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Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I welcome new clause 16. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be able to advise me whether one of the matters that the commission may consider is private fostering. In Committee, I tabled an amendment requiring those individuals who carry out private fostering to be registered with the commission. I did so not only because of my personal experience, but because Sir William Utting referred to the matter in his report, as did former social services inspector Lord Laming during the Lords consideration of the Bill, and the social services inspectorate in 1994: all called for those who privately foster children to be regulated. However, because the arrangement is a private one, under the provisions of the Children Act 1989, such individuals merely have to notify the local authority that they are looking after children. Many eminent reports have stated that that does not meet the safeguards that we would want for particular children. We do not know how many children are privately fostered, often for a small amount of money. There will be far tighter regulations for day care, where children go home at some part of the day, than for children who may be with private foster carers for weeks, months or years.
My hon. Friend the Minister said that he took the matter seriously. He repeated the response of my noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath that the social services inspectorate was also be taking the matter seriously and would be requiring local authorities to have greater regard to the responsibility to ensure that private foster carers notify local authorities so that they can be inspected. It has been repeated that there will be a national publicity campaign to ensure that people are aware of their responsibilities.
Suppose that, following the national publicity campaign and the requirement on local authorities, the NCSC, perhaps in consultation with the social services inspectorate, was more rigorous in ascertaining how many children were in private foster care and whether they were being cared for to a standard that we would expect. Would the sharing of that information, if the NCSC raised concerns with my hon. Friend, lead him to introduce legislation of the sort suggested in my amendment, which has been recommended by distinguished Members of the other place who have long experience in these matters? Would my hon. Friend be able to make changes to the foster regulations under the Children Act 1989, or would he have to introduce primary legislation?
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Those of us who did not have the honour and privilege of considering the Bill in Committee now have the chance to express our thoughts about the Bill, including the matters immediately before us. I make a preliminary observation. My heart sinks whenever I see a Bill like this one and
I am not surprised that we are already in something of a tangle with this group of amendments. I shall say a few words and ask a few questions about each one. We are in a world in which both the Government and the official Opposition claim repeatedly to be deregulatory, to believe in a free society and to wish to dismantle red tape and bureaucracy--I do not know whether the Liberal Democrats sign up to that--yet we are confronted with a Bill that will have precisely the opposite effect.
I accept that on Second Reading and in Committee, it was agreed that there was a need to adopt the approach that is set out in the Bill. I do not intend to challenge that for the moment. That is also a preliminary observation. It is no surprise to me, however, that Members then become hopelessly bogged down when considering the minutiae of what the bureaucracy that we are now setting up will do. One would have thought that its aims were clear enough, but what will it do in detail? The new clauses and amendments that have already been touched on illustrate well how one can set up a well-meaning bureaucracy, but get into difficulty in defining not necessarily its aims, which can usually be pretty well defined, but the way in which the aims will be fulfilled.
New clause 16 is pretty opaque to say the least, certainly to the layman coming to it for the first time. On the face of it, it should be relatively straightforward. It refers to section 48, but if one goes to clause 48 for guidance and clarity, one is surprised to see that it refers to section 23. Clause 23(1) states:
Therefore, because of the obligation that I am assuming, the first question that arises is whether new clause 16 is otiose. The Minister may tell me later that I am wrong in that presumption, but, for the moment, I think that a reasonable person would want to take that view.
Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend may not yet have had a chance to look ahead to new clause 4 in the next group of amendments, but, if he does, he will see that it puts precisely that obligation on the Secretary of State, before bringing forward any new standards under what will be a replacement for clause 23--that he must consult and seek certain information from the commission.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I am a slow reader, so I have not quite reached that point yet. I shall want to look at it and listen to what he says at the appropriate time.
I am even more puzzled because in clause 7, entitled "General duties of the Commission", subsection (5) states:
(a) any changes which the Commission thinks should be made . . . and
(b) any other matter connected.
That is, of course, the danger. Bureaucracies are bad enough as they are, and rarely achieve the ends that are set. Goodness knows, one can point to any number of examples in other walks of life where there are bureaucracies, commissions and regulatory regimes that hopelessly fail to fulfil their task. One hopes that that will not be the case with the Bill, but I, for one, do not set out with any great optimism.
My problem with new clause 16 is that I cannot for the life of me see how it adds materially and usefully to the wording in the Bill.
In Government amendment No. 53, we are in the "exceptional circumstances" business. The amendment refers to the publication of material and whether that should be done routinely. Again, I accept that the Minister tried to be helpful in his brief explanation. I can understand that he may want to move things along, as Ministers often do, but our job is not to move on until we are satisfied.
We must consider what the words suggested in the amendment add materially to the Bill. I confess that I am somewhat mystified. The original words are:
Of course, I am not remotely querying the sagacity of the selection of the matter for debate--far from it--but there is an onus on the Minister, who is suggesting a different form of words, to explain to us more fully why he concluded that the original wording in his own Bill was not satisfactory for the purpose that he stated, and why the new words are a material improvement. That, after all, is why we are considering the matter.
I thought that the original words were perfectly fit for the purpose. Obviously, I do not want to digress or delay the House unnecessarily, but we could get into a debate about that. The Minister gave us one or two examples of possible exceptional circumstances. We do not need to get bogged down in that, but we may want to know to what extent the Minister thinks that the power, in the existing words or the Government amendment, is likely to be invoked.
The Minister wanted to reassure us that that would rarely happen but, as we all know, the good intentions set out at this stage in the proceedings to make us feel warm and comfortable about something often do not stand up in the cold, harsh light of the real world, when the matters on the statute book are tested in practice.
Amendment No. 31, which was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, rather puzzled me. I got the impression that the amendment was designed to restrict the powers in the Bill, and I was not sure why that was necessary. The present wording is fairly general--