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5.24 pm

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As someone who worked as a care assistant on first leaving college, and, more recently, as a social worker, I warmly welcome the Bill. I have had personal experience of the difficulties caused because we did not have the type of provisions made in the Bill. It addresses issues that have caused the profession and the public many concerns.

I am pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is back in the Chamber, as I should like to join in the accolades paid to him by my hon. Friends. His passion, drive and determination are responsible for much of this legislation. Those of us who were in the Chamber when he presented White Papers and the Utting report could not fail to detect that passion, much of which we heard in his speech today.

We look forward to the passage of the Care Standards Bill--and to Second Reading of the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. Both Bills will do much to assist and improve safeguards for some of our most vulnerable citizens. As any of us, or our friends or relatives, might one day need care, we could all be directly affected by this Bill, so we all have a self-interest in its passage.

There have been various reports and inquiries on care standards: on how we can care for those of us who are frail or disabled and protect those of us who have been abused. The names of the inquiries and their chairmen have changed over the years, but, every time that there is another inquiry, we politicians shake our heads, wring our hands and say, "This must never happen again." Sadly, it does happen again. I hope that this legislation will change that, so that we never again have reports such as that on the appalling events in north Wales. However, we do not know what will happen in the future, and such events may occur again. We can only do our very best in legislating, but we should be prepared to revisit the issue. Nevertheless, I hope that we never again see such cases.

When I was undertaking my social work training, the Kimberly Carlisle and Jasmine Beckford tragedies--I am sure that many hon. Members remember them--caused us consternation. It was difficult to believe that young children could slip through the net and lose their lives. More recently, we have had the Utting report, and the harrowing Waterhouse report, which told of children living in a climate of fear, violence and abuse, with people inflicting deep emotional scars on them. Those reports have showed us the system's deficiencies.

Lack of training is one of the recurring themes in those huge reports. However, training and proper qualifications in providing good-quality child care and good-quality domiciliary care for the elderly and disabled require

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investment. As long ago as 1948, the Curtis report examined the situation in children's homes and told of the need for better-qualified residential staff. More that half a century later, we are saying the very same thing.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the 1 million people in the social care work force, 80 per cent. of whom have no qualifications. I welcome the 50,000 qualified social workers who will be added to the register of the General Social Care Council, and I think that there is a commitment that heads of homes also will be registered as soon as possible. However, as hon. Members have already said, the many other social care workers should be registered.

It will take a long time to do that. Work in social care is often poorly paid, and those who do it may not continue long enough to obtain qualifications to enable registration. I hope that, in his reply, my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether he has an aspiration, or a timetable on qualifications, for those people, and whether he can report back to Parliament on any progress. We do not want to find that in 20 years, the figure for those without qualifications is still 70 per cent.

Dr. Tonge: rose--

Mr. Shaw: I would rather not give way, because I want to try to keep my speech short so that my hon. Friends have a chance to speak.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to refer to qualifications.

The General Social Care Council is a welcome development that will do much to raise the profession's standing. It has been called for for a long time. There is a shortage of qualified social workers and many local authorities find it difficult to fill all their posts. That increases the case loads of existing social workers, because they want to ensure that all the children on the at-risk register are visited and the standards of the day centres are checked. There are only so many hours in the day. If the council raises the profile and standing of the profession, new applicants may be attracted.

Social workers do not receive many accolades. They are often damned if they do and damned if they do not. We do not see headlines saying "Mrs. Jones is on the road to a full recovery thanks to the care package put together by her social worker", but that is what normally happens: the boring, day-to-day reality of social services departments. The scandals are few and far between.

One of the golden lessons from the many reports that we have received is that we have to listen to children better. Warner, Waterhouse and Utting all said that. Children need to have confidence that the structure is real, not a black hole where complaints are lost. Complaints should not be dealt with by the individual concerned. I have seen complaints go up and down the line, with the social worker involved sending it up to the director. We need a more serious system in which young people are listened to.

I salute and applaud the quality protects programme, which is making a real difference. It is not just warm words, but real money that the Department has put in. It is having a good effect in my two local authorities of Kent and Medway. I hope that the Government keep the issue of putting advocacy on a statutory footing under review.

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The children's rights officer is another welcome development, although, together with many hon. Members on both sides, I would rather have a children's rights commissioner, who would cut across all Government Departments and could be a champion who impacted on all legislation.

Putting independent fostering agencies on a level playing field with the public services is welcome. I worked in a fostering team in north Kent for a while. The Utting report made specific mention of the growing number of private fostering agencies in that part of the country, principally to serve the London boroughs, which had great difficulty in recruiting. We did not know anything about those agencies and had no relationship with them. That shroud of mystery led to suspicion. We understandably felt some animosity when they poached our foster carers, as we saw it. We do not want stand-offs. I am sure that the agencies had an important contribution to make. Let us get them working together. A level playing field of inspection will do a lot to bring the agencies together.

Another important issue is private fostering. Amendments were tabled in the other place by my noble Friend Lady David to regulate private fostering. The Government resisted them because they felt that private fostering concerned arrangements within families. That certainly was not the case when Utting reported, as he was concerned about private fostering. In paragraph 3.74, Utting quoted a social services inspectorate report of 1993 which said:


Time and again we have heard in the Chamber today, "Is it good enough for my relatives?" Given that background, would I be happy to place my child with a private fosterer? No, I would not. I would want that fosterer to be regulated. The matter should not stand as it is in the Bill at the moment, with an inspection and a visit every six months for the child. We know that, with a shortage of social workers, that will not happen. We need private fosterers to approach the National Care Standards Commission to be regulated and registered. Otherwise, we will see similar situations. I hope that the Government will reconsider that matter, given the contradictory information given in Committee in the other place and in the Utting report.

On many fundamentals, the Bill is uncompromising, because we have compromised too much in the past. It will be welcomed by high-quality service providers in the public and private sectors. It will be welcomed by children in care, elderly people in residential care, people with disabilities and the country.

5.37 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I believe profoundly that we get what we pay for. As a people, we have always wanted things on the cheap. We have been unprepared in many instances to pay the premium required for quality. If people do not get what they pay for, they are largely responsible themselves for not insisting on quality. As a nation, we are poor at getting

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quality. We are good at complaining, but we complain to one another; we rarely confront the restaurateur and send back the bottle.

If we insist on quality, and we realise that we have to pay a premium for quality, we ought to be prepared to pay that premium for quality when it comes to quality of care. The state, through at least one of its agencies, is the largest purchaser of care services. We have a profound impact on the market by the standards that we demand and for which we are prepared to pay.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) was perceptive. If the Government think that room sizes and doorway widths are important priorities and if they are prepared to pay the premium for them, that will send a powerful signal to the market, and the market would respond to that. My fear is that the Government are not prepared to pay for the standards and quality that they want. They want to achieve those standards without paying for them; to achieve them by regulation.

When the Secretary of State was asked what estimate he had made of the costs to local authorities of providing the standards in the draft standards guideline that he had issued, he said that he had made no such estimate. That is irresponsible. Is the intention behind the Bill to privatise that form of residential care? If the impact of the measures is to drive the public sector out of the market, that will be the result.

Another reservation that I have about the Bill is that it is something of an empty page on which regulations can and will be written. I do not favour such enabling legislation, because it leads to much bad law. When constituents ask us how on earth this or that legislation came into existence and how could we have voted for it, the answer often is that we never voted for it at all. It was subject to the negative resolution procedure, sat in the Library for 20 days and no one raised a prayer against it. Nobody actually read it, so it became law. I favour a return to the system whereby every regulation was included in Bills and every Committee stage was taken on the Floor. Of course, we would have much less legislation, because it would take so long, but I reckon that we would be much better governed as a result.

The Government cannot resile from the draft standards that they have issued, including those on room size and door widths, and I draw the Minister's attention to the perceptive comments on those standards by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. A representation that I have regularly received from my local care providers is that the owners of residential care homes perceive that they will be subjected to the same standards as nursing care homes, and the two are very different.

There has been some talk about how sensitively the regulations might be introduced--perhaps over two, five or even seven years. However, if care home owners have borrowed money over 25 years to address the standards in their residential care provision, and then fall foul of the new regulations, a seven-year introduction period will be of no benefit. The mere issuing of the standards has blighted the industry. I have had many care home owners tell me that they are now unable to sell their properties as a result of the proposed regulations, and the banks and finance providers have noticed that and are not prepared to lend.

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I find it strange that I agree in many respects with the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on the provision that Ofsted should be required to scrutinise the activities of pre-schools, especially when the main competitor of pre-schools--the reception classes in primary schools--will not be subject to the same level of regulation. The Bill may be a disaster for pre-schools, which are part of a delightful movement. All my three children have been through pre-school education and my youngest is still there. I really enjoy visiting the pre-schools in my constituency, but they all take place in dusty, perhaps inadequate, church, school and village halls. I wonder what blow will be dealt to that movement by a host of unwelcome and unnecessary regulations. I thought that parliamentarians might have learned from the disaster that regulation has been for so many other activities, not least the livestock and meat industry.

In conclusion, I draw the House's attention to the contribution from the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke). He said that it was important that we provide for our elderly people a loving and caring environment. How true that is, but regulations measure only the easy, unimportant things. Room sizes and door widths make little difference to a loving and caring environment. That is reason enough for voting for the amendment this evening.


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