Beverley Hughes on the state of the Children and Families Bill, as it arrives at Lords Report stage
The Coalition’s announcement that it will amend the Children and Families Bill to enable young people to stay with their foster carers up to the age of 21 is a very welcome concession. It comes following pressure from across the House of Lords, and hot on the heels of a u-turn on standardised tobacco packaging.
‘Staying Put’ was piloted by the last Labour government and proved vital for those youngsters who would otherwise have been sent to a hostel or bedsit at age 17. It also saved money and helped them remain longer in education, get a job, avoid debt and stay out of trouble. The hugely positive impact was such that we made a commitment to extend the scheme nationally when returned to power.
With the average age of young people leaving their families now in the mid-20’s, it is only right that those who have had a more difficult start in life, and for whom the state is the legal parent, should be given the same opportunity. It has taken a lot of activity behind the scenes but it is good that Ministers have now caved in. They would certainly have lost the vote at the Bill’s Report stage today, as they would have on standardised tobacco packaging early in the New Year.
These are but the latest in a long list of significant climb-downs that Labour Lords, working with Crossbench Peers, have secured on the Children and Families Bill. On fostering, the government amended the Bill to give precedence where possible to family and friends as carers, and moved away significantly from their initial pronouncements that all fostered children would be put in a potential adoptive placement.
Ministers have also agreed to a new duty on schools to take proper care of children with serious medical conditions such as diabetes; and that local authorities must provide distinctive services for young carers looking after a sick or disabled adult at home. They have conceded that the NHS should be accountable for the health services identified in the plans to support children with special educational needs (SEN). They have also accepted greater flexibility around plans for young people who are in apprenticeships, to allow councils to continue support them to the end of their programme of study or until they are 26. We also expect a concession that the provisions on SEN and disability should continue to apply to youngsters in custody.
In total, the government signalled more than a dozen substantial amendments to the Bill during its Lords Committee stage and we will seek further changes throughout Report. Welcome though these concessions are, they would not have been achieved without concerted campaigns both within and beyond the House. And it must also be seen in the wider context of recent Lords defeats and u-turns (prompted by fear of further defeats) right across the government’s legislative programme.
All of this raises two key questions about the Coalition. First, how out of touch are they to misjudge so spectacularly and frequently the public and parliamentary mood on such important matters as banking reform and disabled children? Second whether, indeed, they share the concerns of so many others in our country about these kinds of issues?
A government that wanted to reduce the take up of smoking amongst young people would have led the way in facing down the tobacco industry and introduced standardised packaging without being taken to the brink of a parliamentary defeat.
A government genuinely concerned about young carers would have volunteered new measures without the need for the massive campaign that was so ably mounted by the National Coalition of Young Carers, and supported by Peers.
Similarly, on the issues exercising ordinary families – the cost of living, energy prices, young people and jobs – David Cameron and his Ministers have been consistently behind the curve. Talking up the recovery when most people are still struggling only accentuates the gulf between them and the rest of us.
Baroness Beverly Hughes is a Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords
Published 8th December 2013