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Special Standing Committee
Thursday 17 January 2002
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
New clause 9
Registration of private foster parents
'For section 69 of the 1989 Act (Power to prohibit private fostering) there is substituted—
''69 (1) Every local authority shall keep a register of persons who act as private foster parents within their area.
(2) A local authority shall not register any person as a private foster parent unless it is satisfied that he is fit to act as a private foster parent.
(3) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision as to the considerations to which a local authority is to have regard in reaching a decision as to whether to register a person as a private foster parent.
(4) A local authority shall cancel the registration of any person under subsection (1) if:
(a) it appears to them that the circumstances of the case are such that they would be justified in refusing to register that person as a private foster parent;
(b) the care provided by that person for any privately fostered child is, in the opinion of the authority, inadequate having regard to the needs of that child; or
(c) the premises in which any privately fostered child is or would be accommodated are not suitable for that purpose.
(5) No person shall act as a private foster parent unless he is registered under subsection (1).
(6) A person who contravenes subsection (5) shall be guilty of an offence.
(7) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (6) shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
(8) A person aggrieved by the refusal of a local authority to register him as a private foster parent may appeal to the court in accordance with paragraph 8 of Schedule 8 to this Act.''.'.—[Mr. Shaw.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Question proposed [15 January], That the clause be read a Second time.
Question again proposed.
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I rise to support the principles proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) in new clause 9. It is important to improve the regulation of private fostering. My hon. Friend said that he spoke with 10 years' experience of social services. I can take that and double it to 20 years.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Surely not.
Ms Munn: How kind.
From my first experiences as an unqualified social worker to my work as assistant director of children's services with responsibility for ensuring that the regulations were enforced, I know how difficult that
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can be. I have some sympathy with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister that if regulations are not working, the first port of call should be to try to enforce them. Having tried to do that for many years, I strongly urge her to consider ways to improve them.
The reality is that most children who are privately fostered are not known to the local authority social services in the area in which they are living. I was working as assistant director in York in 1999 when the Department of Health asked us to make a proper check on how many children in the area were privately fostered. On checking, we found that our social workers knew of two such arrangements. However, the population of that local authority area was 175,000, and the average number of children looked after by the local authority was between 100 and 125, so it was most unlikely that the number of children privately fostered could be as low as two.
We did, of course, try further to discover where some of the privately fostered children were placed. We approached the schools, as most know who to contact in emergencies. Having said that, although ideally one would hope that schools would have a good knowledge of the children's living arrangements, the often complicated nature of many families nowadays means that we cannot always be certain. The regulations do not have enough teeth. Little energy is put into seeking out children, but having worked with private foster parents, I know that the regulations are not strong enough to ensure that the children are properly protected.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford rightly made a comparison with child minding. We know that some children are illegally minded, but regulations to enforce proper child minding have become part of our culture. As a result, few people doubt that those who look after children who are not related to them should be subject to proper checks, including the police checks set out in the regulations. The general population and, importantly, those whose children are privately fostered would, in time, understand why we had introduced much stronger regulations on private fostering. I shall not go into that, however, because my hon. Friend has covered it.
The new clause is not only about enforcement, but about promoting proper regulations and a more positive partnership between private foster parents and social services departments. There are already positive relationships between child minders and those who regulate them, and there are opportunities for training, providing information and ensuring that child minders are supported in what is sometimes a difficult task. Stronger regulations would allow a similar relationship to develop between social services departments and private foster carers.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): As the hon. Lady knows, I am partly sympathetic to the proposed measure, but she is in danger of over-egging the pudding when she refers to the sheer warmth of the relationship between child minders and those who regulate them. As the husband of the former chairman of a playgroup, I know that the scope of the regulations on pre-school child care organisations,
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which often struggle close to the edge of financial viability, is often daunting. [Laughter.]
Ms Munn: I shall not wander down the road that we took before Christmas, because the contents of the regulations are a matter of detail.
It has been properly emphasised from the Government Benches that we are talking not about children who leave their parents for a few hours a day, but about those who may live for many years with people whom to begin with they do not know and to whom they are not related. They may not be subject to proper checks, and their parents may not have regular contact to ensure that they are properly placed and happy. My point was that contact between professionals and those who undertake the care of children provides an opportunity to improve standards and develop ways of overcoming the difficulties that arise whenever children do not live with their own families. I want progress to be made on that.
I accept that there may be difficulties with the wording of the new clause and that we must ensure that whatever replaces the regulations significantly improves on them and operates properly in practice. I hope that the Minister will take account of the feelings that I have expressed in supporting the new clause.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I am pleased to support the new clause, which my colleagues have so ably moved and supported. From my perspective of 18 years of social work experience, it seems that there is a lacuna in this area of social policy. Remedying that omission could notably improve the position of one group of children who live away from home.
The Government have a proud record on their policies towards children and those who are particularly vulnerable because they live away from home. We are seeing wholesale improvements in the regulation and quality of living arrangements for children in residential care, foster care and the adoptive placements that we have been discussing. The Government have a proud record of response from 1997 to Sir William Utting's report, ''People Like Us''. Referring to his report, Sir William said in ''A Very Private Practice'', a recent publication from the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering:
''One of the review's general conclusions was that there should be a consistent, minimum level of safeguards for children across all the settings in which they might live away from home. Determined abusers seek out any sector in which controls and external scrutiny are weak, and incompetent carers are naturally drawn to areas in which staff selection and supervision are unknown. It was plain to the review that private fostering was among the least controlled and most open to abuse of all the environments in which children lived away from home.''
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford pointed out, the issue of private fostering has been raised by him and others on a number of occasions since 1997. I cannot understand why a Government who are so committed to ensuring high standards for children living away from home, to attending to their protection and safety and to trying to restrict the opportunities of determined abusers to
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gain access to them are so reluctant to intervene in the area. The new clause should be supported by every member of the Committee. We have had our debate and our disagreements, but I respect the solid commitment to the support and protection of children that every Committee member has plainly shown over the past few months.
There is nothing in the new clause that justifies any of the concerns raised by Opposition Members about some of the issues in the Bill. There is no hint of political correctness—
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Left or right wing.
Mr. Dawson: Left or right wing, as my hon. Friend points out. No radical new social work proposal conjured up in a left-wing sociology department is to be imposed on an unwitting public or on family life. What we have is a sensible solution to an obvious problem. Nobody is saying that it is a panacea that will immediately resolve every problem that faces children.
The regrettable and appalling fact is that however well we improve legislation and resource social services, we will never be able to protect every child for 100 per cent. of the time from people who are determined to abuse, molest and harm him. The dangers presented by some of the people who want to abuse children in this country are well known. They are dangerous people—highly capable, intelligent and organised.
The situation remains grossly unsatisfactory. We have no idea whatever how many children are living away from home under private fostering arrangements. We have no idea of the conditions in which those children are living or of the potential abuse that they face. Children in boarding schools, residential care, foster care, adoptive placements and those who attend day nurseries or are cared for by child minders do not face such a situation. Privately fostered children are completely unprotected and that is completely unacceptable.
All that is proposed is a register. It is a simple device, which will not deal with every difficulty and problem that we will face, but which has worked with obvious effect in the case of child minders. Who here—who anywhere—would regard it as onerous that child minders should be required to register or that they should be inspected? Who would object to the day care of children being kept under close scrutiny? Why on earth should we not have a register for people who look after children, not just on a day care basis, but 24 hours a day, perhaps throughout those children's lives?
There is no possible sensible argument against the principle set out in the new clause. The Government should accept it and every member of the Committee should support it. I hope that they will and I hope that something substantial will be forthcoming from the Government. My hon. Friend has a tremendous record of concern on the matter and of support for this principle. The Minister has led the Committee with enormous distinction and aplomb, but if we do
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not make real progress on the matter, I hope that my hon. Friend will press his new clause to a vote and that everyone will support it.