Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: Will the Minister clarify whether that applies to children who are fostered on premises in which such a banned person is living? There is of course an obvious loophole—the person can get a spouse or partner formally to do the fostering instead.

Jacqui Smith: I certainly suspect and hope that that would be covered by inspections of the kind that I described in outlining the regulations, but I shall try to obtain further details.

Refusing to allow a privately fostered child to be visited by an officer of the local authority is also an offence, punishable by a fine of up to £3,000. However, despite those provisions—it is important to recognise that there are significant provisions in law—the Government are ready to acknowledge that there are difficulties in private fostering, and I am committed to ensuring that the system at the very least works effectively.

I am not convinced that establishing a register would alone solve all the problems. The issue may be not just registration but awareness. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford disagrees about that. We are concerned with something that is a private arrangement. There is

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little public awareness about what constitutes private fostering, and few people realise that there is a requirement for them to notify anyone of their arrangement.

Mr. Shaw: My hon. Friend has talked about awareness. Does she concede that it is completely inadequate that there should have been a wait of two years for the Government to do what they said about conducting an awareness campaign?

Jacqui Smith: I was about to come to future action by the Government.

The Government undertook to produce an awareness campaign on private fostering, following the response to the children's safeguards review. In August 2000, the chief inspector of social services wrote to all councils reminding them of their responsibilities. That year we commissioned the social services inspectorate to undertake an inspection of private fostering to give us more information on councils' practice.

In 2001, we prepared and issued a leaflet for professionals working in education, health and social services, raising the issue of private fostering and repeating messages about notification, and we are now at the final stage of planning a second stage of the awareness campaign, with information targeted at the public, particularly the most frequently involved groups and where awareness is low.

I want to cover two further issues before I return to the question of what further action can be taken. First, comparisons—favourable and unfavourable—have been made between the registration of child minders and the proposals in the new clause. Although there may be arguments in favour of the new clause, I am not sure that such comparisons are the most powerful argument. Child minding is clearly identified as a specific type of activity; child minders are registered to look after the under-eights. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West pointed out, people looking for child care are dealing with a market. Child minders register prospectively with the local authority to show that they are available for business, as well as to ensure that the necessary safeguards are in place. The approach taken by private foster carers may be totally different. They are often friends of the family, and to that extent their situation is different.

Mr. Dawson: Will my hon. Friend reconsider that remark? There are myriad ways in which friends and neighbours take on child minding. The child minding regulations have no effect of preventing those arrangements.

Jacqui Smith: That may well be. The issues relating to potential regulation and registration of private fostering were considered in some detail in relation to the regulation of child minding, so to some extent my hon. Friend supports my point. When we consider further regulation, we must be careful not to squeeze out the good while tackling the bad.

The question of 42 days or 28 has been mentioned. When considering the Utting report, we recognise that current arrangements cover students who come to the United Kingdom to attend language school and stay

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for six weeks in the summer holidays to improve their language skills. They are often fostered with families known to the school, which means that some local authority areas contain a population who fall within the category of privately fostered children, but may not need the protection of the notification process to support them.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned the development of a code of practice. That will introduce some safeguards for the protection of students of which schools can inform parents. I welcome that. Although the Children Act 1989 has not been amended to take account of the threshold of 42 rather than 28 days, a safeguard is thus provided for those students and their parents, who can directly check and compare to discover which schools follow the code of practice.

I return to the question of further action and what the Government can do in the light of the serious concerns raised by hon. Members in this debate. The Government are committed to taking the action necessary to protect all children, including those who are privately fostered. We have already taken action through our campaign and in establishing the Climbié inquiry. I assure the Committee that we will examine carefully the findings of the SSI inspection reports and the results of the Climbié inquiry. We will also consider the range of concerns that hon. Members have expressed, many of which I share.

Today I asked my Department to prepare for a review of private fostering. We must not get in the way of the excellent work being carried out by Lord Laming on the Climbié inquiry. The review will be ready to start at a time that fits best with that timetable, to enable the Government to respond as broadly as possible to the recommendations and conclusions stemming from that inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford made important points about the need to safeguard children in private fostering. I hope that he accepts that the Government take the matter seriously. There are complicated factors to be considered, but I assure him that the Government are committed to a review of the subject and of the issues he raised.

The review will involve the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association, other stakeholders and the voluntary sector. The review will necessitate consultation across Government, with the children and young people's unit, the Department for Education and Skills, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, as well as consultation with carers and children.

Although I do not suggest that my hon. Friend give up his zeal—I suspect that he will never do so—I hope that my assurance that the Government take the issues seriously will persuade him not to press the new clause to a Division.

10.30 am

Mr. Shaw: I thank all members of the Committee for taking part in or listening to our debate on the new clause. My hon. Friends who are former social work colleagues outdid me by a whole hairline of years in

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social work—[Laughter.] Perhaps a decade of experience is not enough for me to make a strong case.

Several hon. Members remarked that private fostering is one of the few gaping holes in the net of protection for children against potential abusers and poor standards of care. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre quoted the Utting report. The inquiry team identified private fostering as the environment in which fostered children were least controlled and most open to abuse. It is one of the most risky environments in which children live.

We compare regulation of playgroups and informal arrangements for looking after children who are doing GCSEs, but we should consider the cases of children who come from west Africa and live here for years, and children who are beaten with iron bars by strangers. They are a world apart from the subject under discussion. When hon. Members use the former examples, they are either missing the point or do not want to address the issues. Registration would close the loophole.

My hon. Friend the Minister says that the Government are concerned. She says also that most of the children involved are from west Africa. I might agree with that assertion, but given that the Department of Health has not collated those figures since 1991 because it found that they were unreliable, her figures cannot have come from her Department.

The ADSS and the LGA are seriously worried about the situation; they have tried for more than a decade to persuade people to register as private fosterers. The Department of Health says that 50 per cent. of people who foster privately do not notify, but I do not know where it gets that percentage because it does not collate the figures. Given that that is the case, how can we know whether the awareness campaign has had an effect?

The hon. Member for Huntingdon, who was chair of Westminster social services, talked about losing private fosterers as a potential resource. I agree that people might fall by the wayside if a requirement for registration were introduced. However, the former director of Westminster social services, who is now at Medway, certainly supports a registration scheme. I do not know whether they have ever discussed the matter.

Mr. Djanogly indicated dissent.

Mr. Shaw: That is a shame.

There is world of difference between informal arrangements and children coming from west Africa and staying for many years. I concede the Minister's point about the Victoria Climbié inquiry. There were other factors involved in the case: private fostering is not the only reason why that child suffered in such an horrendous way. However, we must ask ourselves whether that tragedy would have occurred if we had run an awareness campaign at airports and our embassies throughout west Africa telling people, ''If your child is coming to the UK, make sure that the people who will care for him or her have been checked by social services.'' If that had been done, I doubt that

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Victoria Climbié would have gone to the people in question, who were not relatives as defined in the regulations.

The comparison between child minding and private foster care is sound. During consideration of the Bill that became the Care Standards Act 2000 it was suggested that the regulation of child minding might discourage people from offering their services as informal babysitters. That argument can always be made, but it is an argument for doing nothing. Most of the people in this country would agree that if someone looks after a child who comes from abroad and stays for many years, the minimum requirement should be that they register with the local authority. Yet we are told that currently 50 per cent. of such people do not even bother to do that.

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