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New clause 13 relates to the registration of foster carers. Registration would ensure that foster carers were accorded the status and standing that their role demands, and improve the respect and treatment that they receive from other professionals with whom they work. It would also allow for the introduction of a national code of
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conduct, for expectations about continuing professional development to be raised, for ensuring that safeguarding children remains paramount, and for increased portability of approval for foster carers who move to a new part of the country.

Currently, foster carers must be approved by a fostering service provider before a child is placed with them. Foster carers can be approved by only one fostering service provider and only that provider can place a child with them post-approval. With the proposed registration of residential social care workers, it is becoming increasingly anomalous that foster carers, who have far greater unsupervised contact with vulnerable children, should remain unregistered.

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There are difficulties with the current system. When a person applies to be a foster carer, there is no system in place to identify whether someone has been previously approved or had their approval terminated, unless the individual chooses to make that disclosure. Also, foster carers are approved by the individual local authority. If they move to another part of the country or wish to change the fostering service that they work for, they must go through the whole approval process again. There are neither nationally agreed expectations about foster carers’ continuing professional development nor any formal recognition that places them at the heart of the team surrounding the child in care.

It is so important to continue working towards the professionalisation of foster carers. Our proposal would be a step in the right direction. The code of practice would be of enormous value, as it would strengthen and clarify what children and young people can expect from their foster carer. The point is to confirm the status and expectations of foster carers, to safeguard children in care and to reassure the general public. Those objectives have been met for others in the social care work force, so when will we achieve parity for foster carers?

Interestingly, new clause 23 touches on some of the same issues, but proposes a more informal approach. It contains some interesting ideas; indeed, I would be rather surprised if something similar were not operating in the best local authorities. I am therefore not convinced that there is a need to legislate at this stage; rather, perhaps new clause 23 sets out some good practice that should be encouraged.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): No vice can be worse than the sustained and deliberate abuse of a child by an adult who has promised to protect and care for them. Therefore, no Member of Parliament who represents the people of Brent could rise in the House to speak about fostering without the heavy memory of the case of Victoria Climbié, who was once resident in Brent and was murdered by her foster parents.

Clear leadership and guidance was given by Lord Laming in his 2003 report on that murder. The Government have introduced measures to amend the arrangements under the 1989 Act for local authorities to safeguard and protect the welfare of privately fostered children.

I listened with great care to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who explained
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that section 45 of the 2004 Act, while allowing the Secretary of State to make regulations to establish a registration scheme for all private foster carers, is in jeopardy of going into the sunset, as he put it, and not being implemented. That is what I take to be the import of new clause 7, which he has moved. It is on those issues that I wish to speak and probe.

Victoria Climbié came to this country as a young girl, as do many children who come to my constituency. In Wembley, we have a clear pattern of immigration of young children, who come to stay with aunties, uncles or members of their extended family. Often they come on a six-month visitor visa to live with relatives. Those young children will often start school over that six-month period, yet without any assessment being made of their legality or status. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families knows only too well from her experience at the Home Office how many of those children end up becoming overstayers and, as such, children of no status within the community. They are extremely vulnerable children who, if they had ever had a passport holding the visa that expired, would have had it taken away by the foster parent—the carer, supposedly.

I have dealt with many cases involving people who overstayed for many years, but who first came to my surgery as children and who had on many occasions been subjected to abuse. For that reason, I welcome the provision in clause 7 that puts a duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. To some extent, that will go a long way to addressing the problems that I have outlined and which the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) talked about.

I want simply to ask questions. I listened with great care and with some sympathy to those two hon. Members speak of the need for clear lines of accountability and clarity on the issue. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether agreeing to the new clause would mean having to engage in a process of drafting and consultation on regulations that itself might exceed the time limit specified in that new clause. How long is necessary to gather and analyse the evidence and to make a sound decision about the future? Will she outline what proposals the Government have to do that and to take on board the clear concern that there should be clarity for children who find themselves in such a situation?

I want briefly to discuss new clause 23. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about a fair deal for foster carers. I hope he will acknowledge the considerable progress that the Government have made in establishing precisely such a fair deal. Virtually every hon. Member who has spoken in the House today referred to the enormous debt of gratitude that we as a society owe to people who open their lives to children—often very vulnerable children—and care for them. I wish to add my thanks to all those carers and foster carers in my constituency who perform that incredible service and work.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that in the legislation that they have passed and the proposals that they have made the Government have taken extraordinarily seriously the issue of foster carers and the sense of responsibility that we owe to them for the work that they do. The White Paper “Care Matters”
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emphasised the importance of providing carers with the necessary development, support and training to equip them with the skills that they require to deal with children who often have extremely complex needs.

“Care Matters” sets out a number of proposals to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers and the quality and stability of placements. To support carers to develop effective relationships with the children in their care, the Government have committed themselves to funding a national roll-out of Fostering Changes, a positive parenting programme that aims to develop carers’ capacity to manage and cope with the often extremely challenging behaviour of children under their care. At least one London local authority has already adopted the Fostering Changes programme.

More generally, a number of significant improvements for foster carers have already been made. In April last year, the Government introduced a national minimum allowance intended to set a benchmark for minimum payment rates for all foster carers, so that no one should be out of pocket as a result of that caring role. That was accompanied by good practice guidance to help providers to improve the way that they organise their payment systems for foster carers. In May last year, the Government funded the Children’s Workforce Development Council to launch the foster care training, support and development standards, giving fostering providers a framework for their carers’ training and professional development.

In all those areas, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will accept that the Government have gone very far and quite fast in achieving the support and clarity for carers that he calls for in new clause 23.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Having been elected for about three and a half years, I have realised how important it is to have a constituency, and how much a constituency educates us. I have spent the past three and a half years trying to get to grips with and understand my constituency, and have learned a huge amount. It has been an important part of my political education—it is a little like taking off the layers of an onion. One of the important things is to apply social policy to the practical experiences of constituents. Speaking to foster carers and those in our constituencies who support and train them enables us to appreciate the difference between real help and initiatives that look good on paper but are, in fact, so much red tape.

I commend a new initiative called Fostering Changes, which has been promoted by the Government. It began at Southwark and has been developed in Islington in my constituency. It is about giving real support to foster parents, as opposed to being a charter for foster carers simply to put on their wall. Fostering Changes gives a great deal of assistance to foster parents. My constituency is an inner-city one with high levels of deprivation. If there were a top 10 in terms of the number of people who are drug addicts, have mental health problems and are struggling to bring up children on their own, unfortunately we would be in it. My borough is also No. 3 in the country in terms of the highest number of children in care per head.

However, before Conservative Members get excited and start bouncing up and down talking about a broken society, let me say that we are not a broken society.
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Many people in my constituency will open up their hearts and homes and give such young people somewhere to live where they can be loved. Such kids are often difficult, angry and mixed up, but 75 per cent. of Islington’s children who live in care are in families where they are supported. There has been a training course available to help fosterers deal with allegations, to assist them in giving first aid, to train them in drug and alcohol issues, and to promote children’s ID.

Fostering Changes, however, was developed by the borough of Southwark and the Maudsley, on the Webster-Stratton model. People from the Maudsley have come to Islington to train up our trainers, and they are now able to do the courses. We are about to start the fifth course. We hope that by the end of this year all our carers will have been trained. The course lasts 10 weeks, and one day a week is spent talking about how to deal with the difficult behaviour of the children being looked after.

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That course is primarily intended for those who are looking after children aged between three and 11, but there have been courses for teenagers as well. It is not magic, but it really helps with building a relationship between the furious little bundle who has had such an enormously difficult life and has ended up in someone’s home, and the adult who is there to love it and give it security but who is, ultimately, a stranger and not its mum. The purpose of the course is to build that relationship so that carers can deal with the furious bundle, but also manage access to the original family—who may, in fact, represent some of the causes of many of the difficulties involved—and the relationship with the rest of the family.

I am very grateful to Norma Barnes and Mary Day, who have spent time explaining exactly what the course is about. Essentially, it is about positive reinforcement. During the day of the course, the carer talks about the difficulties that he or she is experiencing with the child, and is set homework for the rest of the week on how to deal with those difficulties: how to ignore bad behaviour and positively reinforce good behaviour, and how to give 30 minutes a day to a child. The carer should simply give the child attention—not direct the child and not ask questions, but do what the child wants. The difference that that makes to a severely abused child who has come from a difficult background into a home where there is an adult who simply wants to be with that child reinforces the child’s identity and confidence and helps to address bad behaviour in, I am told, a fantastic way. Along with other forms of discipline—time out, consequences, and the other more negative side of controlling a child—it can work really well. As I have said, it is not magic, but it helps to develop relationships.

That Government initiative was launched in Islington, but the good news for hon. Members is that it will be coming their way soon. It is being sent around the rest of the country, and I hope that foster parents will benefit from the practical and real help that it provides.

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)
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for their knowledgeable descriptions of a number of the efforts we have made to support foster carers in ways that make a real difference to them as, in my view, a charter and registration process would not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said, the Fostering Changes programme is spoken of very enthusiastically and warmly by foster carers who have benefited from it.

In the relatively short time left to me I want to focus on new clause 7, which deals with something that concerns Members throughout the House—the issue of privately fostered children. We all know that some such children—but by no means all: that is an important point—are a potentially vulnerable group. I share the anxiety of Members throughout the House to ensure that the arrangements for safeguarding them are as robust and effective as possible, and to do so as speedily as possible.

New clause 7 proposes that within a year of the Bill’s being passed, the Secretary of State would have to make regulations in relation to England to establish a registration scheme for private foster carers, and Welsh Ministers would have to do likewise for Wales. I recognise that there have been calls for a registration scheme for some time, and that in 2004 we said that we thought we could decide the matter within four years, but let me say to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that, keen as I am to move forward, it is clear to me that that time scale was too optimistic. Having examined the issue in some detail, I should add that it is equally clear to me that it would be unwise and foolhardy, if not impossible, to introduce a registration scheme within a year. I think that in the question he asked me on the subject, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North reached the right conclusion: that it simply would not be possible.

I accept that local authorities could have been swifter and more diligent in developing the notification scheme and raising levels of awareness, as required by the duty in the 2004 Act. I also accept, however, that we are asking them to do something extraordinarily difficult, which means building relationships with, in some cases, the most separated minority communities. That applies particularly to the children about whom we are most concerned.

I would not accept that we are dithering or dragging our feet. I gently remind the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham of the longer time scale. The Conservative party put in the Children Act 1989 a duty on local authorities to satisfy themselves of the welfare of privately fostered children, and then for eight years did nothing to satisfy themselves that local authorities were undertaking that duty.

Mr. Timpson: The Minister will recall that in Committee the former Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said during the debate on that issue that the principle of the scheme had not been abandoned by the Government. May I ask the Minister to go further today and to say that in principle the scheme is one that the Government believe in and that it is simply the logistics, the mechanisms and the gathering of evidence that are holding us back?

Beverley Hughes: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman, when he mentions the scheme, is talking
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about a notification scheme or a registration scheme. We have not abandoned the possibility of the necessity for a registration scheme, but because a year is not enough to test the notification scheme or to put a registration scheme in place, we have made provision in the Bill to extend the period for evaluation and assessment further before we make a decision on a registration scheme and abandon notification completely.

The registration scheme itself is not a panacea.

Tim Loughton: I said that.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman says that he knows that, but I will explain why. Exactly the same challenges that are facing us now in making a notification scheme work will apply in relation to a registration scheme. Those children who we are most worried about who are not currently being notified to the local authority and who are in a privately fostered arrangement will not necessarily be registered with the local authority. The local authority would be faced with the same challenges of raising levels of awareness, building relationships with minority communities and making sure that everyone registers who should. It is not a panacea for that precise reason.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) challenged us to say what we are going to do in the meantime. There are three things that we need to do. First, we need sufficient evidence before we make a decision and proceed. That is simply not available in the time scale, not because we have been tardy, but because it was never going to be available in the time scale. We have two full years of data on the notification scheme for 2006-07 and 2007-08. We have yet to get the third year that we always said we needed. Inspection data are also important. We set in place a three-year inspection programme started by the Commission for Social Care Inspection and continued by the Office for Standards in Education. The third report will not be completed until November 2009. The Welsh care and social services inspectorate is also undertaking a national review that will not be published until 2009.

Secondly, while we get that evidence, we need to ensure that we can push to the wire to see whether we can make the existing notification scheme as effective as possible. In that regard, we have already done a number of things. When my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) was the Under-Secretary of State, he wrote to all directors of children’s services asking them to do all they could to raise awareness of the scheme and to maximise notifications. Similar efforts have been made in Wales. [Interruption.] He wrote last month to all directors. Government offices will be working closely with local authorities in those areas where notifications are low, identifying them and targeting them. We are developing a national communications strategy to raise awareness of the current requirements within the children’s work force and we have provided £50,000 to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to sponsor a national private fostering awareness week in January. The Welsh Assembly Government are also providing support to BAAF in Wales to do a similar thing. Those measures together will help us to test the current system and give it its best chance of success.

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