The Children and Social Work Bill: Government is listening

Posted by Kate Maher / Tuesday 18 October 2016 / Care leavers Children in care Law Mental health
Smiling young man

Summer is well and truly over. Coat weather has returned, mince pies are already on the shelves in supermarkets, and MPs and peers are settling back into Westminster after the long parliamentary recess and busy Conference season. Report Stage* of the Children and Social Work Bill has been drawing closer and with it has come a flurry of amendments, or proposed changes to the legislation, from the Government itself and from various peers.

A few of the Government amendments are particularly welcome, and mean that:

  1. Local authorities would now be obliged to reach out to care leavers and offer them the extra support provided for in the Bill, rather than care leavers having to request it themselves.

  2. It is now clear that local authorities must consider both the physical and mental health of children when carrying out their duties for children in care and care leavers. 

This reflects what we, and other members of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers have been pushing on – as you may remember from our last update on the Bill during Committee Stage back in July. 

These changes will make a difference.

To give you a quick recap, the Bill will extend the right to a Personal Advisor or PA – the person who makes sure a young person who has left care receives the support they’re entitled to – to all care leaves up to the age of 25.

However, we were concerned that the way the Bill was worded meant that the responsibility for receiving that extra support lay with the care leaver. They would have had to ask for it, rather than the local authority having to reach out to them, telling them it was now available, and then providing that support if the young person wanted it.

During Committee Stage, the Earl of Listowel spoke to the amendment the Alliance were supporting which would have changed this. 

"It puts more of an onus than the Bill currently does on local authorities to say to those young people: 'We want to support you. This is the offer we have for you', and, for instance, sending Christmas cards and postcards, doing everything in their power to keep in touch and to treat them, in this regard, just as they would younger people aged under 21.’"

Earl of Listowel

The amendment the Government put forward will ensure that the responsibility lies with the local authority. In fact, every year, local authorities will have to reach out to the care leavers in their area and check to see if they would like to take advantage of the support which is theirs if they want to take it. This lessens the chance that young people who have left care – and who often don’t have the same family support networks to draw upon that others their age do – will face struggles alone.

The second changes to the Bill goes some way toward achieving parity between attitudes to and support for physical and mental health, which is vital. And the Government putting down an amendment like this makes a powerful statement.

Yet if children’s mental health is to improve on the ground, more still needs to be done.

Report Stage begins on Tuesday 18th October. The amendments the Government has laid will be debated by peers, as will all the others put forward by members of the House of Lords.

One of these amendments, tabled by Baroness Tyler, the Chair of CAFCASS, would place greater requirements on local authorities and health to promote children’s mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing. This would mean:

  • introducing dedicated mental health assessments for children in care and young people leaving care, to ensure that any mental health difficulties are picked up as soon as possible and children can immediately start receiving the support they are in need of.  
  • strengthening the role of the designated professional for looked after children – doctors and nurses who are meant to support health commissioners to improve the health of children in care, but who are currently experiencing difficulties which prevent them from doing their job properly. 

Report Stage is one of the last real chances in the Lords to make changes to the Bill. We’ve made progress already. Let’s hope the Government continues to listen.

*Got questions about the House of Lords and how members can influence Bills? We’ve got you covered.

Report is the fourth stage of a Bill’s progress through each House of Parliament – it has to go through five in both the Lords and the Commons before it can become law. Report Stage allows peers a further opportunity to examine the Bill and make changes to it.

Before Report Stage begins, amendments are tabled (by Government or members of the House), gathered together, placed in a particular order depending on which part of the Bill you’re trying to amend, and then published in a ‘marshalled list’. The critical thing about Report Stage is that proposed amendments are actually voted on – and if agreed upon the Bill is reprinted to reflect these changes.

The last stage, Third Reading, is the final chance for peers to amend the Bill, although usually it is extremely hard to get amendments tabled at this late phase. Report Stage is therefore crucial.