New Clause 9 - Registration of private foster parents

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 15 January 2002.

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'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.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 9 is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. It would replace section 69 of the Children Act, which provides for the inspection of privately fostered children. It would provide better protection for a vulnerable group of children and allow parents to obtain information so that they could make informed choices about whom they placed their children with. I shall examine the current legislation, discuss why it needs replacing and detail what the new clause would do.

Section 69 relates to the private fostering of children up to 16 years old or, where they have special needs or are disabled, up to 18 years old. Such children are cared for by someone other than their relatives, which means their grandparents, siblings, step-parents, blood aunts and uncles or other persons with parental responsibility. The Act places a duty on the parent or the carer to notify the intention to place a child. The number of children that a private foster carer can look after is limited to three. Regulations require local authorities regularly to visit children and their private foster carers to satisfy themselves that the children's welfare is promoted and that they are safeguarded.

In the landmark report ''People Like Us'' on the review of safeguards for children who live away from home, Sir William Utting, chairman of the review said:

''It was plain to the review that private fostering was among the least controlled and the most open to abuse of all environments in which children lived away from home.''

We should think about the environments in which children live away from home—residential homes in the private and public sectors, private schools and foster care homes in the local authority and independent sectors. There are many scenarios, but for children who are privately fostered, such places are among the most dangerous. While there, they will be

more open to abuse, because we know that determined abusers will seek out places where controls and external scrutiny are weak.

During his presentation of the social services White Paper, the then Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), talked of our responsibility to protect children. We cannot blame local authorities or adoption agencies for past failings: we all have a responsibility. Whatever our position—as Members of Parliament, Governments of all political persuasions, councillors, the neighbour who chooses to turn his head and not report something—we share that responsibility. That is what the Bill is about. We are here today to promote the welfare of children, and to safeguard those who are vulnerable. The Department believes—it has had about 12 years to consider the matter—that the present law is sufficient to allow local authorities to inspect privately fostered children, and that it is the responsibility of local authorities to do so. I wonder whether local authorities have the tools properly to do that job.

My starting position is, of course, that the Government are right. My good colleague the Minister, too, is always right. However, occasionally—just once in a while—there might be a seed of doubt about a particular policy. Perhaps there is a seed of doubt about section 69 of the Children Act. I hope that there is a seed of doubt in my hon. Friend's mind, and I hope that it will grow during the next few minutes. Let us go back to 1871.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

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 children—so 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:

''When parliamentary time allows, legislation will be introduced to target private fostering regulations at placements . . . lasting more than 42 days''.

They said that they would

''work with a range of agencies to draw up a code of practice for language schools bringing children from overseas.''

We heard a relevant example from the hon. Member for Canterbury. The Government are right to run an awareness campaign and to introduce measures and to work with other agencies. We have had the pamphlet—the one that took two years—but we have not had the parliamentary time for dealing with placements of 42 days or more.

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

''it is likely that more than 50 per cent. of private foster placements are not notified'' to the local authority in accordance with section 69 of the Children Act 1989. Some 5,000 children could be living with schedule 1 offenders—who knows? I am sure that many of them are not, but that is not the point. The culture of non-registration, as Utting said, makes those children one of the most vulnerable groups. As we know, paedophiles and abusers seek out the gaps and focus on them. We have passed much legislation to close the net on potential paedophiles, but in this instance it is open.

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

about 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 Committee—to try to lift the lid for hon. Members—I 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:

''Carl Williams was 18 months old when Marcia, his mother, placed him with Audrey Simmons, a family friend and fellow Jamaican. It was believed that Marcia Williams was deported to Jamaica for drug offences. Carl's father, Edmund Collins, who was not married to his mother, was believed to be living in London. Eric Francis was also 18 months when he joined Carl in Audrey Simmons' care when Ellen, his mother, was imprisoned, also for drug offences. She, too, was deported upon her release. Eric's father was unknown.

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.''

That is one of the many such examples given in the report. I encourage hon. Members to read it. It lifts the lid on the situation of between 8,000 and 10,000 children, although I repeat that local authorities are not notified of 50 per cent. of such private fostering arrangements. We register childminders, we close the net everywhere, but privately fostered children are not given the protection afforded to others. The situation is far from satisfactory. The principle of the registration scheme would deal with the inadequate protection of such children.

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.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:45, 15 January 2002

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is approaching his peroration. Before he concludes, please will he clarify whether he is happy that the new clause—for which he is making a powerful case—appears to extend to everybody, including relatives? Presumably, it is not his intention that it should include people living with close relatives such as granny—or does he intend to include them as well?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

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. notify—no doubt it varies from area to area—a 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 parliamentarians—in the light of the cases of Kimberley Carlisle, Jasmine Beckford and Victoria Climbie and of the Utting report—we 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.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I do not want to talk at length, but I should like to put it on record that the Opposition have a good deal of sympathy for the intentions that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed so eloquently, and with great experience and form on the subject. He was optimistic in identifying the number of children in private fostering as between 8,000 and 10,000. I suspect that the problem is far greater, although we do not know. Given experiences in my county of West Sussex, there is a specific problem with west African young girls who turn up at Gatwick airport, mostly from Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Many arrive on their own and are then placed in care, but many others go unregistered and unnoticed by the social services

department and end up in highly unsatisfactory and dubious private foster arrangements. I echo the hon. Gentleman's comments.

The problem has already gone underground, so to introduce some registration scheme would be to close the door after the horse had bolted. We need to tackle the problem afresh. It is not disputed that child minders be expected to register, which has become part of the natural process, and we have far greater recourse to police checks now. There are other measures, such as the register that the Government have rightly set up to check people who come into contact with young people through youth work. Various checks are in place for all sorts of other contact between young people and individuals who may have had problems in their past.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

What my hon. Friend has just said goes to the heart of the matter. As a first step forward—perhaps the only one—before moving to the wider issue of registration, the introduction of police checks would be important and worth while. They have

already been introduced successfully in Kent for people who come over on school placements, and every school in east Kent now collaborates.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is an important point. We can learn lessons from what has happened in the county shared by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw).

The bottom line is whether the new clause in its current form is workable. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford had the good grace to admit that it was a bit rusty and would need great improvement. It certainly needs to be improved in how it deals with blood relatives, which is a completely different kettle of fish. Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman has started a useful debate and it is appropriate that the subject be raised again in Committee. Subject to reservations on how the new clause would be brought into practice, its principle has a deal of merit, for which I commend him.

Debate adjourned.—[Angela Smith.]

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Seven o'clock till Thursday 17 January at half-past Nine o'clock.