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(" . The Commission shall have the general duty of monitoring and promoting local authorities' duties under Part IX of the Children Act 1989 (private arrangements for fostering children).").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 16 I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 22, with which it is grouped. Amendment No. 22 is the more important amendment and I shall speak to it first. It concerns regulating private foster care.

I moved this amendment in Committee and I received support from all sides of the Chamber. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, supported it on the previous occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has attached his name to Amendment No. 22. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is not present. As an ex-inspector of social services his support was extremely valuable. However, owing to his other commitments, he cannot be present.

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Children who are privately fostered deserve the same kinds of protection as other children who live away from home. They are just as vulnerable, and their numbers significantly exceed the number of children living in community homes. A large proportion of privately fostered children are from minority ethnic communities: a failure to safeguard these children could be construed as "institutional racism".

The Children Act 1989 requires persons who intend to foster a child privately under the age of 16 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 what the amendment seeks to address. This is an anomaly. Local authorities have a duty to approve and register childminders and other day care providers, yet these children return to their families each day.

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,

    "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. His report stated:

    "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".

We all have great respect for Sir William Utting; his words should be noted by the Government.

This amendment 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 periodically monitored. The 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. These reports would highlight whether additional safeguards needed to be put in place for individual children.

These children would not be "looked after"; that is, in care, and this provision would still allow parents to make their own arrangements. However, if passed, these amendments will ensure that all private foster carers are assessed in relation to their suitability to care for children, and it will set in place a system for local authorities to receive formal notifications of any concerns in relation to individual children.

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In Committee the Minister said in reply to this amendment,

    "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 ... Therefore, we are planning a publicity campaign ... targeted to affect the most vulnerable groups of children".--[Official Report, 10/1/2000; col. 516.]

I said that I was extremely disappointed with that response and that I would probably return to the matter on Report, as I am doing. However, as a result of what the Minister said about enforcement, I have tabled Amendment No. 16, which I hope will strengthen the enforcement. Amendment No. 16 states:

    "The Commission shall have the general duty of monitoring and promoting local authorities' duties under Part IX of the Children Act 1989 (private arrangements for fostering children)".

It seems to me that if the Government are concerned about enforcement, it makes sense to place the national commission under a duty to encourage this; otherwise, private fostering is left entirely outside the remit of the commission, with the likely consequence that it will become an even lower priority for local authorities.

This is an important amendment. After all the child abuse and other such scandals that have occurred, it seems to me that we are leaving a great gap in the provision for looking after children if we do not include the amendment on the face of the Bill. I hope that the Minister has had second thoughts about the matter since the Committee stage. I beg to move.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I continue where the noble Baroness, Lady David, left off. I certainly hope that the Minister will have second thoughts about the matter. The noble Baroness made an extremely persuasive case. One does not have to pray in aid just the 1993 Social Services Inspectorate report, or indeed that of Sir William Utting, which were utterly clear, but simply the practice as it exists at the moment. Even the Minister in a sense admitted that the current situation was not satisfactory. Therefore I urge him to take on board the wise words of the noble Baroness and have second thoughts about the matter.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I, too, support everything that the noble Baroness has said. I believe that her approach to private fostering is absolutely sound. We have a curious situation with a Bill that includes childminding where a child returns to his own home each day, but omits placements of children made privately by parents or guardians.

As the noble Baroness said, many of the children placed privately may be from the ethnic minorities. Their parents may have come to this country to study and they may not visit them frequently. The situation of those children is less safeguarded than that of children in the care of local authorities or being looked after by local authorities. Indeed, their placement may not have been as carefully planned as that of children in care. The noble Baroness has an extremely powerful case and I support her.

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6 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I have taken the opportunity to look again at this matter. I remain convinced that the current legislative framework is rigorous enough to ensure that the position of children privately fostered under the circumstances contained in the Children Act would be adequately safeguarded if local authorities carried out their duties effectively. The issue before us is how to ensure that local authorities carry out their responsibilities.

Turning first to Amendment No. 22, I can confirm that we do not intend that the national care standards commission should be responsible for registering private foster carers. That would suggest that they were in the same category as care homes or other services regulated by the commission. It is worth reflecting that private fostering is very much a domestic, family-based activity. It would not be appropriate for it to be regulated by a national commission, whose main concern lies with larger organisations and businesses.

I understand my noble friend's reference to the scant oversight of private fostering and the need for much closer scrutiny of it. I agree with her. I agree that greater action is needed to safeguard children who are in private foster families.

As I intimated, Part IX of the Children Act sets out stringent requirements for local authorities to satisfy themselves of the safety and adequacy of individual private foster care arrangements. The law requires private foster carers to notify local authorities when they foster a child privately. The local authorities are then under a duty to visit the child in the private foster home and to check on his or her welfare. These visits should then take place every six weeks. That is a great deal more frequently than, for instance, an inspection of a children's home. It is not the law that is the weakness but the question of making sure that happens.

This brings me to my noble friend's other amendment, the spirit of which I sympathise with rather more. Amendment No. 16 would require the national care standards commission to monitor the performance of local authorities and to check on how well they comply with their duties under the Children Act with regard to private fostering. This is the right approach. However, I believe that the task of overseeing local authorities and ensuring that they carry out their statutory duties is one for the Social Services Inspectorate rather than the national care standards commission. The Social Services Inspectorate is the Government's inspectorate dedicated to assessing how well local authorities are delivering their social services responsibilities, including how well they are carrying out their responsibilities for safeguarding children, wherever they are.

In the light of the concerns raised by my noble friend, I can confirm that we intend to carry out a range of actions. First, as I have said, we are concerned

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that the regulation of private fostering is little known; it is a much neglected and little understood issue. I make no apology for saying that we plan a national publicity campaign to promote awareness of the regulations and, particularly, to make private foster carers aware that they are obliged by law to notify all private fostering arrangements to local authorities. Secondly, we will build on that by issuing revised guidance to local authorities to remind them of their responsibilities for regulating private fostering and to ensure that they all adequately enforce the regulatory regime to which I have referred.

We will follow up that by ensuring that the Social Services Inspectorate checks that action is being taken. There will be a Social Services Inspectorate inspection of local authorities' enforcement of the private fostering regulations to make sure that we know what is happening. Depending on the outcome, we will take further action as necessary. I do not need to remind the House that the Government have extensive powers over local authorities, particularly following last year's Local Government Act which introduced the best value regime. Where Ministers are advised by the Social Services Inspectorate that any particular authority is failing in its duties, they have a range of levers and sanctions at their disposal. In extreme cases, that could include removing responsibility from the authority in question and asking another authority to carry out that particular function instead.

I hope that I have reassured my noble friend that we take the point of the need to ensure that private fostering arrangements are appropriately regulated. We believe that the current legislation allows that. The challenge is to ensure that local authorities carry out their responsibilities effectively. Through the mechanisms I have suggested--including publicity, including guidance and including the follow-up inspections by the Social Services Inspectorate--we will be able to do that.

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