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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 20 December 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Motion of Condolence, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Topical Question Time, Scotland’s Place in Europe, Improving the Care Experience for Looked-after Children, Higher Education and Research Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time, Tackling Mesothelioma


Contents


Improving the Care Experience for Looked-after Children

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-03190, in the name of Mark McDonald, on improving the care experience for looked-after children. I ask members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now, and I warn everybody that we are running short of time already.

16:03  

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

It is fair to say that, when the First Minister announced the commitment to carry out an independent, root-and-branch review of the care system in Scotland, there was not a dry eye in the conference hall. That is because she talked about that most vital of issues in a way that we can all understand.

There are three fundamental aims at the core of that commitment. First, uniquely, the review will be driven by people who have experience of care. I advise the Parliament that the group that will be appointed to drive forward and lead the review will include people with care experience so that their voices and views are heard at its heart. The review group will be asked to ensure that the varied experience of other children, young people and adults in all the many parts of the care system influence the review’s scope and outcome, because Scotland’s care system is not a single entity but a complex network of interlinked supports that were often designed in isolation but which try to work together for children and families.

Over the decades, we have learned a lot about what works when it comes to intervening in the lives of children who have been neglected, abused and traumatised. We are making real progress through the getting it right for every child approach and are changing culture and practice to prevent children from coming into care and to intervene early when they are at risk of becoming looked after. That work is vital and must continue, which is why I can announce that the Government will invest £3.3 million in 2017-18 for organisations that work alongside statutory agencies to directly support better outcomes for looked-after children and to provide support for vulnerable families to help to prevent children from becoming looked after.

We know that we also need to better protect the most vulnerable children and young people, and I will report to Parliament on our programme to improve child protection early next year. Our work at both ends of the care spectrum will involve the wider care review.

The second fundamental aim of the review will be to explore not what more we need to do to stop things happening to children and young people but, instead, what we can do to enable things to happen for them.

We need a care system that actually makes a real and positive difference to the life chances of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. We can point to progress in some areas: looked-after young people now do better at school and are more likely to leave school with qualifications; and, under this Government, we have the lowest-ever number of young people who are not in employment, education or training after school. However, evidence persists that our system does not result in children and young people in care having the same choices and chances to succeed at school and in life as their peers. Therefore, although the review group will determine the scope of its work, I want it to consider how to change the care system so that it achieves that.

Since October, I have sought views from individuals, care-experienced young people and organisations throughout the sector, not to pre-empt any of the decisions but to galvanise my thoughts on what the review must seek to achieve.

The approach to the review is truly experimental, so participants will need to work together in a safe and supportive spirit to gain insight from one another and appreciate the balance of perspectives.

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

The minister will be aware that, in the previous session of Parliament, the Education and Culture Committee conducted two inquiries into young people in care—the first on their attainment in school and the second on when to take young people into care. Will he be considering those inquiry reports as part of his review?

Mark McDonald

I have announced that there will be a group that will drive forward the review. I would expect the members of that group to consider the totality of evidence in terms of the system that currently exists, including, as Joan McAlpine highlights, the reports that have been produced in previous sessions of the Parliament.

The review will need to be inquisitive and genuinely curious about why things are the way that they are, and must challenge systems, culture and behaviours. It should consider what works here and in other countries. In particular, I want the review to consider how we might continue to build on the permanence and care excellence programme, which has successfully used improvement methodology to reduce drift and delay in the system, and to advise on how to realign children’s services for long-term impact.

I am happy to accept the Conservative amendment in order to acknowledge the fact that elected members have a significant role to play in the care system as corporate parents of looked-after children. They need to hear what care-experienced young people have to say about how they are currently being parented corporately and what needs to change. I want to include elected members in the review, but I expect them to play an active role and to come ready to consider fully how they can fulfil their statutory obligations differently and more effectively. I am sure that they will want to contribute their thoughts on how we can free up resources—people, budgets, facilities and services—in order to encourage more innovative thinking and more empowered leaders.

Where the review group identifies opportunities for change, I make this commitment: I will not wait for the review’s final report but will act to implement those changes as soon as they are recommended.

I hope that we can agree across the chamber that we should be seeking to create a 21st century care system that has the needs of children and young people at its core. Listening to the voices of care-experienced people will be key to that. However, we have listened to their views and experience before and, frankly, with each legislative reform, new policy and change in practice, we have failed to hear what children and young people in care tell us—or, at least, we have failed to create a system that delivers the one thing that they crave more than anything else.

Children and young people do not just want a care system that supports them. Yes, they want to feel safe and secure—and there are many parts of the system that achieve that—but they also want to feel and be loved. It is the most simple and basic notion, yet the most complex thing to achieve, and that is the third fundamental aim of the review: to consider not only how to give our most vulnerable children a care system that better supports their needs and enables their interests, but how to ensure that that system gives them a sense of family and of belonging.

In moving the motion in my name, I ask Parliament to agree that we commit today to working together and to sharing with the review the ideas and views that exist across the chamber in order to create a care system for Scotland in which children are loved, so that we can give them the childhood and life chances that they deserve.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the first-ever independent review of Scotland’s care system; agrees that the approach will be collaborative, working with care-experienced young people, relevant professionals and carers to gain insight and develop meaningful improvements; agrees to inform the review through the voices of care-experienced young people; acknowledges that recommendations should be achievable, and supports the need to embed sustainable, ongoing improvement so that every child who experiences the care system has their needs fully met and feels loved.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Jeremy Balfour to speak to and move amendment S5-03190.2. No more than six minutes please, Mr Balfour.

16:09  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I remind the chamber that I am a city councillor in Edinburgh.

I thank the minister for bringing the debate to Parliament. There is no more important matter than the care and safety of our children. We have to address the issue in the knowledge that if we fail, the results can be heartbreaking for young people, families and society. Research shows us that those who have a vulnerable start in life are far more likely to experience neglect and abuse, which can lead to attachment issues and adverse outcomes in adulthood.

As the minister said, the statistics for looked-after children are improving. However, the Scottish Government acknowledges that the life chances of children and young people who have been looked after remain poor, particularly with regard to employment after age 16. The review group needs to look at what happens to those children not only when they are younger but once they leave the care system, particularly with regard to further education or employment.

My party welcomes the independent review of Scotland’s care system and supports the Government’s intention that, as the minister said, the review should include all stakeholders. It is important that the review looks across the whole system to understand how agencies can successfully collaborate—because sometimes, unfortunately, they are unsuccessful—to develop a system of care that is based on a child’s individual needs and background and how that experience can shape them in adulthood.

It is vital that, at its heart, the independent review listens without prejudice to care-experienced children and young people. They are the care system experts and it is imperative that they are involved and provided with a platform so that they can describe both the positive and adverse experiences of their journey through the system.

As I said, I am a city councillor in Edinburgh. I have to confess that I think that there is a lack of understanding about the crucial role that elected councillors play in the care of looked-after children. When a councillor is elected, he or she becomes a corporate parent to any looked-after child in that local authority. Councillors have a duty to take an interest in the wellbeing and development of those children as if they were their own. Although the lead member for children’s services has a particular responsibility in that regard, all councillors are the corporate parent, regardless of their experience or role on the council. They are there to scrutinise, set policy and ask searching questions about what a range of service providers are doing. I am not sure that most councillors take that seriously enough. They delegate that role, perhaps to a small committee or group of councillors.

I wonder whether enough training is being given to local councillors. As we approach the elections next year—with, no doubt, lots of Conservative councillors being elected for the first time throughout Scotland—I hope that each local authority gives the appropriate training to all councillors, of whichever party, to ensure that they understand their responsibilities. Perhaps we need to encourage council leaders or deputy leaders to be the chief spokesperson in the area.

On a recent visit to a school that provides education and care to boys with additional support needs, I was informed by the director of the school that, once a child has been placed in the school from outwith their area, the local authority concerned has little interest in that child’s academic progress. I doubt that that would happen if that was a councillor’s own child. Councillors need a challenging attitude when scrutinising and they need to ensure that those who are in their control are given the best services and the best start to their life.

Staff who have worked in the care system know what is going on. In my short time as an MSP, I have been hugely impressed by, and am full of admiration for, the staff and adults who look after cared-for children. For many of them, it is not a job but a vocation. They go way beyond the extra mile. They deal with children who have disorders and are in emotional chaos, and they provide them with somewhere safe and a loving and caring relationship that helps that child to thrive—we hope—in later years.

We will support the Government’s motion, and I look forward to the debate.

I move amendment S5M-03190.2, to insert after “working with”:

“councillors in local authority areas, who have a duty of care for looked after children,”.

16:15  

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The First Minister’s announcement earlier this year that the Government would be launching an independent “root and branch review” of the care system was very good news. Scottish Labour therefore welcomes Mark McDonald’s Scottish Government motion, which we will be supporting along with the amendment in Jeremy Balfour’s name.

Kezia Dugdale has long been a champion for the rights of young people in the care system. I was looking back at Kezia’s column in the Daily Record from Christmas 2014, in which she spoke of the thousands of children and young people who would be spending Christmas without the love and security that so many of us take for granted. She made two points that have stuck in my mind in preparing for the debate, which remind us why the review is so important. They are:

“The stigma of kids in care continues”

and

“the life chances of those leaving care are too stark.”

Two years on, the independent care review promises to look at the care system’s underpinning legislation, culture and practices. Scottish Labour looks forward to working collaboratively with all parties in the review to ensure that it leads to care-experienced young people having both the love and the life chances that they deserve.

I want to pay tribute to the determination of care-experienced young people and the people who support them, including Who Cares? Scotland. They are making those who have the power to do something about it actually listen to what the solutions are, which has led to the great strides that we have seen in recent years in improving the care experience.

There is, however, much more still to do. We owe it to all our care-experienced young people and the carers who have told us their stories to get it right. We welcome the Government’s pledge to inform the review with the voices of care-experienced people, and we hope that the Government will be able to provide more details of how that will be taken forward. I welcome what Mark McDonald said today about properly hearing what young people are saying. It is important that we proactively seek out voices that might not otherwise be heard.

The review must be inclusive in terms of not only those from whom it will take evidence but of the scope that it considers. A whole-system approach should look at the experiences of children and young people before, during and after care. The care system does not exist in a vacuum, and for that reason neither can the review. It must be linked to more general work to tackle poor mental health and attainment, and reform must be linked to additional resources.

The poor outcomes that children in our care system experience are complex and are often linked to their early experiences of abuse, neglect or parental alcohol and substance misuse. It is simply heartbreaking that children in care are more likely to go to jail than to university and that they are four times more likely than their peers to have a mental health problem. That type of inequality is unacceptable, which is why Scottish Labour supports positive measures including providing free bursary support for looked-after children who go on to higher education, and qualified counsellors for all secondary schools.

This week, I heard from a foster carer of more than 20 years’ experience who told me that the one thing that she feels is vital to the review is that we ensure that changes are backed up by the necessary resources. Local authorities and social work services play a vital role in providing support and care for looked-after children. Earlier this year, Audit Scotland reported that social work services in Scotland are struggling. Last week’s budget announcement that local authorities will be squeezed by another £327 million pounds in the coming financial year will be a real worry to all those who are involved in the system.

Reforming the culture and practice of our care system is welcome, as is the £3.3 million for the third sector that Mark McDonald announced today. However, it is vital that local authorities are given the ability to fund social services at the front line of the care system properly. We need to reform the care system so that the children at its heart are given the love and support that they need to grow and flourish, rather than merely keeping them safe on a conveyer belt of bureaucracy until they reach the legal age of adulthood.

Laura Beveridge from Who Cares? Scotland recently gave a powerful account in Holyrood magazine of her own experience of care. It moved me greatly and underlined exactly how vital it is that the review works for people in care. She wrote:

“Everything I did was written down, recorded and analysed. I was taken out of school to attend reviews and children’s hearings, where big decisions about my life were being made by people that I didn’t know.

I can’t remember much about what was said at these meetings, but I can tell you what the colour of the carpet was because that was my focus.”

We need to change the system so that children like Laura are given back control over their own lives and are allowed to form loving relationships with adults who are invested in them, and not just to be the subject of endless meetings with workers with whom they have no real connection. That is no way for any child to have to grow up. I hope that the points that have been raised today can be fed in to the on-going review process, so that a positive outcome can be achieved for all care-experienced young people.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open speeches. If no one exceeds four minutes, later speakers will not be penalised.

16:21  

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

I come to the debate having some experience of working with looked-after children. I have seen at first hand the effect that spending time in the care system can have, so like other members, I am delighted that the Government is committed to a full root and branch review of the system. I also welcome the decision to include at the core of the review people who have been looked after in the past and those who are currently in care. It is important that all viewpoints are heard in order to ensure that the correct changes are made to care in Scotland: no one knows what improvements are required more than those who have been at the heart of the system. I am therefore pleased that, as Monica Lennon mentioned, Who Cares? Scotland is backing the review.

Many hard-working individuals in Scotland devote their lives to helping children in care and, sometimes, make great personal sacrifices in order to better their lives. They are the foster carers and adoptive carers who welcome children into their homes and families, and the children’s unit workers who work unsociable hours, often in challenging circumstances. I am glad that that has been acknowledged by colleagues across the chamber.

However, the review will rightly focus on the views of the people who have experienced care, so I hope that it will serve to build upon and improve those services now and for the generations to come. As has been said, we would all agree that every child deserves to feel loved, so any improvements that we can make to the care system that would make that happen should be welcomed.

I pay tribute to all the organisations that have been involved in the sector and will contribute fully to the review. Many have sent us briefings, which are much appreciated. As Mark McDonald said, the Government is committed to supporting agencies coming together. There have been successes from recent policies, with 70 per cent of children in care now going on to positive destinations, which is up from 30 per cent five years ago. However, I am sure that everybody agrees that more can and must be done, so I hope that this issue is one that will cross the political divide and that all parties will work together—not just today in the chamber, where everybody is making the right noises, but as we move forward.

As has been well documented—and as I, for one, have said in previous debates—the outcomes for children in care are still not great, as education, health and justice indicators show. Monica Lennon mentioned something that I had also noted about increased problems in respect of mental health, so I will not go over that again, although it is an area of real concern that we need to address. We need a care system that provides for young people who are often already traumatised when they enter it. When we take on the responsibility for them, we are the ones who must provide a sense of family and belonging, and love and support.

I have found that placements that have most success have robust therapeutic and counselling plans in place. I would like to mention Edwina Grant, who is the chair of Scottish Attachment in Action, with whom I have worked in the past and who is seeking to be involved in the review. She supports the argument that all children in care should have a strong therapeutic relationship that builds a foundation between the child and the new attachment figure, whether that person is a foster carer or a link worker in their unit. I have seen Edwina Grant put that approach into action in her work with families. Essentially, it lays the ground for building the love that we are talking about.

Looking forward to the review, I believe that children will tell us some very simple things, which was my experience as a social worker. They might talk about the importance of contact with their family—if they are not getting any contact, why not? Another consideration might be presents at Christmas and birthdays. At this time of the year, many children will be expecting presents. Contact with pets is another consideration. Many people forget about those things. The need for things such as haircuts and holiday consent is also important. A social worker may spend a lot of their time roaming around getting consent for a haircut, for example, for a child who is in a children’s unit or a foster care placement—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You must close now, Mr MacGregor.

Fulton MacGregor

The review may find room to address the need for improvements in that area.

I had a lot more to say, Presiding Officer, but my time has elapsed. The review is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It is ambitious and it will throw up questions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You must close now, Mr MacGregor.

Fulton MacGregor

Okay. Thank you.

16:25  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I am pleased to take part in this extremely short debate. I thank the organisations—including Barnardo’s Scotland, Who Cares? Scotland, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Scotland and the Life Changes Trust—that have provided briefings for the debate. As my colleague Jeremy Balfour said, the Scottish Conservatives welcome the review of the care system. We can all agree that we need to do more for children in care and seek to improve the current system, which sadly lets down too many of Scotland’s children.

The statistics for looked-after children across the broad range of outcomes indicate starkly how big the challenge is. Seven times as many looked-after children will leave school with no qualifications, in comparison with the average for all school leavers. Only 8 per cent will receive one or more qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 6 or higher, in comparison with a national average of 60 per cent. The number of looked-after children who achieve positive destinations after school remains significantly below the national average, and people in care are much more likely to suffer from poor health and to become homeless.

Improving education for looked-after young people and helping them to go on to training and employment opportunities must be a real priority. Support for children at the point when they leave care is another area that must be improved, so I welcome what the minister has said today. It is unacceptable that, despite local authorities’ statutory duty to offer aftercare to young people who are leaving their care, 26 per cent of children who leave care continue to have no pathway plan, and one in three has no aftercare whatsoever.

Listening to the voices of care-experienced young people is a key part of the motion. I very much agree with that and welcome the minister’s comments in that respect. As Barnardo’s has suggested, listening to the views of young people at different stages of their journeys should include hearing from the children and young people who have had positive experiences in the care system. We should build on the successes in the system and try to replicate them. The views of the professionals who work in the care system are also vital.

The mental health of looked-after children is a major concern for me, and I have been working on that area as my party’s spokesman on mental health. It is a shocking indictment of the system that looked-after children are more likely to self-harm and to attempt suicide. I hope that the new mental health strategy will look at how we deliver significant improvements in access to social prescribing and counselling services, and at how we provide appropriate signposting to services to do with self-harm—an issue that was raised with me on a recent visit to the Edinburgh crisis centre that is run by Penumbra.

It is estimated that children in care are more than four times more likely than their peers to have a mental health difficulty. As has been said, 45 per cent of children in care in Scotland are suffering from a mental health condition. Like other young people, looked-after children face waiting times for mental health services that are far too long, and we have not seen any real improvement in that under the current Government. Better and swifter access to counselling and talking therapies in care settings, and additional age-appropriate acute in-patient mental health services are badly needed.

I hope that the care review will involve the voluntary sector as much as possible, because third-sector stakeholders and partners are doing a lot of good work. Barnardo’s, Aberlour Child Care Trust, Action for Children and many others have built up a great deal of expertise, and their input is essential and incredibly valuable.

In conclusion, I look forward to the results of the care review, and I hope that its recommendations will include a range of practical measures and allow for improvements to be made throughout the care system. I hope that the review and implementation of its recommendations will mean that, in the future, children in care enter their early adulthood with the same support, choices and chances that other young people in Scotland have.

16:29  

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

As Labour’s spokesperson on social justice, I am particularly interested in today’s debate.

I have taken to heart the words of Naomi Eisenstadt, the Government’s independent adviser on poverty, on the need to focus on the 16-24 age group. I realise more than ever that she is right to say that that is the most important stage in life to shape life chances. If someone has faced on-going disadvantage in their life until then, what chance do they have to make the most of that key stage? What if their childhood has not given them the strong foundation of love, support and nurturing that every child needs and which is encapsulated in the Government’s motion?

As other members have said, the more we look at the statistics, the more we see that they are very shocking. For looked-after children, they reflect the fact that the life chances of a person who is in the care system is severely hampered by the fact that he or she is one of those 15,000 children. Half of five to 17-year-olds who have been in care have been diagnosed with mental health disorders, and evidence on self-harm, death by self-harm and suicide shows an extremely bleak picture.

Care-experienced children are significantly more likely to go to prison than to university. That is the statistic that shocked me the most, and it tells me that something needs to be done for them. They are far less likely to leave school with qualifications, and only 4 per cent of looked-after young people go straight on to higher education. Attainment rates for those children are lower than in any other disadvantaged group.

Research also suggests that a person who has been in care has a 50:50 chance of becoming homeless—another shocking statistic. Through an accident of fate, looked-after children in our care system will almost certainly have fewer opportunities in every aspect of their lives.

The review is therefore long overdue, so I have to ask: what have we been doing? I mean that “we” collectively—it is not a slight on this or any other Government. It is staring us in the face that we have, as a country and as a society, failed an awful lot of young people. I am in no way overlooking the successes in our care system, but we clearly need to make a great deal of progress to make up for some lost time.

In my final minute, I want to address the question of access, because it is a key part of the debate that needs comprehensive discussion. The need to decide on the consistency of university offers for care leavers across institutions requires a debate in itself. Recommendation 21 of the commission on widening access’s report from March says:

“By 2017, those with a care experience, who meet the access threshold should be entitled to the offer of a place ... assessed against minimum entry level in 2017 and the access threshold thereafter.”

I am interested to hear the Government’s response to that. On checking with one of my local universities—the University of Glasgow—I found that it uses a system of adjusted offers. That simply means that if someone requires five As to get into medicine at Glasgow, a child or young person who is leaving school and who has been in the care system will get adjusted grades so that they will not have to reach five As; they might have to get three As and two Bs. The University of Glasgow sets that out specifically. It is, arguably, a clearer system than the contextual system that simply makes adjustments for someone who has been in the care system.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

I am sorry, but you must close.

Pauline McNeill

I will leave it there.

16:34  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in today’s debate. When we in the chamber debate care, we often focus on the systems through which we provide support for some of the most vulnerable children in our society, yet we also know that caring is, fundamentally, a very human activity—we cannot truly care without building emotional connections with those whom we care for.

Such relationships are at the heart of providing the best care and outcomes for our looked-after children. Research by the University of Strathclyde’s centre for excellence for looked after children in Scotland shows that building genuine, long-term, positive relationships with carers and professionals is key for the children and young people who go on to lead successful lives outside the care system. We must design a care system in which such nurturing relationships can flourish.

I therefore welcome the Government’s proposed review to improve the care experience for looked-after children. By putting the young people’s voices at the centre of the review, we can design a care system that allows nurturing and stable relationships to thrive. If we are to do that well, it is essential that policy makers understand the environments in which looked-after children and young people live; putting the voices of 1,000 children centre stage is a key way of getting our approach right for every looked-after child.

We have spoken recently in the Parliament about the increased difficulties that looked-after children face, but they are worth repeating. Looked-after children are eight times more likely to be excluded than their peers, so they miss out on not only lessons but opportunities to build relationships with classmates and staff. They are less likely than their peers to be in a job or enrolled in further education or training after they finish school. As members have said, half of all children who are in custody have been in care at some point, and people who have been in care are more likely to experience homelessness and poor mental health.

Those outcomes are not inevitable. It is essential that we give looked-after children as secure a start as we can. Only last month, we spoke in the chamber about the need to reduce drift and delay in adoption and foster placements, because such delays leave many young people in a state of insecurity and limbo.

Crucial to giving children the confidence to speak about their experiences and desires for their future is giving them a positive vision and aspiration. The 2006 report “Celebrating success: what helps looked after children succeed” presented the stories of 30 care-experienced young people who had gone on to have remarkable success as adults. The young people told the researchers that having stability in their care placements enabled them to develop strong relationships with the adults in their lives, who, in turn, encouraged their aspirations for the future. It is clear from the report that when young people know that they will be listened to they are emboldened to build fulfilling lives for themselves.

There are other voices that will ensure that the review makes the necessary difference and, in that context, I welcome the collaborative and inclusive tone of the motion. Parents, carers and professionals all have their own experience of where the system is working well and how it can be improved. Strathclyde’s centre for excellence found that many parents struggle to navigate the system and to put their view across at hearings. That should be investigated so that appropriate support can be made available.

Carers must form a key part of the review. A previous review of foster care, which was completed in 2013, recognised that carers found benefit from on-going training. I would like the findings of the Scottish Social Services Council’s consultation on providing learning and development training for foster carers to be considered in the root-and-branch review, and I support Jeremy Balfour’s call for on-going training for all corporate parents, who have a really important responsibility.

If carers are to provide stability for the children in their care, they need to be able to afford the costs of running a loving home. By ensuring that foster and kinship carers have the financial resources to buy clothing and food, as well as provide a bit of pocket money, we can give children and their carers peace of mind. I have previously asked the minister—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You must close now.

Alison Johnstone

If I could just ask the minister to talk about a minimum allowance—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

No—I am sorry; you must close. We are really tight for time. I call Alex Cole-Hamilton, who can have a tight four minutes.

16:38  

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I give full-throated support to the Government’s motion and to the amendment. I declare an interest: before I was elected to this place, I served for eight years as the head of policy at Aberlour Child Care Trust. Aberlour has provided us with an excellent briefing, which was authored by my successor, Martin Canavan, and which clearly sets out the work of the organisation over its 140-year history of giving comfort and a safe upbringing to Scotland’s looked-after children, from the early days of orphanages to family group homes in the sycamore cluster and the social pedagogy approach. We have much to learn from that experience.

On Christmas eve in 2013, I received a telephone call from Elisabeth Campbell, who was team leader for the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill. She confirmed that the Scottish Government had listened to the two-and-a-half-year-long campaign on the part of Aberlour, Barnardo’s and Who Cares? Scotland—and, with them, to the voices of hundreds upon hundreds of young people in care and people with care experience—and had agreed to lodge an amendment that would change the age of leaving care in Scotland from 16 to 21. The approach met the challenge that Kathleen Marshall had set a decade earlier in her report “Sweet 16? The age of leaving care in Scotland”, when she was Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People.

The change is transformationally important to the lives and outcomes of those in care, and here is why. The average age of a young person who leaves a stable family home is 24 but, until the change came in, we expected the most vulnerable group of young people in our society to leave their homes a full eight years before that. At a time when they and their peers should have been focused on sitting life-qualifying exams, they were expected to take on a tenancy. It is small wonder that—as we have heard in the debate—educational attainment among looked-after children is the worst of any demographic in Scotland, with only 6 per cent going to university; that half of our adult prison population has been through the care system; and, worse, that a young person with care experience is 20 times more likely to die before the age of 25 than other young people.

I am confident that history will reflect that the change in the care-leaving age was the single most important thing that we could do in our care landscape. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the Government for announcing its review, as there is still much more to do. On many occasions, I have publicly thanked Aileen Campbell, and I do so again today. I would also like to break with convention and thank the civil servants involved: Elisabeth Campbell, David Blair, Cat Duggan, Sheelagh Carradice, Carolyn Younie and the special adviser to the First Minister, Colin McAllister. Among other civil servants, they worked with a quasi-religious fervour, so compelled were they by the testimony that they heard from the young people with care experience. Each of them acted in the finest traditions of public service and deserves our thanks.

I am heartily glad that the Government has sought to build on that cross-party achievement in the review that formed the centrepiece of the First Minister’s conference speech in Glasgow. Such a review is as timely as it is necessary. It shall be conducted with the full co-operation of the Liberal Democrats, because—as we have heard today—there is still a yawning gulf in provision at first contact. There is still an unacceptable drift and delay in many areas of Scotland between a child first becoming known to social work and a supervision order being put in place.

We need to do more for young people who are looked after at home; they are the biggest cohort of looked-after children yet they still manifestly experience the worst life outcomes. We also need to do more to equip our teachers with a full understanding of the impacts that trauma, attachment disorder and loss can have on a child’s behaviour in the classroom.

I can think of no higher calling in our role as parliamentarians than the discharge of the duties that we all share towards the 15,000 children who, on any given day, may find themselves in care in this country. It should—rightly—be a subject that we visit time and again in the chamber and with the utmost regularity. I congratulate the Government on lodging the motion and assure members of our support for it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much, Mr Cole-Hamilton. That was exemplary in keeping to time.

16:42  

Christina McKelvie (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)

Caring for our children—all of them, in whatever circumstances—is the responsibility not just of the immediate family but of the Government and of local government, as we heard from Jeremy Balfour. If we recognise, as we do, that our children hold in their hands the future wellbeing of society, we need to do everything that we can to equip them for that task.

Care is a vital part of the child protection system, and many young people I have spoken to who have been in care have said that their experience was good and was the right choice for them at the time. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to ensure that all children in care are healthy and safe, have the same opportunities as their peers and can move successfully into adulthood.

Children’s early experiences have a significant impact on their development and future life chances and, as a result of their experiences before and during care, looked-after children are perhaps at greater risk than their peers. According to the Life Changes Trust, the root-and-branch review of the care system

“signals one of the most profound commitments towards improving the care and protection of our children and young people—by putting young people at the heart of change”.

That is the key, although we also recognise the need for and champion a loving and stable relationship.

We have all seen the past failures that have led to the deaths of children in care, including Baby P and Victoria Climbié. I was shocked by those cases in my career in social care. Closer to home, 30 looked-after children—an astonishing number—died in Scotland between January 2009 and the end of 2011. The reason for those deaths was not necessarily violence, although some of the children were murdered, which is horrifying. Some had life-limiting conditions, but many were lost to suicide and addictions, which should not let us off the hook when it comes to looking after such children.

How can we do better? We should bring in the young people who have already shown their courage and strength and let them use their personal experiences to make changes in the legislation. As adults, we should not say that we know what is best, when they know what is best for them. Allowing them to do that would be a good start. They have already played a part in shaping the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014. They are the people who understand what being looked after actually means, from a positive and a negative point of view.

I draw the minister’s attention to the issue of supported accommodation, which I have drawn other ministers’ attention to over the past few months. I have a Blue Triangle facility in my constituency. One action that the Scottish Government could take, because it now has the power to do so, is to ensure that young people who are in supported accommodation and who receive enhanced housing benefit do not lose that benefit if they take up a modern apprenticeship or a low-paid job, go on a training course or go to college or university. At the moment, they lose that support, which means that they lose their supported accommodation. They need the two years of that loving and holistic relationship to allow them to thrive. I impress on the Scottish Government the need to take action on that, if it can.

We need to turn the telescope around—we need to stop thinking in terms of the system’s needs and to put the needs of the children and young people at the core of the system. Most—though probably not all—of us here in this place have been blessed with caring families and a positive home life, and we recognise how important that has been to us. I ask members to imagine for a moment what it would have been like if their home life had not been like that and to guess how they would have felt. Would they have felt angry, bitter, lost, isolated and unloved? Even people who have never experienced love recognise the magnitude of what they are missing.

The Scottish Government has a plan, which it must populate with actions. We must ensure that every child in care feels loved, accepted, valued, wanted and—most important—listened to. Of course they should—every child should get that opportunity. Please let us make that happen.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We come to closing speeches. Daniel Johnson can take up to four minutes.

16:46  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I would not dare to do otherwise, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Let us see you put words into action.

Daniel Johnson

You are using up my time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

While you are at it, do not say anything back to the Presiding Officer.

Daniel Johnson

On that note, the first thing to say is that we have done a fantastic job of doing justice to such an important subject in such a short time. When we discuss matters that are to do with children and future generations, it is notable that there always seems to be a degree of consensus. The way in which we as individuals bring up children is clearly important but, as policy makers, we are talking about future generations and the future of our country.

The idea that we cannot tolerate accidents of birth giving rise to differences in people’s opportunities and life chances seems to find common cause across the parties in the Parliament. Monica Lennon mentioned a point that Kezia Dugdale often makes, which is that it cannot be tolerated that a child who has experienced care is more likely to go to prison than to university.

That Scotland has brought forth the concept of corporate parenting is to be celebrated. It is right that we understand parenting as a collective duty, not just an individual one, but we need to recognise that we must go much further. In a sense, the things that we almost take for granted in parenting are the things that we need to look at improving in corporate parenting. I am talking about the individual contact and attention that a parent can give a child and the unconditional support that they provide, regardless of what the child might do. I am also talking about physical affection—hugs—and, indeed, love. We need to address the emotional aspects of attachment and bonds in looking at the issues that surround care-experienced children.

Mark McDonald was right to highlight the three key pillars, which are the correct ones. The review should be driven by the experience of care. We can get to the bottom of the issue only if we bring on board people’s experiences and put them at the heart of the review. The minister was right to say that we must look at how we enable and empower people who experience care. We should also foster a sense of family. The word “love” has been used a number of times, and rightly so, because that is the missing element from the lives of many of the children who experience care.

Labour members warmly welcome the review and the Conservatives’ amendment. It is right for us to have the review now. I think that it is a world first to have such a holistic root-and-branch review of the care experience.

I will make some remarks on a few of the themes in the debate. There are four or five key themes that are important to take on board, the first of which is the child-centred nature of the review. Mark McDonald highlighted that and it was echoed by Fulton MacGregor, from whose professional experience we benefited. Monica Lennon gave the example of a child who had a memory of a carpet in the room where the decisions were made, which was a powerful evocation of the issues that such children face and of their experiences. Alison Johnstone put it very well when she said that we focus all too often on systems but need to focus on nurturing.

Likewise, we need to look at stability and permanence. Alex Cole-Hamilton talked, almost as rapidly as I am speaking now, about attachment disorder, which is a key and pivotal issue. Figures show that 15 per cent of care-experienced children have more than one placement in a year and 6 per cent have three placements in a year. That cannot be right, and we need to look at permanence.

We also need to look at support. Alex Cole-Hamilton referred to the typical age for children leaving home being 24 in normal—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You must conclude, Mr Johnson—I am sorry.

Daniel Johnson

I conclude on the point that we welcome the motion and the amendment.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

You must conclude because one of your party’s members took an extra minute—that is why you are being cut short.

16:51  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I congratulate the Scottish Government on bringing forward the independent review and on the tenor of the debate, which has been consensual. In a very short time, members have delivered poignant remarks about why the care experience of looked-after children is so important. Pauline McNeill is no longer in the chamber, but she raised an important point for those who have been members of the Scottish Parliament for some time. I well remember when the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration report came in 2011 to the then Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee, and there was another report from SCRA in 2015. We are now in 2016, so I warmly welcome the minister’s determination to move things on.

I particularly welcome what the minister said about using in the process those who are most experienced. In that regard, I pay tribute to Fulton MacGregor and Alex Cole-Hamilton for the experience that they have brought to the chamber this afternoon. Their experience on the issue of looked-after children is perhaps greater than the experience that the rest of us have, and that is an important point to put on the record. When I look back at the previous two sessions of Parliament, I think that the lack of experience is maybe where we have gone wrong.

I take the point that Jeremy Balfour made about councillors not feeling particularly comfortable in the environment of debates on looked-after children. I could say the same about myself, because I did not know terribly much about the issue, although it is obviously extremely important. To pick up the point that Christina McKelvie raised, the issue is important because it matters so much to the young children involved.

Alison Johnstone raised an important point about systems management. We often talk about systems in the Parliament, but the issue that we are debating is so much about people. I commend the Government for recognising that and making it the central principle that will underpin what we do from now on.

Monica Lennon referred to a vacuum, which is a good way of describing what can often happen to youngsters in care. They often feel that they are in a vacuum that there is no way out of and which has no link with the outside world. We need to pay great attention to that.

I know that I have very little time left, Presiding Officer, and might even be cut short. However, when I look back at what we have achieved in the Scottish Parliament over a 10-year period on the care experience of looked-after children, my view is that we have understood the principles and what we should do but that, sadly, we have not been very good at putting all that into practice. The collective determination that we have now, driven by the Scottish Government, is very much appreciated and is certainly appreciated by the youngsters concerned.

I will finish there, Presiding Officer, and keep my speech to three minutes.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That is kind of you; thank you very much. Believe me—everybody is getting cut short. I call Mark McDonald. You have up to 5 o’clock, so you have lost some time, too, which is only fair.

16:54  

Mark McDonald

To be honest, I feel that Liz Smith’s brevity has gained me some time, Presiding Officer, so let us use it, not lose it.

This afternoon’s debate has been consensual, but most importantly it has allowed us to examine in some depth some of the issues that we need to probe as part of the review.

As I said, we will support the Conservative amendment at decision time.

Councillors are offered corporate parent training and my expectation is that they will avail themselves of that opportunity. Following the local elections in May, I will be seeking to ensure that councillors not only receive the offer of corporate parent training, but take up that opportunity when it is provided to them. I also made it clear during the recent adoption and permanence debate that I would offer the opportunity for some corporate parent training to MSPs early in the new year. I hope that MSPs will avail themselves of that opportunity.

Monica Lennon highlighted a couple of important points. One was the issue around the continuation of stigma. That is a fair point and one that we should reflect on. As well as addressing the issues that exist in relation to the system, there is the wider societal attitude that can exist towards individuals in the care system and there is work that needs to be done on that.

Monica Lennon also spoke about ensuring that resources are available when it comes to social services. As I said previously, the Audit Scotland report “Social work in Scotland” highlighted that since 2010-11 there has been a real-terms increase of 3 per cent for social work funding. It is clear that local authorities are taking that role very seriously indeed.

Fulton McGregor made one of the most powerful points in the debate when he spoke about everyday things that the rest of us just take for granted. We take it for granted that we will go and get our hair cut when it needs it—or at least some of us do. He mentioned that gifts at birthdays and Christmas time are something that we just take for granted, along with holidays and going to doctor’s and dentist’s appointments. However, for children in the care system, those are often tasks that require forms to be filled in, risk assessments to be undertaken and all kinds of onerous burdens that result in the experience being somewhat less than everyday. It was a very powerful point, and one that I am sure will be a consideration as part of the work that the review group takes forward.

Miles Briggs spoke about the difficulties faced in relation to pathway plans for the achievement of aftercare. From the latest statistics that we have available, 95 per cent of looked-after children have a current care plan and there are requirements under the 2014 act around their continuing care. There are also requirements around aftercare, and I am keen to ensure that we have better understanding of that.

Pauline McNeill asked about the issues around widening access. This Government accepted all the recommendations of the widening access commission, and on Friday we appointed a commissioner who will be responsible for ensuring that those recommendations are delivered upon. Pauline McNeill also touched on homelessness and Christina McKelvie touched on issues around housing support for those in supported accommodation, many of whom will have come from a position of being looked after. I have had discussions with my colleague Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government and Housing, about how the housing system addresses support for individuals from looked-after status. I am happy to pass a copy of Christina McKelvie’s speech to both the Minister for Local Government and Housing and the Minister for Social Security, who have responsibility for looking at the areas that she highlighted.

Alison Johnstone finished her speech by talking about what is in the text of the Greens’ proposed amendment. I can say that, had that amendment been selected for debate, we would have agreed to it. I am keen to explore how the issues that it raised can be factored into the review. It sits well with my expectation that, rather than our waiting on a final report some years hence, we will take this forward as a kind of iterative process. Recommendations that can be acted upon in the here and now will be acted upon, rather than our waiting for them to come as part of a final report.

Alex Cole-Hamilton acknowledged the role of those who work alongside, but also for, the Government on delivering the objectives. His speech highlighted that a truly collaborative approach is the best way forward.

There is clearly a lot of good will across the chamber for the review that we want to take forward, but I will finish on the point that I made in relation to Monica Lennon’s speech, about the stigma that often attaches to looked-after children and children in the care system. She mentioned Laura Beveridge, who delivered a technology, entertainment and design—TED—talk in Glasgow; I highly recommend that members look for it on YouTube if they have the opportunity. It is a very powerful seven minutes that crystallises the issues that are at the heart of the review.

Laura Beveridge also spoke about an experience at a public meeting in Musselburgh at which huge numbers of people from the community had turned out to voice their opposition to the building of a residential home in the community.

It struck me that, as well as our efforts to review, assess and challenge the system and to reform it to ensure that it meets the needs and requirements of young people, we have to ensure that, in parallel with that, we work as politicians and community leaders to drive change in society’s attitudes to children in care and the stigma that attaches to them. That will not be an easy task, but if we apply ourselves to it collectively—this debate has shown that we are willing to do so—there is no reason why we cannot do that. After all, the only reason why ambitions are limited is that a ceiling has been put on them.