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Margaret Hodge: It is a delight to see such consensus not just across the Chamber, but on the Government Benches. I welcome that enormously. Perhaps we should stop our business now.

Hon. Members have raised perfectly legitimate issues and demonstrated some of the complexity of the detail that we need to deal with as we take forward our intent to set a national foster care allowances system in process. The letter that was sent by the Association of Directors of Social Services said:

as we are doing today

It is because of the complexity of the issues and because we want to take our partners with us—the people on the front line who will have to implement the national scheme—that we are looking at a staged implementation. To help hon. Members, I will tell them what our thinking is, although it is early days.

We want to spend the early part of 2005 in extensive consultation with all interested partners. We hope at the end of that process to be able to set the rates and to publicise them. We hope that that in itself will move things forward and that a number of authorities will improve their rates after we have taken them through the discussion on what is a fair rate for looking after a child. During 2006, we hope to work with local authorities in implementing the rates, as set in 2005. We will then, probably at the beginning of 2007, invoke the power, should that be necessary, if local authorities are not complying with the rates that have been agreed with them. I hope that that gives hon. Members some clarity about the timetable.
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On costs, I accept the commitment given by the Government that were we to impose additional burdens, we would provide the necessary funding but I hope hon. Members will agree that looked-after children have to be placed. There is a legislative imperative to do so. If we do not have sufficient foster carers, particularly in the local community, an on-the-spot decision tends to be taken. Often, the looked-after children are placed in extremely expensive residential accommodation out of the borough. My officials and I will need some convincing during our discussions that setting an appropriate and proper minimum foster care allowance will constitute an additional expense. It could lead to a change in the way in which we spend money, and to an expenditure saving that we could then reinvest in other services that support foster carers or looked-after children. We will keep this issue at the forefront of our minds, but we do not necessarily agree that such an allowance will lead to an increase in expenditure on looked-after children in whom local authorities already invest money.

I do not want to suggest, as I had to do in Committee, that on these issues we are the libertarians and the Opposition are the Stalinists. However, we will not consider using a ring-fenced grant as a mechanism for implementing a minimum foster care system. We will have discussions with the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Social Services, and the various voluntary organisations that represent foster carers. We want, in that partnership environment, to work through what are very complex issues and to establish a workable system.

Tim Loughton: I do not wish to appear too Stalinist, but is the Minister saying that there will be a saving, which I agree there will be? As we discussed in Committee, we are talking about private children's homes that cost £2,000 a week upwards compared with foster carers who cost several hundred pounds, but surely there has to be a lead-in process. Will the Minister make sure that the money is available for local authorities to ensure that foster carers are trained and in place—doing so will indeed cost money—even if the savings will come a few years down the line, when we will no longer have to rely so much on out-of-area placements?

Margaret Hodge: That is just the sort of detailed conversation that we need to engage in with our partners. It was in the light of such issues that I alluded to the "Choice Protects" grant and to the additional resources that we are putting into children's services during the comprehensive spending review period.

Jonathan Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very easy simply to say that we will reduce the number of out-of-borough placements to the private sector? In fact, we need all these services, including specialist residential provision, so it is not a case of having one or the other. It is essential that we have such provision, and that it has the capacity to develop services for the most damaged children.
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Margaret Hodge: I agree with my hon. Friend and I certainly respect his experience, which was gained during many years on the front line as a social worker. But equally, I hope that he agrees with me that it is in the interests of more looked-after children to provide them with the stability of a placement in a loving home with a foster carer. Whatever the shortages, if we can increase the number of such carers—we need to establish a far better basis for doing so than currently exists—using the creation of a national foster allowance system as one mechanism for doing so, that will improve the lives of looked-after children for whom such an environment is appropriate. Over time, that should lead to some savings for local authorities that currently do not commission in a particularly rational way the places that they require for such children.

Given that Members want to speak about other issues, I shall deal briefly with the registration of private foster care. I agree with the House that this is a very important issue that we need to get right, which is why we have secured the relevant power through what is known as a sunset clause. As a result, if we cannot improve the current notification scheme, we can move immediately to a registration scheme without needing to return to the House to obtain primary legislation. The whole House agrees, as do I, that the current notification scheme is not working and is inadequate. But I hope that in the light of the additional powers that we are taking—powers to insist that awareness of the scheme be promoted, and that local authorities monitor their own notification schemes—Members will agree that it is worth allowing time to see whether the system works. With the best will in the world, even a registration scheme might not provide the safeguards and protection that we all seek for such children, who are sometimes the most vulnerable in our communities.

Jonathan Shaw: My right hon. Friend knows my views on this matter. What criteria does she envisage the Department using to assess whether her proposed scheme is successful, particularly given that the number of private foster carers is not known because the figures are not collated?

Margaret Hodge: This is a difficult issue, but those authorities that are making huge efforts to ensure that the notification scheme works have a far greater number of notifications than those that, in my view, are not making adequate efforts. So monitoring the number of notifications will be just one of the mechanisms that we will use. However, my hon. Friend is right to draw our attention to this issue. We do need to get a better handle on the quantum of the problem, and to focus on the most vulnerable among the broad group of children who come under private fostering arrangements.

I warmly thank Members for their welcome for the new clause. Rather than dividing on this issue I hope that we will unify, so that we can ensure that foster carers are rewarded properly, that they are not out of pocket in caring for looked-after children, and that we grow the foster care work force.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
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New Clause 1

Children's Commissioner: functions

'(1)   The Children's Commissioner has, subject to the following provisions of this Part, the function of promoting and safeguarding the rights and interests of children in England.

(2)   The Children's Commissioner may in particular under this section—

(a)   encourage persons exercising functions or engaged in activities affecting children to take account of their rights, views and interests;

(b)   advise the Secretary of State on the rights, views and interests of children;

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