Fostering Services (Ofsted Supervision)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:39 pm on 21 October 2009.

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Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington 4:39, 21 October 2009

I am grateful to have the opportunity, granted by Mr. Speaker, to raise this matter, which is important to my constituent and to me. At issue, in essence, is the conduct of successive regulatory bodies in respect of fostering and the fact that, early on in this case, as I will explain in a moment, regulators seemed to get off on the wrong track and have simply not been able, for various reasons, to get back on track since. The impact of that is that my constituent, to whom I will refer as Ms A throughout this debate to preserve her anonymity, has not been able to secure justice. She certainly does not have peace of mind and her livelihood, and that of her partner, as a foster carer is constantly in jeopardy as a result of the failings of regulators in the past and the inability of the present regulator to set things straight. Although the issue has been long-running, it can be resolved and at the end of my comments I will say what I think we can do to bring it to that conclusion.

Let me give a brief history of this long-running matter. It starts in 2002 with the inappropriate placement of a child by an agency working, at the time, with the local authority in Northamptonshire. I will not go into the details of the inappropriate placement, because the Minister will have it on file. Attempts were made to deal with the issue in an entirely sensible, low-key way, without engaging other organisations, but they did not succeed. The Fostering Network recommended to my constituent that she should make a formal complaint about what had happened, not just to remedy her own situation but to try to ensure that similar things did not happen to other foster carers in the future, which was reasonable. Indeed, at the time it was recommended that the services of a mediator should be engaged.

The agency in question acted aggressively to that approach and instead of trying to resolve the matter it decided to set out on a review of my constituent's registration as a foster carer. That meant, in the end, that the matter was referred to the National Care Standards Commission, the regulator for fostering services at that time, which initiated some investigations. The first two investigations were poorly done and I advised my constituent to go for a final, third-stage review, which she did. That review fully upheld her complaint. I emphasise "fully", because that is important. The review criticised the agency and suggested that its fitness to operate should be reviewed-not the fitness of my constituent the foster carer, but the fitness of the agency that made the mistake-and called on the NCSC to remedy its procedures, which had also let my constituent down.

The mediator performed a strange role. He wrote reports about my constituent, despite the fact that he had never met her. Furthermore, he turned out to be working for the agency and was, in fact, trying to help the agency secure its own ongoing registration. I do not believe that the mediator brought in to deal with the case ever had an objective view of what was going on.

We had some positive responses from the third-stage review, as we expected. Northamptonshire, the authority involved in the initial mistake, issued my constituent a full apology and that was the end of the matter with that authority, as far as she was concerned. The role of Warwickshire, which was also involved, was referred to the local government ombudsman, who ruled fully in my constituent's favour and, again, apologies were given to my constituent, and disparaging comments in the authority's records were removed as a result of the ombudsman's ruling. Those are examples of good outcomes, which should have flowed from the third-stage review, but the regulator-the third leg-carried on regardless and did not heed the review's recommendations.

During the process, the regulator became the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which was the next party in this saga, and it was ultimately forced to review its conduct in the matter only because I raised it in an earlier Adjournment debate, in September 2004. That should have been the end of the matter, because it should have brought about a resolution in respect of the behaviour of the regulators, but it did not. Like the agency, the CSCI, for reasons that I have never been able to fathom, also turned the tables on my constituent and, in the end, published a report that was critical of her, not a report on itself. That report contained scores of inaccuracies and ignored evidence that had been submitted by my constituent.

My constituent saw the CSCI draft report before publication and so did I. I told CSCI not to publish the report until it had corrected all the inaccuracies it contained. I also told CSCI that it should only publish a report that was evidence-based. It ignored me and my constituent and published the report anyway. The report is damning to my constituent's reputation, which is why I am still pursuing the case.

Today, seven years on from the original incident, quite a lot of people involved in the early stages have moved on and are not part of the story any more. The agency has morphed into another organisation and has almost disappeared from view. But what remains today are inaccurate, disparaging comments about my constituent littered throughout the reference files of local authorities who commission fostering, and of the regulator-often placed there by the regulatory bodies and by others who have not listened, not read and not absorbed the evidence given by my constituent and who have still, to this day, not heeded the recommendations of the third-stage review.

I have recently turned to Ofsted, which is now the third regulator that I have dealt with, to try to get a resolution. I was initially encouraged, because Ofsted sent officials to visit my constituent at her home. They spent a long time with her and went over all the case history in great detail. I have seen a video version of that encounter and know how thorough the officials were. They were sympathetic and took away a list of things to work on so I thought that finally we were getting to where we needed to be to resolve the matter.

Ofsted's meeting with my constituent took place in January. Months passed and we heard nothing, so I decided in May to contact Ofsted to find out what was going on. I asked if it was following up the matters that it had agreed, with my constituent, to pursue. I asked what was the conclusion of its study of the transitional orders, which it said that it would look at to see how it could pick up the case, which previously was not Ofsted's-it was with other regulators. I also asked, "How are you getting on working with local authorities and others to cleanse records of documents that should not be there, because they are inaccurate and unfair to my constituent?" I asked it to do those three things.

I eventually received a response on 2 July from Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, which I have to say is inadequate. It says:

"We-

Ofsted-

"decided that it was not appropriate for us to take any action because CSCI had completed their investigation into her concerns...and there was nothing new in the information that we received."

That is completely irrelevant. Of course, there is no new information, because we are trying to resolve an issue that now has some history. To come back after all that and say that there is no new information totally misses the point about why we are asking Ofsted to try to resolve this long-standing issue.

The letter from Christine Gilbert also declares that Ofsted has no powers to order the correction of personal information held by other organisations. It suggests instead that my constituent goes to the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal. Ofsted knows that we have tried that route, so to come back and suggest it again is, frankly, irrelevant. I understand that the Information Commissioner's office does not have the power to tell local authorities to remove documents or amend them. It has the power to discover them and to publish them, but not to do what we need. I am afraid that the response has not been adequate.

My constituent is a foster carer of impeccable character. She has been persistent and determined in pursuing a remedy, and I know that has rubbed some people up the wrong way, but why should she not be persistent and determined when she is still the victim of injustice? She has constantly been let down by organisations that we thought were supposed to help, resulting in her livelihood as a foster carer remaining in jeopardy. As I said to my hon. Friend the Minister, the matter can be resolved, and that requires three things, which I hope the Minister agrees can be done.

First, Ofsted should forget about the letter that it sent me, look again at all the evidence that it has, and issue an apology to my constituent for its response and the inadequacy of its predecessor organisations. Secondly, I really believe that Ofsted is capable of working with the local authorities involved to help them to remove from their records the documents that should not be there because they are wrong, inaccurate, unfair to my constituent, and contain information that the third-stage report shows is not correct. What should remain on record are statements that are factual and evidence-based. What should not be on anyone's record is the opinion of an interested party who decided to take on my constituent rather than remedying the wrong. Thirdly and finally, I believe that Ofsted has the power to interview and intervene with the key individuals who are still, to this day, commenting on the matter, and to encourage them not to do so and not to repeat opinion, but to rely only on fact. Ofsted has the power to do all those things.

My constituent's seven-year nightmare-she is a committed, professional foster carer-could be brought close to an end today if my hon. Friend the Minister would agree to those three things. Not only would that be an extremely satisfactory outcome for her, it would help to restore confidence in the role of regulators on whom all foster carers, at some point, may come to rely.

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Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships) 4:52, 21 October 2009

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Gale. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt on securing this important debate. He has campaigned on the matter for some time, and it is a reflection of his diligence, professionalism and commitment that he has pursued it in the House for many years. He referred to his Adjournment debate on the matter in September 2004, and it is a credit to him that he is still pursuing the case on behalf of his constituent.

Like my hon. Friend, the Government recognise the critical role that foster carers, youth workers and many others play in giving children the emotional support and resilience that they need to succeed, and the security and continuity that they will come to rely on as they grow up. Our starting point, and the fundamental principle that we must address, is that every child should be brought up in safety with the opportunity to succeed to the very best of their ability, at the same time recognising that we often rely on achieving that principle and objective through the incredible support and dedication of foster carers such as my hon. Friend's constituent.

We can always do more, and we must not be complacent. Complacency should never be allowed to creep in, especially in relation to looking after vulnerable children and providing support and help to the foster families who help us to achieve that. I am acutely aware of that, and the case that my hon. Friend raises only emphasises the importance of getting things right first time, every time. He is absolutely correct to highlight the fact that foster carers should be given full and frank details of the children who are admitted to their care. He will be aware, as I am, of the disappointing results of the Fostering Network survey, which found that only about half of foster carers reported that they were given the information that they needed to look after children in their care safely. That was, in essence, the starting point of my hon. Friend's constituent's concerns.

The situation was not acceptable and the Fostering Network survey's findings are not acceptable. I cannot excuse that, and I want the problems to be improved. That is why we issued a letter to all directors of children's services, and chief executives, making clear the importance of sharing with foster carers information about children placed with them. As my hon. Friend knows, the letter stresses the point that foster carers should be provided with sufficient information about the child's needs. That should be in addition to relevant information about the child's previous history, behaviour and experiences to ensure that the foster carers can best meet the child's assessed needs and to keep the foster child and others living in the same household safe from harm. I know that that is a particular concern for my hon. Friend. The information should be provided to the foster carer before the child is placed or, in the case of an emergency placement when all the information may not be immediately available, as soon as practicable.

My hon. Friend in his professional way mentioned three issues, and I shall address them in turn. He asked whether it is acceptable for Ofsted to have a year zero approach, and about Ofsted issuing an apology on behalf of previous regulators. He asked about the removal of data concerning his constituent and anything that disparages her reputation, which is incredibly important to her as a professional foster carer, and he also asked about Ofsted investigating people who are still misrepresenting the case and offering opinion rather than empirical evidence. I shall deal with each in turn.

On Ofsted taking a year zero approach to such cases, when it took over responsibility for regulating independent fostering agencies from CSCI, it was agreed that when an investigation into a registered provision or any enforcement action was ongoing at the time of transfer, Ofsted would take over the case. It was also agreed that in the case of a complaint about action taken by the previous regulator it would retain responsibility for concluding any investigation. I assure my hon. Friend that there was never any prospect of Ofsted washing its hands of ongoing cases. His comments today demonstrate that Ofsted had a productive meeting with him and his constituent. I know that he is disappointed by the letter that he received from the inspector, but my understanding is that Ofsted decided that it was not appropriate to take action.

CSCI had completed its investigation into Happen Fostercare some time before the transfer and crucially-this is a key point-there had been an independent third-stage review, to which my hon. Friend referred. I understand that the review was conducted by Judy Downey and concluded in March 2004. I have read the Hansard report of my hon. Friend's previous Adjournment debate on the matter, when my hon. Friend spoke very strongly. I understand that the detailed report reached some important conclusions-I think that was the phrase he used-not least of which was a vindication of his constituent, particularly her reputation. That is important.

A large file of information-my hon. Friend alluded to it today-was provided to Ofsted in May 2007. I am told that Ofsted looked at that carefully to see whether an investigation could be carried out, but its decision was that such an investigation should not be opened. At the time, Happen Fostercare had been sold to Fostering Solutions, and the individuals about whom my hon. Friend's constituent had concerns were no longer connected with the company.

My hon. Friend mentioned that last year Ofsted was approached with concerns about incorrect statements being made about the outcome of the CSCI investigation into his constituent's complaint being published on the Happen Fostercare website and circulated to local authorities. I am told that Ofsted visited my hon. Friend's constituent and explained the limits of its powers. I understand that following the visit, Ofsted reviewed the matter and again concluded that nothing in its remit allowed it to investigate Happen Fostercare, particularly-this is an important point-as the agency had been sold to Fostering Solutions.

My hon. Friend asked whether Ofsted should issue an apology, a question that was raised in the Adjournment debate in 2004 and again, most eloquently, this afternoon. He will appreciate that it is not for me to apologise on behalf of Ofsted. That must be a decision for Her Majesty's chief inspector. However, if it would help-I hope that it does, as I respect my hon. Friend a great deal for bringing the case to the House again-I undertake to ask Ofsted to respond to the serious issues that he raised today and to make the inspector's reply available to him.

One of the key factors that has emerged from the 2004 debate and today's debate is what Ofsted is doing to improve inspections to ensure that such things do not happen again.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

Before my hon. Friend moves on-has he moved on from the cleansing of the records?-I will return to the subject. From what he has said, it remains the case that documentation is being accessed by local authorities that are considering fostering placements that refers to my constituent, and it contains statements and comments about her that are untrue and unfounded and are clearly contradicted by the outcome of the third-stage review. I hope the Minister shares my concern that it is not fair or just to my constituent for that to continue. How can we ensure that those records are cleansed of statements that should not be there? How can we ensure that the records that relate to this case are purely factual?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I reassure my hon. Friend that I had not moved on. We are dealing with important matters to do with data and information.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of times the need to cleanse data files from a variety of sources. I have made inquiries, and I am assured by Ofsted that it does not hold any information that places his constituent's livelihood in jeopardy. As for the important point about local authorities, I am confident that it is outwith Ofsted's remit. The advice that my hon. Friend has been given about the Information Commissioner seems appropriate. I can check that again and I would be happy to correspond with my hon. Friend on the matter, but Ofsted has no power to instruct local authorities to cleanse their records of data. That would be a matter for the commissioner. Again, if my hon. Friend wishes it, I would be more than happy to consider the matter one more time, but I am confident that that is appropriate.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for indulging me. Ofsted may not have the power to instruct local authorities, but how would my hon. Friend feel about writing to local authorities requesting that they take a look at their records on this case?

Photo of Iain Wright Iain Wright Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I am keen to do anything I can to help my hon. Friend and his constituent with what must be an incredibly distressing matter. My interpretation of the facts, after discussion with my hon. Friend and having read the previous Adjournment debate, is that the local authorities concerned seem willing to help in whatever way they can. If it would help, I can try to see whether that is possible. However, as a result of the powers given to Ofsted by the House and Parliament, I believe that it would be more appropriate to go through the Information Commissioner.

On a similar note, my hon. Friend said that individuals are still misrepresenting the case. Again, I reiterate that, as set down by the House and the other place, Ofsted does not have the remit to investigate individuals who are not part of registered and regulated provisions. Only if a setting is registered can it investigate in order to establish compliance with national minimum standards and regulations. I reiterate the point about raising concerns on personal data with the Information Commissioner, which is an appropriate response, but I am more than happy to reconsider the matter.

We want to move forward and try to ensure that everything is right first time and every time-an important principle. I mentioned the quality of Ofsted inspections and improving the inspection regime. Ofsted now reports on the outcomes for children and young people, making them more child-focused. It issues additional guidance to inspectors to ensure that they use the same criteria when making inspection judgments. It is also increasing the accessibility of its pre-inspection questionnaires, so that they are clearer, easier to use and available in symbols, which enables a wider range of children to express their views.

In addition, I am aware that further work is under way to improve the inspection framework for fostering services. My Department is helping by consulting on the revised national minimum standards, which are more focused on outcomes for children; they are also clear about the need to share information with foster carers that relates to children's backgrounds.

As I have outlined, the Government place huge value on the army of good foster carers, who do so much to improve young lives and to inspire and safeguard children. We have done much to support them, as I outlined earlier, and wish to continue working with stakeholders to determine what more we can do to help in the local recruitment of foster carers. As my hon. Friend pointed out, if we are to attract people into foster caring and retain our existing foster carers, we need to make sure that they receive the right support.

The White Paper "Care Matters" set out our plans for improving the training of and support available to foster carers. We must continue to do everything in our power to build on that good work, in order to ensure that foster carers feel valued and appreciated for the incredible work that they do, so that young people everywhere have the same opportunities and rights to enjoy their childhood in safety.

I applaud my hon. Friend for what he is doing on behalf of his constituent, but I fully agree with him that this issue has taken far too long to resolve. I shall do all in my power under the regulatory regime provided by this place to ensure that my hon. Friend's constituent can find closure on the matter, ensuring that her reputation as a foster carer and a professional is not besmirched. I shall do all I can to work with my hon. Friend to ensure that that happens. Again, I congratulate him on securing this debate. Hopefully, but after far too long, we can seek resolution.

Question put and agreed to

Sitting adjourned