With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 15—Registration scheme—
‘(1) Section 45 of the Children Act 2004 (c. 31) (power to establish registration scheme in England) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1) omit the word “may” and insert “will within one year”.
(3) Omit section 47 of the Children Act 2004.’.
In rising to speak to the clause and the new clause that I tabled, a deep sense of dÃ(c)jÃ vu descends on me. With various hon. Members, I have debated the private fostering registration scheme on countless occasions over the past seven or eight years.
Before I state the reasons behind new clause 15, I wish to explain that we originally tabled amendment No. 22, which is one of those amendments that seeks to strike out the whole of the clause and which never get selected. Instead, it has become an adaptation new clause. Essentially, we do not want to give the Government the power to extend the sunset clause provisions relating to a possible private fostering registration scheme that were inserted into the Children Act 2004, and which expire or set in November this year. We felt that striking out the clause would have done the job, but apparently that must be put in the form of a new clause.
I do not want to go into vast detail. I simply refer the Committee to countless speeches that various hon. Members have made over the last few years on the need for a private fostering registration scheme. I refer the Committee to the 1997 Utting report, “People Like Us”, which made recommendations for a private fostering registration scheme. I refer hon. Members to the work of the 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 in the wake of the Victoria ClimbiÃ(c) tragedy, which recommended a review of the private fostering system. I refer hon. Members to my modest ten-minute Bill, introduced on 19 March 2003, which contained three provisions, one of which was to institute a private fostering registration scheme.
It is inexplicable to many of us that the Government have avoided supporting a measure that a broad consensus of people involved in children’s issues and adoption and fostering have been saying for some time is necessary. We are confounded as to why the Government have still not gone along with it. Throughout all the years of calling for such a scheme, we have seen extensive regulation of child minding—the registration scheme has enjoyed a degree of success—and all sorts of care standards for inspection of care homes and fostering agencies, some of which we have discussed today. Numerous new adoption rights and requirements have been introduced, and hundreds of thousands of people who deal with young people have been subjected to Criminal Records Bureau checks, including me. After enormous hassle, I managed to get myself CRB checked—it is no easy feat. Nobody wants to take responsibility for that, but I thought it appropriate that the shadow Minister for Children got a CRB check, which I eventually did. We have even had legislation to clamp down on puppy farming, but still we have not had a registration scheme for private fostering.
Incredibly, people who offer their services as private foster carers, often as complete strangers, have no real compunction about not registering their services, although there are local authority registers and the notification scheme was supposedly bolstered in the 2004 Act. I shall come back in a moment to some of the words of the then Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), and some of the undertakings that she gave us when the 2004 Act was being passed. For people who are unknown to local social services departments, there can be no guarantees of quality of care or that they are accessing appropriate training, support and benefits, and no control over the number of different placements that the child will experience, which all have 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, disproportionately involving children coming from west Africa, particularly Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast—Victoria ClimbiÃ(c) came from the latter 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 Health stopped collecting data back in 1991, so inaccurate were the figures. 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.
We could look at some of the undertakings that the then Minister gave during some lively debates on the 2004 Act. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole was present, and the then hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, Hilton Dawson, who was a great advocate of a private registration scheme, voted with the Opposition in defiance of the Government to introduce it. It was pointed out that
“every report that the Government have commissioned over the past five years confirms that privately fostered children”—[Official Report, 2 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 186.]
can be “very vulnerable”. Hilton Dawson said that he could not
“honestly believe that the Government are proposing such an inadequate scheme as that expressed in clause 37”— section 37 of the 2004 Act—
“and introducing the possibility of a registration scheme only in a sunset clause.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 282.]
The Government introduced enabling legislation for a private fostering registration scheme that would come into force after a certain period unless a good reason why not was found, hence a sunset clause.
What the Government intend in this Bill is to extend the sunset clause. What has changed in the intervening period such that the term of the sunset clause has to be extended? What have the Government found out in that period that has convinced them to extend the sunset clause that denies the coming into force of a private fostering registration scheme? What do we need to know in order to clear the hurdle and trigger that scheme coming into force?
The sunset clause was a sop, and the fact that the Government are now seeking to extend it without a good reason just goes to prove that it was a sop. It is a sop to mention the issue when one has no real inclination to do something about it, as I charged the then Children’s Minister with doing in 2004, and quite honestly I do not think that anything has changed to negate the charge that I made then.
In 2004, the right hon. Member for Barking, when saying that she wanted to beef up the notification scheme, admitted:
“I think that the notification scheme is not working well.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 285.]
I think that we all agreed with that. 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, 21 October 2004; c. 288.]
That, in 2004, was the last chance, but now, apparently, there is another last chance. The Government need to make a case and justify why this is proving to be a very long sunset 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. As at 31 March 2007—the last year for which we have figures—1,250 children were reported as being cared for and accommodated in private fostering arrangements in England, and 1,010 private fostering arrangements ended during the previous year, so we are still well short of the 10,000 private fostering arrangements that are estimated to exist. We still do not know who is involved in those 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. A survey was carried out back in 2005 by The Voice newspaper; it was particularly focused on black private fostering arrangements in London, where we know there has been a problem, of which the Victoria ClimbiÃ(c) case was just one example. That survey found that of the respondents, about 35 per cent.—just one third—knew about private fostering. Twenty-one per cent. of the respondents were from Africa and of those, although 31 per cent. said that they knew about private fostering, only half of them actually knew what it meant. Thirty-five per cent. of respondents said that they knew about private fostering, but when probed further, it was found that only 15 per cent. actually did know what it was about. There was a pretty low recognition level, particularly among a key target client group.
Part of the raison d’Ãªtre 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 area aware of the requirement to register under the scheme. However, three or four years on, in January this year, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering carried out a further survey of Londoners and came up with an even worse result, showing that few professionals working with children understand what private fostering is. In a YouGov survey, using an even bigger sample than the original survey, adults living in London were asked what they thought it meant for a child to be privately fostered and they were offered a series of possible answers. Only 18 per cent. picked the correct definition. Furthermore, only 16 per cent. knew that the parent and carer, when making private fostering arrangements, must notify the local authority in the area where the child will live and that failure to do so is an offence. Two hundred professionals who come into regular contact with children were surveyed, including teachers, teaching assistants, doctors and nurses, and what is really worrying is that only 18 per cent. of them knew the correct definition of private fostering, despite the fact that professionals working with children obviously play a vital role in identifying privately fostered children. It would appear from that evidence that the publicity and promotion of 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 one.
I also asked at that time how many people have been prosecuted for not registering with the notification scheme. The Minister did not know the figure but admitted that it was probably very low. I would like to know how many have now been prosecuted for failing to register. I hazard a guess that the number remains very low. That scheme was supposedly beefed up and bolstered by the Children Act 2004 and the intention was to initiate a promotion and awareness campaign. That campaign has singularly failed to promote awareness, to attract the sizeable number of those likely to be involved in private fostering arrangements in this country to register, or to bring any increase in the number of prosecutions of those not complying with the supposedly beefed-up legislation.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that children who are parked with friends or relatives because their parents have gone into custody are particularly at risk in that situation?
As I was saying, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that children whose parents are serving custodial sentences could be at risk if they were placed with friends or family for the duration of those sentences. Does he think that we should have better local monitoring and recording of children who fall into that category, particularly as it would allow schools to keep an eye on their welfare?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. She may not realise it, but that is the subject of a campaign being run by the Catholic diocese of Liverpool on the vulnerability of children whose parents find themselves in the custody system. It is a fair point, but I shall not let it take us down a completely separate byway. However, it is another aspect of the issue that requires attention.
I have slightly forgotten where I was before the Division and before the hon. Lady’s intervention. Rather than start again, I shall begin my conclusion. The point that I have been trying to make—I am sure that other Opposition Members concur—is that the time has surely come for a proper, formal registration scheme for private fostering arrangements. I do not claim that it will be a universal panacea. It will not be easy to police, and it will not be foolproof. I certainly do not want to play the nanny state card, having the state interfere with children who legitimately attend boarding schools or language schools, or children on holiday exchanges and so on, who have often been set up as the problem.
I said when I started speaking to the new clause that I had a sense of dÃ(c)jÃ vu—this is the third wave of dÃ(c)jÃ vu this sitting. I will try to bring my comments to a speedy conclusion before the House divides again and I again have to try to pick up where I left off.
The point is that we need a private fostering registration scheme, which the un-sunsetted clause would provide. That national register of private foster carers would be available to birth parents who wished to pursue a private fostering arrangement, and it would enable local authorities to ensure that standards of care were suitable and appropriate help and support was offered. Such a scheme could also deter private foster carers who had fallen foul of local authority 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.
In conclusion, the Government have not made the case for why the scheme should not now come into force. In our deliberations on the Children Bill in 2004, the then Minister for Children, Young People and Families said that
“we will require the local safeguarding boards to have regard to how well or otherwise private fostering arrangements are being implemented.”
I would very much like to hear whether the findings of the local safeguarding children boards have coloured the Government’s thinking regarding not going ahead with the scheme. The then Children’s Minister clearly said that
“the notification scheme has not worked—there has not been compliance with the regulatory framework.”
She went on to say that
“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. Finally, she said that
“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, 21 October 2004; c. 289-91.]
It was quite 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 are the Government seeking to extend the sunset clause again? When is a sunset not a sunset? How many more chances will they give to show that the notification scheme works, or as we think, that it simply 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 commend new clause 15 to the Committee.
I support the new clause wholeheartedly. We have discussed this issue on many occasions. The speeches were getting more and more polished, but I will be brief tonight.
We discussed this issue under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 because we were concerned that if we did not know about private fostering arrangements, there were children who effectively were not being safeguarded. That is quite a serious point. We are talking about potentially vulnerable children, perhaps with limited or no contact with their parents. There is a real need to prevent such vulnerable children from slipping through the net.
I am staggered at how low the notifications are. Have the Government have made their own assessment of numbers in private fostering? It would be interesting to hear that. We work on the basis of the estimate of 10,000. How do the Government intend to do better than they have done over the last four years? In other words, what more are they going to do to increase the level of notifications? The Government indicated when discussing the Children Act 2004 that there would be monitoring and reporting back from local authorities. Do we have any idea if some local authorities are progressing with the notifications better than others?
Thirdly, what will be the criteria for assessing whether voluntary schemes are working? All we know is that there is a judgment that two years is not long enough. I am not convinced that we need another three years. There is no movement of any significance in the numbers of notifications. It could be dangerous to allow this process to hang on for another three years. I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that this is something that we should just get on and do.
The new clause would require the Secretary of State to make regulations within one year to establish a registration scheme for private foster carers. It does not specify when that year would begin, but I presume that it would be the date on which the Bill is passed. It does not make any provision regarding the establishment of a registration scheme in Wales. We have heard that the intention in tabling the new clause was based on the concern over how well children are protected under the current private fostering arrangements as well as to press for an early implementation of the registration scheme.
Having sat on the Committee for the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and discussed the matter on the other occasions that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I understand the point that he is making. We have a common aim of trying to ensure that the right safeguards are in place to protect privately fostered children and help place them on a more equal footing with other children, and a number of things have been achieved. I want to make it absolutely clear to the Committee that we have not abandoned the idea of a registration scheme. Because of the progress of the notification scheme so far, we feel that we simply do not have the evidence to justify the move right now.
I want to be clear about the progress that has been achieved over the past three years. To develop our evidence base, we have successfully established mechanisms for the collection of more robust baseline data. We have also instituted a three year inspection process, which began in April 2006 when the CSCI had responsibility for inspecting local authorities’ procedures for checking and monitoring private fostering arrangements. That responsibility was passed to Ofsted in April 2007. At the same time, the local authorities had been working hard to raise awareness of the notification requirements, implement them more effectively and build more trust in the relationships with local communities.
Raising awareness cannot simply be achieved through disseminating leaflets and other publicity material, important though that is. It requires building stronger relationships with communities, and it will take time to embed the practice of notification in all areas. Next January, the Department for Children, Schools and Families is making available £50,000 for the British Association of Adoption and Fostering to fund a national awareness-raising week in January 2009 on the notification arrangements.
I acknowledge hon. Members’ concerns, and clearly it will take time for the practice of notification in all areas to improve, even with the measures that we have taken. It is perhaps fair to say that it was over-optimistic to predict when we were passing the 2004 Act that we would have got as far by now as the hon. Gentleman would like, but I make no apology for wanting to get that right. Our evidence so far tells us that there is scope to improve the implementation of the current arrangements and points to some good examples of good practice. The first year’s inspection evidence revealed that 50 local authorities showed some very good and improving practice as well as some other areas where there was a lot of room for improvement.
Because in acknowledging that the Government have by no means abandoned the idea of a registration scheme, we also acknowledge that there are also difficulties with a registration scheme—I think that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham went some way towards acknowledging that in his remarks. It is right to first gather further evidence on the notification scheme before proceeding to a registration scheme that could and would catch many families—the hon. Gentleman often raises the point of the state intrusion in family life. We do not necessarily want to insist on a registration scheme, and yet we have not abandoned it. We want to give the changes that have been made the correct amount of time so that we can collect the evidence that is necessary to make that judgment.
Therefore, we are not yet convinced of the need to move into a registration scheme, and how best to safeguard children in private fostering is simply not that clear cut. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that a registration scheme might not be a panacea for all the difficulties with private fostering and that a rushed and heavy-handed implementation of the scheme might deter some people from private fostering who might otherwise be able to offer support in difficult family situations.
Will the Minister give us an assurance that he supports the principle that private fostering arrangements are there to protect vulnerable children? Is the only barrier to moving to that scheme a lack of the evidence that he requires to bring that principle to bear?
I think that the hon. Gentleman meant the principle of a registration scheme for private fostering. That is how I interpreted his remarks. I have made it clear that the Government are not yet convinced that that is the best way to deal with private fostering. On the other hand, we have not abandoned the idea that registration might be the best way. We simply want to ensure that the evidence on the notification scheme is full and clear.
I stress that we are supported in that view by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, which works extensively on private fostering. The BAAF agrees that we should seek to ensure that the current arrangements operate effectively and evaluate them more fully before deciding whether to introduce a registration scheme. In my view, it would not be in the interest of children or those who work with them to do otherwise.
The intended effect of the new clause seems to be that within the next year, the Secretary of State would have to make regulations in respect of England to establish a registration scheme for private foster carers. We believe that before moving to that scheme, we need to evaluate the existing notification scheme, having taken the measures that I outlined to make it more effective. Then we need to consider whether such a regime would be more effective than what we have at present and what its added value would be.
If we then decide to move to registration, we will have to draft and consult on the regulations. All of that would take more than the year proposed in the new clause anyway. We must ensure enough time to gather the necessary evidence, analyse it and make a sound, evidence-based decision. The key problem is that we have only one full year’s data on the number of private fostering arrangements under the strengthened notification scheme. By 2010, we will have three full years of data as well as the results of three years of inspection by Ofsted, and we will know the impact of further activity to raise notification levels.
We are determined to improve the current arrangements and explore to what extent they might be improved. We are writing to local authorities to remind them of their duties in relation to private fostering, and Government offices are working with local authorities, particularly poor performers, to improve notification rates. We are also exploring links with other related policies, such as those concerning missing children, to ensure that information about private fostering is included in the relevant guidance.
We mentioned BAAF’s awareness-raising week in January 2009. It is right to retain the option to introduce a registration scheme for the further years envisaged in the Bill so that we can ensure that if the case for it is compelling, a registration scheme can be introduced at the right time, after the assessment of the strengthened notification scheme.
I know that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham does not want us to go any further on our journey down Sunset Boulevard in relation to the clause, but it is appropriate, having strengthened the notification scheme, to give it an opportunity to provide evidence whether it can work. That is a practical and pragmatic way forward, and I propose that he should withdraw his amendment.
The Minister has succeeded in driving disappointment to new heights. That was pretty weak. I am a big fan of sunset clauses in legislation, but the point of sunset clauses is that the sun must set some time, and this is proving to be a long, protracted sunset.
“The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) believes the best way to protect and safeguard privately fostered children is by implementing a registration and approval system for the most vulnerable children”.
BAAF, along with so many other agencies and organisations involved with vulnerable children, thinks that a private fostering registration scheme is the way ahead. I do not get why the Government want to prevaricate on this one.
I quote from the closing comments of the then Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Barking:
“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”.——[Official Report, Children Public Bill [Lords] Committee, 19 October 2004; c. 291.]
This Minister also used the language, “We haven’t abandoned it yet.”
The Minister has produced absolutely no evidence why the Government should have gone lukewarm on the scheme after all our considerations in 2004. I asked him for evidence from the local safeguarding children boards, as he did not mention them once. Where did that evidence come from? There is anecdotal evidence of a few examples of best practice. Great. But it still produced only a small number of adherents to the existing notification scheme. He said that there is no evidence right now after a further three years. What further evidence will it take? He said—another get-out—that they had just established a mechanism for the collection of more robust data. How long does it take before they have the systems to collect sufficiently robust data?
He said—yet another get-out—that it is about building stronger relationships with communities. It has always been about building stronger relationships with communities but they have singularly failed to get that message across to those highest target communities. He then said that it was perhaps an over-optimistic prediction. This really is very weak. He also said that there would be difficulties setting up a scheme. I acknowledge that, but it does not mean that those difficulties are insurmountable. They have had 11 years since Sir William Utting first mentioned this whole registration scheme. That is 11 years to get round those difficulties and still they need more time.
They are not going to have much more time. The sun is about to set on the Government. They will not be in a position to do anything about this sunset clause. So I offer the Minister a deal: will he reconsider his comments so we can re-examine this on Report in the light of what Opposition Members have said? We have urged him just to get on and do it. We will table a more comprehensive amendment on Report which will take in Wales and make it clear that a registration scheme will be triggered within a year of the Bill becoming law. On that basis, we offer him one last chance to trigger the sunset clause or, I fear, he will succumb to the inevitable. A new day will dawn for the private foster registration, just as a new day will dawn for the electorate as a whole in the not too distant future.
So on that basis, I urge the Minister to think again. The feelings on this are deeply held. They have been widely canvassed. I was deeply disappointed that yet again he came back with not a shred of new evidence for why the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) should not have been taken at her word four years ago. This sunset clause should now trigger the implementation of this registration scheme. On the basis of giving him notification that I intend to bring this back in an amended form on Report, I will not press the new clause.