Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-168)


21 APRIL 2008

  Q160  Chairman: How did you all feel when you saw the film about the orphanage on Channel 4? Were you angry or hurt?

  Robert Tapsfield: I did not see it, actually. I heard about it, so I can comment—

  Q161  Chairman: But you know the principle—that there was a lot of faffing around, instability and amateur rather than professional activity in the care world. Should we go back to the system in which young people in care go to institutions, albeit very modern institutions? Institutional care is much more the norm in many other countries.

  Robert Tapsfield: I also remember the Waterhouse report and other reports, which talked about some of the effects of residential care and what was happening in residential care. Clearly, there is good and bad residential care, but my recollection of the film about the orphanage is that it glossed over a lot of the abuses and ill-treatment that happened in residential care during the time that it was reporting on. Residential care has moved on, but whatever we do, I do not think that we want to go back to a stage where children were not well looked after in residential care. I would hope that the residential care provided today is a vast improvement on what was provided years ago.

  Professor Ian Sinclair: I need to be extremely careful about this, because my wife is a residential care worker and is sitting watching my performance. I think that a major problem is the cost of residential care. We looked at that three or four years ago, and as far as I remember, it was about £67,000 a year, or £1,500 or so per week. That does not add up, exactly, but it was that sort of amount. That is a great deal, for about 12% of the children in the care system, and there is an issue whether it is equitable to spend the money in that way. There is also the issue that some of those children can spend two years in the same residential home, or in different ones. If one works out what that costs, it is very large. If you were the parent of one of those children and had £200,000 to spend, would you really blow it all on two years in a residential home, or would you put some in trust and use it later? I think that the cost is a very major difficulty of doing it. Also, it is a major difficulty for residential care, as it makes it very difficult to keep kids in that type of care for as long as they might otherwise want. Personally, I think that residential care at the moment faces a lot of extremely difficult problems, which will make it very hard for it to succeed. Clearly, residential care has major potential and it could succeed, but until somebody has produced some clearer models of the way that it will work and has shown that it will work, one would be extremely unwise to think that that type of care needs to be expanded.

  Kevin Williams: We certainly see that there is a place for residential care, but it should be at the smaller end rather than providing care for the majority of children. The care system is also about preparing children for adulthood, and most children are brought up in families and people need to have had an experience of family to understand how families operate. The other argument against residential care is that often a group culture can exacerbate individual difficulty. So, if you have two, three, four, five or more young people with difficult experiences and difficult behaviour all living together, you are more likely to get a group culture that exacerbates those behaviours, which leads to further difficulties rather than mitigating difficulties. However, there is a place for very good residential care for a small number of children for a period of time.

  Q162  Paul Holmes: From some of the briefings that we have had, we have been told that in western Europe a lot of countries, such as Denmark or Germany, have a higher proportion of children in care—that was what the Channel 4 programme was about—and we have a much lower proportion of children in care. Are we leading the pack or are we trailing behind other people?

  Kevin Williams: I certainly think that the two cultures are very different, in terms of what is offered as a universal service and what is offered as a specialist service. There is a comparison somewhere between apples and pears, but I think that the right way for our society and our culture is for children to be brought up in families, because that is the norm and the tradition.

  Professor Ian Sinclair: I certainly think that the crude comparisons are apples and pears, because in some of these places you have about 50% of children in care in residential care and here we have 12% of children in care in residential care. We have tended to reserve residential care, as it were, for "the most impossible children". If you go to Denmark, you will find some children aged three in residential care and that seems to me to be a thoroughly bad idea. It is indeed one of the plus points for the British system that we have good foster care. The difficulty of residential care when I examined it—our research was published in 1998, which admittedly is some time ago—was that, at that stage, it was reserved for kids who could not be anywhere else. There was a big geographical imperative, so you tended to put a lot of children who had very little in common—both the abused and the abuser—in the same place, for different lengths of time. It became extremely difficult to provide a clear account of what these things are doing. The second factor, which is generically difficult, is that residential care in the past has flourished on the back of strong beliefs: for example, the English public school system, the Israeli kibbutz, the Russian residential care for their elite people, and so on. Those systems have been built on clear ideas about what went and what did not go. Research that was published in about 1974 tended to show that a clear value base was extremely important. Those systems also tended to deal with keeping children in the system for some time. It seems to me that all of that is very much harder to do now. There is much more of a dispute about whether you are allowed to display condoms in the washrooms, or whatever the issue happens to be. Therefore, some of the conditions for that type of residential care are harder to achieve. The theory of residential care, because it was taken over by social workers to some extent, I am afraid to say, has become very individualistic, whereas the essence of residential care is that it is a group experience and that is the important thing about it. By contrast, the ideas about how you were doing it and manipulating it have become very much more individually located. The last major difficulty is that, whereas residential care clearly has a massive effect on the behaviour of the children who are in it, for good and for ill, there are large variations between the different residential homes without any evidence that that has anything to do with backgrounds of the children that are there. It is difficult to export any positive things subsequently. The link between the positive changes that are achieved in residential care and what goes on later is hard to achieve. Until there are consistent answers to its theory, how it is going to deal with costs, how it will transfer long-term benefits and how it is going to ensure some reasonably high standards, you would be extremely unwise to expand it. Having said that, it has major potential and some way of unlocking it needs to be found.

  Chairman: I gather we have five minutes to cover enabling foster carers to act as parents, family and friends care and kinship care.

  Q163  Fiona Mactaggart: I was struck by the evidence of TACT and the Fostering Network which showed that a child in care with a foster parent is often at a disadvantage because of risk-averseness, failure to communicate with the foster parent and foster parents being excluded from decision making about the child in their care. What can we do to stop that?

  Robert Tapsfield: We can do two things. The Government could issue guidance to push local authorities to delegate more authority to foster carers. A few years ago, foster carers could not agree to overnight stays and it was terrible. The Government said, "We don't need to issue guidance; it's perfectly possible for local authorities to agree to this." But many local authorities did not do so. In the end, the Government did issue guidance, which solved the problem almost at a stroke, because local authorities then followed the guidance and were happy to delegate, unless there were reasons why they should not. So clear guidance from the Government about delegating authority would make it easier for local authorities to get over some of their natural risk-averseness, which they have at the moment, and would make it more difficult for them to hold blanket decision making at local authority level. Last week, I was dealing with a local authority—it is not by any means the only one—with a blanket policy of not allowing young people in care to be photographed and for the photograph to appear in the press. That is because, if you are not careful, one photograph could appear and that can be unfortunate. However, actually, for many children it is perfectly fine and is a moment of great pride. So we are denying young people the option of having a normal family life by simply not delegating enough. In respect of some of the decision making, there was a recent consultation on personal education allowances. The Government are going to give a notional allowance of £500 for each child in care to improve their education. But how that £500 is spent will be at the discretion of the local authority. We run a scheme called "Fostering Achievement" in Northern Ireland, with an organisation called Include Youth, which deals with that matter entirely differently. The Government have given a notional allowance of £800 a child to us and Include Youth to make it available to foster carers who apply. So foster carers are taking the lead in saying, "We need a computer; we need driving lessons," or whatever it is, including some extra help with tuition. Subject to some checks to ensure that that is a reasonable decision, the resource is given. That puts foster carers in the driving seat in getting the resources the children need. That is not the model proposed in England, which leaves the control and determination within the bureaucratic structures of the local authority. That is less efficient, less effective and takes away from the responsibility and expectations of foster carers. The scheme in Northern Ireland called "Fostering Achievement" framed foster carers as the first educators for the children in care, trying to reinforce the fact that it was foster carers who needed to be supporting and pushing the education of the children in care, just as parents do for their own children.

  Q164  Fiona Mactaggart: Why do you think the Government have not done it that way? They must know about the Northern Ireland scheme. Why do you think it has not been done that way?

  Robert Tapsfield: You would have to ask them. There is always an innate reluctance to really push things out. It is easier to retain the decision making. The reality for the Government here was that the £500 was not new money but was money that they had already given in some other way. So if they were to take it away from local authorities entirely and give it to someone else, it would have caused more difficulties. It was partly that they lacked the imagination, but the circumstances made it more difficult for them to make that change.

  Q165  Fiona Mactaggart: Would it be possible for local authorities to administer those grants?

  Robert Tapsfield: It would be difficult, because putting it outside and to voluntary organisations means that the access point is different. However, it would be perfectly possible to do that, and I think that it would also serve to reinforce the authority and decision-making expectations on foster carers.

  Q166  Fiona Mactaggart: Kevin, in your evidence, you say that young people suffer because foster parents are not given the right to make decisions.

  Kevin Williams: Absolutely. We support the whole notion of delegation as low down to the child as possible when reaching decisions for them. We can quote examples where children have missed school trips because of the inefficiency of local authorities and the bureaucracy of needing a signature from somebody with parental responsibility. We can quote foster carers going on holiday where it has been very difficult for children to get passports, because of the bureaucracy involved with the local authority. Such children miss out on a whole range of opportunities. I think that foster carers already have the skills to reach appropriate decisions. Of course, the level of delegation would depend on the nature of the placement. If it is a very long-term placement, you would expect more delegation to the foster carer, as opposed to short-term placements with a view to rehabilitation back to the family, where you would not expect the foster carer to change a child's hair or clothing style, if they are looking to return. However, if it is a long-term placement, you would expect the main care giver to reach decisions on clothing style and hair, depending on the age of the child, of course. I think that some children miss out on opportunities because of bureaucracy. Someone asked about being risk averse. I think that our society and the culture within the care system is risk averse—

  Chairman: Not just in the care system.

  Kevin Williams: No, not just in the care system. I think that generally we are risk-averse, as a result of which, children in care, in particular, miss out on opportunities.

  Q167  Fiona Mactaggart: So do I. I like the idea of delegating more, but I am anxious about the Government having a national rule book telling people how to do things. What is wrong with the Government instructing local authorities and measuring them against the level of delegation that they give, or something like that? I am worried about having a set of national rules, because it will always create unintended consequences in particular cases.

  Robert Tapsfield: You are absolutely right: decisions need to be individual to placements. However, we could make clear in guidance the expectation that decisions can, and should in certain circumstances, be delegated to foster carers—perhaps there should even be a presumption of delegation in many circumstances—but hold back decision making. That would leave it to the local authorities' discretion, but stop the presumption being, "We will hold it all to our chest." We have to leave it to individual judgment.

  Kevin Williams: That needs to be seen in the context of all the other evidence that we have given on registration, pre-qualification training and all of those issues. Actually, if you up-skill the work force, you would expect them to be able to reach those decisions.

  Chairman: Five minutes on kinship.

  Q168  Paul Holmes: The key question is: fewer than 8 or 9% of placements are with family and friends, but the Children Act 1989 said that that should be the priority, so what is going on? Why the disparity?

  Robert Tapsfield: I think that about 17% of foster care is now with family and friends. However, the key point, to which I think that you are alluding, is that there is an enormous variation between local authorities. In some, more than 30% of foster care is kinship care, but in others it is only a handful. So there are wide differences in how that operates. What further complicates it is that some local authorities with very low numbers of children fostered with relatives actually have very positive policies for supporting relatives. So they will be supporting relatives outside of the care system through section 17 money, residence orders, special guardianship orders and other support services. If one had a way of calculating the total number of children being supported, the figure might well be greater than those for the authorities. However, we have a general situation in which levels of support to children fostered with relatives are pretty good—they get an allowance and support from their fostering services, so they will be reasonably well looked after. However, those who are outside the looked-after system, whose needs and circumstances may be identical but for an accident of circumstance, if they are not in the care system frequently get nothing, or no support. We have a system that is delivering very inequitable support and services to family and friends carers. I think that that is recognised. The challenge is how to deliver more equitable financial and other support to family and friends carers. There are a range of proposals that have been submitted, that are designed to do that. The Government, in Care Matters, say they are going to introduce a framework for kinship care, but I am not convinced that their current proposals amount to a new framework. I think that the proposals that are on the table do several things. First, they say that children in care should be considered children in need in the same way that disabled children are, so that you do not have to go through the hoop of being assessed as a child in need; you can be assessed for services. It does not mean you get those services, but it reduces the obstacles to getting support. That would help children in kinship care get support without coming into the care system. Next, I think you ought to improve the access to support. We have now, through adoption and special guardianship, recognised that adopters who bring up someone else's child are going to need long-term support, so the Adoption and Children Act 2002 introduced a requirement on local authorities to set up adoption support services and a requirement to assess adopters for those support services. Adopters have a right to an assessment—not a right to the service, but a right to an assessment. You could mirror those requirements so that local authorities had to provide a support service for kinship carers—a range of services—and give kinship carers a right to an assessment. Finally, you need to do something about a financial benefit to kinship carers. If there was a state benefit you could probably remove a lot of kinship carers from the foster care system. Currently, many kinship foster carers are foster carers not because they set out or wanted to become foster carers or because they see themselves as part of an increasingly professionalised work force; often it is not because they really want to have the training and induction standards that they now have. They are foster carers because they want to care for their grandchild, to avoid their being with unrelated foster carers or adopters, and they need some financial and other support to be able to do it. If we had mechanisms for supporting them that did not mean that they became foster carers, if would be very likely that they would adopt those. Jane Aldgate, who has written a very good and thorough study in Scotland, has identified that we need to see kinship care as unique and distinct; it is not foster care but it is like foster care, and it is not family support but it is like family support. If we conceptualised it as distinct and different and set up regulations and guidance about how we were going to provide it with a service, we might be getting to a place that could treat kinship carers more equitably, and provide them with support and services in the way they need.

  Chairman: I will cut it there, because we have run out of time. I am awfully sorry that there were some topics that we had to skate over a bit. Will you please see this as a relationship that will continue? I know there are some issues, especially in the last two sections that we dealt with, but right across the piece, on which, when you reflect on the discussion we have had, you might realise there was something we did not discuss. Will you remain in contact with us? We would appreciate that, because our aim is to write an excellent report, and we will only do that with your help. Thank you very much for your time and expertise. We look forward to working with you in the future.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 April 2009