Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: Oh no.

Mr. Shaw: We were not under Tory rule. The Liberals were in power. The trial and execution of a Mrs. Walters for the murder of several children lead to a Select Committee inquiring into the protection of infant life. The Committee, which was in some ways our predecessor, discovered a widespread system of baby farming, and a year later a law was passed that gave children more protection. Baby farming was then what in certain circumstances private fostering can be now. Concern was expressed for the first time in 1871 about children being privately fostered.

I know that the Department is concerned about privately fostered children—so concerned that last year it issued a pamphlet, ''Private Fostering: A Cause for Concern''. That was in response to the Utting report. It was suggested that there would be a campaign of awareness about the responsibility of both parent and carer to notify the local authority that a child was to be placed. It took two years, following the presentation of the Utting report to Parliament, to produce a pamphlet about cause for concern.

The Government also said:

    ''When parliamentary time allows, legislation will be introduced to target private fostering regulations at placements . . . lasting more than 42 days''.

They said that they would

    ''work with a range of agencies to draw up a code of practice for language schools bringing children from overseas.''

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We heard a relevant example from the hon. Member for Canterbury. The Government are right to run an awareness campaign and to introduce measures and to work with other agencies. We have had the pamphlet—the one that took two years—but we have not had the parliamentary time for dealing with placements of 42 days or more.

Earlier, the Care Standards Act 2000 was mentioned. I stood in this Room two years ago on the Committee dealing with that Bill, arguing the same points. The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 has also been passed, but parliamentary time has not been provided. Now we have the Adoption and Children Bill. Will it provide for time to deal with the regulations to target placements in which children are privately fostered for 42 days or more?

How many children are we concerned about; how many children are privately fostered? In her letter to professionals as part of the awareness campaign to ensure that private foster carers would notify the local authority, the chief inspector of social services estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 children were privately fostered. She stated that

    ''it is likely that more than 50 per cent. of private foster placements are not notified''

to the local authority in accordance with section 69 of the Children Act 1989. Some 5,000 children could be living with schedule 1 offenders—who knows? I am sure that many of them are not, but that is not the point. The culture of non-registration, as Utting said, makes those children one of the most vulnerable groups. As we know, paedophiles and abusers seek out the gaps and focus on them. We have passed much legislation to close the net on potential paedophiles, but in this instance it is open.

That is such a contrast to the rest of the legislation. Let us not forget that we register child minders. If I take my child to someone at the beginning of the day and bring them home at the end of the day, that person must have registered, yet I can give my child to someone for years and that person need not be part of a registration scheme. The fact is that 50 per cent. of private foster carers do not bother to notify the local authority.

Where does the figure of 8,000 to 10,000 children come from? In 1991, the Department of Health ceased to collect the figures because they were unreliable and inaccurate. The local authorities agreed; they could not be sure about the accuracy and reliability of those figures. The right figure could be 8,000 or a lot more. We do not know. That is the point. We do not know about potentially vulnerable looked-after children. The case of Victoria Climbie is a stark example of a child who was privately fostered in a vulnerable situation. Now an inquiry is investigating her death. It has been said that she was placed with an aunt, but the woman in question was not a blood aunt under the requirements of section 69. Victoria Climbie was a privately fostered child.

6.45 pm

We heard evidence from a range of different agencies during the evidence-taking sittings. Although the hon. Member for Canterbury and I have argued

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about some witnesses' testimony, he will surely agree that none of the witnesses, other than those from the Department of Health, believed that the arrangements were satisfactory. Representatives of the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services said that it was inadequate. I asked the ADSS whether, considering the huge amount of legislation that local authorities are having to implement, requiring private foster carers to register with the local authority would be the most arduous task that they had ever performed. The answer was no, it certainly would not be.

Privately fostered children are hidden; we do not know how many there are and we do not know what is happening. However, we find out through tragic cases such as the one that I just mentioned. To help the Committee—to try to lift the lid for hon. Members—I shall quote from ''A Very Private Practice'', a recent British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering publication. The report deals, among other matters, with the case of Carl and Eric. It states:

    ''Carl Williams was 18 months old when Marcia, his mother, placed him with Audrey Simmons, a family friend and fellow Jamaican. It was believed that Marcia Williams was deported to Jamaica for drug offences. Carl's father, Edmund Collins, who was not married to his mother, was believed to be living in London. Eric Francis was also 18 months when he joined Carl in Audrey Simmons' care when Ellen, his mother, was imprisoned, also for drug offences. She, too, was deported upon her release. Eric's father was unknown.

    Audrey Simmons had no parental responsibility for either boy and allegations of physical abuse were made. In January this year (2001) Eric said that she hit him with an iron bar and a belt. Medical examinations of both boys showed a number of scars and bruises consistent with their being mistreated. Carl said that Audrey Simmons hit them but denied the assaults which Eric claimed happened. Carl wants to return to live with Audrey; Eric refuses all contact. The boys were placed in the care of the local authority, under an interim care order.''

That is one of the many such examples given in the report. I encourage hon. Members to read it. It lifts the lid on the situation of between 8,000 and 10,000 children, although I repeat that local authorities are not notified of 50 per cent. of such private fostering arrangements. We register childminders, we close the net everywhere, but privately fostered children are not given the protection afforded to others. The situation is far from satisfactory. The principle of the registration scheme would deal with the inadequate protection of such children.

During the evidence-gathering sittings, my hon. Friend the Minister asked questions such as, ''Would a registration scheme work? What difference would it make? Would it mean that the problem would go underground?'' If 50 per cent. are not notifying, we can hardly argue that it is above board at the moment. Parents would have greater power if their local authorities had lists of approved private foster carers who had been subject to police checks and had not committed offences that would disqualify them. We would want a campaign to promote awareness of that in west Africa, where there is the largest single group of children who are privately fostered.

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Mr. Brazier: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is approaching his peroration. Before he concludes, please will he clarify whether he is happy that the new clause—for which he is making a powerful case—appears to extend to everybody, including relatives? Presumably, it is not his intention that it should include people living with close relatives such as granny—or does he intend to include them as well?

Mr. Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was about to say that the drafting of my new clause is not perfect. I welcome improvements where they are needed. We do not want to require everybody to register, and the examples that he has given are pertinent. However, the principle of registration is important.

As only 50 per cent. notify—no doubt it varies from area to area—a registration scheme would do away with what is effectively a level playing field for good private foster carers and paedophiles. How is a parent meant to make a choice when a list is not kept of half of them? We must bring about a change of culture. There is now an expectation that child minders register. If we launched a campaign in parts of west Africa and it became ingrained in the community that registration as a private foster carer was expected, a far from satisfactory situation would improve.

A registration scheme is not a panacea. I do not believe that it will solve all the problems overnight and that we shall not see any more tragic cases. As responsible parliamentarians—in the light of the cases of Kimberley Carlisle, Jasmine Beckford and Victoria Climbie and of the Utting report—we should be able to put our hands on our hearts and say that we knew that we could not cover every eventuality but that we did our best. The Government can do their best by doing what they said in response to the Utting report that they would do and at least consider the 42-days proposal.

I have spoken on the matter numerous times, and I do so not from a theoretical standpoint but with some 10 years' experience in social services. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will offer us in her reply a chance for further discussion, particularly in the light of the opportunities that the Government have not taken to provide parliamentary time, despite their positive indication that they would do so.

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