'(1) The Children Act 2004 (c.31) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 45(1) (power to establish registration scheme in England) for "may" substitute "shall within one year of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 being passed".
(3) In section 46(1) (power to establish registration scheme in Wales) for "may" substitute "shall within one year of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 being passed".
(4) Omit section 47 (expiry of powers in sections 45 and 46).'.— [Tim Loughton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
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'In section 55(2) of the Care Standards Act 2000 (c. 14) after subsection (2)(d) insert "or
(e) is a foster parent"'.
New clause 23— Foster charters—
'Local authorities must publish a charter for foster carers—
(1) to establish the authority's responsibilities with regard to the foster carers within its authority;
(2) to have special regard to the needs of kinship carers.'.
The last group took only just over three hours; let us see whether we can do a bit better on this group. We have also been through three Deputy Speakers. I am sure that you will be more resilient, Madam Deputy Speaker.
New clause 7 brings a severe sense of déjà vu. I am sure that all hon. Members who have been involved in the Committee on the Bill, and in previous Committees dealing with children's affairs, will agree. We debated in Committee the measure to promote a scheme for the registration of private foster carers. We tabled amendments that would have struck out what was then clause 15, which extended the time limit in section 47 of the Children Act 2004, which would have brought in a private fostering registration scheme four years after that Act came into force—in November this year, I believe. Through the Bill, the Government are extending by a further three years the sunset clause that accompanied the enabling provision. As a result, we may not see a scheme for the registration of private foster carers introduced until 2011—seven years after the coming into force of the 2004 Act.
New clause 7 would amend sections 45 to 47 of the Children Act 2004 to allow a scheme for the registration of private foster carers to be brought in forthwith, so that we do not have to wait yet more years for the Government to enable it to be introduced. Many Members from Opposition parties, including me—and indeed some Government Members—are genuinely confused by the Government's continued dithering over bringing in a scheme that has been called for by many organisations and professionals involved with child protection issues.
I should like to echo comments that I made in Committee, and the countless speeches that various hon. Members, some present today, have made over the past few years on the need for a private fostering registration scheme. I refer the House to the 1997 Utting report "People Like Us", which recommended a private fostering registration scheme. I refer hon. Members to the work of the UK Joint Working Party on Foster Care in 1999, which revealed the high potential for abuse and neglect and urged regulation of private fostering in a public awareness campaign. I refer hon. Members to the Laming report that was produced in the wake of the Victoria Climbié tragedy; it recommended a review of the private fostering system. I refer hon. Members to my own modest ten-minute Bill, introduced on
There were also cross-party attempts to bring in the scheme straight away under what was then the Children Bill in 2004. The proposal was supported—and voted for, no less—by the then Labour Member for Lancaster and Wyre, Hilton Dawson, who was well versed in the issues. It is therefore inexplicable to many of us why the Government have avoided supporting a measure on which there is broad consensus; people involved in children's issues, adoption and fostering have for some time said that it is highly necessary. We are confounded as to why the Government have still not gone through with it.
In the years during which we have called for such a scheme, there has been extensive regulation of child minding—that registration scheme has enjoyed a degree of success—and all sorts of standards for the inspection of care homes and fostering agencies have been introduced. There are numerous new adoption rights and requirements, and hundreds of thousands of people who deal with young people have become subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks, including me. We have even considered legislation to clamp down on puppy farming, but still we have not introduced a registration scheme for private fostering.
We are talking about potentially vulnerable children, and people who are unknown to local social services departments. There can be no guarantee of equality of care, and no guarantee that people are accessing appropriate training, support and benefits. There is no control over the number of placements that a child will experience. That all has ramifications for the safety, welfare and well-being of children in private fostering arrangements. We have no accurate measure of the extent of such arrangements, although some years ago it was estimated that there are in excess of 10,000 private foster care arrangements in this country. They disproportionately involve children coming from west Africa, particularly Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast, which is where Victoria Climbié came from, although she came via France.
I am sure that a large majority of private foster carers do a good job and pose no threat to their charges, but we simply do not know. We have no idea of the extent of the problem, because the Department of Heath stopped collecting data back in 1991, as the figures were so inaccurate. Since 1991, regulations have brought in local registers of foster carers, but there is no real legal penalty for not registering, and many people are ignorant of the requirements.
As I say, the Government introduced legislation that would enable a private fostering registration scheme to be set up. It was to come into force after a certain period unless a good reason why it should not be introduced was found; hence the sunset clause. The Government intend to extend the sunset clause by means of the Bill, but what has changed since the Children Act 2004 that requires the terms of the sunset clause to be extended yet further? What have the Government found out since then that has convinced them to extend the sunset clause, which prevents the coming into force of a private fostering registration scheme, and what do we need to know to clear that hurdle and trigger the coming into force of the scheme?
In one of his weaker moments, Kevin Brennan, formerly the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families, came up with some very unconvincing reasons why the Government needed to do yet more research. I do not think that his heart was in it when he opposed the measure. There are still no specifics about what research would be required before the Government could make a definitive decision to go ahead with such a scheme.
We believe that the sunset clause was a sop; the fact that the Government now seek to extend it without good reason goes to prove that. It is a sop to mention the issue without having any real inclination to do anything about it. That is what I charged the Minister who had responsibility for children in 2004 with, and nothing has happened to negate that charge. In 2004, in saying that she wanted to beef up the notification scheme, Margaret Hodge, who was then the Minister with responsibility for children, admitted:
"I think that the notification scheme is not working well."
We all agreed with that. But she went on to say, in support of the sunset clause:
"The clause is in the Bill because we want to strengthen the scheme and give it one last chance to work."—[ Official Report, Standing Committee B,
That was the "last chance"—in 2004. Now, apparently, there is to be another last chance. The Government must make their case properly and justify why the sunset is proving to be very long indeed. Will we ever see the dawn of a private fostering registration scheme, which so many of us have wanted for so many years? I am at a loss to see how the notification scheme can have been deemed a success.
At the end of March last year, the last year for which we have figures, roughly 1,250 children were reported as having been cared for and accommodated in private fostering arrangements in England, and 1,010 such arrangements ended during the previous year. That is well short of the 10,000 or so private fostering arrangements that are estimated to exist, and we still do not know who is involved in the arrangements.
Another reason for beefing up the provision in 2004 was to publicise the existence of notification schemes and the legal requirement to register with them. Back in 2005, The Voice carried out a survey that particularly focused on black private fostering arrangements in London, in respect of which there have been problems, of which the Victoria Climbié case was just one example. That survey found that 35 per cent. of the respondents—only a third—knew about private fostering. Some 21 per cent. of the respondents were from Africa, and although 31 per cent. of those said that they knew about private fostering, only half knew what it actually meant. Some 35 per cent. of respondents said that they knew about private fostering, but when they were probed further it was found that only 15 per cent. knew what it was about. There was a pretty low recognition level, particularly among that key target client group.
Part of the raison d'être behind the changes made by the Minister in charge of the Children Bill in 2004 was to promote better awareness. Local authorities were charged with making potential or existing private fosterers in their areas aware of the requirements to register under the scheme. However, in January this year—four years on—the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, or BAAF, carried out a further survey of Londoners and came up with an even worse result, which showed that few professionals working with children understand what private fostering is. In a YouGov survey that used an even bigger sample than the original one, adults living in London were asked what they thought a child being privately fostered meant. They were offered a series of possible answers. Only 18 per cent. picked the correct definition.
Furthermore, only 16 per cent. knew that when making private fostering arrangements, the parent and carer must notify the local authority of the area where the child will live, and that failure to do so is an offence. Two hundred professionals—professionals, not just parents—who come into regular contact with children were surveyed, including teachers, teaching assistants, doctors and nurses. What is really worrying is that only 18 per cent. of those professionals knew the correct definition of private fostering, despite the fact that such professionals obviously play a vital role in identifying privately fostered children.
My hon. Friend has given the most astonishing figures; the mind boggles about what the other 82 per cent. of the professionals or public thought private fostering was. Does he have the questions that were asked, so that the House can understand what people might have thought?
I do not have them to hand, although I have the report, which I shall be happy to pass on to my hon. Friend. But the figures speak for themselves. The fact is that professionals gave that response, and it is terribly alarming to think about what on earth they thought private fostering was.
It would appear from that evidence that the publicity information on the existing notification process has been an abysmal failure. How much money was spent on it, and what results do the Government think have been gained? The surveying of key target audiences has shown that if it has had any impact, it has been a negative impact.
The time has surely come for a proper formal registration scheme for private fostering arrangements. I do not claim that it would be a universal panacea. It would not be easy to police and it would not be foolproof. I certainly do not want to play the nanny state card by having the state interfere with children who legitimately attend boarding schools or language schools or children on holiday exchanges, who have often been cited as a potential problem as regards such legislation. The point is that we need a private fostering registration scheme, which the un-sunsetted new clause would provide. That national register of private foster carers would be available to birth parents who wish to pursue a private fostering arrangement, and it would enable local authorities to ensure that standards of care were suitable and appropriate and that suitable and appropriate help and support was offered. Such a scheme could also deter private foster carers who had fallen foul of local authorities or authorised foster agency inspections but had not committed offences sufficiently serious for them to be put on the Department for Children, Schools and Families watch list.
"we will...require the local safeguarding boards to have regard to how well or otherwise private fostering arrangements are being implemented."
I would like to hear whether the findings of those local safeguarding boards have coloured the Government's thinking in not going ahead with the scheme. The Minister continued:
"the notification scheme has not worked—there has not been compliance with the regulatory framework...if this final attempt to get the notification scheme to work is not successful, we would have to examine an alternative, despite the many concerns that we have about the alternatives."
She described the positive disincentive of the scheme as it then stood, and finally said:
"if we fail in our endeavours to make the notification scheme work, we will not need to return to the House with primary legislation and we will implement the registration scheme, despite our concerns about whether it will work as well as everyone would like it to."—[ Official Report, Standing Committee B,
Those words were pretty categorical. It was clear four years ago that unless there was overwhelming evidence to show that the notification scheme was working, this section of the Children Act 2004 would come into force. Why, therefore, are the Government seeking to extend the sunset clause yet again? When is a sunset not a sunset? How many more chances will they give it to show that the notification scheme works—or that, as we think, it does not work—before we have the private fostering registration scheme for which a wide cross-section of people have been calling for many years? On that basis, I am keen to commend new clause 7, which is long overdue.
New clause 23 proposes foster carers charters. We are all acutely aware of the shortage of foster carers, particularly those with specialisms. All the evidence shows great variety and contrasts in the experiences of foster carers and their relationships with local authorities, so we need to have a level playing field. Foster carers often say that they lack support from their local authority when they need it. Children with complex needs may be placed with them, but the necessary accompanying package of support—specialist professionals, speech and language therapy, children and adolescent mental health services, or whatever it may be—is not forthcoming, and they have limited access to specialist services.
The foster carers charter is all about a fair deal for foster carers. The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that local authorities do the right thing by foster carers and their authority, that the means by which local authorities will support kinship carers are set down in writing, that variations in regional practice are made more transparent, that local authorities are made more accountable to foster carers, and that prospective foster carers are given a better sense of what to expect. That proposal was put forward in the Centre for Social Justice report "Couldn't Care Less", which reveals a wide variation in conditions for foster carers across the country. Too many foster carers are unsure of their status, entitlements and responsibilities.
We believe that local authorities should devise and publish a simple fostering charter to which they sign up, and which should specify the basic support that all fostering kinship carers should receive. It should provide a kitemark that would allow foster carers to know whether they were receiving the help to which they were entitled, and it would hold local authorities to account.
Does my hon. Friend agree that prospective foster carers should also be provided with full information about a prospective foster child—their history, their health and any other problems that they have—particularly if they have profound behavioural problems, so that the foster parents can make a judgment as to whether they can cope with that situation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Committee we discussed the appropriateness of certain placements, particularly in the case of children with complex needs, where it is absolutely essential to maintain the stability of a placement so that it has a good chance of succeeding. For the placement to stand any chance of getting off the ground, there should be a full transparent declaration of a child's needs. That is what the charter is all about: ensuring that foster carers can expect to receive all the relevant information that they need. It would ensure that local authorities provided that information. It would also include references to items such as a living wage, respect for foster carer opinions and support from education, social care and mental health professionals. In return, foster carers would be clearly shown what was expected of them, such as their training obligations.
I believe that our proposal would help to reverse the postcode lottery in the treatment of foster carers, and it would encourage a better quality of relationship between foster carers and local councils, thus improving recruitment and retention. This is not something we are trying to impose nationally, from the centre—it will be up to local authorities to decide on what their charters would contain for their local foster carers' needs. It is a fair deal for foster carers, who do an excellent and very important job in this country. We need to make their job easier and give them far more support. They need to know what support they can expect, and we hope that by doing that, we might attract more foster carers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the provision of this charter to each local authority will help to improve the accountability of social workers to foster carers at a time when many such carers are caring for foster children while social workers are not meeting their duty to make statutory visits on a regular basis? The charter will help shore up the response to that problem.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I defer to his much greater personal and professional knowledge of how the system is working—or not working—throughout the country. He is right that too often, because of pressures of work and systemic problems, particularly relating to the social workers' work load, too many excuses are made about why social workers are not fulfilling their expected duties. If what is expected of them is set down, there is a better chance of holding an authority to account to ensure that it has the number, variety and diversity of social workers to do the job that it has to do properly. That is all part of the process.
We are proposing two important new clauses. Not for the first time, new clause 7 has proved its worth, and there is no excuse for further prevarication and delay on the subject of why such a scheme should not come into force now. New clause 23 represents an important way of sending a signal to foster carers that they are valued, and that they should know what to expect as part of the deal for taking on an enormous duty of care for which we owe them enormous gratitude.
Privately fostered children who are unknown to the authorities must be a cause for concern, given that so many reports confirm that the total will include some very vulnerable children. Authorities have no knowledge of the physical and emotional support systems available to those children—or, indeed, whether such systems are available to them.
The report that the then Prime Minister commissioned in 1997, which Sir William Utting undertook, referred to private fostering as a potential honey pot for abusers. I proposed a compulsory registration scheme for private fosterers in the Committee that considered the Children Act 2004. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the then children's Minister, Margaret Hodge, stated:
"The clause is in the Bill because we want to strengthen the scheme and give it one last chance to work... Secondly, we will require local authorities to monitor the operation of the scheme far more closely, and to provide information for us on how many registrations they achieve each year."—[ Official Report, Standing Committee B,
Obviously, we have no idea how many children are privately fostered. For many years, the figure of 10,000 children has been suggested. However, the latest figures show that, at
Closer examination of the figures shows great regional variations. Although we are considering relatively low numbers, Yorkshire and Humberside recorded a 50 per cent. increase in new notifications per year between 2005 and 2008, whereas London recorded a 327 per cent. increase.
I feel that it is worth mentioning again the tragic case of Victoria Climbié. Although some would argue that a private fostering arrangement did not exist in her case, her situation could well have been such an arrangement. Parts of the inquiry following her death serve as a very real warning of the dangers of children being missed by the authorities. Paragraph 1.27 is especially pertinent. It states:
"the single most important change in the future must be the drawing of a clear line of accountability, from top to bottom, without doubt or ambiguity about who is responsible at every level for the well-being of vulnerable children."
How can we have accountability if we do not know which children are privately fostered?
It is also worth considering that, in addition to the huge benefits to the child, compulsory registration would be incredibly helpful to foster parents. The security to parents of gaining confirmation of their role and status and being part of a network would be extremely beneficial.
To revert to the statistics that I cited earlier, there are clearly variations in practice across the country. Should the Minister decide to resist the new clause—I sincerely hope that she will not—will she give details of the robust plan and actions that she will take to ensure that best practice is shared and that all local authorities have the matter high on their agenda? How will she ensure that notification works? Delay in the matter is a sign of failure and perhaps even negligence.
New clause 13 relates to the registration of foster carers. Registration would ensure that foster carers were accorded the status and standing that their role demands, and improve the respect and treatment that they receive from other professionals with whom they work. It would also allow for the introduction of a national code of conduct, for expectations about continuing professional development to be raised, for ensuring that safeguarding children remains paramount, and for increased portability of approval for foster carers who move to a new part of the country.
Currently, foster carers must be approved by a fostering service provider before a child is placed with them. Foster carers can be approved by only one fostering service provider and only that provider can place a child with them post-approval. With the proposed registration of residential social care workers, it is becoming increasingly anomalous that foster carers, who have far greater unsupervised contact with vulnerable children, should remain unregistered.
There are difficulties with the current system. When a person applies to be a foster carer, there is no system in place to identify whether someone has been previously approved or had their approval terminated, unless the individual chooses to make that disclosure. Also, foster carers are approved by the individual local authority. If they move to another part of the country or wish to change the fostering service that they work for, they must go through the whole approval process again. There are neither nationally agreed expectations about foster carers' continuing professional development nor any formal recognition that places them at the heart of the team surrounding the child in care.
It is so important to continue working towards the professionalisation of foster carers. Our proposal would be a step in the right direction. The code of practice would be of enormous value, as it would strengthen and clarify what children and young people can expect from their foster carer. The point is to confirm the status and expectations of foster carers, to safeguard children in care and to reassure the general public. Those objectives have been met for others in the social care work force, so when will we achieve parity for foster carers?
Interestingly, new clause 23 touches on some of the same issues, but proposes a more informal approach. It contains some interesting ideas; indeed, I would be rather surprised if something similar were not operating in the best local authorities. I am therefore not convinced that there is a need to legislate at this stage; rather, perhaps new clause 23 sets out some good practice that should be encouraged.
No vice can be worse than the sustained and deliberate abuse of a child by an adult who has promised to protect and care for them. Therefore, no Member of Parliament who represents the people of Brent could rise in the House to speak about fostering without the heavy memory of the case of Victoria Climbié, who was once resident in Brent and was murdered by her foster parents.
Clear leadership and guidance was given by Lord Laming in his 2003 report on that murder. The Government have introduced measures to amend the arrangements under the 1989 Act for local authorities to safeguard and protect the welfare of privately fostered children.
I listened with great care to Tim Loughton, who explained that section 45 of the 2004 Act, while allowing the Secretary of State to make regulations to establish a registration scheme for all private foster carers, is in jeopardy of going into the sunset, as he put it, and not being implemented. That is what I take to be the import of new clause 7, which he has moved. It is on those issues that I wish to speak and probe.
Victoria Climbié came to this country as a young girl, as do many children who come to my constituency. In Wembley, we have a clear pattern of immigration of young children, who come to stay with aunties, uncles or members of their extended family. Often they come on a six-month visitor visa to live with relatives. Those young children will often start school over that six-month period, yet without any assessment being made of their legality or status. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families knows only too well from her experience at the Home Office how many of those children end up becoming overstayers and, as such, children of no status within the community. They are extremely vulnerable children who, if they had ever had a passport holding the visa that expired, would have had it taken away by the foster parent—the carer, supposedly.
I have dealt with many cases involving people who overstayed for many years, but who first came to my surgery as children and who had on many occasions been subjected to abuse. For that reason, I welcome the provision in clause 7 that puts a duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. To some extent, that will go a long way to addressing the problems that I have outlined and which the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) talked about.
I want simply to ask questions. I listened with great care and with some sympathy to those two hon. Members speak of the need for clear lines of accountability and clarity on the issue. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister whether agreeing to the new clause would mean having to engage in a process of drafting and consultation on regulations that itself might exceed the time limit specified in that new clause. How long is necessary to gather and analyse the evidence and to make a sound decision about the future? Will she outline what proposals the Government have to do that and to take on board the clear concern that there should be clarity for children who find themselves in such a situation?
I want briefly to discuss new clause 23. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about a fair deal for foster carers. I hope he will acknowledge the considerable progress that the Government have made in establishing precisely such a fair deal. Virtually every hon. Member who has spoken in the House today referred to the enormous debt of gratitude that we as a society owe to people who open their lives to children—often very vulnerable children—and care for them. I wish to add my thanks to all those carers and foster carers in my constituency who perform that incredible service and work.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that in the legislation that they have passed and the proposals that they have made the Government have taken extraordinarily seriously the issue of foster carers and the sense of responsibility that we owe to them for the work that they do. The White Paper "Care Matters" emphasised the importance of providing carers with the necessary development, support and training to equip them with the skills that they require to deal with children who often have extremely complex needs.
"Care Matters" sets out a number of proposals to improve the recruitment and retention of foster carers and the quality and stability of placements. To support carers to develop effective relationships with the children in their care, the Government have committed themselves to funding a national roll-out of Fostering Changes, a positive parenting programme that aims to develop carers' capacity to manage and cope with the often extremely challenging behaviour of children under their care. At least one London local authority has already adopted the Fostering Changes programme.
More generally, a number of significant improvements for foster carers have already been made. In April last year, the Government introduced a national minimum allowance intended to set a benchmark for minimum payment rates for all foster carers, so that no one should be out of pocket as a result of that caring role. That was accompanied by good practice guidance to help providers to improve the way that they organise their payment systems for foster carers. In May last year, the Government funded the Children's Workforce Development Council to launch the foster care training, support and development standards, giving fostering providers a framework for their carers' training and professional development.
In all those areas, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will accept that the Government have gone very far and quite fast in achieving the support and clarity for carers that he calls for in new clause 23.
Having been elected for about three and a half years, I have realised how important it is to have a constituency, and how much a constituency educates us. I have spent the past three and a half years trying to get to grips with and understand my constituency, and have learned a huge amount. It has been an important part of my political education—it is a little like taking off the layers of an onion. One of the important things is to apply social policy to the practical experiences of constituents. Speaking to foster carers and those in our constituencies who support and train them enables us to appreciate the difference between real help and initiatives that look good on paper but are, in fact, so much red tape.
I commend a new initiative called Fostering Changes, which has been promoted by the Government. It began at Southwark and has been developed in Islington in my constituency. It is about giving real support to foster parents, as opposed to being a charter for foster carers simply to put on their wall. Fostering Changes gives a great deal of assistance to foster parents. My constituency is an inner-city one with high levels of deprivation. If there were a top 10 in terms of the number of people who are drug addicts, have mental health problems and are struggling to bring up children on their own, unfortunately we would be in it. My borough is also No. 3 in the country in terms of the highest number of children in care per head.
However, before Conservative Members get excited and start bouncing up and down talking about a broken society, let me say that we are not a broken society. Many people in my constituency will open up their hearts and homes and give such young people somewhere to live where they can be loved. Such kids are often difficult, angry and mixed up, but 75 per cent. of Islington's children who live in care are in families where they are supported. There has been a training course available to help fosterers deal with allegations, to assist them in giving first aid, to train them in drug and alcohol issues, and to promote children's ID.
Fostering Changes, however, was developed by the borough of Southwark and the Maudsley, on the Webster-Stratton model. People from the Maudsley have come to Islington to train up our trainers, and they are now able to do the courses. We are about to start the fifth course. We hope that by the end of this year all our carers will have been trained. The course lasts 10 weeks, and one day a week is spent talking about how to deal with the difficult behaviour of the children being looked after.
That course is primarily intended for those who are looking after children aged between three and 11, but there have been courses for teenagers as well. It is not magic, but it really helps with building a relationship between the furious little bundle who has had such an enormously difficult life and has ended up in someone's home, and the adult who is there to love it and give it security but who is, ultimately, a stranger and not its mum. The purpose of the course is to build that relationship so that carers can deal with the furious bundle, but also manage access to the original family—who may, in fact, represent some of the causes of many of the difficulties involved—and the relationship with the rest of the family.
I am very grateful to Norma Barnes and Mary Day, who have spent time explaining exactly what the course is about. Essentially, it is about positive reinforcement. During the day of the course, the carer talks about the difficulties that he or she is experiencing with the child, and is set homework for the rest of the week on how to deal with those difficulties: how to ignore bad behaviour and positively reinforce good behaviour, and how to give 30 minutes a day to a child. The carer should simply give the child attention—not direct the child and not ask questions, but do what the child wants. The difference that that makes to a severely abused child who has come from a difficult background into a home where there is an adult who simply wants to be with that child reinforces the child's identity and confidence and helps to address bad behaviour in, I am told, a fantastic way. Along with other forms of discipline—time out, consequences, and the other more negative side of controlling a child—it can work really well. As I have said, it is not magic, but it helps to develop relationships.
That Government initiative was launched in Islington, but the good news for hon. Members is that it will be coming their way soon. It is being sent around the rest of the country, and I hope that foster parents will benefit from the practical and real help that it provides.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner) and for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for their knowledgeable descriptions of a number of the efforts we have made to support foster carers in ways that make a real difference to them as, in my view, a charter and registration process would not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury said, the Fostering Changes programme is spoken of very enthusiastically and warmly by foster carers who have benefited from it.
In the relatively short time left to me I want to focus on new clause 7, which deals with something that concerns Members throughout the House—the issue of privately fostered children. We all know that some such children—but by no means all: that is an important point—are a potentially vulnerable group. I share the anxiety of Members throughout the House to ensure that the arrangements for safeguarding them are as robust and effective as possible, and to do so as speedily as possible.
New clause 7 proposes that within a year of the Bill's being passed, the Secretary of State would have to make regulations in relation to England to establish a registration scheme for private foster carers, and Welsh Ministers would have to do likewise for Wales. I recognise that there have been calls for a registration scheme for some time, and that in 2004 we said that we thought we could decide the matter within four years, but let me say to Tim Loughton that, keen as I am to move forward, it is clear to me that that time scale was too optimistic. Having examined the issue in some detail, I should add that it is equally clear to me that it would be unwise and foolhardy, if not impossible, to introduce a registration scheme within a year. I think that in the question he asked me on the subject, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North reached the right conclusion: that it simply would not be possible.
I accept that local authorities could have been swifter and more diligent in developing the notification scheme and raising levels of awareness, as required by the duty in the 2004 Act. I also accept, however, that we are asking them to do something extraordinarily difficult, which means building relationships with, in some cases, the most separated minority communities. That applies particularly to the children about whom we are most concerned.
I would not accept that we are dithering or dragging our feet. I gently remind the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham of the longer time scale. The Conservative party put in the Children Act 1989 a duty on local authorities to satisfy themselves of the welfare of privately fostered children, and then for eight years did nothing to satisfy themselves that local authorities were undertaking that duty.
The Minister will recall that in Committee the former Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said during the debate on that issue that the principle of the scheme had not been abandoned by the Government. May I ask the Minister to go further today and to say that in principle the scheme is one that the Government believe in and that it is simply the logistics, the mechanisms and the gathering of evidence that are holding us back?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman, when he mentions the scheme, is talking about a notification scheme or a registration scheme. We have not abandoned the possibility of the necessity for a registration scheme, but because a year is not enough to test the notification scheme or to put a registration scheme in place, we have made provision in the Bill to extend the period for evaluation and assessment further before we make a decision on a registration scheme and abandon notification completely.
The registration scheme itself is not a panacea.
The hon. Gentleman says that he knows that, but I will explain why. Exactly the same challenges that are facing us now in making a notification scheme work will apply in relation to a registration scheme. Those children who we are most worried about who are not currently being notified to the local authority and who are in a privately fostered arrangement will not necessarily be registered with the local authority. The local authority would be faced with the same challenges of raising levels of awareness, building relationships with minority communities and making sure that everyone registers who should. It is not a panacea for that precise reason.
Annette Brooke challenged us to say what we are going to do in the meantime. There are three things that we need to do. First, we need sufficient evidence before we make a decision and proceed. That is simply not available in the time scale, not because we have been tardy, but because it was never going to be available in the time scale. We have two full years of data on the notification scheme for 2006-07 and 2007-08. We have yet to get the third year that we always said we needed. Inspection data are also important. We set in place a three-year inspection programme started by the Commission for Social Care Inspection and continued by the Office for Standards in Education. The third report will not be completed until November 2009. The Welsh care and social services inspectorate is also undertaking a national review that will not be published until 2009.
Secondly, while we get that evidence, we need to ensure that we can push to the wire to see whether we can make the existing notification scheme as effective as possible. In that regard, we have already done a number of things. When my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan was the Under-Secretary of State, he wrote to all directors of children's services asking them to do all they could to raise awareness of the scheme and to maximise notifications. Similar efforts have been made in Wales. [Interruption.] He wrote last month to all directors. Government offices will be working closely with local authorities in those areas where notifications are low, identifying them and targeting them. We are developing a national communications strategy to raise awareness of the current requirements within the children's work force and we have provided £50,000 to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to sponsor a national private fostering awareness week in January. The Welsh Assembly Government are also providing support to BAAF in Wales to do a similar thing. Those measures together will help us to test the current system and give it its best chance of success.
Thirdly, and most importantly, we are giving very careful consideration to the best long-term solution during this period. This is not a clear-cut issue. We need to understand much better what added value, if any, a registration scheme would bring and how it would work, recognising not only the potential impact on local authorities, but—the hon. Gentleman touched on this but did not elaborate—the potential disadvantages for many ordinary families making normal and straightforward arrangements that we would not want to bring into the purview of a registration scheme, and the penalties that would flow from not registering such an arrangement.
It is not clear that registration would be any more successful in encouraging registration from those who do not currently notify and it might even deter some people from registering their private arrangements. We want to work with an independent expert group that will advise me over the next couple of years on these important matters. The first meeting of the group was held on
The group consists of representatives of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, Ofsted, the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, the NSPCC and the Home Office. We will invite others from Wales to join us. The group will be meeting regularly and will present its final report to Ministers in March 2010 when we will make a decision. I will publish the conclusions of the group and will make a statement to the House. I have not abandoned the idea of a registration scheme, but I make no apologies for wanting to get this right. It is therefore important to retain the option of introducing a registration scheme for a further three years, so if the case is compelling, it can be introduced at the right time.
Significantly, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering agrees that we should seek first to improve the current arrangements and evaluate them more fully before deciding whether to introduce a registration regime. BAAF shares our reservations about the introduction of a registration scheme at this point. That has weighed heavily with me in deciding whether to include the provision in the Bill for extending the period to three years. I will not accept the amendment, which would not give us a well worked out registration scheme. That would be very dangerous.
New clause 23 would require local authorities to publish a charter setting out the authorities' responsibilities with regard to foster carers within their area. There are some technical reasons why this would be both difficult and confusing. One is that foster carers enter into a foster care agreement with their provider, but in addition they enter into a foster placement agreement with the local authority placing the child. For instance, where a provider is not a local authority, the proposal would be extremely confusing. The kind of measures that we have introduced are much more important in assisting foster carers. Similarly for a registration process, foster carers are selected, recruited and trained locally and, of course, a national registration scheme would impose on them all of the conditions that a registration scheme now imposes on social workers. I am afraid that I cannot accept those amendments, either.
Well, we have had 13 minutes of a complete and utter cop-out, and I now have less than one minute to say why it was a cop-out.
Four years is apparently not enough. It has been 19 years since the Children Act was mooted in 1989. It has been 11 years since the Utting report in—
It being Six o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [