Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Annette Brooke: I support the new clause wholeheartedly. We have discussed this issue on many occasions. The speeches were getting more and more polished, but I will be brief tonight.
We discussed this issue under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 because we were concerned that if we did not know about private fostering arrangements, there were children who effectively were not being safeguarded. That is quite a serious point. We are talking about potentially vulnerable children, perhaps with limited or no contact with their parents. There is a real need to prevent such vulnerable children from slipping through the net.
I am staggered at how low the notifications are. Have the Government have made their own assessment of numbers in private fostering? It would be interesting to hear that. We work on the basis of the estimate of 10,000. How do the Government intend to do better than they have done over the last four years? In other words, what more are they going to do to increase the level of notifications? The Government indicated when discussing the Children Act 2004 that there would be monitoring and reporting back from local authorities. Do we have any idea if some local authorities are progressing with the notifications better than others?
Thirdly, what will be the criteria for assessing whether voluntary schemes are working? All we know is that there is a judgment that two years is not long enough. I am not convinced that we need another three years. There is no movement of any significance in the numbers of notifications. It could be dangerous to allow this process to hang on for another three years. I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that this is something that we should just get on and do.
Kevin Brennan: The new clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations within one year to establish a registration scheme for private foster carers. It does not specify when that year would begin, but I presume that it would be the date on which the Bill is passed. It does not make any provision regarding the establishment of a registration scheme in Wales. We have heard that the intention in tabling the new clause was based on the concern over how well children are protected under the current private fostering arrangements as well as to press for an early implementation of the registration scheme.
7 pm
Having sat on the Committee for the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and discussed the matter on the other occasions that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I understand the point that he is making. We have a common aim of trying to ensure that the right safeguards are in place to protect privately fostered children and help place them on a more equal footing with other children, and a number of things have been achieved. I want to make it absolutely clear to the Committee that we have not abandoned the idea of a registration scheme. Because of the progress of the notification scheme so far, we feel that we simply do not have the evidence to justify the move right now.
I want to be clear about the progress that has been achieved over the past three years. To develop our evidence base, we have successfully established mechanisms for the collection of more robust baseline data. We have also instituted a three year inspection process, which began in April 2006 when the CSCI had responsibility for inspecting local authorities’ procedures for checking and monitoring private fostering arrangements. That responsibility was passed to Ofsted in April 2007. At the same time, the local authorities had been working hard to raise awareness of the notification requirements, implement them more effectively and build more trust in the relationships with local communities.
Raising awareness cannot simply be achieved through disseminating leaflets and other publicity material, important though that is. It requires building stronger relationships with communities, and it will take time to embed the practice of notification in all areas. Next January, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is making available £50,000 for the British Association of Adoption and Fostering to fund a national awareness-raising week in January 2009 on the notification arrangements.
I acknowledge hon. Members’ concerns, and clearly it will take time for the practice of notification in all areas to improve, even with the measures that we have taken. It is perhaps fair to say that it was over-optimistic to predict when we were passing the 2004 Act that we would have got as far by now as the hon. Gentleman would like, but I make no apology for wanting to get that right. Our evidence so far tells us that there is scope to improve the implementation of the current arrangements and points to some good examples of good practice. The first year’s inspection evidence revealed that 50 local authorities showed some very good and improving practice as well as some other areas where there was a lot of room for improvement.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Why is the Minister prepared to go so slowly in the case of private fostering arrangements when others were happy to be in favour of fast legislation, such as that relating to fox hunting?
Kevin Brennan: Because in acknowledging that the Government have by no means abandoned the idea of a registration scheme, we also acknowledge that there are also difficulties with a registration scheme—I think that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham went some way towards acknowledging that in his remarks. It is right to first gather further evidence on the notification scheme before proceeding to a registration scheme that could and would catch many families—the hon. Gentleman often raises the point of the state intrusion in family life. We do not necessarily want to insist on a registration scheme, and yet we have not abandoned it. We want to give the changes that have been made the correct amount of time so that we can collect the evidence that is necessary to make that judgment.
Therefore, we are not yet convinced of the need to move into a registration scheme, and how best to safeguard children in private fostering is simply not that clear cut. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that a registration scheme might not be a panacea for all the difficulties with private fostering and that a rushed and heavy-handed implementation of the scheme might deter some people from private fostering who might otherwise be able to offer support in difficult family situations.
Mr. Timpson: Will the Minister give us an assurance that he supports the principle that private fostering arrangements are there to protect vulnerable children? Is the only barrier to moving to that scheme a lack of the evidence that he requires to bring that principle to bear?
Kevin Brennan: I think that the hon. Gentleman meant the principle of a registration scheme for private fostering. That is how I interpreted his remarks. I have made it clear that the Government are not yet convinced that that is the best way to deal with private fostering. On the other hand, we have not abandoned the idea that registration might be the best way. We simply want to ensure that the evidence on the notification scheme is full and clear.
I stress that we are supported in that view by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, which works extensively on private fostering. The BAAF agrees that we should seek to ensure that the current arrangements operate effectively and evaluate them more fully before deciding whether to introduce a registration scheme. In my view, it would not be in the interest of children or those who work with them to do otherwise.
The intended effect of the new clause seems to be that within the next year, the Secretary of State would have to make regulations in respect of England to establish a registration scheme for private foster carers. We believe that before moving to that scheme, we need to evaluate the existing notification scheme, having taken the measures that I outlined to make it more effective. Then we need to consider whether such a regime would be more effective than what we have at present and what its added value would be.
If we then decide to move to registration, we will have to draft and consult on the regulations. All of that would take more than the year proposed in the new clause anyway. We must ensure enough time to gather the necessary evidence, analyse it and make a sound, evidence-based decision. The key problem is that we have only one full year’s data on the number of private fostering arrangements under the strengthened notification scheme. By 2010, we will have three full years of data as well as the results of three years of inspection by Ofsted, and we will know the impact of further activity to raise notification levels.
We are determined to improve the current arrangements and explore to what extent they might be improved. We are writing to local authorities to remind them of their duties in relation to private fostering, and Government offices are working with local authorities, particularly poor performers, to improve notification rates. We are also exploring links with other related policies, such as those concerning missing children, to ensure that information about private fostering is included in the relevant guidance.
We mentioned BAAF’s awareness-raising week in January 2009. It is right to retain the option to introduce a registration scheme for the further years envisaged in the Bill so that we can ensure that if the case for it is compelling, a registration scheme can be introduced at the right time, after the assessment of the strengthened notification scheme.
I know that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham does not want us to go any further on our journey down Sunset Boulevard in relation to the clause, but it is appropriate, having strengthened the notification scheme, to give it an opportunity to provide evidence whether it can work. That is a practical and pragmatic way forward, and I propose that he should withdraw his amendment.
Tim Loughton: The Minister has succeeded in driving disappointment to new heights. That was pretty weak. I am a big fan of sunset clauses in legislation, but the point of sunset clauses is that the sun must set some time, and this is proving to be a long, protracted sunset.
The Minister prayed in aid BAAF, for which another £50,000 will be made available for an awareness scheme. BAAF’s position when we last discussed the matter was this:
“The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) believes the best way to protect and safeguard privately fostered children is by implementing a registration and approval system for the most vulnerable children”.
BAAF, along with so many other agencies and organisations involved with vulnerable children, thinks that a private fostering registration scheme is the way ahead. I do not get why the Government want to prevaricate on this one.
I quote from the closing comments of the then Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Barking:
“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”.——[Official Report, Children Public Bill [Lords] Committee, 19 October 2004; c. 291.]
This Minister also used the language, “We haven’t abandoned it yet.”
The Minister has produced absolutely no evidence why the Government should have gone lukewarm on the scheme after all our considerations in 2004. I asked him for evidence from the local safeguarding children boards, as he did not mention them once. Where did that evidence come from? There is anecdotal evidence of a few examples of best practice. Great. But it still produced only a small number of adherents to the existing notification scheme. He said that there is no evidence right now after a further three years. What further evidence will it take? He said—another get-out—that they had just established a mechanism for the collection of more robust data. How long does it take before they have the systems to collect sufficiently robust data?
He said—yet another get-out—that it is about building stronger relationships with communities. It has always been about building stronger relationships with communities but they have singularly failed to get that message across to those highest target communities. He then said that it was perhaps an over-optimistic prediction. This really is very weak. He also said that there would be difficulties setting up a scheme. I acknowledge that, but it does not mean that those difficulties are insurmountable. They have had 11 years since Sir William Utting first mentioned this whole registration scheme. That is 11 years to get round those difficulties and still they need more time.
They are not going to have much more time. The sun is about to set on the Government. They will not be in a position to do anything about this sunset clause. So I offer the Minister a deal: will he reconsider his comments so we can re-examine this on Report in the light of what Opposition Members have said? We have urged him just to get on and do it. We will table a more comprehensive amendment on Report which will take in Wales and make it clear that a registration scheme will be triggered within a year of the Bill becoming law. On that basis, we offer him one last chance to trigger the sunset clause or, I fear, he will succumb to the inevitable. A new day will dawn for the private foster registration, just as a new day will dawn for the electorate as a whole in the not too distant future.
So on that basis, I urge the Minister to think again. The feelings on this are deeply held. They have been widely canvassed. I was deeply disappointed that yet again he came back with not a shred of new evidence for why the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) should not have been taken at her word four years ago. This sunset clause should now trigger the implementation of this registration scheme. On the basis of giving him notification that I intend to bring this back in an amended form on Report, I will not press the new clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 36 to 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clauses 40 to 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.
Clauses 43 and 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 45

Short title
Amendment made: No. 25, in clause 45, page 30, line 5, leave out subsection (2).—[Kevin Brennan.]
Clause 45, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]
Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Seven o'clock till Thursday 3 July at Nine o'clock.
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