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Mrs. Lait: Before I contribute to the debate on the Bill for the first time, I should like to put on record the fact
By putting those two things on the record, I hope that I have not only clarified my position, but made it clear that I have some knowledge of many of the areas that we are talking about. Indeed, I have long advocated the establishment of some form of national standards and care structure for the social care and nursing care sectors. Therefore, in principle, I do not have a difficulty with the structure of the Bill as it has emerged from the various stages of its consideration.
It may cheer the heart of my right hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that one of the most overbearing parts of the private sector care standards regime is being totally repealed by the Bill. The repeals list shows that the Registered Homes Act 1984 and the Registered Homes (Amendment) Act 1991 will both be repealed in total, so one form of bureaucracy--a very hard and overbearing bureaucracy--will disappear.
I hope that my right hon. Friend--I see him nodding--will appreciate that occasionally, legislation can lead to the death of bureaucracy, as well as--as is happening in this case--the creation of further bureaucracy. It is the concerns about the further bureaucracy that I shall take up, as will many of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Government new clause 16 is about the advice to Ministers on fostering and adoption. I think that we have established the fact that the advice and how it is implemented will be covered by regulations, which will be taken under the negative resolution procedure. Most Conservative Members find that somewhat concerning, because that procedure makes debate so difficult. However, what concerns me even more is the lack of any assurance that before regulations are promulgated, those who will be affected by them will be consulted. That concern is reinforced by the fact that publication of the commission's advice will not be mandatory.
It is therefore possible, even for one who is not a conspiracy theorist, to envisage a situation remarkably similar to one with which many care homes are already familiar--the sudden introduction of an entirely new fostering and adoption regulatory regime, without any notification to those affected by the new regime.
Mr. Bercow: I think that my hon. Friend is right to say that the Government have opted for the negative procedure. However, we have to know the reason for Ministers' knee-jerk reaction and preference. Is it because they do not think that we should be allowed to debate such regulations? Is it because they cannot trouble themselves to have such a debate? Or is it because we do not have sufficient time? The last explanation would be quite unsatisfactory to many hon. Members, who would
Mrs. Lait: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes some sane and sensible points. I also think that use of the negative resolution procedure is always very sinister. I am simply seeking assurances from the Minister that there will be proper consultation on regulations, and that the commission's advice will be published.
The commission is a public body, funded by taxpayers. Therefore, it has a responsibility to taxpayers and the public to make public precisely what it is suggesting to Ministers. It is crucial that Ministers reassure us today that, one way or another, there will be proper scrutiny of proposals affecting fostering and adoption--both of which are so fraught with emotion and so important to people's futures. Very many bodies are involved in the subject, and they need to be consulted.
As all hon. Members know from their surgeries, rumour and innuendo get around, and out of small acorns grow very large oaks. Rumour and innuendo can threaten an entire system. Therefore, correct information has to be placed in the public domain at the right time.
Government amendment No. 53 deals with the publication of reports. Although I am not a lawyer, I absolutely accept the difficulty of the libel issue and of the possible consequences of prosecutions. It may come as no surprise to my hon. Friends to hear that I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the current Leader of the Opposition when he was Secretary of State for Wales, and the Welsh Office was debating whether he should establish the inquiry into the Welsh children's homes. We grappled at length with the issues of libel and prosecutions. However, my right hon. Friend had the guts and the courage to establish that inquiry, and to take on the chin the possibility of difficulties arising from subsequent legal action.
If my right hon. Friend had the courage to do that, I cannot see for one minute why the Government cannot give us assurances today, or even write something into the Bill. They could abandon their amendment, so that reports of concern to the public were published. As I said, if the relevant information is not made public, rumour and innuendo will spread and the situation will get completely out of hand. I would not like to see any Government on the back foot in addressing issues that are so important to so many people.
The Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 31 deals with the National Care Standards Commission. I have some difficulty with the idea of enabling the commission to trawl for information, in a fishing expedition. Such an ability was one of the reasons why the local government inspection system was regarded with fear and trepidation within the private care home sector. In that system--not in all cases, but in a sufficient number of cases to concern the industry--inspectors essentially had that power.
I hope that in considering the information that it wants and needs from people, the commission will take into account the long history of difficulties between inspectors and the private care sector. To give those inspectors their due, the badly run businesses have now gone out of business. The commission will therefore usually be dealing with well-run businesses. The businesses that have survived--it has been a tough world for them--have
I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the potential impact of amendment No. 31. Of course we very much hope that the horrors that we are envisaging do not materialise.
Mr. Burstow: The import of the hon. Lady's argument seemed to be that she was broadly supporting amendment No. 31--which is about preventing the very fishing exercises that she has been concerned about. Can she say whether she supports the amendment?
Mrs. Lait: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. I am more likely to be supporting him than the Government on this particular issue.
I share the concerns expressed in the official Opposition's amendment No. 96, not only because I am a great believer that an Englishman's home is his castle. I am surprised that I am the first hon. Member to use that cliche in this debate, because it is such an obvious one in discussing the amendment. Like many other hon. Members, I know people who have given a lot of their life, time, love, affection and emotion to fostering children. As I am sure all hon. Members will know, many of those children are very difficult and complex characters who have deep-seated needs that foster parents have to deal with.
Consequently, over the years, in any well-run fostering regime, a body of law has developed that allows access to a foster parent's private home, either by agreement or--when potential child abuse is involved--by instant access. I am sure that many hon. Members will have had constituency cases involving neighbourhood conflicts and difficulties in which, on the flimsiest pretext, although the children themselves have often been difficult, neighbours have taken a dislike to each other and called in social workers and police. In those circumstances, foster carers' homes have easily been accessed by those who wanted or needed access.
Therefore, on the basis of what we know happens in practice and what is often dealt with in statute, I do not know why the Government cannot reassure people by including in the Bill an exception ensuring that private homes are not covered by the Bill's provisions on rules of entry.
It may be that legislation cannot impose a negative, but I do not believe that the clever people who draft legislation cannot come up with a form of words to reassure people who foster difficult children that, although their homes will continue to be accessed by social workers and police, as is required by statute, the Bill will not impose further requirements so that any misuse of its provisions presents a further barrier to people volunteering to foster difficult children who need loving homes.
Hon. Members may have gathered that I support amendment No. 3 because I have concerns about the text of the Bill. When I first reached the conclusion that a national organisation would help the care home industry to provide better care, I was very clear in my own mind that the
Many of us who have some knowledge of the residential and nursing home sectors realise that it is not easy to consider them as indivisible. A nursing home provides nursing care. The demands and requirements on a nursing home are different from those on a residential home, which is a place where people live as independently as possible. They require totally different skills that require different training, although residential care homes for elderly people provide an element of nursing care. However, if a properly run rest home has people who need nursing care there is usually someone on the staff to provide that care and it is usually the sort of care that a district nurse can provide. If somebody is too ill for that, their medical condition will dictate where they are looked after--[Interruption.] I heard someone say, "nonsense" and I would be most interested in the reason for that remark.