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In the years during which we have called for such a scheme, there has been extensive regulation of child minding—that registration scheme has enjoyed a degree of success—and all sorts of standards for the inspection of care homes and fostering agencies have been introduced. There are numerous new adoption rights and requirements, and hundreds of thousands of people who deal with
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young people have become subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks, including me. We have even considered legislation to clamp down on puppy farming, but still we have not introduced a registration scheme for private fostering.

We are talking about potentially vulnerable children, and people who are unknown to local social services departments. There can be no guarantee of equality of care, and no guarantee that people are accessing appropriate training, support and benefits. There is no control over the number of placements that a child will experience. That all has ramifications for the safety, welfare and well-being of children in private fostering arrangements. We have no accurate measure of the extent of such arrangements, although some years ago it was estimated that there are in excess of 10,000 private foster care arrangements in this country. They disproportionately involve children coming from west Africa, particularly Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, which is where Victoria Climbié came from, although she came via France.

I am sure that a large majority of private foster carers do a good job and pose no threat to their charges, but we simply do not know. We have no idea of the extent of the problem, because the Department of Heath stopped collecting data back in 1991, as the figures were so inaccurate. Since 1991, regulations have brought in local registers of foster carers, but there is no real legal penalty for not registering, and many people are ignorant of the requirements.

As I say, the Government introduced legislation that would enable a private fostering registration scheme to be set up. It was to come into force after a certain period unless a good reason why it should not be introduced was found; hence the sunset clause. The Government intend to extend the sunset clause by means of the Bill, but what has changed since the Children Act 2004 that requires the terms of the sunset clause to be extended yet further? What have the Government found out since then that has convinced them to extend the sunset clause, which prevents the coming into force of a private fostering registration scheme, and what do we need to know to clear that hurdle and trigger the coming into force of the scheme?

In one of his weaker moments, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), formerly the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families, came up with some very unconvincing reasons why the Government needed to do yet more research. I do not think that his heart was in it when he opposed the measure. There are still no specifics about what research would be required before the Government could make a definitive decision to go ahead with such a scheme.

We believe that the sunset clause was a sop; the fact that the Government now seek to extend it without good reason goes to prove that. It is a sop to mention the issue without having any real inclination to do anything about it. That is what I charged the Minister who had responsibility for children in 2004 with, and nothing has happened to negate that charge. In 2004, in saying that she wanted to beef up the notification scheme, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who was then the Minister with responsibility for children, admitted:

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We all agreed with that. But she went on to say, in support of the sunset clause:

That was the “last chance”—in 2004. Now, apparently, there is to be another last chance. The Government must make their case properly and justify why the sunset is proving to be very long indeed. Will we ever see the dawn of a private fostering registration scheme, which so many of us have wanted for so many years? I am at a loss to see how the notification scheme can have been deemed a success.

At the end of March last year, the last year for which we have figures, roughly 1,250 children were reported as having been cared for and accommodated in private fostering arrangements in England, and 1,010 such arrangements ended during the previous year. That is well short of the 10,000 or so private fostering arrangements that are estimated to exist, and we still do not know who is involved in the arrangements.

Another reason for beefing up the provision in 2004 was to publicise the existence of notification schemes and the legal requirement to register with them. Back in 2005, The Voice carried out a survey that particularly focused on black private fostering arrangements in London, in respect of which there have been problems, of which the Victoria Climbié case was just one example. That survey found that 35 per cent. of the respondents—only a third—knew about private fostering. Some 21 per cent. of the respondents were from Africa, and although 31 per cent. of those said that they knew about private fostering, only half knew what it actually meant. Some 35 per cent. of respondents said that they knew about private fostering, but when they were probed further it was found that only 15 per cent. knew what it was about. There was a pretty low recognition level, particularly among that key target client group.

Part of the raison d’ĂȘtre behind the changes made by the Minister in charge of the Children Bill in 2004 was to promote better awareness. Local authorities were charged with making potential or existing private fosterers in their areas aware of the requirements to register under the scheme. However, in January this year—four years on—the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, or BAAF, carried out a further survey of Londoners and came up with an even worse result, which showed that few professionals working with children understand what private fostering is. In a YouGov survey that used an even bigger sample than the original one, adults living in London were asked what they thought a child being privately fostered meant. They were offered a series of possible answers. Only 18 per cent. picked the correct definition.

Furthermore, only 16 per cent. knew that when making private fostering arrangements, the parent and carer must notify the local authority of the area where the child will live, and that failure to do so is an offence. Two hundred professionals—professionals, not just parents—who come into regular contact with children were surveyed, including teachers, teaching assistants, doctors and nurses. What is really worrying is that only 18 per cent. of those professionals knew the correct definition of private fostering, despite the fact that such professionals obviously play a vital role in identifying privately fostered children.

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Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend has given the most astonishing figures; the mind boggles about what the other 82 per cent. of the professionals or public thought private fostering was. Does he have the questions that were asked, so that the House can understand what people might have thought?

Tim Loughton: I do not have them to hand, although I have the report, which I shall be happy to pass on to my hon. Friend. But the figures speak for themselves. The fact is that professionals gave that response, and it is terribly alarming to think about what on earth they thought private fostering was.

It would appear from that evidence that the publicity information on the existing notification process has been an abysmal failure. How much money was spent on it, and what results do the Government think have been gained? The surveying of key target audiences has shown that if it has had any impact, it has been a negative impact.

5.15 pm

The time has surely come for a proper formal registration scheme for private fostering arrangements. I do not claim that it would be a universal panacea. It would not be easy to police and it would not be foolproof. I certainly do not want to play the nanny state card by having the state interfere with children who legitimately attend boarding schools or language schools or children on holiday exchanges, who have often been cited as a potential problem as regards such legislation. The point is that we need a private fostering registration scheme, which the un-sunsetted new clause would provide. That national register of private foster carers would be available to birth parents who wish to pursue a private fostering arrangement, and it would enable local authorities to ensure that standards of care were suitable and appropriate and that suitable and appropriate help and support was offered. Such a scheme could also deter private foster carers who had fallen foul of local authorities or authorised foster agency inspections but had not committed offences sufficiently serious for them to be put on the Department for Children, Schools and Families watch list.

The Government have not made the case for why the scheme should not now come into force. In our deliberations on the Children Bill in 2004, the then Minister with responsibility for children said:

I would like to hear whether the findings of those local safeguarding boards have coloured the Government’s thinking in not going ahead with the scheme. The Minister continued:

She described the positive disincentive of the scheme as it then stood, and finally said:

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Those words were pretty categorical. It was clear four years ago that unless there was overwhelming evidence to show that the notification scheme was working, this section of the Children Act 2004 would come into force. Why, therefore, are the Government seeking to extend the sunset clause yet again? When is a sunset not a sunset? How many more chances will they give it to show that the notification scheme works—or that, as we think, it does not work—before we have the private fostering registration scheme for which a wide cross-section of people have been calling for many years? On that basis, I am keen to commend new clause 7, which is long overdue.

New clause 23 proposes foster carers charters. We are all acutely aware of the shortage of foster carers, particularly those with specialisms. All the evidence shows great variety and contrasts in the experiences of foster carers and their relationships with local authorities, so we need to have a level playing field. Foster carers often say that they lack support from their local authority when they need it. Children with complex needs may be placed with them, but the necessary accompanying package of support—specialist professionals, speech and language therapy, children and adolescent mental health services, or whatever it may be—is not forthcoming, and they have limited access to specialist services.

The foster carers charter is all about a fair deal for foster carers. The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that local authorities do the right thing by foster carers and their authority, that the means by which local authorities will support kinship carers are set down in writing, that variations in regional practice are made more transparent, that local authorities are made more accountable to foster carers, and that prospective foster carers are given a better sense of what to expect. That proposal was put forward in the Centre for Social Justice report “Couldn’t Care Less”, which reveals a wide variation in conditions for foster carers across the country. Too many foster carers are unsure of their status, entitlements and responsibilities.

We believe that local authorities should devise and publish a simple fostering charter to which they sign up, and which should specify the basic support that all fostering kinship carers should receive. It should provide a kitemark that would allow foster carers to know whether they were receiving the help to which they were entitled, and it would hold local authorities to account.

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that prospective foster carers should also be provided with full information about a prospective foster child—their history, their health and any other problems that they have—particularly if they have profound behavioural problems, so that the foster parents can make a judgment as to whether they can cope with that situation?

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Committee we discussed the appropriateness of certain placements, particularly in the case of children with complex needs, where it is absolutely essential to maintain the stability of a placement so that it has a good chance of succeeding. For the placement to stand any chance of getting off the ground, there should be a full transparent declaration of a child’s needs. That is what the charter is all about: ensuring that foster carers can expect to receive all the relevant information that they need. It
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would ensure that local authorities provided that information. It would also include references to items such as a living wage, respect for foster carer opinions and support from education, social care and mental health professionals. In return, foster carers would be clearly shown what was expected of them, such as their training obligations.

I believe that our proposal would help to reverse the postcode lottery in the treatment of foster carers, and it would encourage a better quality of relationship between foster carers and local councils, thus improving recruitment and retention. This is not something we are trying to impose nationally, from the centre—it will be up to local authorities to decide on what their charters would contain for their local foster carers’ needs. It is a fair deal for foster carers, who do an excellent and very important job in this country. We need to make their job easier and give them far more support. They need to know what support they can expect, and we hope that by doing that, we might attract more foster carers.

Mr. Timpson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the provision of this charter to each local authority will help to improve the accountability of social workers to foster carers at a time when many such carers are caring for foster children while social workers are not meeting their duty to make statutory visits on a regular basis? The charter will help shore up the response to that problem.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I defer to his much greater personal and professional knowledge of how the system is working—or not working—throughout the country. He is right that too often, because of pressures of work and systemic problems, particularly relating to the social workers’ work load, too many excuses are made about why social workers are not fulfilling their expected duties. If what is expected of them is set down, there is a better chance of holding an authority to account to ensure that it has the number, variety and diversity of social workers to do the job that it has to do properly. That is all part of the process.

We are proposing two important new clauses. Not for the first time, new clause 7 has proved its worth, and there is no excuse for further prevarication and delay on the subject of why such a scheme should not come into force now. New clause 23 represents an important way of sending a signal to foster carers that they are valued, and that they should know what to expect as part of the deal for taking on an enormous duty of care for which we owe them enormous gratitude.

Annette Brooke: I would like to address new clause 7, to which I have signed up. Like the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), I feel very strongly about it.

Privately fostered children who are unknown to the authorities must be a cause for concern, given that so many reports confirm that the total will include some very vulnerable children. Authorities have no knowledge of the physical and emotional support systems available to those children—or, indeed, whether such systems are available to them.

The report that the then Prime Minister commissioned in 1997, which Sir William Utting undertook, referred to private fostering as a potential honey pot for abusers. I proposed a compulsory registration scheme for private
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fosterers in the Committee that considered the Children Act 2004. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the then children’s Minister, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), stated:

Obviously, we have no idea how many children are privately fostered. For many years, the figure of 10,000 children has been suggested. However, the latest figures show that, at 31 March 2008, 1,330 children were known to live under private fostering arrangements. In previous years, the figures were: 1,250 in 2007, 980 in 2006 and 730 in 2005. Clearly, there is a staggering gap between the number of children estimated to be living under private fostering arrangements and those accounted for. That demonstrates that foster parents are simply not coming forward and alerting authorities to their presence. The Children Act 2004 gave the notification scheme three years to work and clearly stated that compulsory registration would be introduced if it did not. The figures plainly demonstrate that the notification scheme is not working.

Closer examination of the figures shows great regional variations. Although we are considering relatively low numbers, Yorkshire and Humberside recorded a 50 per cent. increase in new notifications per year between 2005 and 2008, whereas London recorded a 327 per cent. increase.

I feel that it is worth mentioning again the tragic case of Victoria Climbié. Although some would argue that a private fostering arrangement did not exist in her case, her situation could well have been such an arrangement. Parts of the inquiry following her death serve as a very real warning of the dangers of children being missed by the authorities. Paragraph 1.27 is especially pertinent. It states:

How can we have accountability if we do not know which children are privately fostered?

It is also worth considering that, in addition to the huge benefits to the child, compulsory registration would be incredibly helpful to foster parents. The security to parents of gaining confirmation of their role and status and being part of a network would be extremely beneficial.

To revert to the statistics that I cited earlier, there are clearly variations in practice across the country. Should the Minister decide to resist the new clause—I sincerely hope that she will not—will she give details of the robust plan and actions that she will take to ensure that best practice is shared and that all local authorities have the matter high on their agenda? How will she ensure that notification works? Delay in the matter is a sign of failure and perhaps even negligence.

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