New clause 9 - Registration of private foster parents

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 17th 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.

Question proposed [15 January], That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley 9:30 am, 17th January 2002

I rise to support the principles proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) in new clause 9. It is important to improve the regulation of private fostering. My hon. Friend said that he spoke with 10 years' experience of social services. I can take that and double it to 20 years.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

How kind.

From my first experiences as an unqualified social worker to my work as assistant director of children's services with responsibility for ensuring that the regulations were enforced, I know how difficult that

can be. I have some sympathy with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister that if regulations are not working, the first port of call should be to try to enforce them. Having tried to do that for many years, I strongly urge her to consider ways to improve them.

The reality is that most children who are privately fostered are not known to the local authority social services in the area in which they are living. I was working as assistant director in York in 1999 when the Department of Health asked us to make a proper check on how many children in the area were privately fostered. On checking, we found that our social workers knew of two such arrangements. However, the population of that local authority area was 175,000, and the average number of children looked after by the local authority was between 100 and 125, so it was most unlikely that the number of children privately fostered could be as low as two.

We did, of course, try further to discover where some of the privately fostered children were placed. We approached the schools, as most know who to contact in emergencies. Having said that, although ideally one would hope that schools would have a good knowledge of the children's living arrangements, the often complicated nature of many families nowadays means that we cannot always be certain. The regulations do not have enough teeth. Little energy is put into seeking out children, but having worked with private foster parents, I know that the regulations are not strong enough to ensure that the children are properly protected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford rightly made a comparison with child minding. We know that some children are illegally minded, but regulations to enforce proper child minding have become part of our culture. As a result, few people doubt that those who look after children who are not related to them should be subject to proper checks, including the police checks set out in the regulations. The general population and, importantly, those whose children are privately fostered would, in time, understand why we had introduced much stronger regulations on private fostering. I shall not go into that, however, because my hon. Friend has covered it.

The new clause is not only about enforcement, but about promoting proper regulations and a more positive partnership between private foster parents and social services departments. There are already positive relationships between child minders and those who regulate them, and there are opportunities for training, providing information and ensuring that child minders are supported in what is sometimes a difficult task. Stronger regulations would allow a similar relationship to develop between social services departments and private foster carers.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

As the hon. Lady knows, I am partly sympathetic to the proposed measure, but she is in danger of over-egging the pudding when she refers to the sheer warmth of the relationship between child minders and those who regulate them. As the husband of the former chairman of a playgroup, I know that the scope of the regulations on pre-school child care organisations,

which often struggle close to the edge of financial viability, is often daunting. [Laughter.]

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I shall not wander down the road that we took before Christmas, because the contents of the regulations are a matter of detail.

It has been properly emphasised from the Government Benches that we are talking not about children who leave their parents for a few hours a day, but about those who may live for many years with people whom to begin with they do not know and to whom they are not related. They may not be subject to proper checks, and their parents may not have regular contact to ensure that they are properly placed and happy. My point was that contact between professionals and those who undertake the care of children provides an opportunity to improve standards and develop ways of overcoming the difficulties that arise whenever children do not live with their own families. I want progress to be made on that.

I accept that there may be difficulties with the wording of the new clause and that we must ensure that whatever replaces the regulations significantly improves on them and operates properly in practice. I hope that the Minister will take account of the feelings that I have expressed in supporting the new clause.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

I am pleased to support the new clause, which my colleagues have so ably moved and supported. From my perspective of 18 years of social work experience, it seems that there is a lacuna in this area of social policy. Remedying that omission could notably improve the position of one group of children who live away from home.

The Government have a proud record on their policies towards children and those who are particularly vulnerable because they live away from home. We are seeing wholesale improvements in the regulation and quality of living arrangements for children in residential care, foster care and the adoptive placements that we have been discussing. The Government have a proud record of response from 1997 to Sir William Utting's report, ''People Like Us''. Referring to his report, Sir William said in ''A Very Private Practice'', a recent publication from the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering:

''One of the review's general conclusions was that there should be a consistent, minimum level of safeguards for children across all the settings in which they might live away from home. Determined abusers seek out any sector in which controls and external scrutiny are weak, and incompetent carers are naturally drawn to areas in which staff selection and supervision are unknown. It was plain to the review that private fostering was among the least controlled and most open to abuse of all the environments in which children lived away from home.''

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford pointed out, the issue of private fostering has been raised by him and others on a number of occasions since 1997. I cannot understand why a Government who are so committed to ensuring high standards for children living away from home, to attending to their protection and safety and to trying to restrict the opportunities of determined abusers to

gain access to them are so reluctant to intervene in the area. The new clause should be supported by every member of the Committee. We have had our debate and our disagreements, but I respect the solid commitment to the support and protection of children that every Committee member has plainly shown over the past few months.

There is nothing in the new clause that justifies any of the concerns raised by Opposition Members about some of the issues in the Bill. There is no hint of political correctness—

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Left or right wing, as my hon. Friend points out. No radical new social work proposal conjured up in a left-wing sociology department is to be imposed on an unwitting public or on family life. What we have is a sensible solution to an obvious problem. Nobody is saying that it is a panacea that will immediately resolve every problem that faces children.

The regrettable and appalling fact is that however well we improve legislation and resource social services, we will never be able to protect every child for 100 per cent. of the time from people who are determined to abuse, molest and harm him. The dangers presented by some of the people who want to abuse children in this country are well known. They are dangerous people—highly capable, intelligent and organised.

The situation remains grossly unsatisfactory. We have no idea whatever how many children are living away from home under private fostering arrangements. We have no idea of the conditions in which those children are living or of the potential abuse that they face. Children in boarding schools, residential care, foster care, adoptive placements and those who attend day nurseries or are cared for by child minders do not face such a situation. Privately fostered children are completely unprotected and that is completely unacceptable.

All that is proposed is a register. It is a simple device, which will not deal with every difficulty and problem that we will face, but which has worked with obvious effect in the case of child minders. Who here—who anywhere—would regard it as onerous that child minders should be required to register or that they should be inspected? Who would object to the day care of children being kept under close scrutiny? Why on earth should we not have a register for people who look after children, not just on a day care basis, but 24 hours a day, perhaps throughout those children's lives?

There is no possible sensible argument against the principle set out in the new clause. The Government should accept it and every member of the Committee should support it. I hope that they will and I hope that something substantial will be forthcoming from the Government. My hon. Friend has a tremendous record of concern on the matter and of support for this principle. The Minister has led the Committee with enormous distinction and aplomb, but if we do

not make real progress on the matter, I hope that my hon. Friend will press his new clause to a vote and that everyone will support it.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon 9:45 am, 17th January 2002

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.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, 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?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

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?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

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.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

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?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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—

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

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.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

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

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—

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

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

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

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.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

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.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

It is because it is the last day.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

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

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.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre 10:00 am, 17th January 2002

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—

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

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.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

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.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, 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

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.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

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.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

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.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

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

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.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

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.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

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.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

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?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

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.

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.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:15 am, 17th January 2002

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.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

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

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.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Minister clarify whether that applies to children who are fostered on premises in which such a banned person is living? There is of course an obvious loophole—the person can get a spouse or partner formally to do the fostering instead.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I certainly suspect and hope that that would be covered by inspections of the kind that I described in outlining the regulations, but I shall try to obtain further details.

Refusing to allow a privately fostered child to be visited by an officer of the local authority is also an offence, punishable by a fine of up to £3,000. However, despite those provisions—it is important to recognise that there are significant provisions in law—the Government are ready to acknowledge that there are difficulties in private fostering, and I am committed to ensuring that the system at the very least works effectively.

I am not convinced that establishing a register would alone solve all the problems. The issue may be not just registration but awareness. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford disagrees about that. We are concerned with something that is a private arrangement. There is

little public awareness about what constitutes private fostering, and few people realise that there is a requirement for them to notify anyone of their arrangement.

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

My hon. Friend has talked about awareness. Does she concede that it is completely inadequate that there should have been a wait of two years for the Government to do what they said about conducting an awareness campaign?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I was about to come to future action by the Government.

The Government undertook to produce an awareness campaign on private fostering, following the response to the children's safeguards review. In August 2000, the chief inspector of social services wrote to all councils reminding them of their responsibilities. That year we commissioned the social services inspectorate to undertake an inspection of private fostering to give us more information on councils' practice.

In 2001, we prepared and issued a leaflet for professionals working in education, health and social services, raising the issue of private fostering and repeating messages about notification, and we are now at the final stage of planning a second stage of the awareness campaign, with information targeted at the public, particularly the most frequently involved groups and where awareness is low.

I want to cover two further issues before I return to the question of what further action can be taken. First, comparisons—favourable and unfavourable—have been made between the registration of child minders and the proposals in the new clause. Although there may be arguments in favour of the new clause, I am not sure that such comparisons are the most powerful argument. Child minding is clearly identified as a specific type of activity; child minders are registered to look after the under-eights. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West pointed out, people looking for child care are dealing with a market. Child minders register prospectively with the local authority to show that they are available for business, as well as to ensure that the necessary safeguards are in place. The approach taken by private foster carers may be totally different. They are often friends of the family, and to that extent their situation is different.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Will my hon. Friend reconsider that remark? There are myriad ways in which friends and neighbours take on child minding. The child minding regulations have no effect of preventing those arrangements.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

That may well be. The issues relating to potential regulation and registration of private fostering were considered in some detail in relation to the regulation of child minding, so to some extent my hon. Friend supports my point. When we consider further regulation, we must be careful not to squeeze out the good while tackling the bad.

The question of 42 days or 28 has been mentioned. When considering the Utting report, we recognise that current arrangements cover students who come to the United Kingdom to attend language school and stay

for six weeks in the summer holidays to improve their language skills. They are often fostered with families known to the school, which means that some local authority areas contain a population who fall within the category of privately fostered children, but may not need the protection of the notification process to support them.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned the development of a code of practice. That will introduce some safeguards for the protection of students of which schools can inform parents. I welcome that. Although the Children Act 1989 has not been amended to take account of the threshold of 42 rather than 28 days, a safeguard is thus provided for those students and their parents, who can directly check and compare to discover which schools follow the code of practice.

I return to the question of further action and what the Government can do in the light of the serious concerns raised by hon. Members in this debate. The Government are committed to taking the action necessary to protect all children, including those who are privately fostered. We have already taken action through our campaign and in establishing the Climbié inquiry. I assure the Committee that we will examine carefully the findings of the SSI inspection reports and the results of the Climbié inquiry. We will also consider the range of concerns that hon. Members have expressed, many of which I share.

Today I asked my Department to prepare for a review of private fostering. We must not get in the way of the excellent work being carried out by Lord Laming on the Climbié inquiry. The review will be ready to start at a time that fits best with that timetable, to enable the Government to respond as broadly as possible to the recommendations and conclusions stemming from that inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford made important points about the need to safeguard children in private fostering. I hope that he accepts that the Government take the matter seriously. There are complicated factors to be considered, but I assure him that the Government are committed to a review of the subject and of the issues he raised.

The review will involve the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association, other stakeholders and the voluntary sector. The review will necessitate consultation across Government, with the children and young people's unit, the Department for Education and Skills, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, as well as consultation with carers and children.

Although I do not suggest that my hon. Friend give up his zeal—I suspect that he will never do so—I hope that my assurance that the Government take the issues seriously will persuade him not to press the new clause to a Division.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford 10:30 am, 17th January 2002

I thank all members of the Committee for taking part in or listening to our debate on the new clause. My hon. Friends who are former social work colleagues outdid me by a whole hairline of years in

social work—[Laughter.] Perhaps a decade of experience is not enough for me to make a strong case.

Several hon. Members remarked that private fostering is one of the few gaping holes in the net of protection for children against potential abusers and poor standards of care. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre quoted the Utting report. The inquiry team identified private fostering as the environment in which fostered children were least controlled and most open to abuse. It is one of the most risky environments in which children live.

We compare regulation of playgroups and informal arrangements for looking after children who are doing GCSEs, but we should consider the cases of children who come from west Africa and live here for years, and children who are beaten with iron bars by strangers. They are a world apart from the subject under discussion. When hon. Members use the former examples, they are either missing the point or do not want to address the issues. Registration would close the loophole.

My hon. Friend the Minister says that the Government are concerned. She says also that most of the children involved are from west Africa. I might agree with that assertion, but given that the Department of Health has not collated those figures since 1991 because it found that they were unreliable, her figures cannot have come from her Department.

The ADSS and the LGA are seriously worried about the situation; they have tried for more than a decade to persuade people to register as private fosterers. The Department of Health says that 50 per cent. of people who foster privately do not notify, but I do not know where it gets that percentage because it does not collate the figures. Given that that is the case, how can we know whether the awareness campaign has had an effect?

The hon. Member for Huntingdon, who was chair of Westminster social services, talked about losing private fosterers as a potential resource. I agree that people might fall by the wayside if a requirement for registration were introduced. However, the former director of Westminster social services, who is now at Medway, certainly supports a registration scheme. I do not know whether they have ever discussed the matter.

Mr. Djanogly indicated dissent.

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

That is a shame.

There is world of difference between informal arrangements and children coming from west Africa and staying for many years. I concede the Minister's point about the Victoria Climbié inquiry. There were other factors involved in the case: private fostering is not the only reason why that child suffered in such an horrendous way. However, we must ask ourselves whether that tragedy would have occurred if we had run an awareness campaign at airports and our embassies throughout west Africa telling people, ''If your child is coming to the UK, make sure that the people who will care for him or her have been checked by social services.'' If that had been done, I doubt that

Victoria Climbié would have gone to the people in question, who were not relatives as defined in the regulations.

The comparison between child minding and private foster care is sound. During consideration of the Bill that became the Care Standards Act 2000 it was suggested that the regulation of child minding might discourage people from offering their services as informal babysitters. That argument can always be made, but it is an argument for doing nothing. Most of the people in this country would agree that if someone looks after a child who comes from abroad and stays for many years, the minimum requirement should be that they register with the local authority. Yet we are told that currently 50 per cent. of such people do not even bother to do that.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman speaks authoritatively and well. The question of foreign children being privately fostered in Britain is of special concern, and the example he used, of the Climbié case, is pertinent. However, even if the social worker in that case, who saw the child several times, had been dealing with the registration of private foster parents, it would not have made any difference: in that case, registration would have made no difference. Once the issue had been identified—

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

It is not for us to pre-empt the Laming inquiry, but it would be a reasonable bet that the people who looked after Victoria Climbié would have been deemed unsuitable to register as private foster parents.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

Does my hon. Friend agree that although we are sometimes frustrated by our own Government, that intervention by the hon. Member for Huntingdon shows why the Conservative party is not fit to be in charge of public services?

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. The debate has now gone on for one hour and 10 minutes. It has been an excellent debate, but I urge Members to stick to the issues in the new clause.

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

I shall conclude my remarks now.

I have been involved with the issue of private fostering for many years, both inside and outside the House. Given the disparity between what the Government said they would do and what they have actually done, a slight degree of scepticism is not inappropriate. In 1999, they said that they would take steps to enforce current regulations on private fostering more effectively, yet we had to wait a year for the awareness campaign. The Government also said that when parliamentary time allowed, legislation would be introduced to target private fostering placements lasting more than 42 days. That has not happened.

As I have said before, I stood in this very Room during the debate on the Care Standards Bill and made the case for this provision. I accepted then that although the Government were concerned and took the matter seriously, they did not see the need for registration. Two years later, the Government are

saying the same thing, except that before they said that they would find parliamentary time for appropriate legislation. There have been many opportunities to find parliamentary time for legislation to protect one of the most vulnerable groups of children. I regret to say that I an unable to withdraw the motion and I shall press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 7.

Division number 10 Adults Abused in Childhood — New clause 9 - Registration of private foster parents

Aye: 2 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived. New clause 10Amendment of section 17 of the Children Act 1989