|Adoption and Children Bill
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 childrenso 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:
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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
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.
We heard evidence from a range of different agencies during the evidence-taking sittings. Although the hon. Member for Canterbury and I have argued
Column Number: 861about 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 Committeeto try to lift the lid for hon. MembersI 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:
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.''
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 clausefor which he is making a powerful caseappears to extend to everybody, including relatives? Presumably, it is not his intention that it should include people living with close relatives such as grannyor 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. notifyno doubt it varies from area to areaa 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 parliamentariansin the light of the cases of Kimberley Carlisle, Jasmine Beckford and Victoria Climbie and of the Utting reportwe 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.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 15 January 2002|