With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 40—Complaints against foster carers—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 26(8) insert—
“(9) In carrying out any consideration of any representations (including complaints) every local authority shall—
(a) take such steps as are reasonably practicable to protect the identity of foster carers who are the subject of a complaint; and
(b) continue to pay allowances to such foster carers until it has reached a decision on the complaint.”’.
It falls to me to speak to new clauses 14 and 40, which stand in the names of hon. Members from all parties on the Committee. It would be remiss of me not to say to you, Mr. Pope, that it has been a delight to serve under your chairmanship on my first Committee.
The new clauses deal with two principal issues. The first is the requirement that local authorities continue payments to a foster carer or foster carers until a determination is reached regarding an allegation made against them. The second is the protection of the identity of foster carers who are subject to complaints. There is a general consensus in the Committee that social workers have not been valued and that that needs to be recognised in the legislation. It seems to me and my colleagues that the same can be said of foster carers. I should say at the outset that the welfare and protection of children in public care is the primary consideration at the core of the new clauses.
It is important to say that foster carers provide a valuable and vital service that is complex and highly specialised. They perform a hugely demanding role, and many do so full time. Given those demands, foster carers often receive no earnings through employment or lose earnings through reduced hours. They therefore make an enormous commitment.
The dearth of foster carers has been a theme during our consideration of the Bill. In 2000, the book “Delivering Foster Care” made it clear how deep that dearth was, saying:
“In order to meet the demand for placement and to ensure a choice of placements that can best meet children’s needs, at least 10,000 more foster carers are needed in the UK”.
That was said in 2000, but it remains true today. What makes those figures even more pertinent, however, is that the current population of foster carers is ageing, with one fifth over 56—and that includes my own parents.
If we are to increase the pool of foster carers, we need to send out a signal that we are on their side. One reason for the lack of take-up is the lack of protection afforded to foster carers in carrying out their role and particularly during the investigation of allegations. Unlike members of the teaching profession, foster carers do not benefit from such protection, and the consequences are potentially hugely damaging, not only for the individual foster carer, but for the fostering service as a whole. Any foster carer who has been through the investigative process, as a third of all foster carers have, will say two things: first, that it is a tremendously traumatic experience that leaves them in constant fear of further allegations and undue public vilification; and secondly, that the financial impact can be devastating.
Hon. Members will have seen the helpful briefing from the Fostering Network, which sets out a number of case studies. One of those case studies is as follows:
“A child made an allegation against a male carer, which was later proved unfounded. The couple had been out of work and the fostering income was relied on for all their outgoings. They were struggling and subsequently, as the ‘investigation’ took so long (over 2 months at this point) without an income, the couple were given notice by their building society. They have since been forced to sell their house to a company which then rents them back. They are in a very precarious position which has lost them their equity”.
That cannot be right.
The problem is compounded by the Government time scales for the resolution of allegations, as set out in the “Working Together” guidance of April 2006. Those time scales are being routinely missed. The target is 80 per cent. resolution by one month and 90 per cent. resolution by three months, but the actual figures show that 50 per cent. of cases run for more than three months, one in 10 runs for more than a year, and some run for several years.
During an investigation, almost all foster carers have their fostering income cut, and 46 per cent. have all their fostering income stopped. Despite the unfair and severe financial hardship that is laid at the door of foster carers, the majority of allegations prove unfounded—I would be interested to know whether the Minister has specific figures showing what that majority is. Certainly, in more than two thirds of cases, children are not removed from the foster carers’ care on completion of the investigation.
The repercussions of any investigation are widespread. We must bear it in mind that foster carers are often involved in other child care occupations, in parallel with their fostering commitments. An investigation might therefore threaten their other sources of family income.
The British Association for Adoption and Fostering makes a strong argument when it says:
“Due to the nature of children and young people placed with them and the often fraught relationships between foster carers and birth parents unfounded allegations are a regular occurrence.”
I know of a teenage girl who was moved from placement to placement after making unfounded allegation upon unfounded allegation, purely because her birth mother encouraged her to disrupt the placements. She was told that if she did so enough times she would eventually be returned home, as the least worst option.
Any allegation has the potential to trigger one of three types of investigation: a child protection inquiry under section 47 of the Children Act 1989; the fostering service’s own investigation; and, of course, a police investigation. A third of foster carers are subject to an investigation at some time during their fostering career, and the majority of allegations prove to be unfounded, which only heightens the case for greater protection of their identity, to mirror the protection given to teachers whose role in children’s lives has, in many ways, a professional symmetry with that of foster carers.
My hon. Friend makes a very good case for the new clause. Does the Fostering Network not also say that 10 per cent. of such allegations take longer than a year to investigate? That means an extended period of uncertainty in which the foster carers may not be looking after their charges, although we desperately need their services because of the shortage of appropriate foster care, as has already been mentioned.
My hon. Friend is right. I think that I alluded to the figure of one in 10 earlier. The point about investigations lasting a year or more is that the foster carers in question are out of the fostering pool during that period of suspension. That is a resource that we can ill afford to lose. My plea to the Government is that they think again and commit to bringing to an end once and for all the unjust position in which foster carers are singled out for financial penalty and potential public exposure and humiliation following unfounded allegations.
There are local authorities, such as Portsmouth, that have already recognised the absolute necessity of financial entitlement for foster carers during the period of investigation and have implemented such a system. On that point, and on the issue of identity protection, my colleagues who support the new clause urge the Government to do the same and support the proposed changes in their entirety.
Like other hon. Members, I have tabled a new clause on this subject because I support the proposal that foster carers should be paid while they are under investigation following an allegation. I do not intend to give a view on the rightness of allegations in any individual case, nor do I come at the matter with any particular assumption about whether an allegation might be valid or false. The memory is fresh in my mind of two sisters, who are now adults, and who, as children, made a complaint about abuse. They came to see me to tell me how inadequately their felt their allegations were investigated. However, it is a fact, as the Fostering Network briefing says, that
“around a third of all foster carers will face an allegation during their fostering career and the vast majority of these turn out to be unfounded.”
The Fostering Network deserves much credit for its campaign on the issue. It has marshalled its facts well; its arguments are cogent; and it has been quite attuned to the parliamentary process in trying to influence decision makers. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will recall that I brought a delegation from the Fostering Network to see him, and the present subject was among the matters that we discussed. My hon. Friend gave a very sympathetic reception to the points that they made. On Second Reading, the Fostering Network arranged a lobby of Parliament by foster carers. The focus on that day was on children staying put with foster carers after 18, but this issue was discussed as well.
I have found in preparing for the debate that Unison is a major trade union in social care and has strong views in support of the Fostering Network. Its briefing to hon. Members reminds us of the
“emotional strain and the considerable length of time” that foster carers might be worrying about an allegation made against them, as well as the loss of income. It makes the point that people might be able to manage the emotional strain and the worry, but they certainly cannot manage without the money. Unison says that it is crucial to ensure that good foster carers do not move out of fostering because they are compelled to do so by the lack of money, even though at the end of the investigation it might be found that indeed they are good foster carers with no stain on their character from the allegation that was made. Unison states:
“We believe that foster carers should continue, where paid, to receive their fee payment (the money given as remuneration for their work, skills and experience) and a portion of their allowance (the money paid to cover the cost of looking after children) that relates to ongoing fostering costs during an investigation.”
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich made the point that often the timetable for completing an investigation given in Government guidance is missed. That is a scandal in itself. Acceptance of the proposal that people continue to be paid during an investigation might be an extra incentive for local authorities to ensure that their investigations comply with the time limit. In that way, it might have a second benefit in addition to the benefit of maintaining foster carers’ incomes while they are under investigation. That is why I support new clause 14.
I, too, will start by thanking the Fostering Network for bringing these important issues to our attention in a very powerful way—through the meetings with foster carers and looked-after children.
Unfounded allegations will undoubtedly be made, because we are talking about often very troubled children who will feel the need to hit back. Making such allegations is one manifestation of that impulse. However, given what we hear after the events in various children’s homes—I have a constituent who was placed with a foster carer many years ago and it was proven that he was abused while in that care—it is vital that allegations are investigated properly. It is also important that there should be pressure to complete investigations in a timely fashion.
Most of all, payment of the fee to the foster parent while the investigation is taking place is vital. We pride ourselves in this country on working on the premise that people are innocent until proved guilty. The current provision seems to go completely against that by stopping payment immediately an allegation is made. I also concur with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich about the need for anonymity as far as is possible.
I shall cut to the chase. I am very sympathetic to the principle of new clause 14. We have to do what we can to reduce the financial impact of an allegation on foster carers, but a better way of achieving that aim, rather than by amending primary legislation, is through the national minimum standards, which we are in the process of reviewing and which will be subject to full public consultation later this year. We intend, therefore, to use the revised national minimum standards to make it clear that fostering service providers who usually pay their foster carers a fee should continue to do so while an allegation is investigated, at the same level as it would have been paid at had the child or children not been removed from the placement. Payments would continue until the allegation had been resolved. I hope that that announcement is helpful to all hon. Members who spoke on the new clause and put their names to it, and to the Fostering Network.
New clause 40 also deals with payments to foster carers who are subject to an allegation, but it concerns the allowance that is paid to foster carers, rather than the fee. This new clause would require local authorities to continue paying the allowance to foster carers who were the subject of a complaint until a decision on the complaint had been reached. Unlike the fee, which is intended to reward the foster carer for their skills, experience and commitment, the allowance is intended to meet the cost of caring for the child. Therefore, it would not be appropriate for us to insist that the allowance be paid if the foster child or children had been removed while the allegation was investigated. In certain cases, the local authority or other provider might want to consider continuing to pay at least an element or perhaps all of the allowance if there are special circumstances, but that is best determined locally where all the facts are known. There is certainly no legislative barrier to providers continuing to pay an allowance if that is appropriate in the circumstances.
New clause 40 would also require local authorities to take steps to protect the identity of foster carers who are the subject of a complaint. Rather than lay out all of the provisions that we have in place, it may be useful if I write to Committee members to outline the details of the foster carers right to confidentially. We accept the principle that foster carers’ identities should not be released in most cases and, where appropriate, should be protected while an allegation is being investigated.
The “Working Together to Safeguard Children” guidance, states that that all complaints should be treated seriously and in accordance with consistent procedures. It also states that it is reasonable to expect 80 per cent. of cases to be resolved within one month, 90 per cent. within three months and all but the most exceptional cases within 12 months—so, 10 per cent. is not an acceptable outcome, as hon. Members have said. Evidence says that those time scales are not always met. During an investigation, the national minimum standards for fostering services, makes it clear that providers should be making independent support available to their foster carers. Again, it appears that that is not happening in all cases.
I am committed to taking further action to address those issues. I recognise that lengthy investigations without adequate independent support can add to the stress experienced by foster carers. So, in addition to our commitment regarding fees, we will be revising the national minimum standards for fostering services to reinforce our expectations about the time scales for resolving investigations and to highlight the need for foster carers who are subject to an allegation to receive appropriate independent support. We will clarify what we mean by that during the revision of those national minimum standards.
I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford that there are times when allegations have substance, and we should not forget that when trying to deal with the problems that the Fostering Network and hon. Members have rightly highlighted. I hope that hon. Members are reassured by what I have said and that the action that we are taking will improve the situation of foster carers subject to an allegation. I hope that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich will withdraw the motion on that basis.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance, and it is reassurance. He is clearly sympathetic and accepts the thrust behind our amendments in principle. It is heartening to see that there is movement with the commitments made under the review of the national minimum standards, particularly on fees. I will read with interest what the Minister provides on anonymity, but, again, I am heartened that he agrees with our position in principle. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.