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Mr. Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 10—National fostering allowance—

   'The Government shall by regulations establish a national minimum fostering allowance payable by all children's services authorities in England.'.

Amendment No. 31, in clause 44, page 32, line 6, at end insert—

'(aa)   the circumstances in which a person may be permitted to foster privately a child previously known to him without being registered;'.

Amendment No. 32, in page 34, line 29, leave out clause 46.

Government amendments Nos. 41 to 43.

Margaret Hodge: I know that Government new clause 17 and the consequential amendments standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be welcomed by foster carers and by organisations such as the Fostering Network that promote foster care and work on behalf of foster carers. I intend to speak to the Government amendments and then respond to the amendments tabled by other hon. Members.

During our discussions on the Bill, strong arguments were advanced by foster carers and their organisations. We have listened to those arguments and are now in a position to respond positively to them. All hon. Members recognise the importance of foster carers, particularly in providing stability and a loving home for the most vulnerable children in our community—those who are looked after by the state. If we are to meet our objective of ensuring greater stability for more looked-
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after children, it is key that we try to recruit and retain more foster carers in the foster care work force. To do that, we need to put in place a range of measures.

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We have already achieved a lot, but I recognise that there is more for us to do. For instance, we are supporting local authorities in recruiting local foster carers in their local communities and we have prepared a pack for local authorities to use for that purpose. The recruitment of foster carers is most sensibly carried out locally and the job for the Government is to support local authorities in that task. We are also supporting the training of foster carers in the local community. For foster carers to feel valued and to feel that they have an important role to play, it is important that they receive continuous professional development and training, to give them a feeling that theirs is a proper profession.

We have also improved the tax and pensions position for foster carers, which has made a welcome change over the past few years. We are putting other measures in place, too. For example, we are developing a national telephone helpline for foster carers, and we hope to provide better support for foster carers who face allegations. We also want to celebrate excellence in foster carers through the introduction of a national award scheme.

For all that, we have had strong representations about what is perceived to be the unfairness resulting from the variability in the allowances paid to foster carers across the country. Those allowances do vary. I have looked at the Fostering Network's figures and seen variations from £60 to £250 in the costs awarded to foster carers for looking after an eight-year-old child. There are even variations within regions, which is difficult to explain. For example, in the north-west region, the allowance paid for looking after an eight-year-old varies from £60 to more than £200 per week.

The Government want to ensure that the allowances for foster carers fully meet the costs of caring for a looked-after child. We want to ensure greater transparency and consistency in the way in which local authorities calculate those allowances. That is why we are introducing the new clause and the amendments that go with it. Over the coming months, we will work closely with the local authorities and all the other stakeholders to come to a sensible view of how we should proceed on these issues.

We must all recognise that there will be variations in the cost for caring for a looked-after child. There will be variations according to the child's age, for example, and regional variations reflecting differences in housing costs up and down the country. There will be legitimate differences in the costs involved in looking after a looked-after child, depending on the complexity of the issues facing a particular child. We need to address what precisely the allowances should cover and decide what should legitimately be included in an allowance and what is perhaps less fair. We also need better to understand the relationship between allowances and the payments that some authorities give to foster carers for looking after children.
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We want to examine other issues relating to payment over the coming months. For example, is there sufficient clarity in each local authority about entitlements? Do foster carers face difficulties when claiming one- off grants? Are there inefficiencies in various local authorities in regard to providing information or responding promptly to claims by foster carers?

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly differentiates the remuneration of foster parents and payment for skills. Does she propose to introduce some national scale on which foster parents could be paid for the skills that they bring to their work?

Margaret Hodge: That is one of the many issues on which we want to consult local authorities and other stakeholders, including those organisations that represent foster carers, to make sure that we have a scheme that is workable and fair, and that enables us to recruit and keep more foster carers looking after children.

We already have resources available, about which some local authorities have expressed concern. For example, we have set aside £113 million over this spending review period under our "Choice Protects" programme, which puts a focus on fostering. If we consider the comprehensive spending review settlement, an extra £1 billion will be invested in children's services by the end of the period 2004–05 to 2007–08. We need to discuss local authorities' priorities with them.

I hope that the new clause and amendments are generally welcomed by the House. I look forward to working through the issues with all stakeholders, so that we can create fairness and equity and thereby support all the efforts that we all feel are important to build a stronger foster care work force.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I start uncharacteristically by congratulating the Minister and the Government on the new clause and corresponding amendments? We did not discuss foster carer payments in Committee. I have supported such payments, because we face a drastic problem. We spoke in Committee about foster carer registration schemes, which I shall deal with later in relation to our two amendments in this group.

The situation is dire and has got worse over the past year or so. It is now estimated that there are about 10,000 foster carer vacancies at a time when demand is certainly not lessening. There is great confusion about the amounts paid by varying local authorities to foster carers and no real benchmark for assessing whether local authorities are really paying the full cost. Figures produced by the Fostering Network show the enormous disparities, region by region, in relation to the percentage of local authorities paying below the minimum allowance: in the east midlands, 100 per cent. were below the minimum allowance, whereas in London, the figure was as low as 19 per cent. There is enormous confusion and variation in how fostering is remunerated up and down the country, which is one of the problems associated with the current shortage of foster carers. Perhaps more worrying is the way that we lose foster carers: the cost of training a foster carer is
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calculated as £12,000, so it is a false economy not to do everything that we can to keep good-quality foster carers in place once we have them.

I therefore welcome the fact that the Government have at last addressed this problem. There was a high-pressure campaign and many of us were e-mailed incessantly by foster carers all over the country calling for a new scheme for minimum allowances. Clearly, that work has paid off. But as the Minister said, much work still needs to be done to define how this scheme will operate in practice. I want to raise a few questions, most of which I am sure she will already be aware of. Perhaps she will give some initial responses as to the Government's current thinking, particularly in relation to how the scheme will be funded through local authorities.

The Deputy Prime Minister agreed at a Central Local Partnership conference of councillors two weeks ago that the Government would not impose additional burdens on local authorities if they were unfunded. That was a clear commitment given to the Local Government Association and local councillors. We therefore hope that it will be clear to local authorities how the scheme will be funded over the longer term. What reserve powers will the Minister have to invoke to put the scheme in place? When is it likely to be introduced? We hope that it is not just a wish list for several years hence. The Minister mentioned that £113 million is already allocated to "Choice Protects", much of which is targeted at the training of foster carers, and providing information to foster carers, but not at allowances. It does not therefore tackle directly the problem of proper funding of the scheme.

The Minister rightly referred to the problem of local authorities doing different things in different areas of the country. Certainly, variations for different costs of living up and down the country would be desirable. What discussions has she had with the LGA on putting that into effect? In a letter, the LGA stated:

I hope that all those considerations will be taken on board when the scheme is finalised.

The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has also raised questions, referring to

It has launched a campaign to ensure that.

I welcome the Government amendments, but we want to see the beef, and we want to see it soon. We want to make sure that all those questions are being addressed, rather than have the Minister or her successor come back to the House in a few years' time still considering how the scheme will work.

That is only half the deal—we had some time in Committee to address the other half, which is the whole subject of a registration scheme. Extraordinarily, the Minister set her mind completely against that, despite the fact, to remind her, that every report that the
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Government have commissioned over the past five years confirms that privately fostered children are very vulnerable, and that a registration system involving the approval of private foster carers would protect their interests better than the current situation in which private foster carers are required only to notify local authorities about arrangements. I tackled her in Committee about how many people have fallen foul of the law as it currently stands. She was unable to answer that, largely because the number is tiny. The system is not working at the moment, and still too many people—we do not know the extent of it, because it is unquantifiable—are entering into private arrangements, particularly with vulnerable girls from west Africa who, as we know all too well, come into the country, disappear into the system and are open to all kinds of abuse and neglect, ending up in the sex industry or effectively as domestic slaves.

The Opposition still cannot understand why the Government have proved so inflexible on this issue. Their additions to the Bill do not address the problem—they are tokenism of the worst kind. Our amendments Nos. 31 and 32 therefore set down that the regulations must define

In effect, we have attacked the problem from the other end, because the Minister was not responsive to setting up a registration scheme, with the question: when will private fostering be allowed, permissible and promoted by the Government if that arrangement is not registered? That is a different question to address the same problem, and I hope that the Government start to have the sort of conversion that they appear to have had on fostering allowances and become more open-minded on going the whole hog. I shall then be absolutely delighted to congratulate the Minister doubly, which is doubly unexpected from me.

That would help to give much more protection to a host of children whose fostering arrangements are inadequate and ensure that legitimate fosterers are properly remunerated, incentivised and trained. They will then be able to take on much more of the work load that we need them to take on, especially with difficult children, so that such children can be given a second chance of a stable upbringing rather than being condemned to the outer reaches of the system—far-flung children's homes where they are not best looked after—or condemned to failure in the sphere of education or health.

I congratulate the Minister on her new clause and amendments, but may I push her further? Now that she has opened the door, let us have all the beef and not just half of it.

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