Fostering Services (Ofsted Supervision)

Part of the debate – 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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