Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to catch my eye again, he may do so, but he must prevent his interventions from stretching out too much.

Mr. Brazier: You rightly remind us of that, Mr. Stevenson, on our last day when we have a lot left to cover. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view, and he would not expect me to. Some people need fostering services and for one reason or another do not want to put their children into local authority care.

I have fought for police checks on many subjects for a long time. I made my first speech in the House on child abuse 13 years ago. It is important to remember that some of the worst and most ineffective bodies at putting proper police checks on their foster carers have been certain local authorities. Four or five in London could be named. They operated long, detailed and intrusive registers, but with no proper police checks.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford has made an overwhelming case for police checks on the subject. He mentioned the problem from west Africa, which is important, but checks should apply across the board. The jury is still out on the issue of wider registration.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I want to intervene in the debate briefly, as a member of the Select Committee on Health when it produced its report on looked-after children. At that stage, we were considering Sir William Utting's report, which highlighted the problem.

I have tremendous sympathy with those who have proposed the new clause. My concern, which has to

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some extent been reflected by the comments made by my hon. Friends, is that I would not want such a new clause to impinge on informal arrangements. New section 69(5) of the Children Act 1989, as proposed by the new clause, would make it a criminal offence for anyone to

    ''act as a private foster parent unless he is registered under subsection (1)''.

That would impose or impinge on informal arrangements that parents might want to make for their children with family friends or others. I do not have a problem with the principle of a register. My problem is with the exclusive nature of the two proposed new subsections, which would make it a criminal offence for an individual to look after somebody else's children, acting as though he were a foster parent.

Mr. Dawson: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, but there would be no need to register if one were looking after a child for less than 28 days. There is no intention in the new clause of impinging on such informal arrangements with neighbours and family friends.

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observations, but I do not share his confidence that, if the provision were enacted, social workers and others would interpret it in that way.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): This has been a very useful debate on an important issue that is worrying in many respects, particularly those raised by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford and others have spoken passionately and with great knowledge about the subject, and I recognise their commitment to expressing the concern about adequate protection for children in private fostering arrangements. As my hon. Friend said, the subject is especially disturbing given that the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Victoria Climbié case is taking place. I shall return to the Climbié case because it highlights the dilemma that we as a community face when considering what action might be effective. All Committee members agree that whatever action we take should achieve the objectives that we set for it and should not have detrimental or counterproductive side effects.

It is easy to seek a legislative solution to all the problems that are brought to our attention. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre was right to say that the proposed provision is not about political correctness, however, it might reflect our belief that we, as legislators and regulators, can always solve problems through legislation and regulation. Sometimes we should step back and consider whether that is possible.

We must be clear about the issues. The hon. Member for Huntingdon made some interesting points, but I am not sure that he was clear about our views on private fostering. On Tuesday, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford set out the legal position on private fostering. The greatest number of children who are placed with private foster carers are those who stay with relatives and friends for

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relatively short periods and for a variety of reasons; they include those whose parents have gone abroad to work and who leave them with relatives so that their education is not disturbed.

For example, in my 11 years of teaching, I often came across children—perhaps in the February or March—who were about to take their GCSEs but whose parents were moving to another part of the country with the younger children to work. Quite understandably and sensibly, those parents would arrange for the child to stay with a close friend or neighbour until they finished their GCSEs. That is the sort of arrangement that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) was talking about, and it seems completely appropriate. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, it may be covered by the new clause.

Mr. Dawson: I agree with my hon. Friend; I have no doubt that the new clause would cover such an arrangement. I would be obliged, however, if she would tell me what would be so onerous about families registering with the local authority when they take on the huge responsibility of looking after children for several months during their GCSEs.

Jacqui Smith: That is where we come to the importance of looking at the details. First, the family would already need to notify the local authority of the arrangement. Secondly, we should bear it in mind—this may or may not be acceptable—that the new clause would require the family to register in advance. We must be careful not to intrude into family and community life in a way that is unwarranted and which might make people less likely to take on such responsibilities. We should bear in mind other examples of what might be involved.

Adolescents might fall out with their parents and move in temporarily with a friend's parents or move to a friend's home because they cannot get on with their step-parents. A woman who recently came to my constituency surgery was looking after a 15-year-old who had fallen out quite severely with his parents and step-parents. She came to me because she wanted support with that arrangement and was concerned about the child. Perhaps social services should have spoken to her; I suspect that she would have been willing for them to do so. We must be careful not to put people off doing what I consider to be a good turn—the sort of thing that I would hope friends and families in our community would want to do.

Mr. Dawson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once more. Does she not accept that it is precisely when a good turn needs to be done that a completely inappropriate person can occasionally offer to help, and the child can be placed at risk?

Jacqui Smith: Yes, I accept that, which is why I said that there were important issues for us to consider. The lady to whom I referred told me that the local authority would have been looking after the child had she not taken him in. That might have been a good thing, but there are wider implications for the recruitment of foster carers and the extent to which we depend on them rather than communities and families.

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Of course, some children are privately fostered for long periods and may be sent from abroad, as was mentioned on Tuesday. That includes the practice of sending African children to England to benefit from a good education in the expectation of improving their life chances, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said on Tuesday.

Some mention has also been made of the despicable spectre of child trafficking. In relation to recent publicity resulting from reports on ''Today'', for example, it is worth placing it on record that the Government have made it clear that if people want to come forward—confidentially if they wish—with evidence of such activity, we would most certainly take action across Government. It is clearly unacceptable that children are trafficked in the way that some people have suggested.

The Government are currently negotiating a framework decision with the European Union. It will be a binding EU instrument, and it will require the criminalisation of trafficking in human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labour and services or for sexual exploitation. The United Kingdom will be required to implement the instrument within two years of its adoption.

10.15 am

Tim Loughton: I am encouraged by what the Minister is saying; she knows that I raised the subject recently in Westminster Hall. Do the changes that she describes include a provision for closing a loophole in the law? At the moment, child sex traffickers can take young women abroad, particularly women from west Africa who come into the country through Sussex, and they usually end up in Italy. That is not an offence if the girls seem to go willingly, although they are under all sorts threats. I hope that the Department is looking at that loophole.

Jacqui Smith: I shall certainly look at that now that the hon. Gentleman has raised it. That probably emphasises the need for us to take action not only across Government but with our international partners, in order to ensure that it is tackled.

Last year, the Government set up Project Reflex, a multi-agency taskforce to co-ordinate anti-trafficking operations, and to develop the intelligence and strategic planning necessary to underpin them. Led by the National Crime Squad, it brings together all the agencies involved in combating organised immigration crime. It has had a number of successful operations involving overseas partners.

I have made it clear that the Government start with the premise that the state should intervene in family life only when it has to. We want to enable parents and the wider community to take their responsibilities seriously, and not to intervene without need. I have given examples of when we need to balance the real issues of child protection with the legitimate concerns of family and community. However, it should not be, nor is it, an area where the state has no responsibility and no remit. Although I recognise what my hon. Friends have said about whether the current

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provisions are effective, it is worth reminding ourselves of the current legal position.

The Children Act was framed in recognition of the risks associated with private fostering. It requires the local authority to satisfy itself that the welfare of the child is satisfactorily safeguarded and promoted by others. It does so by supervising, regulating and advising in respect of private placements. The local authority is required to visit at specified intervals and to report on those visits. The regulations set out detailed requirements.

In fulfilling its duty, the local authority must apprise itself of the following: the duration and purpose of the fostering arrangements; the child's physical, intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural development; cultural issues; financial arrangements; medical and dental care; education arrangements; standards of care; the suitability of the foster parents to look after the child; the suitability of the household and the environment; contact arrangements between the foster parents and the child's parents; and the wishes and feelings of the child. Section 7 guidance—the statutory guidance for local authorities that supports the regulations—sets out the way in which the issues must be dealt with, which includes making a police check. Local authorities have the power to impose requirements or, if serious concerns arise, to prohibit the fostering arrangement.

It is an offence to accommodate a privately fostered child in any premises in contravention of a prohibition imposed by a local authority. The maximum penalty is six months' imprisonment, a £5,000 fine or both. Similarly, a person who is disqualified from privately fostering a child and who fails to notify the local authority and obtain its written consent before entering into a private fostering arrangement is guilty of an offence punishable by up to six months in prison, a maximum fine of £5,000 or both.

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