Adoption and Children Bill

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Andrew Christie: Frankly, people come forward so infrequently, that the risk of deterring any of those is minuscule. The parallel is in the approach that is adopted to childminding. That is the closest that I can think of in terms of where there is that requirement. I think that there is quite an understanding in the community as a whole that if someone is going to childmind, they are expected to meet certain standards. People probably do not really understand the system until they actually seek to do it, but there is an expectation that they will go through a certain process.

Probably, the reality is that there are two aspects to raising awareness and understanding. One is about publicity and information and, particularly, working in partnership with some key community groups. I am thinking of some of the parallels in our work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, where working in partnership with community groups representing, for example, communities from the horn of Africa, elicits a lot of information. We are well aware that the information then gets around the community, and people become better involved. That is one aspect.

If, at the same time—it is a fairly blunt idea—there were a few examples of an attached penalty, which people became aware of, that would be an additional incentive. I do not think that the whole thing would be closed down, but it would increase the likelihood of children being monitored.

Only yesterday I was dealing with a case that had come to the adoption panel. It was a private fostering placement in similar circumstances to those of Victoria Climbie. A parent had placed the children with a very distant relative. The parent was last heard of in the Congo but is now thought to be in Angola. There had been no supervision or regulation until the case came to our attention because both children had suffered serious physical abuse.

12.45 pm

Jacqui Smith: A woman came to see me in my constituency surgery the other day. As a good member of the community, she had taken in her son's 15-year-old friend, whose parents had said, ``Out you go.'' If a registration scheme and enforcement such as you describe had already been introduced, do you think she should have registered in advance, and that she should have been punished for not registering in advance of taking that person in?

Andrew Christie: That situation is quite common and in local authorities we often work with families to try to achieve such solutions as an alternative to a child of 15 becoming looked after, which is not necessarily in their best interest. I take the point—if we came across something like that, would we want to get into the position of enforcement and so on? However, I would want us to consider providing support, advice and guidance to such families, particularly those in which younger children are placed. This raises complex issues of whether we want an age definition in such circumstances and I would have to think about that added complexity. I am thinking predominantly about cases in which much younger children are placed for long periods by parents who have no contact with those children, who have had no opportunity to express an informed view. I bet that the 15-year-old that you are talking about had an informed view of what should or should not happen and would not have been with that friend if he or she had not wanted to be there.

Moira Gibb: I do not think we have any intention of reaching out and trying to bureaucratise ordinary relationships, and the time limits would have allowed that to happen anyway. If it was going to continue as a serious placement, it might be helpful for the family taking in the child to think it through in advance. In a sense, the register and the approach that we are suggesting demonstrates the seriousness of our intention to protect some of our most vulnerable children.

Mr. Brazier: May I make a point from the edge on the 80-20 principle of how to achieve something for least effort? My local police have been running a campaign for a long time and are pressing the Home Office on the issue of children sent to placements for a few weeks on school exchanges--we have a lot of that in east Kent. A voluntary scheme has been set up in east Kent to which I believe every school now subscribes. Of the first 12 providers on which police checks were made, six turned out to have convictions for serious criminal offences, or were found to be well known to social services as unsuitable for handling children. It seems that, at least in matters that are dealt with commercially, a sort of ``heads-up'' checking that picks up the worst cases fairly quickly is possible.

Felicity Collier: We know that there are many different situations, and the three that you described are three different situations in relation to private fostering. The matter is complicated, but I do not think that that is a reason for doing nothing, and we understood that the Department was developing a code of practice on language schools and so on. I shall be interested to see more evidence of what you found out, Julian, but we are worried and we think that teenagers and young people coming from overseas are particularly vulnerable. Families that seek them out may have unsuitable intentions because that is the only way they are going to have access to young people. We could have a very simple scheme of registration for people who want to care for children in those circumstances.

Mr. Dawson: Is it not the case that the average disgruntled 15-year-old can sometimes place themselves with the most appalling people? They can also place themselves with unlikely people whom further assessment can reveal to be providing a decent and sensible placement after all, thus allaying all sorts of anxieties.

Moira Gibb: There are lots of situations that are far from ideal in which children make choices for themselves, but I think we are worried not so much about 15-year-olds as about much younger children.

Mr. Love: Can I come back to Mr. Christie? I may be misinterpreting, but the impression that I get from your answers is that you think that the difference between the current notification scheme and a registration scheme, in terms of people taking it up, is that it would have to have a sanction attached. Are you saying that to be successful, the registration scheme has to have a sanction?

Andrew Christie: Is it not generally the experience that to make these things effective, there has to be some sanction attached?

Maureen Rutter: I was wondering why, to my knowledge, the LGA has not been asked if it has any ideas about how this measure could be brought about and done successfully. We are all very concerned about the whole issue, and we would definitely like something done about it, but we have not had a chance to really look at it, think about it and work it out between us. It seems to me to be an ideal subject for those of us in the children task group to look at in some depth. We could ask authorities to give their opinions and come back with a possible scheme that might at least give some cause for optimism that it could work. We are all banging about ideas now—whether this or that would work, and so on—and I do not think that we will solve the problem here in the next five minutes. This is a very good place to start, but frankly the work has not been done.

The Chairman: Some work has been done. If you are saying that the LGA has not considered the matter, that may be indicative of the fact that your member authorities are not that concerned about it. I am rather surprised about that, because this has been a big issue for a long time, certainly in Parliament.

Felicity Collier: I was going to reassure you, Maureen, that we do have a private fostering special interest group of 26 people and we certainly have ADSS representatives—indeed, Andrew is our representative—and these recommendations have been developed with consultation. We have taken as practical examples some extremely good local authorities—South Gloucestershire is one—where there are very good support schemes, but we understand that how something would work requires greater consultation.

I am delighted to have been invited to meet with the chief inspector to discuss the report and we would want to take this forward, but we want Parliament to recognise that it has the opportunity through this Bill to ensure that there is not a longer delay. For example, we are concerned about waiting for the recommendations that we believe will probably flow from the Laming inquiry on a whole range of issues, including this one, but not until next summer. There is now an opportunity to make a reasonable amendment to the Bill that will allow for the registration of private foster carers, and that is what everybody is calling for. We are now working with the two main African welfare associations, which have met with us and are supporting this also.

The Chairman: We have to conclude the sitting by 1 o'clock and I am conscious that there are several areas that we have not covered. One of those is the appeals mechanism, which we have not touched on during this second part of the sitting. The witnesses presumably heard the earlier discussion about the current proposals, and of course, in a previous Parliament, we had some concerns about how they would work. I would be interested to hear the views of Meg Staples, from a practical point of view.

Meg Staples: Clearly, prospective adopters should have a right of appeal. There is some concern about them going to an independent committee if they do not have a positive recommendation on their form F. There is concern as to what the ramifications of that would be if there were financial penalties on local authorities in terms of funding the independent committee. What I think is of fundamental importance is that prospective adopters have the right of appeal. If they are finally turned down, I think that an independent review mechanism is the way forward.

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