Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Clause 35

Extension of period allowed for making regulations under section 45 or 46 of the Children Act 2004
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 15—Registration scheme—
‘(1) Section 45 of the Children Act 2004 (c. 31) (power to establish registration scheme in England) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) omit the word “may” and insert “will within one year”.
(3) Omit section 47 of the Children Act 2004.’.
Tim Loughton: In rising to speak to the clause and the new clause that I tabled, a deep sense of d√(c)j√ vu descends on me. With various hon. Members, I have debated the private fostering registration scheme on countless occasions over the past seven or eight years.
Before I state the reasons behind new clause 15, I wish to explain that we originally tabled amendment No. 22, which is one of those amendments that seeks to strike out the whole of the clause and which never get selected. Instead, it has become an adaptation new clause. Essentially, we do not want to give the Government the power to extend the sunset clause provisions relating to a possible private fostering registration scheme that were inserted into the Children Act 2004, and which expire or set in November this year. We felt that striking out the clause would have done the job, but apparently that must be put in the form of a new clause.
I do not want to go into vast detail. I simply refer the Committee to countless speeches that various hon. Members have made over the last few years on the need for a private fostering registration scheme. I refer the Committee to the 1997 Utting report, “People Like Us”, which made recommendations for a private fostering registration scheme. I refer hon. Members to the work of the joint working party on foster care in 1999, which revealed the high potential for abuse and neglect and urged regulation of private fostering in a public awareness campaign. I refer hon. Members to the Laming report in the wake of the Victoria Climbi√(c) tragedy, which recommended a review of the private fostering system. I refer hon. Members to my modest ten-minute Bill, introduced on 19 March 2003, which contained three provisions, one of which was to institute a private fostering registration scheme.
It is inexplicable to many of us that the Government have avoided supporting a measure that a broad consensus of people involved in children’s issues and adoption and fostering have been saying for some time is necessary. We are confounded as to why the Government have still not gone along with it. Throughout all the years of calling for such a scheme, we have seen extensive regulation of child minding—the registration scheme has enjoyed a degree of success—and all sorts of care standards for inspection of care homes and fostering agencies, some of which we have discussed today. Numerous new adoption rights and requirements have been introduced, and hundreds of thousands of people who deal with young people have been subjected to Criminal Records Bureau checks, including me. After enormous hassle, I managed to get myself CRB checked—it is no easy feat. Nobody wants to take responsibility for that, but I thought it appropriate that the shadow Minister for Children got a CRB check, which I eventually did. We have even had legislation to clamp down on puppy farming, but still we have not had a registration scheme for private fostering.
Incredibly, people who offer their services as private foster carers, often as complete strangers, have no real compunction about not registering their services, although there are local authority registers and the notification scheme was supposedly bolstered in the 2004 Act. I shall come back in a moment to some of the words of the then Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), and some of the undertakings that she gave us when the 2004 Act was being passed. For people who are unknown to local social services departments, there can be no guarantees of quality of care or that they are accessing appropriate training, support and benefits, and no control over the number of different placements that the child will experience, which all have 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, disproportionately involving children coming from west Africa, particularly Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast—Victoria Climbi√(c) came from the latter 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 Health stopped collecting data back in 1991, so inaccurate were the figures. 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.
We could look at some of the undertakings that the then Minister gave during some lively debates on the 2004 Act. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole was present, and the then hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, Hilton Dawson, who was a great advocate of a private registration scheme, voted with the Opposition in defiance of the Government to introduce it. It was pointed out that
“every report that the Government have commissioned over the past five years confirms that privately fostered children”—[Official Report, 2 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 186.]
can be “very vulnerable”. Hilton Dawson said that he could not
“honestly believe that the Government are proposing such an inadequate scheme as that expressed in clause 37”—
section 37 of the 2004 Act—
“and introducing the possibility of a registration scheme only in a sunset clause.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 282.]
The Government introduced enabling legislation for a private fostering registration scheme that would come into force after a certain period unless a good reason why not was found, hence a sunset clause.
6.15 pm
What the Government intend in this Bill is to extend the sunset clause. What has changed in the intervening period such that the term of the sunset clause has to be extended? What have the Government found out in that period that has convinced them to extend the sunset clause that denies the coming into force of a private fostering registration scheme? What do we need to know in order to clear the hurdle and trigger that scheme coming into force?
The sunset clause was a sop, and the fact that the Government are now seeking to extend it without a good reason just goes to prove that it was a sop. It is a sop to mention the issue when one has no real inclination to do something about it, as I charged the then Children’s Minister with doing in 2004, and quite honestly I do not think that anything has changed to negate the charge that I made then.
In 2004, the right hon. Member for Barking, when saying that she wanted to beef up the notification scheme, admitted:
“I think that the notification scheme is not working well.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 285.]
I think that we all agreed with that. She went on to say, in support of the sunset clause:
“The clause is in the Bill because we want to strengthen the scheme and give it one last chance to work.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 288.]
That, in 2004, was the last chance, but now, apparently, there is another last chance. The Government need to make a case and justify why this is proving to be a very long sunset 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. As at 31 March 2007—the last year for which we have figures—1,250 children were reported as being cared for and accommodated in private fostering arrangements in England, and 1,010 private fostering arrangements ended during the previous year, so we are still well short of the 10,000 private fostering arrangements that are estimated to exist. We still do not know who is involved in those 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. A survey was carried out back in 2005 by The Voice newspaper; it was particularly focused on black private fostering arrangements in London, where we know there has been a problem, of which the Victoria Climbi√(c) case was just one example. That survey found that of the respondents, about 35 per cent.—just one third—knew about private fostering. Twenty-one per cent. of the respondents were from Africa and of those, although 31 per cent. said that they knew about private fostering, only half of them actually knew what it meant. Thirty-five per cent. of respondents said that they knew about private fostering, but when probed further, it was found that only 15 per cent. actually did know what it was about. There was a pretty low recognition level, particularly among a key target client group.
Part of the raison d’√™tre 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 area aware of the requirement to register under the scheme. However, three or four years on, in January this year, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering carried out a further survey of Londoners and came up with an even worse result, showing that few professionals working with children understand what private fostering is. In a YouGov survey, using an even bigger sample than the original survey, adults living in London were asked what they thought it meant for a child to be privately fostered and they were offered a series of possible answers. Only 18 per cent. picked the correct definition. Furthermore, only 16 per cent. knew that the parent and carer, when making private fostering arrangements, must notify the local authority in the area where the child will live and that failure to do so is an offence. Two hundred professionals who come into regular contact with children were surveyed, including teachers, teaching assistants, doctors and nurses, and what is really worrying is that only 18 per cent. of them knew the correct definition of private fostering, despite the fact that professionals working with children obviously play a vital role in identifying privately fostered children. It would appear from that evidence that the publicity and promotion of 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 one.
I also asked at that time how many people have been prosecuted for not registering with the notification scheme. The Minister did not know the figure but admitted that it was probably very low. I would like to know how many have now been prosecuted for failing to register. I hazard a guess that the number remains very low. That scheme was supposedly beefed up and bolstered by the Children Act 2004 and the intention was to initiate a promotion and awareness campaign. That campaign has singularly failed to promote awareness, to attract the sizeable number of those likely to be involved in private fostering arrangements in this country to register, or to bring any increase in the number of prosecutions of those not complying with the supposedly beefed-up legislation.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children who are parked with friends or relatives because their parents have gone into custody are particularly at risk in that situation?
6.22 pm
Committee suspended for a Division in the House.
6.37 pm
On resuming
Kerry McCarthy: As I was saying, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that children whose parents are serving custodial sentences could be at risk if they were placed with friends or family for the duration of those sentences. Does he think that we should have better local monitoring and recording of children who fall into that category, particularly as it would allow schools to keep an eye on their welfare?
Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. She may not realise it, but that is the subject of a campaign being run by the Catholic diocese of Liverpool on the vulnerability of children whose parents find themselves in the custody system. It is a fair point, but I shall not let it take us down a completely separate byway. However, it is another aspect of the issue that requires attention.
I have slightly forgotten where I was before the Division and before the hon. Lady’s intervention. Rather than start again, I shall begin my conclusion. The point that I have been trying to make—I am sure that other Opposition Members concur—is that the time has surely come for a proper, formal registration scheme for private fostering arrangements. I do not claim that it will be a universal panacea. It will not be easy to police, and it will not be foolproof. I certainly do not want to play the nanny state card, having the state interfere with children who legitimately attend boarding schools or language schools, or children on holiday exchanges and so on, who have often been set up as the problem.
6.39 pm
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
6.53 pm
On resuming—
Tim Loughton: I said when I started speaking to the new clause that I had a sense of d√(c)j√ vu—this is the third wave of d√(c)j√ vu this sitting. I will try to bring my comments to a speedy conclusion before the House divides again and I again have to try to pick up where I left off.
The point is that we need a private fostering registration scheme, which the un-sunsetted clause would provide. That national register of private foster carers would be available to birth parents who wished to pursue a private fostering arrangement, and it would enable local authorities to ensure that standards of care were suitable and appropriate help and support was offered. Such a scheme could also deter private foster carers who had fallen foul of local authority 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.
In conclusion, 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 for Children, Young People and Families said that
“we will require the local safeguarding boards to have regard to how well or otherwise private fostering arrangements are being implemented.”
I would very much like to hear whether the findings of the local safeguarding children boards have coloured the Government’s thinking regarding not going ahead with the scheme. The then Children’s Minister clearly said that
“the notification scheme has not worked—there has not been compliance with the regulatory framework.”
She went on to say that
“if this final attempt to get the notification scheme to work is not successful, we would have to examine an alternative, despite the many concerns that we have about the alternatives.”
She described the positive disincentive of the scheme as it then stood. Finally, she said that
“if we fail in our endeavours to make the notification scheme work, we will not need to return to the House with primary legislation and we will implement the registration scheme, despite our concerns about whether it will work as well as everyone would like it to.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 289-91.]
It was quite 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 are the Government seeking to extend the sunset clause again? When is a sunset not a sunset? How many more chances will they give to show that the notification scheme works, or as we think, that it simply 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 commend new clause 15 to the Committee.
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