Fostering Services (Ofsted Supervision)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:52 pm on 21 October 2009.

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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.