Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): The principle of registration is certainly correct, but as ever the devil is in the detail. I am unsure whether the new clause properly addresses the sensitivities of what it involves. The question is not whether there should be a register, but how people would get on it, what kind of hoops they would have to jump through, and what they would have to do to stay on it. That needs a lot of fleshing out. Foster parents are enormously valuable to the system and the position is difficult. As hon. Members have rightly said, such parents have to be professional and there are standards of conduct to which we would all expect them to adhere, but at the same time, one is looking for a warm family atmosphere and the support that a family can provide, and those are not the easiest qualities to regulate.

The principle of regulation is not wrong, but we must be careful. We need to appreciate that, in practice, the issue will be sensitive. In many parts of the country, it is very hard to get new foster parents. I have had experience of that in an inner-city area where there was a dearth of new foster parents. Relatively large houses are needed, which are hard to come by in cities. That means that the supply of foster parents is limited. I remember how we treasured them.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I am not sure what argument the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he realise that we are talking about private foster parents, and that the regulations would have no impact on the shortages to which he refers?

Mr. Djanogly: The proposal would have an impact. This is a question not of new foster parents, but of existing ones. People who have been foster parents for 20 years, for example, and have a good reputation, may not choose to remain foster parent when regulations are thrown at them. If they have to go through a series of hoops to get on the register, a lot of them will drop out.

Mr. Dawson: Could the people who would drop out of private fostering if regulations were introduced possibly be precisely those whom no one would want to look after children?

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. That may be so, but many others would drop out.

Mr. Brazier: There was much laughter from Labour Members when I raised the issue of playgroups. They may think it funny, but many decent people who ran successful playgroups dropped out and gave up because of heavy-handed regulations.

Mr. Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Someone came to my surgery who ran a playgroup that was closed down when new regulations came in last year. That person could not afford to comply with the regulations, and did not want to go through all the extra hoops.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr. Djanogly: No, I shall continue my point. The same thing could happen to private foster parents if we do not tread carefully. For many foster parents, fostering does not provide their main income; they do it not only for extra money, but because they feel that it is giving something to the community in which they live. If we go in too hard on regulation, those people will start dropping out. Why should they go through extra hoops of regulation?

Mr. Dawson: I cannot believe what I am hearing. I was far too generous in my earlier remarks. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that people who look after other people's children 24 hours a day should not be prepared to be on a local authority register? What does he think that they might have to hide?

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman clearly has not listened to a word that I have said, because I began my remarks by saying that there should be a register. The question is not whether there should be a register, but how people would get on to that register and what they would have to go through to maintain their entry on that register. I speak from experience. If we go overboard with regulation, foster parents who are on the margin, for whom fostering is not vital to their income—

Ms Munn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Djanogly: No, I shall finish my point. If we suddenly say to people who foster because they feel that it is important to put something back into the community and because they love children that they must go through 20 hoops, many will drop out.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said that he had 10 years' experience in the field of social work, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said that he had 18 years' experience and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) said that she had 20 years' experience. In addition, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said that he had several years' experience in social services—as the chairman of Westminster social services, I think. That shows a contrast, in that some learn from their experience and others do not. The arguments made by Labour Members are based on practical experience, while the arguments of the hon. Member for Huntingdon seem to be based on that right-wing political correctness that we discussed—that absolute revulsion at the suggestion of any state role in regulating private activities such as private fostering. I freely admit that I have no experience at all in this sphere, but I am staggered, as any member of the public would be, to find out that the protection afforded to children who are privately fostered is less than that afforded to children who are put in the care of a child minder.

I do have experience of using a child minder, and it was a relief to me as a parent to know that that child minder was registered with the local authority, that police checks had been carried out and that my child was safe in that person's care.

Mr. Djanogly: The important point is that, provided the local authority has been as diligent as it should, experience should show that someone who has been a

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foster parent for 10 or 20 years is a good foster parent. The average length of time for which foster parents care for particular children is short, so an experienced foster parent will very likely have cared for a large number—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Member was making a lengthy intervention; I think that the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) has got the point.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman's intervention shows that he misunderstands the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford and which people he is concerned about. My hon. Friend is not referring to experienced foster carers who are known to the local authority, and who have fostered children through the local authority. He is worried about abuses such as those that happen in London in particular, often involving children whose parents do not even live in this country, and sometimes amounting to domestic slavery. The foster carers relevant to our debate are not even required to register with the local authority. We should try to do something about that.

I praise my hon. Friend for the way in which he has pursued the matter and I hope that the Minister will be able to give him some reassurance. He has conceded that perhaps his proposal would not achieve all that is necessary in the context, but it should certainly be taken seriously and deserves a positive response.

Mr. Brazier: It is a pity that what has been a well tempered Committee, with much consensus and relatively few votes, should end in blows on the final day.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town): It is because it is the last day.

Mr. Brazier: I thank the Government Whip for that gratifying thought.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford is to be congratulated on raising the important issue dealt with by the new clause. Its importance has been recognised by all hon. Members who have spoken, on both sides of the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman knows, as like me he is a Kent Member, of the work that I have been involved in, to which I have alluded, in an effort to organise police registration for those who provide holiday placements for foreign children. We now have a successful voluntary registration scheme for every relevant east Kent school. Certainly all of them in the Canterbury city council area are collaborating. Six of the first 12 police checks turned up people who either had committed serious criminal offences or were known child abusers. The work that I have done in this context leaves me in no doubt that the case for police checks is overwhelming.

However, the new clause is not only a matter of police checks; it concerns the wider issue of registration. Labour Members did not strengthen their case by their attitude to the comments made—with the experience of chairing an elected body

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responsible for social services—by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon about the danger that over-heavy registration may lead to a drying-up, as it has elsewhere. I referred to it having done so in relation to playgroups.

It is all very well for hon. Members to say that they have huge experience of responsibility for operating regulations. That is an extremely valuable job. I am not the type to knock social workers in general, and whenever I cite specific abuses I am careful to make it clear that I am talking about small numbers of people and specific local authorities. Their profession is vital, and they must be proud to serve in it. However, I ask hon. Members to be clear that there is another consideration besides the important work of regulation: the people who have to provide the services. They have vital interests and concerns too, and there will be a problem if fewer people are willing to come forward.

10 am

Mr. Dawson: I do not think that there would be a problem if fewer people were prepared to come forward for private foster care. I do not care if the source of private foster carers dries up. If people want to be private foster carers, they should go on a register. If they are not prepared to do so, there must be a problem and parents should not place their children in such foster care. We are talking not about properly approved and supported foster carers used by local authorities, but about a small—

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