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Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I also support the amendments. It is clear that we should not be treating foster parents differently from other groups suspended for such allegations. I also support the other amendment on the delegation of responsibility. We are increasingly wishing for and training our foster parents to be professional, and we should treat them as such.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, although the number of foster carers affected is small, I sympathise with the view expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and other noble Lords, that no foster carer should be penalised until the appropriate authority is satisfied that an allegation is well founded. Most fostering providers who continue to pay a fee during investigations also abide by this principle.
For those foster carers whose fees are stopped, I recognise that that loss of income can add to an already very stressful situation and may contribute to a decision to leave fostering. We are happy to take this issue away to consider further what might be done, and we shall indicate our thinking as the Bill goes through another place. I am sorry that we cannot do it more rapidly than that but I hope that that commitment will give some satisfaction to your Lordships.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned the time taken to resolve investigations and the independent support available to foster carers. The guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children, which was published by the Government in 2006,
However, evidence suggests that these timescales are not always met. The national minimum standards for fostering providers require them to make independent support available to their foster carers, but it appears that that requirement is not being met in all cases. I recognise that lengthy investigations without adequate independent support can add to the stress experienced by foster carers subject to an allegation, and I undertake also to consider this matter further to see what changes we might make to facilitate further improvements.
On the delegation of responsibility, which is raised in the second amendment in the group, as I said when we debated the amendment previously, I recognise that a foster carer who may be with a foster child 24 hours a day is often in the best position to make decisions about that child. However, bearing in mind the complex circumstances of many foster children, it would be inappropriate for the Government to dictate when decisions can and cannot be delegated, and it is right that that is decided at a local level between the fostering provider and the foster carer in the light of all the circumstances of a particular childs case. Existing legislation and statutory guidance is already clear that local authorities should clarify with foster carers the extent to which responsibility is delegated to the carer.
In the previous debate on this issue, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, acknowledged the case for decisions about delegation of responsibility to be
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I therefore suggest that the concerns underlying the noble Baronesss amendment could be addressed by an amendment to the fostering services regulations to require the placement agreement to be reviewed annually, or sooner if there is a substantive change in the circumstances of the placement. This would ensure that there is regular discussion between the provider and the foster carer about the delegation of decisions, allowing any concerns that the foster carer may have to be addressed. I undertake that we will consider this as part of our planned review of the fostering services regulations, which will be completed next year.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister and other noble Lords throughout the House who expressed support for this group of amendments. I am particularly grateful for the Ministers concessions. We have clearly been successful in convincing him that more needs to be done as regards delegated responsibility. I was most interested in his suggestion that an annual review might give foster carers the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings, confusion or irrationalities about the original placement agreement.
I am also most grateful for the Ministers commitment to have payments to foster carers raised in another place and to look for a solution that will ensure that the worst local authorities come up to the standards of the best. I acknowledge that the best continue to pay fees while allegations are being investigated and make all haste to get them cleared up as soon as possible. It is a pity that this matter cannot be settled in your Lordships' House, but I and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, to whom I am most grateful for her support on the amendment, will alert our colleagues in another place to it. We shall look out for what the Minister in another place proposes to address these matters. Let us hope that when the Bill comes back to us, they will have been settled satisfactorily. In the light of my gratitude for the solutions that the Minister proposed to meet these concerns, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment concerns a different matter altogether. Amendments Nos. 17 and 30 constitute two different ways of doing the same thing; that is, enabling young people leaving care to stay with their former foster parents on a stable, properly funded and regulated basis without being thrown into the hurly burly of adult services. Since I laid these amendments, the Fostering Network organisation that briefed me has been in communication with the Bill team. I am most grateful to it for the time it has taken to allay some of our concerns on this matter.
Following a further conversation with our legal advisors, I am writing to confirm that, as we discussed, there is no need for additional powers in the Children and Young Persons Bill to regulate this provision. Section 42 of the Care Standards Act 2000 (as amended by the Health and Social Care Bill), enables the Government to make regulations to provide for registration of those making arrangements for the placing of former relevant children with foster carers If the Government decides, following the pilots enabling 18 to 21 year olds to stay with their foster carers, that regulation would be appropriate no further primary legislation would be needed to enable this. Were such arrangements to be regulated, Her Majestys Chief Inspector for Education, Childrens Services and Skills would be the regulatory authority and inspect such arrangements. In respect of the pilots, we sent local authorities the invitation to tender for the Staying Put: 18+ Family Placement pilots in February with a view to running pilots in June 2008.
I am very pleased about that confirmation and wish the pilot schemes a very fair wind. However, I chose not to withdraw the amendments because I wanted to give myself an opportunity to ask the Minister three questions about this issue.
First, will he confirm that regulation via the Care Standards Act and the Health and Social Care Bill will enable support for placements for people between 18 and 21 to be dealt with by leaving care teams, and that foster carers will then remain within the fostering services rather than being transferred to adult services? Secondly, will the Government report annually on the number of young people remaining with their foster carers between 18 and 21 so that they can assess the increase in the number who choose to do that? Thirdly, given existing practice on this matter in some local authorities and in Northern Ireland, will they assess and report every year on whether the staying put pilots can be rolled out across the country at that point rather than waiting the full three years of the pilots before considering a roll-out? Some authorities are implementing many of these measures already and it would be a pity to have to wait three years if that is not considered necessary. I am most grateful to the Bill team for satisfying me on the main area of concern of these amendments. I hope that the Minister can clarify the small issues that remain. I beg to move.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, this rosy picture is not necessarily experienced on the ground. Work done on the transition of disabled children from childrens to adult services shows that it can be very traumatic and underlines how important it is that they have stable continuing family circumstances. Very often disabled children do not have the capacity to understand what is happening to them when they are moved from one health service section to another and to have to move from one home to another in addition can be disastrous. The relevant process needs to be much faster.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, read out word for word my proposed response to her amendment. Therefore, she leaves me in a very difficult position because I have nothing to add to her remarks. However, she asked me three specific questions on the implementation of the staying put 18-plus family placement pilots. I was about to say that I was not in a position to give her an answer but I see that I am. The efficiency of my officials means that I can answer all three questions.
Local authorities could run this service through leaving care teams. We shall consider reporting annually on the number of post-18s who stay with foster carers. We will share the findings for each year of the staying put pilots in an annual stocktake, which will give other authorities that wish to follow best practice in this area the opportunity to do so.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister, and I certainly take on board what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said. I am very much reassured by what the Minister has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have, throughout the course of our debates, stated our ambition to enhance the range, quality and choice of suitable placements for looked-after children, and I have outlined the steps that we are taking to improve local authority commissioning in order to do this. This goes hand in hand with our commitment to ensuring that more children are provided with accommodation in their local area and are only moved to a different area to meet their particular needs.
As the Bill was originally drafted, Clause 8, by imposing a new duty on local authorities not to place out of area, with only a limited discretion to depart from it, would have had the effect of requiring local authorities to ensure that they had sufficient accommodation in their area to meet the needs of the children whom they look after. This would have delivered our policy intention, and further provision would have been unnecessary.
However, in the light of recent government amendments to the requirements that local authorities must satisfy when making placement decisions, and the comments of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who has shown his customary commitment to this cause, we now consider it necessary to introduce an explicit provision to require local authorities to plan and commission services properly.
Amendment No. 18 therefore places a new general duty on the local authority that will require it to take steps to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, there is sufficient accommodation within its area to meet the needs of the children that it looks after. In meeting this duty, authorities will not have to take account of those children who can be placed with their parents or those for whom it would not be consistent with their welfare to be placed in area.
By requiring local authorities to consider the benefits of having a number of accommodation providers, the amendment makes it clear that they cannot fulfil this duty by presuming that they can provide the sufficient level of accommodation entirely by themselves. In addition, it highlights the need to have a range of accommodation that is sufficient to meet the different needs of children, who as we all know have diverse needs.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, briefly, I strongly welcome the amendment that the Minister has moved, and I thank him for his kind words. Many charities have called for this, including the Fostering Network, and I am delighted that the Government have brought forward the amendment.
I will speak to my two amendments, Amendments Nos. 19 and 20, which touch somewhat on the debate that we have just had on transition from care. Amendment No. 19 would extend the duty to 16 and 17 year-olds who are leaving care. Those young people should normally be staying in care until the age of 18, but I understand that most still do not do so. Consequently, there is an urgent need to ensure that there is an adequate local supply of supported accommodation. Sadly, these children can still on occasion be placed in a red light district or bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Will the Minister consider extending the duty to former relevant children; that is young care leavers of 18 and over? They, too, often face hurdles to obtaining appropriate accommodation. Will the Minister also consider the needs of young adult care leavers in full-time education who need accommodation in the university holidays? If it would be helpful, I would gladly table an amendment on Third Reading to allow the Minister to describe his plans for improving access to suitable accommodation for young adult care leavers.
Amendment No. 20 obliges local authorities to produce a plan for how they intend to provide for relevant children. It would be a mechanism for encouraging local authorities to think of the needs of care leavers strategically; it would be a lever to encourage improvement. I look forward to the Ministers reply. I beg to move.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I give a brief but warm welcome to government Amendment No. 18 which, in my view, goes to the heart of the matter. In the new clause, the local authorities are under a general duty to provide as far as reasonably practicable the necessary accommodation for looked-after children in their own area and meeting the childrens needs. By this means, we will establish a more stable environment for those children, and I hope that we will reduce the number of cases in which children have been frequently moved. I recognise that the clause is drafted in such a way as to make possible accommodation for a looked-after child outside the local authoritys area where that is right for the welfare of the child, and that is correct. The new clause reflects some of the discussion in Committee, which I was extremely interested in. I warmly welcome the Governments positive response.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I simply want to ask the Minister a question. Does he consider it appropriate that an older young person in specialist disability accommodation, during holidays, having no family to return to, should be returned to an old peoples home where there is no stimulation, when that young person could stay in the specialist accommodation but the cost is considerably higher?
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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I have a modest concern about the amendment. It is very often the case that children who are in care are also children who are in trouble. They are often in trouble because of emotional insecurity and lack of social skills, and they have found their only fulfilment in joining a gang. If you put them back into the same area, the first thing that will happen is that the gang is going to get at them, and they will be back in the gang, and within minutes they will be in trouble or in prison. Surely, there must be quite a lot of cases where it would be better for the child to have secure and appropriate accommodation in an area that is far away from the home area where all the trouble started.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, from these Benches, we welcome the amendments, and we are particularly pleased that the Government have listened to the arguments that noble Lords have rehearsed on two previous occasions and have come forward with the amendment on making diversity of placements more easily available. We also support the amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, which spell out these duties even more explicitly than they are spelt out in the government amendment. In particular, we support Amendment No. 20. Finding foster carers is not easy, and many local authorities struggle to find suitable placements. The requirement to make these within the area will be difficult to meet and will require long-term planning and time and resources to build up what will be in effect a bank of possible placements.
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