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19 Mar 2003 : Column 950—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on.

19 Mar 2003 : Column 951

Points of Order

1.8 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to stress that in asking for the urgent question today we knew that the Secretary of State was on her way elsewhere. I hope that I made that clear. Is it in order, however, for the Department that is the focus of the urgent question to pass on the responsibility for answering to another Department? I have to say that I found all the answers profoundly unsatisfactory. I repeat my request for an urgent statement from the Secretary of State, and I will keep on asking for it until we get it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to answer the point of order. It may be, once I have answered it, that the hon. Gentleman will not have to raise anything further.

It is up to the Government which Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to respond on such matters.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have observed, as I have, that the Minister from the Department for International Development, who is in her place, spent almost the entire time briefing the Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. What puzzles me, no doubt the House, and perhaps even you, Mr. Speaker, is that, if the Minister who obviously knows about this matter is sitting silent, and the Minister who does not seem to know very much about it is attempting to answer questions but is being briefed by the Minister who does, what sort of attitude on the part of the Government does that display to the House and to you, Mr. Speaker? Why do we have to have this musical chairs act when we are engaged in discussing a very serious matter and should be getting proper answers from the proper Department—the Secretary of State having apparently fled the country?

Mr. Speaker: I say to the shadow Leader of the House that we must move on to the protected business. The matters that have been raised have nothing to do with the Chair.

Are there further points of order? I want to move on from the urgent question, as it has run for long enough.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have heard reports, as yet unconfirmed, that Tariq Aziz has defected to northern Iraq, to territory held by the Kurdistan Democratic Party. If that report is confirmed, it would be useful to have a statement.

Mr. Speaker: I am sure that the appropriate Minister will have heard.

19 Mar 2003 : Column 952

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We too have heard these rumours. At this point, they have not been confirmed. We are seeking confirmation.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Is it on another matter?

Glenda Jackson: It is, Mr. Speaker. The Government are advising the citizens of this country to lay in stores including tinned food, bottled water, a torch and blankets, yet there is no further detail as to why they should be laying in such stores. If no Minister has asked to come to make a statement on this matter, I would like your advice, Mr. Speaker, on how best to prise from the Government rather more detail on what is a somewhat bizarre piece of advice.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Lady is a very experienced Member of Parliament and I would have thought that her first move would be to phone the Minister concerned and ask him.

Glenda Jackson: Which Minister?

Mr. Speaker: I am not inviting her to do so, but she might start at the top and then work her way down.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Further to the point of order that was raised by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), Mr. Speaker, to which the Minister responded a moment or two ago. May I suggest through you that, if the rumour is confirmed, the Minister be invited to make a definitive statement later today?

Mr. Speaker: The Minister will have heard.

Mr. Mike O'Brien indicated assent.

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Further to the point of order that was raised by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley, Mr. Speaker, and further to the Minister's intervention during that point of order. May I suggest to the Minister that, throughout the coming conflict over the next few days, if he does have information that may be of benefit to the House, this side of the House, through the usual channels, will be very willing to facilitate the interruption of business at any sensible and convenient hour, or to stay later than the normal hours, so that the House can be kept fully informed, where appropriate, of information that is not militarily sensitive?

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Mr. O'Brien: We will try to keep the House informed. We need to be careful about rumours, because rumours often sweep through. The rumour—and I want to emphasise that it is no more than a rumour at this stage—is from a Bulgarian source. [Interruption.] It is no more than a rumour, but it is that Tariq Aziz may have been killed. There are rumours at the moment but we do not know whether they are true. We will seek to clarify the situation. Once we have clarified the situation, I will be sure to keep hon. Members on the Opposition Benches informed.

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Registration of Private Foster Carers and Child Protection

1.14 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I beg to move,

My Bill is wide ranging. It deals with three main aspects of child protection, all of which are very topical after a string of child abuse and child murder cases—most prominently, the tragic murder of Victoria Climbié at the hands of her private foster carers, following which there was the comprehensive report by Lord Lamming on the whole horrific series of blunders that led up to the murder. The horrendous circumstances of Victoria Climbié's death should not, however, lead us to overlook the many other tragic murders of children at the hands of their parents or carers.

It is difficult to comprehend, but, in this country, an average of 79 child homicides happen every year—mostly involving children under the age of five and mostly at the hands of the child's parents or carers. More incredible still is how few murder convictions are subsequently secured. Out of 366 such cases that were investigated by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, only 99 resulted in a conviction, and no further action was taken in a staggering 225 cases. Of the convictions, few were actually for murder if they involved a couple jointly, because of the difficulties of providing joint enterprise evidence and of proving who struck the fatal blow. Consequently, many people escape with the lesser charge of cruelty, as happened in the case of four-year-old John Smith in my constituency. He died from brain injuries after a catalogue of abuse by his foster parents, Simon and Michelle McWilliam. They received a maximum eight-year sentence for cruelty, not murder, as each blamed the other.

I know that the Government and the Law Commission are sympathetic to changes in the law, although attempts to amend the Criminal Justice Bill in Committee earlier this month were not taken up. My Bill offers a second chance and would place a duty of care on parents if a child was suffering and establish a charge of joint enterprise on parents equally if, when charged with the death of a child, they gave similar accounts of the circumstances leading up to the death that later turned out to be false. In the meantime, the situation could be helped by better guidance from judges to juries on the complicated matter of joint enterprise.

My second and main subject is the absence of a legal requirement for the registration of commercial private foster carers. Child protection legislation can be traced back to the Infant Life Protection Act 1872, which was produced in the wake of a Select Committee report on private fostering—or baby farming, as it was then known. That report was the response to the case of a Mrs. Walters, who, in 1870, was tried and executed for the murder of several children. That legislation was the

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first recognition of a public duty in this area. Much more legislation has followed. The Nurseries and Childminding Regulation Act 1948 provided a set of checks on child minders. Registration followed with a 1968 Act. Those Acts have promoted a strong professional culture with training and support benefits for child minders. There were extensive improvements to recognise the paramouncy of children's welfare in the Children Act 1989. In 1993, an inspection of private fostering by the social services inspectorate raised some real concerns about the welfare of children who are cared for in this way. In 1997, the Utting report, which was commissioned by the Government, came down strongly in favour of a system of private foster care registration. The report stated that children in private foster care are

However, Utting's recommendation was not subsequently taken up.

In 1999, a joint working party on foster care revealed the high potential for abuse and neglect. It urged the regulation of private fostering and a public awareness campaign. Most recently, Lord Lamming has recommended a review of the situation. Through all of this time, we have seen extensive regulations for child minding; care standards for the inspection of care homes and foster agencies; new adoption rights and requirements; hundreds of thousands of people dealing with young people being subjected to checks by the Criminal Records Bureau; and even legislation to clamp down on puppy farming. However, incredibly, people who offer their services as private foster carers—often as complete strangers—have no legal compunction to register their services, although local authority registers do exist. For those people, unknown to local social services departments, there can be no guarantee of the quality of care, no guarantee that the foster carer is accessing appropriate training support and benefit, and no control over the number of different placements that the child will experience—which, under "Quality Protects" guidelines, should be no more than three.

I am sure that the great majority of private foster carers do a good job and pose no threat to their charges. However, we simply do not know. In any case, the Climbié inquiry was the first inquiry into the case of a privately fostered child by any central Government or local government board. We have no idea of the extent of the problem. After all, the Department of Health stopped collecting data on private fostering in 1991 because its figures were so inaccurate.

It has been estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 private foster carers in this country, mostly for under-five-year-olds from west Africa. However, that is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Since the 1991 regulations, there have been local registers of foster carers but there is no legal penalty for not registering, and many people are ignorant of the requirements. Similarly, local authorities have a duty of care for the general welfare of privately fostered children; but they have to find those children first and even then they have few powers to dismiss poor foster carers. Added to that, surveys and inspections show that the monitoring of private foster arrangements has low priority with many local authorities and, in some cases, it is non-existent.

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It is thus time to make it a legal requirement for private foster carers to notify their activities to a register of private foster carers, with penalties if they fail to do so. It would also be an offence for people to entrust their children to a private foster carer who is not so registered. It is time to expose an underground activity to the reasonable scrutiny of the light of day. There is no guarantee that all private foster carers would register, but the measure should act as a significant incentive, accompanied by local awareness campaigns.

The definition of private foster care is:

Close relatives are parents, step-parents, siblings, brothers or sisters of a parent, or grandparents.

The register would not be easy to police; no system can be foolproof. I do not want to play the nanny state and interfere with arrangements for children who are legitimately attending boarding schools or language schools or who are on holiday exchanges and so on. In most cases, there are existing checks on those educational establishments and the families with whom they may place children. It should be possible to establish regulations to exclude what are technically different types of fostering.

My Bill would set up a national register of private foster carers of children aged under 11, with penalties for non-registration that are similar to those for child-minding registration. The register would be simple and could be run for relatively little cost by an agency, using arrangements similar to those for the adoption register. The registration requirements would be minimal.

There would be many advantages. The register would be available to birth parents who still wanted to pursue a private foster arrangement. It would enable local authorities to ensure that standards of care were suitable and that appropriate help was offered. A national register would deter private foster carers who had fallen foul of local authority inspections or authorised foster agencies, but who had not committed offences sufficient to be put on the Department of Health 99 list and had simply moved to another area and set up business there. The register would be welcomed by all those involved with children in care in this country, and would provide an added degree of protection for children placed in private foster care, both domestically and from overseas, with minimal intrusion.

My third and final consideration concerns children who arrive at ports or airports, unaccompanied by adults who are their parents or who have parental responsibility. That is how Victoria Climbié arrived on our shores. That is how many Nigerian girls arrive at Gatwick airport claiming asylum, only for many of them to end up in prostitution at the hands of pimps in northern Italy. That is how many children are being trafficked by unscrupulous individuals and destined for a grim existence; let alone all the many children who are sent by their parents to the UK in the hope of a better future, but largely in ignorance of the care they will receive or the circumstances in which they will be placed.

My Bill would make provision for better checks on children arriving in the UK unaccompanied by parents, close relatives or those with parental responsibility. Such unaccompanied children would be required to

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have special written and logged permission from their parents or those with parental responsibility, with information about the length of their stay and who will be responsible for them while they are resident in the UK. Arrangements with schools, language schools and so on would require no further checking but, under the new register, checks would need to be made for children destined to live in commercial private foster care or under other arrangements. Local agencies, such as social services, would be alerted so that the necessary monitoring provisions could be instituted as appropriate.

Failure to produce permission to travel would warrant investigation by the authorities before the child is able to leave the port of entry, either to be returned home or to live in the UK. Such arrangements would go a long way towards clamping down on child trafficking, the abuse of unaccompanied child asylum seekers and the commercial exploitation of children.

My Bill is intended to institute only minimal interference and regulation, but the primary purpose of any such changes should be not the benefit of carers but the protection of children. It is to them that we all have a duty of care.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tim Loughton, Mr. Andrew Lansley, Ms Meg Munn, Kevin Brennan, Miss Julie Kirkbride, Jonathan Shaw, Mr. Julian Brazier, Miss Anne McIntosh, Mr. Jonathan Djanogly, Mr. Robert Walter, Mr. Robert Syms and Mrs. Eleanor Laing.

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