Lord (Mike) Storey writes on the Children and Families Bill: “At its very core, this is a Lib Dem Bill”

We’ve just had the final days of ‘Report’ of the Children and Families Bill in the House of Lords and on Monday, MPs will consider our amendments – including the proposal to ban smoking in cars carrying children. But as the dust settles on the red benches (or perhaps I should say, smoke has lifted?) I wanted to let Lib Dem Voice readers know about some of the things we’ve achieved, which Liberal Democrats can rightly be proud of.

I should start by saying that, at its very core, this is a ‘Lib Dem Bill’. The main provisions of the Bill come out of Sarah Teather’s time as Children’s Minister though it was added to by Jo Swinson and Vince Cable, as well as MPs and Peers who’ve been able to improve it even further.

I want to focus on the many changes Lib Dem peers have made to the Bill, but before I do it’s worth mentioning that the main aim of the legislation is to fundamentally reform the way we treat children and young people with special educational needs (SEN). Under the Bill, for the very first time, these young people will receive a package of support which brings together an assessment of their educational, health and social care needs into one support plan delivered by local authorities (and ‘EHC plan’). For any parent with children with SEN who’s had to wage war on all these different fronts – with different officials and bureaucratic processes – this change cannot come soon enough.

The Bill also overhauls our adoption and fostering system to make it easier to children and young people to be adopted into loving families, and introduces the Lib Dem flagship policy of shared parental leave so that families can choose how they split their time, rather than the outdated assumption which is currently made that women will stay at home to look after the kids.

It is clear therefore that the Bill came to the House of Lords already in a good state. However, we’ve worked hard to secure even more changes to improve the provisions in the Bill – and add new ideas as well.

One major change we’ve achieved is to enable people to stay in foster care until they are 21. Until now, many foster children and their foster parents wanted to be able to stay together throughout that difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, but the funding simply wasn’t made available. As a result of the changes we have made to the Bill, we will helpfully put an end to the heart-wrenching situations in which foster parents are no longer able to sustain dependants above the age of 18 who have real and life-changing troubles.

Another significant change Lib Dems have secured is a whole new range of support for young carers. As a result of Lib Dem work in the Upper House – and by our ministers in Government – children who care for someone else (such as a parent) will for the first time have a right to an assessment of support for their needs, as well as for the person they care for, and new statutory rights in how they are treated by authorities. While we should of course be limiting the circumstances in which young people are left shouldering the burden of caring for someone else wherever possible, where they do this work, it is vital they themselves receive the support that they need and deserve.

Yet another change Lib Dems have secured is forcing the Government to re-examine the case for plain or standardised packaging for tobacco products. This is something on which I have strong opinions since the days of SmokeFree Liverpool, a partnership working towards making Liverpool’s public places smoke-free. Ensuring that packaging can’t be used to appeal to children or young people, as it all too often does now, is vital to reducing teen smoking.

On a personal basis, I’ve also been working hard to make sure we better support children and families in the face of misfortune when things go wrong with their EHC plans. I’ve previously tabled amendments which aim to ensure parents and young people receive better information and support on how to appeal the various aspects of a plan. This is ongoing work and I will continue to have further discussions with ministers to improve things further during the implementation process of the Bill.

Some of the other changes we’ve made (and one I’m especially proud of) include creating a new code of practice for children with conditions such as diabetes who need medical treatment in schools and Lord Addington’s changes to give proper support to people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties going through an apprenticeship qualification. I could also mention the work done by (our new Convenor) Baroness Walmsley to make sure that the Government’s new childminder agencies have a duty to assess the quality of early-years education provided by childminders within the agency, or even Baroness Benjamin’s successful campaigning to update regulations surrounding child performance.

Suffice to say there are simply too many good Liberal Democrat things we have done in this Bill to go into fully, here. None of them would have happened without Lib Dems being in Government and Lib Dems in the Lords working both together and with Coalition ministers to get the changes we wanted to see. I hope that all these measures have a lasting change for years to come and that all Party members can be proud of the Bill we will pass.

* Mike Storey, Lord Storey CBE, is the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson in the Lords. He is Co‐chair of the Party’s committee on education, family and young people. He was previously Headteacher of a large inner‐city primary school, a Liverpool Councillor (1973‐2011), Leader of Liverpool City Council (1998‐2005) and Lord Mayor of Liverpool (2009‐10). He is a member of the Independent Advisory Panel for the Regional Growth Fund, and takes an active role in education, the arts, and regeneration matters in the Lords. Follow his work via TheyWorkForYou.

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