|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
It is important to note that there is no standard formula for how a foster placement agreement is supposed to operate. According to people whom I have spoken to on Fosterline, most foster carers would not be aware that it existed, and there is minimal enforcement of it. However, the key point is that there is massive confusion about what responsibility local authorities can delegate to the foster parent and how they should do so. The problems of overnight stays were massively improved by the issuing of statutory guidance. The Government could perhaps now look at how foster placement agreements work and what circumstances they cover in the review of the fostering regulations next year. It could be that a commitment from the Government to produce guidance under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 might be an appropriate way of filling in this gap. Foster parents need to know what they can decide about in everyday little matters relating to their foster child and what they have to refer back to the local authority. It cannot be very efficient for foster carers to keep running back to the local authority and thereby causing a delay on matters on which they could easily and safely take the decision themselves. I would be most grateful if the Minister could tell us whether there is an intention to look at this in the review that is coming up.
I want to leave Amendment No. 96 to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. However, I am glad that she is trying to split, very transparently, the actual fee that is paid to the foster carer for doing the work of fostering the child and the allowance that is paid to cover the expenses of looking after that child. Amendment No. 98 is about making sure that if a foster parent is accused of an allegation they can continue to receive the fee, because in those circumstances the child will have been taken away from them so they are no longer entitled to the allowance. That is natural justice. It is about being innocent until proven guilty.
The possibility of an allegation being made against them is a constant fear for foster carers. Due to the nature of the children and young people placed with them, and the often fraught relationships between foster carers and birth parents, unfounded allegations are, sadly, a regular occurrence. An allegation is often used as a way of trying to break a placement, or is
17 Jan 2008 : Column GC612
Government timescales for the resolution of allegations, set out in the Working Together guidance, desirable though they are, are routinely being missed in allegation cases against foster carers. Working Together states that 80 per cent of allegations should be resolved in one month, 90 per cent should be resolved in three months and all cases should be resolved in a year. Research by Swain in 2006 has shown that 50 per cent of allegation cases last longer than three months and one in 10 last longer than a yearin some cases several years. To compound matters, in a third of all allegation cases where some or all children have been removedwhich is really the de facto suspension of that foster carer from their jobalmost all foster carers have their fostering income cut, and 46 per cent have their income stopped completely.
Research has also shown that 60 per cent of foster carers facing allegations are not receiving the access to independent support during an allegation that they desperately need and which they are required to receive under the current national minimum standards for fostering services. The amendment would protect foster carers from the immense financial hardship that can accompany an allegation investigation, and it would give local authorities greater incentive to resolve investigations within an acceptable timescale. If they are continuing to have to pay the very small fees that some foster carers get, it certainly makes it a very good thing that they speed up their investigations. We really need to keep these foster carers, and if there is an ongoing case against an innocent person, for all the reasons that I have outlined, they will obviously have lost the allowance because they have lost the child. If they lose the fee as well, they will have to get another job.
We are desperately short of foster parents, and we are paying them only a very small amount. It is against natural justice that they should be seen as guilty because their retention feeas I would call ithas been taken away from them while the allegation is heard. If we can reach the target of 80 per cent resolved within a month, the payments that we are talking about will be very small. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that we will not lose a lot of foster carers because of financial expediencythey have no income and have to get another job. We will lose them, and that would be extremely sad. Amendment No. 98 would be possible if the split sought by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, were put into place. I beg to move.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: The amendments relate to the registration, regulation and payment of foster carers and seek to clarify the very welcome provisions on foster care in the Bill. According to the Fostering Network, foster carers have long called for the introduction of a national registration scheme for foster carers through the General Social Care
17 Jan 2008 : Column GC613
Amendment No. 96 relates to the publication of the payments that foster carers receive. At the moment, there are vast discrepancies between different local authorities and independent providers. Not only do the remuneration payments, or what are often called fee payments, differ, but the allocation to cover the costs of fostering also varies immensely. Our amendment seeks to arrange for the publication of payments made to foster carers, and we also seek assurances that the publication will be comprehensive, providing a breakdown of what is actually covered and the different criteria for each scheme. Otherwise, the publication of payments would not be useful as a mode of comparison.
Amendment No. 97 would empower foster carers to have more responsibility in decisions about their foster child. Children in foster care are often prevented from having what other children simply take for grantedschool holidays or even haircutsbecause of insurmountable red tape and the delays of bureaucracy. We therefore support the amendment.
Finally, the last amendment in the group ensures that payment continues to be made to foster carers against whom there have been allegations of wrongdoing until there has been an assessment of the claim. This is simply a question of innocent until proved guilty, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, and we are happy to support it, especially as a large proportion of foster carers will face allegations at some point. It will also encourage local authorities to resolve allegation claims quickly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. It is not as though we have an unlimited pool of foster carers.
Lord Williamson of Horton: I support Amendment No. 94 on the registration of foster carers with the General Social Care Council. It is overdue and is good for prestige and professional reasons, and we should give a good deal of attention to it. It would be to the medium-term advantage, and we should do it.
I shall also speak briefly to Amendment No. 96 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. It is important for good financial practice as well as for allegations that we should distinguish clearly between payments to meet the full cost of caring for a child and the fee. The financial officer of any public company would not like to make a single payment for two totally different purposes without making it clear what they were and how they were differentiated. I therefore support the amendment. If that is not done, there is a temptation to defer adjusting the payment for the full cost of caring for a child by saying that the total amount of money is reasonably right for the time being. That is what happens in this world. It is most important to differentiate between those two items. The full cost of caring for the child should be specified and can therefore be adjusted when it should be adjusted.
The Earl of Listowel: In the context of Amendment No. 94, can the Minister say what progress there has been in the registration of residential child care workersthe staff who work in childrens homes?
On Amendment No. 96, the national minimum allowance for foster carers, which we announced in July 2006 and which has been warmly welcomed by foster carers and their organisations, was introduced to help to ensure that no foster carer was out of pocket as a result of caring for a looked-after child. Our good practice guidance, which was published alongside the national minimum allowance, was intended to support fostering services in improving their payment systems. In addition, the recent White Paper Care Mattersincludes a further commitment aimed at improving transparency around payment systems and foster carers eligibility for payments; that is, their allowances and their fees. We announced in the White Paper our commitment to require all fostering services to publish details of their payment structures for foster carers in relation to the task undertaken by carers and the level of training required. It is essential that every fostering service provider has in place an effective policy on payments to foster carers and that that policy is available to carers. By requiring local authorities to publish full details of their payment structures, including allowances and fees, we will ensure that that is the case and therefore meet the objective of this amendment.
Amendment No. 98 seeks to ensure that foster carers continue to receive a fee until a qualifying determination has been reached. Where a fee is paid, a decision by the fostering provider to cease payments pending formal termination of approval, as the noble Baroness said, leads to a sudden loss of income, and that can be difficult for carers to manage. There may be a number of reasons why that happens. It may be that an allegation of abuse has been made against a foster carer and an investigation is taking place. In those cases, it may be appropriate for a fee to be paid until there is a qualifying determination. I fully take on board the points that the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have made about the need for the timely investigation and determination of such complaints. We believe that this is an issue of great significance to foster carers, and we will be looking at the timescales for allegations as part of our review of the national minimum standards for fostering providers with a view to promoting best practice in this area.
However, there may be other reasons why a fostering provider makes a decision not to continue to approve an individual as a foster carer. For example, the welfare of a child may have been put at risk in some way by the carers actions, or it may be that the foster carer, or an adult member of the fostering household, has been convicted of an offence which would automatically bar him or her from fostering. In such cases, it may be entirely inappropriate for the
17 Jan 2008 : Column GC615
Amendment No. 94 seeks to bring foster carers within the group of social care workers registered by the General Social Care Council in England and the Care Council for Wales in Wales. Foster care is a truly unique occupation, and foster carers are substantially different from other groups that are registered and regulated by a central body. Therefore, we are not sympathetic to proposals for a national registration scheme. The fostering services regulations and national minimum standards set out clearly the basis on which an individual should be approved as a foster carer and the comprehensive range of information that must be taken into account in deciding whether an individual is suitable to be a foster carer. They also set out the Governments expectations of the fostering service and its carers in improving outcomes for individual children.
Under existing legislation, carers performance must be reviewed regularly, and the Government have funded the Childrens Workforce Development Council to develop a set of training and development standards for foster carers that illustrates clearly the standards expected of every foster carer. These standards were published in May 2007, and we have already announced our intention to link them with the revised national minimum standards for foster care to improve the training and development that all foster carers receive. This framework is appropriate, and we would not wish to change it at present.
Finally, on Amendment No. 97 on the delegation of responsibility to foster carers, it would not be appropriate for the Government to prescribe centrally the precise circumstances in which responsibility should be delegated to carers, as this will depend on the needs and circumstances of the individual child. Schedule 6 to the Fostering Services Regulations sets out, for example, the matters that should be covered in the foster placement agreement, which the responsible authority must enter into with the foster carer before a child may be placed with that carer. These include the circumstances in which the carer must obtain in advance the responsible authoritys approval for the child to take part in school trips or to stay overnight away from the carers home.
The placement information record, which should be completed for all children living away from home, details the arrangements for meeting the childs needs where responsibilities are divided between a number of people. It must, for example, set out where the responsibility lies for taking a child for routine medical or dental treatment or for giving consent for medical treatment. Existing legislation and statutory guidance are clear about how the local authoritys duties in respect of looked-after children should be discharged and about the need for clarity around the delegation of responsibility.
Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for his reply, and I thank other noble Lords for taking part in the debate. I am disappointed that he rejects the suggestion that foster carers can register with the
17 Jan 2008 : Column GC616
On Amendment No. 98, I understand what the Minister said about the situation that pertains if a member of the foster carers household, or even the foster carer themselves, is convicted of something that would make them ineligible to be a foster carer. In that case, the person is immediately disqualified from being a foster carer. In that situation, unfortunately, I can see why the fee would have to be stopped. However, the Minister also mentioned the situation in which the foster carer has behaved in such a way that puts the child at risk. Surely that is something to be determined by those who are looking at the allegation. There may have been an allegation that the person has behaved in that way, but the matters around that will have to be determined through the proper procedure, which might take a few weeks.
Baroness Walmsley: Naturally, if the parties concerned accept it, they will not object to having their fee removed, I suppose. The fee is removed from many foster carers while the allegations are being investigated, and it does not seem right that a local authority should simply be able to opt out of paying them. It is a self-defeating policy, because the local authority will then have the expense of recruiting more foster carers. Even when that foster carer may be found innocent, as many are, they have already flown the nest and got another job. I accept part of what the Minister said, but I am still concerned about another part of what he said, and I might want to bring the matter back on Report.
The Ministers remarks on Amendment No. 97 are yet another example of what has happened many times in this Grand Committee when he has read out what the current situation is and cited the legislation, the regulations, the guidance and all the rest of it. Yet Members of the Grand Committee know that it is not happening. Listening to what he said about what should be in the fostering agreement, I was puzzled how any foster carer might be confused about what decisions they can and cannot take. Yet they are. They ring the fostering advice line for advice about what decisions they can take. They are greatly frustrated about not being able to take the sort of quick and fairly insignificant decisions that most parents would take without thinking twice. Local authorities might need further guidance on how regularly to refresh the mind of the foster carer about what exactly is covered in the foster caring agreement.
I accept what the noble Lord said about localism, that it makes sense for some of these decisions to be decided locally and that that is appropriate given the particular circumstances of the child. That makes a lot of sense to me, but the fact remains that some foster carers are confused and frustrated by the situation. And yet the noble Lord tells me that it is all there in black and white. However, this is not the first time that this has arisen. Many such situations have
17 Jan 2008 : Column GC617
The noble Baroness said: Adoption is often the solution to much of the difficulty that a child might face in care. It can provide stability, continuity and above all a genuine sense of being part of a family. Yet adoption is not always the solution. Though it is often the best possible scenario in many circumstances, it is not always in the best interests of the child. Numerical adoption targets do not have any regard to these nuances, and they risk sacrificing the interests of the child while also contributing to the creation of a negative impression of social workers.
Centrally imposed targets can result in rushing vulnerable children into adoption when it might not be in the best interests of the child. There is a risk that not enough is being done to try to work with families at risk to keep them together. Attaching financial incentives to adoption placements drives up the number of adoptions, but in situations where it might not be appropriate. Therefore, we propose this amendment to scrap centrally imposed adoption targets and the financial incentives attached to them, which are not always in the best interests of the child. I beg to move.
The Earl of Listowel: I have heard the concerns of a provider of adoption services that children who should not have been placed for adoption are being so placed, and that the consequent placements are breaking down because they are not right and are not well supported. If the Government wish to continue with these targets, they must think more carefully about how they will support the families and ensure that decisions made about childrens placements are appropriate, because it is terrible for the child to be promised a placement with a family and for that placement to then break down. However, one has to applaud the Government for being successful in securing many more adoption placements.
Lord Adonis: That was precisely the reason for the initial target which we set in 2000. However, I am glad that I can entirely meet the noble Baronesss concerns on these issues. The national adoption target for England, announced in 2000, ended in March 2006 and there are no plans to reintroduce a similar target.
Under the new performance framework outlined in the 2006 local government White Paper, local authorities will, from 2008-09, report performance on
17 Jan 2008 : Column GC618
Lord Elystan-Morgan: I respectfully suggest that in so far as the nomination of such a target is concernedI appreciate that it is no longer the current procedureit seems to me that the Government must be getting very near to a most dangerous line. I totally applaud the attitude that the Government have taken generally towards adoption and I applaud the fact that they sensitively accept that in many cases the welfare of a child will be best served by being adopted rather than being in care or, indeed, in a succession of care placements over very many years.
Adoption often enables a child to be fully integrated into a loving family which, with the best will in the world, may not be possible under the care system. It seems to me that the Minister is now saying that each case turns on its own facts. Given the general precepts that the Government have wisely published, if it is the case that local authorities say to the Government, This is the situation in our area. This is the amalgam of the situation that we are dealing with in relation to a number of cases, and this is the ultimate figure, provided those figures move from local government to central government, rather than as a precept from central government to local government, the situation is perfectly wholesome and proper. Does the Minister agree with that?
Lord Adonis: I am still trying to absorb precisely what the noble Lord is asking me to agree to. Is it whether local authority targets themselves are justifiable where they do not follow from any instruction from central government?
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|