the word, have access to opportunities that, at the moment, they do not have access to. We are in a position to improve the qualifications base of this group of young people, to help them into employment and suitable housing, and to ensure that, in the long term, they do not end up at the behest of the justice system. I notice from the research that roughly 41 per cent of looked-after children will face the justice system at some stage in their lives after leaving care. All these statistics demonstrate the need for the cross-cutting approach that the Minister can take.

We must recognise that many young people are in homes that, according to the CSIW report last week, are inadequate in terms of the levels of statutory protection that exists and which those homes are expected to provide. We know that many of these young children still face very challenging circumstances. We also know that local authorities have been highly criticised in recent years in a series of joint social services reports.

We must, therefore, be aware that while there has been some improvement and advance in recent years, there is still a long way to go, and we cannot afford to display any degree of complacency. I welcome the fact that there has been an increase in this budget line—an increase of around £11 million for this financial year compared with the previous financial year. While I accept Rhodri Glyn Thomas's point about an increase in the budget, it is important that we are assured by the Government that that increase is being put to good use and that it will lead to results.

We must be aware that the statistics are particularly stark, and I point Members to my concern in relation to mental health. Looked-after children between the ages of five and 10 are eight times more likely to suffer a mental health disorder by virtue of the fact that they are in care. The figures show that 42 per cent of the looked-after children suffered clinically significant conduct disorders. You can almost map out the life chances of this group of young people, and it is quite stark and worrying when you consider why they are in care and what their life chances may be as a result. Of the total number of those in care from the age of five to 17, 49 per cent will have suffered, or could suffer, a form of mental health illness. When you look at what we have done as a committee in terms of mental health, we are storing up a huge number of problems for this category of people in the long term.

Finally, the appointment of the children's commissioner has been the single most important act undertaken in recent years to improve the advocacy of young people in Wales and to improve and safeguard their rights and welfare. Long may that success continue, but we have a long way to go.

Jenny Randerson: I propose the following amendments in the name of Kirsty Williams. Amendment 3: add a new point at the end of the motion:

regrets the failure of some social services departments with regard to criminal record checks for employees.

I propose amendment 4: add a new point at the end of the motion:

regrets the low level of educational attainment among children-in-care and care leavers.

I propose amendment 5: add a new point at the end of the motion:

calls on the Government to assess the effectiveness of its plans for care leavers with regard to issues such as employment, accommodation and continuing education.

There has been some progress on this issue in the last few years, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats welcome Children First and the leaving care regulations. However, as previous speakers have said, there is a mountain to climb, and this is a very important and vulnerable group of young people. The numbers in care in Wales have increased by over 50 per cent since the Assembly's inception. That shows the scale of the problem with which we are dealing.
Amendment 3 refers to an issue that was raised in the CSIW report last week, namely the problems in some social services departments with regard to criminal checks for employees and for those involved in the service. It is important that we take every step, through all our agencies, to ensure that vulnerable children and young people are protected in this most basic way.

Amendment 4 refers to the low level of educational attainment among young care leavers and children in care, and amendment 5 refers to the effectiveness of plans for care leavers with regard to issues such as employment. This is crucial. A Home Office study in 2003 estimated that 50 per cent of care leavers are unemployed, that 75 per cent have no formal educational qualifications, and that 20 per cent experience some kind of homelessness within two years of leaving care. Jonathan has already referred to the likelihood that they will end up in the criminal justice system. Twenty three per cent of adult prisoners and 38 per cent of young prisoners are care leavers. These are shocking statistics and a shocking indictment of our care system as it currently stands. There needs to be a greatly improved support system for care leavers, and that means an increase in funding. More money is needed in the long term to provide the support services required to help care leavers to enjoy a productive life and to keep them out of the prison system. This is both in their interest and in the interest of society as a whole. We have to invest in them in order to empower them and to realise their potential.
We support the Children First programme and its objective to improve the position of looked-after children and care leavers, but we believe that there is a need for an independent evaluation of its effectiveness. I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on whether she is going to ensure that that takes place.

Some 40 per cent of young people in the care system enter care between the ages of 10 and 15. They are, as has been said, already greatly disadvantaged, with poor levels of educational attainment. This, surely, is a case for greater resources to be focused on raising that educational attainment. The educational targets that are set for young looked-after people are very low, and although we may understand why they are low, there is every reason for us to put in greater resources to make sure that they improve. We have to be more ambitious for our looked-after children, not less ambitious by accepting that they start from a low base and should continue at that level.

I want to take this opportunity to raise the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, most of whom end up in the care system. Cardiff alone has had 67 such children, and there must be many others throughout Wales. The numbers are rising. This raises complex issues, and local authorities often find themselves acting as a kind of broker between the children and the Home Office. The Home Office threatens to deport them, and that encourages the children to disappear, which is hardly good for them. We need to recognise these children as a special case and provide local authorities with greater resources to deal with the very complex issues involved.

Finally, young people leaving care at 18 years of age are legally adults. None of us would expect our 18-year-olds to go out into the world needing no further advice and support. We should expect no less for care leavers. We need a much better support system, and one which provides that transition to adulthood and independence.

Catherine Thomas: The Children First programme states that looked-after children should enjoy the same opportunities and aspirations as all other children. However, we are all aware that there is a significant gap between the life opportunities of looked-after children and non-looked-after children, whether it be in relation to educational attainment, or to the potential of becoming homeless or misusing substances. This is why it is essential that we look beyond the statistics and see the child or young person behind them.

Worryingly, the situation for each child can be a great deal worse than we could imagine. Imagine a child who not only does not have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential, but has never had the encouragement or support to imagine what that potential might be. Of course, this can happen to all children, whether they are looked-after children or not, but we must ensure that the system works for looked-after young people and ensures that they are cared for, loved and valued as people, and that they see a future ahead of them.

With this in mind, we need to address a number of issues, building on the work of the Children First programme so far. Statistics from the local government data unit indicate that, as at 31 March this year, there were 4,431 children in care in Wales. Of these children, 465 had experienced, in a single year, three or more placements. This happens for a number of reasons, but the fact remains that stability and security cannot be achieved in such circumstances.

Children need to create lasting emotional bonds. How can they do that if their placements are too short to allow them to settle down and relate to their foster carers or other adults?
In addition, many young people in care have left extremely distressing situations and are no longer in contact with their families and friends. In these cases, it is imperative that these children and young people have a support network and people who they can talk to about their past and their plans for the future. NSPCC Cymru provides an independent visitors service for four local authorities in Wales. Other than this, the provision of independent visitors across Wales is patchy and therefore there is a need to develop a co-ordinated strategy to ensure that no child slips through the net and is left feeling isolated, without any kind of personal support.

We need to ensure that corporate parenting goes beyond simply securing placements, getting children into schools and keeping them healthy. Working with local authorities and other organisations, such as the NSPCC, the National Assembly can go that step further and work on the basis of the health Minister's guide, which starts by asking, 'If this were my child, what would I want?'. If we can move forward with that approach, I believe that we can begin to ensure that more and more children in care feel truly looked after and not feel as though they are simply an afterthought, as is so often the case. There is not much that we can do for the past of many of these children, but we can certainly do a great deal more to secure a future for them.

David Melding: I thank the Business Minister for agreeing to this debate. It is appropriate that we make time for this discussion as it is a most important issue. I was delighted that the Health and Social Services Committee, in the first meeting of its scrutiny sub-committee, took looked-after children as one of the subjects on which it wanted to scrutinise the Minister. That was an important and useful session.

I agree with the previous speakers who have said that the general situation is improving, albeit from a low base, but that it still improves far too slowly. I do not think that we can be complacent, but the issue of looked-after children now receives much more political attention than it did. It is probably not too complacent to say that, in general, the policies are in place to lead us to better outcomes, but their implementation must be accelerated. In one or two areas, we also need to be more ambitious, but we should express some confidence in the policy framework that now exists. Jonathan Morgan made the important point that the number of looked-after children has increased substantially since the mid 1990s, so this is a growing population of potentially and, often, actually vulnerable people.

On the care element of what we do for looked-after children, many of the points that I would have made have already been made by the speakers who have preceded me, and I hope that I manage to pick out some of the statistics that have not yet been mentioned. However, should I repeat any, I hope that you will humour me. During the last year for which we have figures, 15 per cent of looked-after children had three or more care placements, which is highly disruptive.

When we look to improve the service, we have to concentrate on having stable placements, as Catherine Thomas mentioned a few moments ago. It does not take a genius to work out that, if you have a fragmented system with many placements, the outcomes are much more likely to be unsuccessful.

About 50 per cent of care leavers are unemployed in their early 20s, and it is important to remember that this is a group of people who have not been well prepared for the rigours of adult life and working. Other Members have referred to the lack of qualifications, the experience of homelessness, and the high likelihood of these children being in the criminal justice system. We must reflect on all these problems with great concern. It is the worst type of performance indicator that we could see. Some 30 per cent of looked-after children are cared for out of county, so a third of them are not in the area where they were brought up by their parents or guardians before they entered care.

With regard to educational attainment, I agree with Jenny Randerson that we should set ambitious targets. We will not achieve those targets quickly, but they should be broadly the same targets that we set for the general population. That is the view of the organisation, Voices in Care, which is made up of people who have been in care and which represents them. I think that that is a sound principle. We do not want to demoralise the workforce that is trying to help looked-after children, but we need to set those aspirations high, and work towards them in a solid way and so that we are not discouraged if we do not reach the destination immediately. However, we do need to set that sort of standard.

On health, some remarks have been made about the state of the mental health of many looked-after children. I shall not repeat those remarks, other than to say that I think that they are pertinent indeed. We have made some progress in delivering annual health checks for looked-after children, which is key to their general wellbeing and health promotion. Some 46 per cent of looked-after children received these checks in 2000. Four years later, 76 per cent received those checks. That shows that we can make substantial improvements.

The way forward is simple: stable placements in county; settled education in the same school, even if your care placement changes; support in higher education, if you get there; support in tenancies, education and training; and, above all, support in times of crisis.

The Minister for Health and Social Services (Brian Gibbons): I thank Members for their constructive contributions to this debate. There is no doubt that there should be no ceiling on our ambition for looked-after children and children in special needs circumstances. In addition, I do not think that there is any doubt or argument that we have a long way to go in addressing these particular needs. We thank David Melding for initiating this debate, and we are aware that he has a particular and special interest in this subject.

When the Assembly came into being, of course, we were responding to the Waterhouse report, 'Lost in Care', and when we look back at what that report, and the Utting report before it, was telling us, we have to acknowledge that progress has been made. However, the progress made gives us absolutely no grounds for complacency in delivering more for looked-after children. We do need to acknowledge, however, that, contrary to what Rhodri Glyn Thomas said, in 2001, for example, the expenditure on looked-after children was of the order of £65 million, while, in 2004, it had increased to £107 million. This year, the total spending on children, including vulnerable children, will be of the order of £370 million. There is no doubt, therefore, that there is a significant investment in this area.

Several Members commented on the levels of school achievement, and there is no doubt that that is low, and the fact that only 12 to 15 looked-after children are in higher education speaks for itself. Equally, we must acknowledge, as David Melding said, that, whereas in 1997, something like 75 per cent of children left school with absolutely no qualifications whatsoever, the most recent figures show that that has been reduced to 48 per cent. Progress has, therefore, been made, though it is from an extremely low base. Even the figure of 48 per cent with some qualifications is far too low.

Eleanor Burnham: Do you not agree that personal advisers—a good idea in the pathway plans that local authorities are required to prepare—need to be adequately funded, monitored and assessed for effectiveness?

Brian Gibbons: That is why the level of funding for children has continued to increase year on year. As I said, in case you missed it, £65 million was spent on looked-after children in 2001, and £107 million was spent in 2004. We are continuing to increase that level of investment, so it is a significant increase.

Amendment 1 in the name of Jocelyn Davies, to which Rhodri Glyn spoke, notes with concern the lack of support given by the Assembly Government to support looked-after children. That is a travesty of what is actually happening. There are grounds for improvement, but the statement is so disproportionately inaccurate that we should reject it.

We should also reject amendment 5 in the name of Kirsty Williams. A considerable amount of work is ongoing, whether in terms of performance management, the work of the Care Standards Inspectorate for Wales, and that of the Social Services Inspectorate for Wales in corporate parenting at a local authority level and so forth. Therefore, there is an acknowledgement that we need to be much more vigorous in assessing the effectiveness of the plans that we produce.
We can support amendment 2 in the name of David Melding. While there has been sustained improvement, further improvement is needed, and we need to adopt a self-critical approach to this issue.

The level of mental ill-health in general among looked-after children is a matter of great concern. The underlying mental health problems of many of those children are the reason for breakdowns occurring in the first place, and the support has not been there to allow families and caring structures to be maintained. Equally, there is evidence to suggest that some incidences of mental illness are a reaction to unfavourable care placements. It is not just the case that mental health problems are the cause of young people ending up in care; unfavourable care arrangements can also be a contributory factor.

Catherine Thomas and a number of other speakers mentioned the number of placements as an issue. That reflects, at times, a lack of a systematic approach because, in many instances, one placement takes place even before the assessment. It is only when the first placement and the assessment have been undertaken that the child is placed in a permanent placement. If a more pro-active assessment were made before the crisis-management process, there would not be two placements. One would hope that the initial placement would be the final permanent placement, so there is scope for improvement in that regard.

On the points raised by Jenny Randerson, it is fair to say that the problems of children of asylum seekers, or sole asylum-seeking children, need to be addressed. The Assembly Government recognises this as a problem, and has given extra resources to it.

In the past, levels of homelessness among children leaving care were very high, but the most recent statistics show that there has been a significant improvement. The current figure shows that less than 10 per cent of children leaving care are homeless. It is an area in which significant progress has been made. In anyone's book, 10 per cent is still an unacceptably high figure.
In conclusion, there are no grounds for complacency. Progress is being made, additional resources are being provided, but, hopefully, our progress will be accelerated and sustained into the future.
Amendment 1: For 22, Abstain 0, Against 27
Amendment defeated.
Amendment 2: For 50, Abstain 0, Against 0.
Amendment carried.
Amendment 3: For 50, Abstain 0, Against 0.
Amendment carried.
Amendment 4: For 23, Abstain 0, Against 26.
Amendment defeated.
Amendment 5: For 24, Abstain 0, Against 27.
Amendment defeated.
Motion NDM2674 as amended:
the National Assembly for Wales

notes the actions taken by the Welsh Assembly Government to improve support for looked-after children and care leavers;

believes that a sustained improvement in the educational attainment of looked-after children and care leavers is a key objective; and

regrets the failure of some social services departments with regard to criminal record checks for employees.

Amended motion: For 41, Abstain 0, Against 9.
Amended motion carried.

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