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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he said early in his discourse that his amendment made it clear that it included advocacy. It may be because of my limited intelligence, but I cannot see how it makes that clear. Is the noble Lord prepared to table an amendment on Third Reading to make it absolutely clear?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I tried to explain that. The amendment uses the term "assistance", but it is intended to cover the sort of services that will be published at the end of the month in the national adoption standards. I listed those. I am happy to read them again to help the noble Lord.

7 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I heard the list, but the noble Lord associated the list with advocacy. We have here only the word "assistance". "Advocacy" does not appear.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I sought to explain the issue. So far as I am aware there is no agreed definition of advocacy. That is why I have used "assistance" in the amendment. I sought to explain that we shall publish National Advocacy Standards as Section 7 guidance, which is statutory guidance. That will make abundantly clear to local authorities what we mean by advocacy.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that comprehensive explanation and for tabling Amendment No. 115A. I also thank all those who have taken part in this relatively short debate, which has underlined the importance of the issues involved in advocacy.

The noble Lord explained that putting "assistance" on the face of the Bill meant advocacy. We shall have to trust him on that, although I find it slightly curious that "advocacy" can be used in the heading to the new clause but does not manage to get into the text of it. That leaves some ambiguity, but we shall take the noble Lord's word as an assurance that advocacy will be included when the clause is implemented.

The one issue that may still cause some difficulty is independence. The Minister explained that the regulations would require case independence but not independence from the authority. That could cause difficulties. It is impossible for an employee to be

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completely independent of his or her employer. That is a fact of life. Employees have to look to their salary increases, their assessments and their career prospects. It is difficult for anyone to disentangle themselves from all those other ties. That is why we feel instinctively that independence means independence of the authority.

I heard what the noble Lord said. The matter will be left to regulation, not to the Bill. I shall reflect further. I do not wish to spoil the welcome for Amendment No. 115A, but we need to think through the remaining issue. I shall do that before Third Reading. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 111 to 115 not moved.]

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath moved Amendment No. 115A:

    After Clause 116, insert the following new clause—

    After section 26 of the 1989 Act there is inserted—
    (1) Every local authority shall make arrangements for the provision of assistance to—
    (a) persons who make or intend to make representations under section 24D; and
    (b) children who make or intend to make representations under section 26.
    (2) The assistance provided under the arrangements shall include assistance by way of representation.
    (3) The arrangements—
    (a) shall secure that a person may not provide assistance if he is a person who is prevented from doing so by regulations made by the Secretary of State; and
    (b) shall comply with any other provision made by the regulations in relation to the arrangements.
    (4) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring local authorities to monitor the steps that they have taken with a view to ensuring that they comply with regulations made for the purposes of subsection (3).
    (5) Every local authority shall give such publicity to their arrangements for the provision of assistance under this section as they consider appropriate.""
    On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 116:

    After Clause 118, insert the following new clause—

    (1) In section 66 of the 1989 Act (privately fostered children), at the end of paragraph (b) there is inserted—
    ""a registrable private foster parent" means a person who fosters or offers to foster a child privately where the child is under the age of 11".
    (2) After section 69 (power to prohibit private fostering) of that Act there is inserted—
    (1) Every local authority shall keep a register of registrable private foster parents within their area.
    (2) A local authority may refuse to register an applicant for registration under this section if it is satisfied that the applicant is not fit to foster privately a child under the age of 11.

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    (3) A local authority may refuse to register an applicant for registration under this section if it is satisfied that any person living or likely to be living in the applicant's household is not fit to be in the proximity of children under the age of 11.
    (4) A local authority may refuse to register an applicant for registration under this section if it is satisfied that the premises in which the applicant is proposing to foster a child are not fit to be used for looking after a child under the age of 11.
    (1) No person shall privately foster children under the age of 11 unless he is registered by the local authority under section 69A.
    (2) If any person contravenes this section he shall be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both.""

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I break my almost Trappist silence of this afternoon to return to a subject we discussed at considerable length in Grand Committee. In my view it is one of the large remaining issues before us in the Bill.

We considered private fostering with great care in Grand Committee. There was agreement at that stage that private fostering is perhaps the least understood part of childcare. There is general agreement that that lack of understanding is a cause for concern.

Over the past 30 years, many people have looked at the issue and considered what might be done to tackle it. In Grand Committee the Minister recognised the concerns that were raised but disagreed primarily on two issues. The first was the need for a registration scheme and the second was timing. I reflected on his comments over the summer and made a conscious decision to bring the issue back on Report because I believe that he was wrong, for reasons that I shall set out.

For those who did not take part in Grand Committee, it is fair to say that in the past 30 years report after report has looked at the issue of private fostering. Well known reports, such as Sir William Utting's People Like Us, have all recommended a registration scheme for private fostering. Since we last discussed the matter way back in the early part of the summer, the Social Care Institute for Excellence has conducted yet another investigation. Although its report has not yet been published, I should like to hear from the Minister what the response was and how many organisations referred to registration.

In Grand Committee, the noble Lord cast doubt on the need for a registration scheme for private fostering. He cited the legal framework of the Children Act 1989 and the duty that it places on carers and parents to notify local authorities that they are taking over responsibility for a child privately. He readily conceded that many people in that position do not register with the local authority, in many cases because they do not know that they have to. There is a lot of ignorance on the subject. I challenge the assertion that that framework is adequate. It is so widely ignored that one has to challenge its efficacy.

On re-examining the issue, I looked at the existing powers of local authorities. They are not required in any way to approve private foster carers. They can only prohibit people acting as private foster carers and they do that only in extremis.

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Another argument advanced by the Minister and by his colleague in another place was that private fostering should not be registered because to do so might well drive it underground. A similar argument was advanced about the registration of childminders. It has not proved to be the case for childminding. Those who follow these matters know that the majority of private fostering cases are not registered with local authorities—indeed, almost nothing is known about the thousands of children who are in the care of private foster carers—so there is a strong case for saying that private fostering is already underground. Registering it cannot make things any worse.

The noble Lord also argued in Grand Committee that private foster carers currently do not come forward to register. He speculated that that is because they cannot see any benefit in doing so and a registration scheme would not offer them any incentive to register. However, some of the local authority pilots have reported that once private foster carers have understood the benefits of registering and have done so, it has opened up the way for them to become much more a part of the formal children's caring services in the area and to learn about issues such as their rights to benefits.

I have no wish to reopen our earlier debate on special guardians. Nevertheless, there is a correlation between the provision of childcare by a member of the extended family and the failure to take up the related benefits. People assume, whether they can afford it or not, that it is their duty to look after these children. They also wrongly believe that they are not entitled to benefit because of that family relationship.

In Grand Committee, the Minister gave a long list of arguments which I did not find very convincing. Although I have accepted many of his arguments during our consideration of this legislation, I do not find his arguments on this subject particularly persuasive.

The Minister's primary argument in this regard is about the timing. He knows as well as I do that publication of the Laming inquiry report, which is unlikely to appear before Christmas, will be a most important event for the future of childcare provision. No one will be able to ignore it. In Grand Committee, however, the Minister said that the Bill could not contain provision leading to the registration of private fostering because that might pre-empt the inquiry's findings. I did not find that a very compelling argument at the time, and, on reflection, I still do not.

The report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will cover a wide range of childcare and child protection issues. The main focus of that substantial report, however, will be on the co-ordination of the various statutory services and on their duty to vulnerable children. The Government will not be short of work to do and issues to address when the report is published. I would even venture to say that their hands will be pretty full in responding to it. That is the first reason why I think that the Minister is wrong about timing.

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This legislation is the second reason why I think that the Minister is wrong about timing. The title of the Bill is the Adoption and Children Bill. It should therefore address the issue of private fostering. Private fostering is one aspect of childcare provision, which is the matter that we have spent months discussing.

The third reason why the Minister is wrong about timing is that, in the past 30 years, the issues have not changed but simply increased in scale. In the multitude of reports that have been produced, there has been absolutely no suggestion that the nature of the problem has changed over time; the problem has simply grown larger. Children in private foster care are some of the most vulnerable in society. Not much is known about who they are, where they are or the conditions in which they live. The little that we do know has been sufficiently disturbing to make the issue a priority.

In Grand Committee, the Minister said that, as no financial transaction is involved, it would not be right to equate private fostering with childcare. I believe that, in many cases, that argument is entirely wrong. The evidence produced by various organisations investigating this issue shows that although many children are brought to this country by someone claiming to be—at least in their own definition—a relative, there is often a financial transaction between that person and the parents, who usually reside in another country, to look after those children. That evidence, more than any other, indicates that the problem will not go away but is likely to grow.

The Minister offered two contradictory arguments in Grand Committee. The first was that the Government accept that the issue is important. The second was that this House often considers legislation on social policy. I realise that he cannot predict the contents of the Queen's Speech—notwithstanding Mr Alan Milburn's announcement last week on foundation hospitals to the conference of the Association of Directors of Social Services; a very good speech which I commend to the Minister—but it is not good enough simply to say that we will eventually be able to consider an appropriate Bill to address this issue. The issue should be addressed in this Bill, which I suspect will be the key legislation governing adoption and fostering for a generation. That is why I return to the issue.

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