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7.15 p.m.>

Earl Howe: My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in all that she said. We established in Grand Committee, and I understood the Minister to acknowledge, that the absence of effective regulation of private foster care represents a significant unresolved problem in the eyes of the Government. I believe that all of us are agreed on that. If we agree that there is a real issue here, then surely this Bill provides a good opportunity at least to lay the foundations for a remedy. Personally, I do not see how one can frame a workable remedy without incorporating in it some sort of registration scheme for private fosterers.

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I appreciate that whatever arrangements are eventually put in place will need to be enforceable and will need to satisfy the other test laid down by the Minister that they do not accentuate the tendency of private foster placements to "go underground". However, the Government have clearly done considerable work trying to find a way through these difficulties. We understand that it may not suit them to come forward now with a fully formed scheme. I agree entirely with what the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said about the Laming inquiry. I do not see how those conclusions will greatly advance our thinking on the risks inherent in unregulated private fostering arrangements. However, even if I am mistaken in that assumption, why pass up this opportunity to establish the basis on which the Government can act when they decide to do so?

If we do not take this opportunity, we shall be left with the provisions of the current law which are patently inadequate. There is, as the noble Baroness made clear, a lack of awareness of the law among carers. Social services departments are equally unsighted about their responsibilities. Amid this lack of awareness, there is a large—probably very large—group of vulnerable children for whom the existing law affords precious little protection.

In Grand Committee, the Minister drew a distinction between private fostering and child minding. The fact that private fosterers look after children on a very different basis from that of child minders—who are now, of course, subject to registration—is no reason, in my view, to hold back from a similar type of approval and registration scheme for private fosterers. This is an urgent issue. It is five years since the Utting report. We really should not let another five years go by before finding a way of implementing its recommendations.

Lord Chan: My Lords, I support the amendment. Only yesterday, I was speaking to a research worker in south London about private fostering—an issue of particular concern for ethnic minority communities and for the Lambeth social care project on fostered children which is funded by the Save the Children Fund. The majority of those using private fostering are either west African or Chinese. West African children have been privately fostered for a very long time. All the private foster parents are mainly white. It is estimated that there are some 10,000 children being cared for under private fostering arrangements.

African parents who put their babies in private fostering are in low-paid jobs. Similarly, those Chinese parents who use private fostering work in kitchens for long hours or in small take-away shops, which open seven days a week. All these children are under five years of age. The dilemma that we face—this is a paradox—is that child minders are registered and monitored, so why not private foster parents? That registration should be a matter for local authorities. We also know that private agencies are registered, but not foster parents. There is growing concern about private fostering that is not being registered.

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I turn, finally, to anecdotal issues. I say "anecdotal" because some of the African parents believe that a significant number of the current generation of teenagers, especially young black children who attend mental health clinics and hospitals and who tend to get into trouble with the police, have been privately fostered. I do not have evidence to support that assumption, but that is what I have been told. I certainly support the amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, perhaps I may reassure noble Lords, as I did in Grand Committee, that I well understand the concerns that have been expressed. I have no doubt that further action needs to be taken. However, my problem is that this issue is both complex and complicated. That is why I shall not be in a position to come to the House with legislation during the passage of the Bill.

My honourable friend, Mrs. Jacqui Smith, announced a review in relation to private fostering on 17th January. That review is currently in process. It is engaging a wide range of stakeholders and focusing on the existing arrangements within Part IX of the Children Act. It is considering whether the latter are robust enough to protect vulnerable children living away from their parents. It is important for us to use, and carefully consider, the findings of the review rather than attempt to pre-empt them.

I do not say that the Climbie inquiry is the be-all and end-all in this regard. None the less, it is fair to anticipate that there may just be some recommendations from the process that will need to be considered. That is why I caution the House against rushing into legislation. There are some complex issues that need to be addressed. I should point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that the review is attempting to determine issues such as whether registration is necessary, or whether there are other options available.

There is also the issue of how far central government should interfere in what are essentially private arrangements made by parents. We must be sure that those changes have the right impact. Unfortunately, there is very little public awareness of what constitutes private fostering; as, indeed, noble Lords have observed. Very few people know that they are required to notify the local council of such arrangements. That is why we have taken steps to attempt to raise public awareness, including launching a campaign in this area.

There are a number of details that need to be considered as regards the proposed registration scheme; for example, we must be careful not to opt for the apparently simple idea of an age cut off, as suggested by the amendment, without thinking through its implications. Is the amendment saying that children over the age of 11 are not vulnerable? Several noble Lords have mentioned the childminding registration scheme, which offers a close parallel for children under the age of eight. However, it is my understanding that we shall shortly see legislation

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proposing an extension on that scheme up to the age of 14. Clearly, we need to consider whether there are sufficient parallels to follow.

So far, the review has found that registration was recognised by most stakeholders as desirable. But it is not a simple strategy to introduce successfully. I believe that we need different strategies for different types of private fostering; for example, language schools should be seen as a separate problem. We need to consider whether they should be included under the private fostering umbrella, or perhaps under some other form of registration.

A registration scheme also means different things to different people. In its purest sense, the amendment would require a list of registered private foster carers to be held by the local authority for use in enabling the relevant checks to be carried out. It has been suggested that such lists should be available for parents wishing to place their children in private fostering arrangements, in much the same way as a list of childminders might be provided. But the one danger in that proposal is that local authorities could be legitimising a lower standard of fostering that does not require any of the stringent checks necessary for mainstream foster carers.

I do not seek to criticise the noble Baroness's amendment. I recognise her concerns, many of which I share. All I seek to do is to point out that there are some very complex issues that still need to be resolved. That is why I cannot bring a suitable proposal to your Lordships' House during the passage of this Bill. However, I assure the noble Baroness that we are very exercised by the issue. We are determined to take very careful note of the outcome of the review, and of any recommendations that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, may make.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response. I can assure the House that we do not disagree on the importance of the issue that we are discussing; nor do we disagree about the practicalities involved in making this work. However, the Minister and I disagree on two points. First, we disagree on the argument that the absence of any scheme at present is worse than having a scheme that may not be perfect, or, indeed, that may not live up to the standards that he outlined.

Secondly, the Minister talked about the potential danger of bringing about a "lower quality of fostering"; but, as we know from some of the worst cases about which we have heard, that already exists. The noble Lord talked about the problem of insufficient public awareness as regards what constitutes private fostering. I have to say that I did not find some of his other arguments very convincing; for example, the state entering into what are essentially private arrangements between parents and private providers. But that is the case with childminding. The state has accepted that it is necessary to make that safe.

It is wrong to delay. I give way.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. With the best will

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in the world, and even if the principle were agreed, does she agree that we are simply not in a position to be able to place detailed proposals in this Bill? That is the real problem.

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