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Mr. Dawson: I wholeheartedly welcome what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said. It marks excellent progress for not just foster carers but the entire care system. If we are to have a really effective system, we must ensure that foster carers are properly valued. That involves recompensing them for all the costs of looking after children and rewarding them for their skills. Those skills vary, but some carers operate very
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professionally, providing tremendously good care for some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. All foster carers are doing an invaluable job: they are key partners in the system.

I am delighted that this good news has been welcomed by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Having managed a family placement team during the last eight miserable years of Conservative government before 1997, I can tell him that the rates paid to foster carers then were an absolute disgrace, and carers prevailed on me regularly to do something about it.

Tim Loughton: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that those eight so-called miserable years were years in which there were rather more Labour councils than there are now, and that it was left to councils to pay the carers? It is entirely down to the hon. Gentleman's party that those years were so miserable.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): We were starved of resources.

Mr. Dawson: My hon. Friend was in a similar position. We were indeed starved of resources. Let us get real: the problem has been around for probably 50 years, but it was certainly much worse under the Tory Government. It has taken this Government to provide real resources and show real determination.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has a good deal of experience, but is there is not also a responsibility to ensure that local authorities have enough resources to support the foster carers whom we hope to recruit? Past failure has been due to a lack of resources at the centre to pay those taking on the task that the hon. Gentleman describes so eloquently.

Mr. Dawson: I agree. Thanks to "Choice Protects", at last some real investment—good money—is being spent on the training and ongoing support of foster carers, and we will see that that continues.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend is going to consult. There are difficult issues to be teased out. They vary in different parts of the country and in different parts of the care system. What I would insist on is the development of good practice. I hope that we will not end up with a basic service providing the bare minimum. What foster carers want, need and deserve is quality—quality support, quality training and quality remuneration. They do not want to have to undergo endless bureaucratic processes just to identify the odd bit of money that they have paid on a child's behalf.

Looked-after children are the children of corporate parents, the local authorities. Those 60,000 looked-after children are our children. We owe it to them, via their foster carers, to treat them generously and give them all the life chances that every child should have the right to enjoy. That is our duty.

I will not say much about private fostering today. I voted against the Government on that in Committee, I disagree with the line that they are taking and I hope
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that they will quickly realise that the present notification scheme is completely inadequate. A registration scheme would be effective, simple and in the interests of privately fostered children, their parents and the fosterers. Today, however, we should celebrate the progress that is being made, and look forward to consultation and the involvement of all parties in making the care system much better than it has been in the past.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I too congratulate the Government. I am glad that we have embarked on this stage in a spirit of celebration. We all recognise the vital role of carers in giving some of the most disadvantaged children the opportunity of a stable family life and, indeed, other opportunities. We should value the wonderful people who offer those services, and show that we value them.

The Government's new clause and amendments make our new clause redundant. We are pleased about that, and pleased about the response to debate in the other place. I particularly appreciate the Minister's assurance that there will be more emphasis on training: I think that professionalisation is part of the valuing of the skills from which we are benefiting as a society and as corporate parent. What is clear is that we have failed looked-after children in many respects, and we can do much better.

I am glad that there is to be consultation in an attempt to agree on the details. It will be a difficult process, but it is the only way to deal with vast discrepancies for which it is hard to find any explanation. While acknowledging the complexities and the hard work involved, I would find it helpful if the Minister gave us an idea of the time scale. People need to know whether we are talking about six, 12 or 18 months.

I am afraid that local authorities in my part of the world pay less than the minimum, no doubt because of pressure on resources. We will need to be reassured that there will be new resources to cover this new measure. I do not think that referring to pots of money that are already accounted for is sufficient.

I, too, lament the fact that we did not manage to persuade the Government that private foster parents should be registered now rather than at some indefinite time in the future. I hope that we shall be able to return to that, although I accept that we debated it at length in Committee.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members who may be looking for some dissent here but I too welcome the words of the Minister. I have long been in favour of establishing minimum fostering allowances. As a very young social worker in the mid-1970s, I found it extremely difficult to recruit foster parents, one of the reasons being that the rates were so insufficient. Only last year, I met with the fostering network in my constituency in Caernarfon, Gwynedd, and found the same concerns surfacing yet again, some 28 years later.

Foster parents are in short supply. Often they are out of pocket, and willingly so because they are committed to the work that they do. They play an invaluable role on behalf of us all. That should be recognised properly. The state should not be, by default, taking advantage of
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those people's commitment to their calling, and I am glad that the Minister will remedy that.

There is something of a postcode lottery in Wales, as the rates vary in the 22 local authorities. I will be glad to see the establishment of minimum rates, so that the rates paid do not depend on the local authority's ability to pay. I and the hon. Members who have contributed so far may have been reading the same brief. I think that the questions that have been raised already are important: how will the rates be calculated—I say "rates" because I assume that there will be a number—when will they be implemented and will local authorities be certain that a ring-fenced grant is available to ensure that the measure is properly funded?

Mr. Hancock: Like other hon. Members, I am delighted that we have this measure. It would be foolish of anyone here to doubt its necessity, or the pleasure that the whole House must have in seeing the new clause and indeed the Bill come into force. However, there are real issues.

I had 35 years' experience in local government of trying to recruit and encourage people to foster. It was not just the initial rate for the job that was a problem, but the failure of local authorities to support foster parents once in a position to take care of children. They always had to fight for the foster child's right to have the money to go on a school trip or to have the school uniform provided. Local authorities always saw foster care and fosterers as at the bottom end of social services' responsibilities. There was never great enthusiasm, mainly because too many social services directors thought that they knew best and held children's homes as a solution to the problem. It has taken a generation to change that.

I am delighted that the director of social services for Portsmouth city council, Mr. Rob Hutchinson, has been actively involved in much of the work that we are discussing. It is to his credit that he brings his reputation and the experience that he has gained both in Portsmouth and in Hampshire to bear on this matter, but the issues do not end there. Hon. Members are right to raise some doubts: the length of time it will take clearly to establish a minimum rate that will be universally acceptable and the need for flexibility on top of that, because it will still be difficult to recruit. In London, it will for ever be difficult to recruit foster parents. In some regions of the south-east, because of the economic climate, it will be difficult because it will be better for a family who need the resources to go elsewhere. Therefore, we must ensure that the judgment made on the minimum rate is right, and that local authorities have flexibility to allow extra payments to be made to take care of local needs. That must be a requirement.

On the point about local authorities ring-fencing not only the fostering element but their responsibilities towards fosterers, one cannot increase the number of fosterers if one does not increase the amount available to local authorities to manage, recruit, train and supervise what is happening properly. Too many local authorities will recruit as many fosterers as they can to take care of these vulnerable children in what they consider now to be the best way, yet not resource their central advisers to fosterers properly.
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1.45 pm

Sadly, private fostering has often come to the fore in my area. Local authorities face dilemmas in trying to deal with that, as do any of the authorities, such as the police, that may want to get involved but find it difficult to do so. I am at a loss to understand why the idea of a compulsory legally enforceable register for private fostering is not at the forefront of the Bill, because the real dangers are to those children.

Most children in local authority care will stand a reasonable chance of having their progress properly monitored and their futures clearly marked out for them but, in lots of instances, private fostering relationships are recipes for personal tragedies for the children. For that not to be recognised is a failure. Some way of having proper control over those arrangements and over the monitoring of those children is essential if we are to give them a fair chance in life. It is simply not good enough to suggest that what we have at the moment is satisfactory, because it manifestly is not.

That said, I welcome what has been said. I hope that the consultation is speedy, but I do not want it to neglect some of the real issues that need to be dealt with. Some of them may have to be dealt with by future legislation because I do not think that they can be remedied as easily as some of us may want.

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