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Baroness David moved Amendment No. 39:

("( ) Any person who privately fosters a child under the age of 16 for a consecutive period of 28 days or more without being registered under this Part shall be guilty of an offence.").

The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 39 and 41, tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, aim to secure that private foster care comes within the remit of the Bill. Children who are privately fostered surely deserve the same kind of protection as other children who live away from home. They are just as vulnerable and their numbers significantly exceed the numbers of children living in community homes. A large proportion of privately fostered children are from minority ethnic communities and a failure to safeguard such children could be construed as institutional racism.

The Children Act 1989 requires persons who intend to foster a child under the age of 16 privately for more than 28 days to notify their local authority. Local authorities are required to safeguard the welfare of privately fostered children, but they do not have to approve or register private foster carers. That is an anomaly. Local authorities have a duty to approve and register child minders and other day-care providers, yet children in such care return to their families each day while foster children do not. The current system is not working. Local authorities have not consistently advertised the duty of private foster carers to notify them.

A 1993 Social Services Inspectorate report concluded that,

    "potentially vulnerable children were being placed in the care of strangers, without any checks being undertaken as to their suitability to care for children".

Even if local authorities were being notified of all private fostering arrangements, their current responsibilities towards such children would still be lacking.

Sir William Utting, in his comprehensive review of safeguards for children living away from home, concluded that current legislation is not protecting children:

    "Private fostering is clearly an area where children are not being safeguarded properly: indeed an unknown number are likely to be seriously at risk ... all children living away from home should be safeguarded and those who are privately fostered should be no exception".

The amendments would require prospective private foster carers to register with the national care commission. They would undergo an assessment of their suitability to look after children, and the care they offer would be monitored periodically. The

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national commission would liaise with local authorities, notifying them of all children in their area who are privately fostered and sending them copies of their assessment reports. Those reports would highlight whether additional safeguards needed to be put in place for individual children. The children would not be looked after in care. This provision would still allow parents to make their own arrangements.

However, if passed, the amendments will ensure that all private foster carers are assessed in relation to their suitability to care for children and will set in place a system for local authorities to receive formal notification of any concern in relation to individual children. If the Government agree to the amendments, as I hope they will, various consequential amendments will be needed, for example, to Clauses 11, 12, 15, 17, 18 and 20. I have and can produce the consequential amendments. They are available for the Government if they agree to these amendments, which I sincerely hope that they will.

I cannot understand why this situation has been allowed to continue for as long as it has. I hope strongly that the Minister can agree to support the amendments. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones: I rise briefly to support the noble Baroness, Lady David. I believe that she put the case extremely cogently for this clear gap in the Bill to be filled. It seems extraordinary. The Government have been quite vigorous in pursuing many of the recommendations of Sir William Utting. However, the quotation that the noble Baroness, Lady David, gave us from his original report about private fostering makes an extremely strong case for including private foster carers within the terms of the Bill. They should be registered. They should be subject to the national care commission. I very much hope that the Government will listen to the noble Baroness's wise words.

Lord Laming: Perhaps I too may encourage the Government to listen to the noble Baroness, Lady David, and, indeed, to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. At this hour of the evening I shall not detain your Lordships longer. The fact is that this matter has been a source of concern for a number of years, as the noble Baroness has already made plain. I hope that the Government will take this as an opportunity to address other concerns.

Earl Howe: In the interests of brevity, I shall say simply that I identify myself wholly with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady David. I am most supportive of what she said and I hope that the Minister will take due note.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My noble friend is right that we have not planned for the national care standards commission to be responsible for dealing with private foster carers. I certainly appreciate the intention behind the amendments, which is to ensure

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careful safeguards for children who are fostered in this country by private arrangement between their families and the carer. However, the Government do not consider that there is a need to extend further the wide range of offences associated with private fostering. As we said in response to the Children's Safeguards Review, we consider that the current regulations concerning private fostering are adequate as long as they are enforced.

I believe that concentration and focus should be placed on the terms of enforcement. We are concerned that the regulation of private fostering is little known. Therefore, we are planning a publicity campaign to promote awareness of the regulations and particularly of the need to notify private fostering arrangements to local authorities. The campaign will be targeted to affect the most vulnerable groups of children.

We plan also to work with relevant interests to develop a voluntary code of practice for foreign language schools, which often arrange accommodation in family homes for their pupils. Therefore, we intend to take those measures to ensure that the existing system is properly in force. However, we do not believe that the registration of foster carers is necessary or desirable.

Baroness David: I am extremely disappointed with that answer. The Minister said that there are safeguards as long as they are enforced. I believe that it is quite clear that they are not being enforced. I shall not press the amendment to a Division tonight. However, I feel strongly about the matter and I shall certainly bring it forward at Report stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Applications for registration]:

Lord Rix moved Amendment 40:

    Page 6, line 14, at end insert--

("( ) Notification of applications for registration shall be published in such form as shall be prescribed by regulations.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 40 is grouped with Amendment Nos. 42, 43, 44 and 107, to which other noble Lords will speak. As registration is to be, in effect, some guarantee of respectability, service providers will have to be registered to be used by their local authority. The decision to be registered should be soundly based. We have a tradition in this country of giving interested parties the opportunity to comment, thereby to improve the decision-making process. Marriage banns immediately spring to mind. When the use of a building changes, change of use regulations require this to be advertised. When an extension is added to a house requiring planning permission, proposals are posted with an opportunity for comment.

The registration authority can enlist the views of local individuals or voluntary bodies when a request to register a care business is published in the local newspaper. Occasionally, things have been known and doubts harboured but there was no opportunity to

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record these. That is unfair on the registration authority and even more unfair on the service user. I beg to move.

Earl Howe: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 42, 43, 44 and 107 tabled in my name. The matters they deal with are straightforward. Amendment No. 42 seeks clarification about the factors that the registration authority can take into account when considering an application for registration. If someone has previously had his registration cancelled for any of the reasons set out in Clause 12, what safeguards are there to prevent that person attempting to set up another establishment and starting again?

Amendment No. 43 picks up a section of paragraph 66 of the Explanatory Notes. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that no steps will be taken by the authority to cancel a registration--in normal circumstances--without every attempt being made, perhaps including prosecution, to ensure that an errant establishment or agency comes back into line. Am I right in thinking that cancellation of registration would be a last resort? How will the Government ensure that this is so?

I should like to express my support for Amendment No. 44. It should be automatic for the registration authority to notify the relevant health authority if an establishment is about to close. The health authority has a direct interest in such information and this is not reflected in the Bill.

Finally, Amendment No. 107 to Clause 35 deals with the service of documents. A friend was recently sent an important letter by recorded delivery. It never arrived. Not only did it not arrive, but the Post Office confirmed that in paying for a recorded delivery service, one is not paying for the guaranteed delivery of the letter. I did not realise this. One pays for delivery to be recorded when and if it occurs. There is no redress against the Post Office for non-delivery. Therefore, I wonder whether it is appropriate to make specific provision in Clause 35 for notices and documents to be sent by recorded delivery. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on that.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: I wish to speak briefly to Amendment No. 44 which the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has already touched upon. Quite simply, it seems rather strange in the circumstances that there is no discretion as to whether the local authority in whose area the establishment or agency is situated is notified by the commission in the event of cancellation of registration but there is a discretion as regards the health authority. Certainly, on these Benches, together with the NHS Confederation, we believe it is important that there should not be that discretion and that the words,

    "if the registration authority thinks appropriate",

should be deleted from this subsection of the Bill.

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The closure of any establishment may have a significant effect on local service provision. For example, if a care home for the elderly is suddenly closed, many of the residents may, in the short term at least, be placed in hospital facilities. The NHS Confederation and Members on these Benches believe that it would be good practice for the registration authority to notify the health authority at the same time as it notifies the local authority.

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