Clause 38 - Power to establish registration scheme in England

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 21 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45, 21 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 94, in

clause 38, page 27, line 16, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

'(1) It shall be the duty of every children's services authority in England in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State to establish and maintain a register of persons in their area suitable to foster children privately.'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 74, in

clause 38, page 27, line 16, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 104, in

clause 38, page 27, line 19, at end insert—

'(1A) It shall be the duty of every local authority to keep a register of individuals in their area suitable to act as private foster parents for children.

(1B) A local authority may refuse to register an applicant for registration under subsection (1A) if it is satisfied that the applicant, or any person living in the applicant's household, is not fit to be in the proximity of children.'.

No. 75, in

clause 38, page 27, line 20, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 76, in

clause 38, page 27, line 24, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 78, in

clause 38, page 27, line 33, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 79, in

clause 38, page 27, line 37, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 80, in

clause 38, page 27, line 41, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 81, in

clause 38, page 28, line 1, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 82, in

clause 38, page 28, line 7, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 83, in

clause 38, page 28, line 25, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 84, in

clause 38, page 28, line 28, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 85, in

clause 38, page 28, line 33, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 87, in

clause 38, page 28, line 40, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 88, in

clause 38, page 28, line 46, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 89, in

clause 38, page 29, line 9, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 90, in

clause 38, page 29, line 14, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 91, in

clause 38, page 29, line 28, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I was getting alarmed at the number of amendments in this group, thinking that I was not prepared. Now I realise why there is such a large number—it boils down to the change of one word. Amendment No. 94 calls for a compulsory registration scheme for private fostering. I appreciate that the Government have moved some way towards such an arrangement by trying to strengthen the notification scheme. That is absolutely essential, but most professionals ask: if it is a good idea for a few years' time, why not introduce it now?

It is interesting to note that every report that the Government have commissioned in the past five years confirms that privately fostered children can be very vulnerable. A registration system involving the approval of private foster carers would protect their interests better than the current situation, under which private foster carers are required only to notify local authorities about arrangements. The reports include Sir William Utting's ''People like us: The review of safeguards for children living away from home'', which was commissioned in 1997 by the Prime Minister. That report referred to private fostering as a

potential honey pot for abusers. It was published all that time ago, and the many other reports published since have all come to the same conclusion.

While we welcome the power to establish the registration schemes, we do not believe that the proposals are sufficient to provide the protection that is needed for some of the most vulnerable children in the country. As we know, the key dilemmas for policy makers and practitioners are the extent to which it is realistic to impose controls on private arrangements made by parents for the care of their children and the extent to which all the different arrangements that fall into the category of private fostering can be subject to the same treatment. Opponents to the registration scheme often argue that the Government should not intervene in private life and that many families would find that unacceptable. The amendment would simply require keeping a register to be the duty of every children's services authority.

There are a lot of objections, and I am sure that the Minister will mention some. However, by passing this simple amendment and with the aid of regulations, which I know that she is keen on using, we could put constraints on the system that would overcome some of the fears. For example, we would need in particular to focus on private foster carers who propose to foster children not previously known to them. When the children are known to them, the new system could be seen as a cumbersome arrangement, but it would exist to assist parents, which is an important point. Parents who need to place their child with a private foster carer want to know that the carer is subject to some form of accountability.

Regulations could work with the amendment to ensure that inappropriate burdens are not imposed on carers. Individuals often care temporarily for a child whom they already know in their capacity as a friend, godparent or a member of the extended family, perhaps when there is illness in the family. There are many different circumstances in which the Government would not want to be too heavy-handed.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

In many of the circumstances that the hon. Lady has mentioned—when there is illness or bereavement in the family, for example—people need to look to friends, neighbours or members of the extended family to take over the care of a child for a short time. Private fostering comes into the equation only when the child has been in such care for 28 days, which is a long time.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I am on the defensive at the moment, trying to pre-empt some of the arguments that might be made against the registration scheme, and it is helpful that the figure is 28 days.

There is a further concern in my area because there are many language schools. They are concerned because they rely on host families to have young people with them for more than 28 days. I understand their concern, because the checks must be onerous from a business point of view, but in principle the families should be checked. Discussing this issue makes us think more and more about how we did not

think about those considerations when we let our children go off on foreign exchanges in the past. Now we are more aware of the dangers, we have to reach a balanced point of view.

I am aware that there are arguments against the scheme, particularly for the language schools in my area, but I would hope that we could develop a private fostering register. We would have to ensure that it did not catch up people with straightforward arrangements, although that would only be over 28 days. We would also need consultation to see how such an arrangement would affect people brought into the system for the first time, such as businesses, in the way that I have explained.

I have tabled a series of amendments that work together, but the fundamental principle remains that, with regulations, it would be possible to develop a private fostering registration scheme that addressed some of people's great fears. We often refer to Victoria Climbie and point out that private fostering was not involved in that case, but a private fostering arrangement was a part of another tragic case—that of Toni-Ann Byfield. We know that there are pitfalls, but I ask the Minister to consider the amendments.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 3:00, 21 Hydref 2004

I would be much less defensive than the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole because I cannot honestly believe that the Government are proposing such an inadequate scheme as that expressed in clause 37 and introducing the possibility of a registration scheme only in a sunset clause. No one in this country has the first clue how many privately fostered children there are. In 2001, the Department of Health estimated that there were 10,000 privately fostered children in the country and that 50 per cent. of them had not been notified to the local authorities. Goodness knows where it got that statistic from, because there is no basis on which they could estimate the number not known to the local authorities.

Victoria Climbie was privately fostered with a great aunt—that would go beyond the definition of a close relative. The Children Act 1989 states that a child is privately fostered if they stay for more than 28 days with someone who does not have parental responsibility or is not a relative. That is a very long time indeed.

The Government are aware of the experience of introducing regulations on child minding. People who cared for children in their own homes for more than two hours a day had to stop doing that in an unofficial capacity and become registered, a condition that has swiftly achieved the broadest acceptance in our society. Now, if parents need a child minder, a list is readily available of people who are police checked, approved and inspected and who can provide a decent service for their children.

Worryingly, private fostering is a cultural phenomenon. It is part of the culture in west African countries, especially Nigeria. Many people from west Africa come to this country to work or study, and they seek a private fostering arrangement for their children. Many of the people with whom they wish to leave their

children will not be known to them, or they may be aware of them through the extended family or through a network back home.

Surely, Victoria Climbie's extremely responsible and sensitive parents should have been able, if they had needed their child to be looked after, to check whether the local authority had a list of people prepared to take on private fostering arrangements. If they decided that they wanted to place their child with a particular person, they should have been able to ensure that that person had been thoroughly checked out by the local authority.

I do not know why the Government are so resistant to taking the sensible action urged on them by a previous chief inspector of social services, Sir William Utting. One wishes he had urged them to take that action while he was still in post. He suggested that legislation be introduced to require local authorities to maintain a register of private foster carers in their area who are approved as suitable; that it should be an offence to foster a child privately if the carer is unregistered or to place a child with an unregistered carer; and that standards should be published with the criteria against which private foster carers should be assessed for registration. The standards would be based on the current ones for child minders and would include elements of national standards for foster care.

I do not understand why the Government are not prepared to introduce such simple legislation now, rather than waiting for the future or perhaps, God help us, for another tragedy to occur in the meantime. We have debated this issue before in considering Bills; we tried to amend the Care Standards Bill in 2000. However, the Government are reluctant to take the issue on, which is extremely puzzling.

What I am urging is sensible, straightforward and profoundly in the interests of children and parents. It would ensure child safety. Thousands of children, including, perhaps, some of those from whom we never hear again after they pass through the hands of the immigration authorities at our ports, would become known to us. The measure would support Government policies aimed at defeating the sexual exploitation of children trafficked into this country and the exploitation of children coming into the country for domestic servitude. I suspect that that is a much greater problem than we fully understand. We would see progress on all those matters.

A short while ago, there was a meeting of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. That excellent organisation is rooted in the African community in this country. As part of a week of events that AFRUCA was undertaking, I went to a discussion about child care in the back room of an African restaurant in Dalston. One lady stood up and exhorted everyone present to acknowledge that many people from the community living in London seek, after they have come to this country, worked and acquired some money and standing, to bring a child into the country on a private fostering basis, even though the child will not be looked after properly as a member of the

household. The child is used as a domestic servant to support the work of the household and to look after the children. The people of AFRUCA are extremely brave in raising such issues at national level. The Government should forget all about amendments to this useless notification scheme, which puts children at risk, and install a proper registration scheme now.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I have a good deal of sympathy with the amendments and the comments about the problems attached to the lack of a private fostering scheme. There is a sense of deja vu, as the hon. Gentleman said. We argued long and hard about this issue when we considered the Adoption and Children Bill. I certainly supported measures then to start a private fostering registration scheme. Last year, I promoted a private Member's Bill designed to do the same thing, which was supported by various members of the Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill, but still we are in this position. We seem to have made a little progress in getting the issue mentioned in the Bill at all. However, I cannot understand why, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said, the Government are so resistant to the measures that they freely took on child minders.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we cannot quantify the problem. I fear that the figure of 10,000, which was plucked out of the air and which we used for discussions on the Adoption and Children Bill, is the tip of the iceberg. We have tended to concentrate on the west African angle, and I have given examples of girls coming from Nigeria and Sierra Leone into Sussex, but I am sure that it is a problem in many other places.

The ''power to establish'' a registration scheme is in the Bill, but there is no guarantee that it will actually happen. It is a sop to mention the issue without any real inclination to do something about it. All it does is place an additional duty on local authorities to try to seek out private fostering arrangements, but the people who most need to be sought out are those most determined to remain hidden. They are the least likely to volunteer their identity for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned: they are not looking after the children well, or they are making money and not declaring it—we cannot ignore the revenue angle, let alone the problems of the child's rights.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

We all understand the issue that we are trying to address. As the hon. Gentleman previously promoted a private Member's Bill on this issue, could he tell me how he thinks a registration scheme would be better at pulling out those people who privately foster children and do not comply with their notification obligations in law?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I think that it should be an offence. If someone does not declare that they are engaging in a private registration scheme, they should be subject to prosecution.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

My problem with that is that it is currently an offence for someone to fail to notify a local authority of their intent privately to foster a

child. That is prosecutable, and they would be subject to a fine of £5,000 or £10,000—I cannot remember exactly how much. I am not trying to catch the hon. Gentleman out, but I sincerely want to know how he thinks a registration scheme could provide the additional strength to uncover unseen private fostering, which concerns us all, and thereby better safeguard children.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

How many people have been prosecuted for a failure to notify?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

In my speech, I will deal with how to improve the notification scheme.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

How many people have been prosecuted?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

It is not very many, and I will deal later with why I think that the notification scheme is not working well. I wanted the hon. Gentleman to tell me why a registration scheme has any hope of working better. What does he believe is in a registration scheme that we cannot put into a notification scheme, in which there is already an array of powers and duties on local authorities and families, that would make it more likely to uncover privately fostered children, for whom we both have a concern?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 3:15, 21 Hydref 2004

The nub of the problem is that the law is not working. The penalties are not seen to work, or even to exist, so the situation is not being addressed. A registration scheme must be enshrined in law, and we must publicise it as widely as possible rather than relying on the stretched resources of local authorities to seek these people out. We must clamp down those who flout every opportunity to register with such a scheme. I said at the outset that these people will not volunteer their identity unless we begin not only to make it clear that failure to do so is unacceptable, but to back that up with prosecutions with serious penalties attached.

The Minister said that she thinks that few people have been prosecuted. I think that she is right, which means that the system is not working. We need to devise a system based on compulsory registration, tougher penalties and making people well aware of what will hit them if they do not comply. We might then start to get better compliance and clamp down on some of the graver abuses of the system.

I freely admit that the register is not easy, but I cannot understand why the Minister is happy for the situation to remain as it is. The Bill does not take us forward; it is a sop to an enormous lobby of people from across the political divide and from all the family and children-oriented bodies. The scheme is past its due date, but the Government still seem not to want to move on it, despite all the reports. Lord Utting knew what he was talking about, and other reports, commissioned by the Government, came to the same conclusion.

Aside from the penalty issue, there are attractions for parents in having a register to which they can refer. Hon. Members have touched on some of them.

Currently, parents may mistakenly think that a private foster carer who has not been prohibited from fostering has been positively approved. Parents who need to place their child with a private foster carer would be aided in their search for a suitable family by a register showing that the people on it have met basic standards.

We may be talking about people in distressed circumstances; for example, people who have suffered a bereavement. If, all of a sudden, the person who was caring for a child is not there, and no extended family members can fill their place, the family will need to look for someone whom they do not know. At the moment, there is no quality mark that can be relied on. There is enormous confusion and ignorance about the calibre of the private fostering arrangements available.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

The hon. Gentleman has moved on slightly, but he has put his finger on the distinction between a notification scheme and a registration scheme. The first considers the well-being of a particular child in a placement, while the second looks at the standards of the people offering the private fostering service. Those are two different things.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

What is being suggested is constructive, not just additional regulation. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole would leave it up to local authorities to devise their registration schemes, so we are not trying to impose a central model on them.

There also needs to be a method of linking local authorities. Just as we have highly mobile vulnerable children, we may have highly mobile duff foster carers. At the moment, many people are falling through the gap. Let us take the example of a foster carer who goes through the checks and is engaged by an authority in, for want of a better example, Stoke-on-Trent. If the carer then falls short of the standards expected and the authority decides no longer to use them, but their offence is not prosecutable or sufficient to put them on the Department for Education and Skills black list—list 99, I think—the authority needs a method of communicating that to other authorities, to prevent the carer touting for business in, for example, Brighton and Hove, and starting with a clean sheet.

I know that the mechanisms are supposed to be in place, but in many instances they are not working. Given that we have an acute shortage of foster carers—estimated to be at least 10,000—if a new foster carer turned up and contacted a local authority, it would in many cases be keen to take them. Perhaps the checks would not be carried out to the rigorous standard required because the authority was desperate to get another foster carer on the books. That is the current state of play in the foster care market.

I am the last one to want to be unduly intrusive into individual families or to impose yet more regulations on local authorities and professionals. However, our proposal would have advantages for them as well as placing burdens on them. I cannot see why the Government still resist this idea when all the professional advice is not only that it is right but that it should have happened some time ago. I have a deal

of sympathy with the amendment tabled by the hon. Lady and the points made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

This is a difficult issue. I will take hon. Members through the arguments. I do not want anyone to think that we are not concerned about finding appropriate mechanisms to ensure that children at risk because they have been placed in an unsuitable private fostering environment, are identified and supported and, if necessary, removed from that environment.

Let me start with the support that the professional bodies give to the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). That professional support is not total. One reason is that people are not clear how best to tackle what is a very difficult problem. Let me give two examples.

Hon. Members have not referred to a joint statement by the two most important professional bodies: the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services. They state:

''We do not support the argument that local authorities are unable, within present legislation, to prevent those private fostering arrangements which they feel are unsuitable, from happening. It is true that only rarely are proceedings initiated to prohibit such arrangements but the current legislation does make it possible for the local authority to intervene and there are significant sanctions which can be applied if a private foster carer ignores the prohibition order, including the potential for imprisonment.

So it can be argued that existing safeguarding arrangements have the potential, if applied, to be sufficiently robust. The problem is in their application (or lack of it) which in turn is a product of the failure of private foster carers or birth parents to notify local authorities of such arrangements. It is hard to see how a requirement to register will make people behave differently. Indeed it could equally be argued that a requirement to register might be a further deterrent.''

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Does the Minister think that people's behaviour may change if we see some high-profile prosecutions of people who have not complied with the law?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

It may indeed. I want to come on to how we can better use the existing legislative framework without moving immediately into a new framework. Would legislation to establish a register be more effective than current arrangements, or would it provide an additional deterrent, as both the ADSS and the LGA—organisations that are not off the wall and which represent the professional cohort—believe? I am sure that their statement was sent to the hon. Gentleman, but I would be happy to share it with him.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence was established specifically to discover and spread best practice. In December 2002, it published a position paper on the effectiveness of child-minding registration and its implications for private fostering. It found that for some types of private fostering arrangements, registration might not be the most

appropriate or effective safeguard. I am merely drawing to hon. Members' attention the fact that although they passionately believe that the proposal is the best way of dealing with an intractable problem, we are receiving equally passionate and clear advice that some of the key professionals do not believe that it is the best way forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre claims that a registration scheme would ensure child safety. He said that it would ensure that Government policies could defeat the sexual and domestic exploitation. It might, but I am not sure that it would. My hon. Friend must accept that it could equally drive it underground. If we make better use of our existing legislative framework, which has not been properly used, we may not need a registration scheme. That is why the powers in the clause strengthen the legislative framework in which local authorities operate, giving us what is known as a sunset clause, so that if these final efforts to identify and protect privately fostered children do not work, we can attempt to introduce a registration scheme without having to return to Parliament with primary legislation. I am worried about introducing a registration scheme, but I accept that if we cannot make the other scheme work, we will have to do so.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but the argument that registering something and trying to raise standards will drive the problem underground was used against the registration of child minders. We use the criminal law to deal with people who evade their responsibilities. I have great respect for the Association of Directors of Social Services, but I am not inclined to take lessons from it because it is part of the body that has failed on this matter. It is astounding that its officials say that the legislation enables them to run a scheme, when they have palpably not done so since the Children Act was introduced in 1989. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend told me what she considers so wrong with a registration scheme that would address itself to the aptitudes, abilities and safety of people doing private fostering.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

First, on the analogy with child minders, there is a difference, partly because private fostering is a complex world, as we know. It involves not just the group about whom we are most concerned—the children of African families who come here—but many others. People usually become child minders to earn money, so they have an incentive to register. However, many private fostering arrangements are made without the exchange of money, so the incentive to register does not exist.

I shall now say something about the notification scheme and what we want it to do. The clause is in the Bill because we want to strengthen the scheme and give it one last chance to work. It is not wrong in theory, but it needs strength and power to ensure that it is implemented. First, we want to promote awareness by publicising it, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested. I agree with him that we should publicise both the existing notification scheme

and some high-profile cases; that may bring about a culture of compliance, which is what we want. However, we do not need to change the law and create a registration scheme to do that—we will require local authorities to promote awareness of the scheme.

Secondly, we will require local authorities to monitor the operation of the scheme far more closely, and to provide information for us on how many registrations they achieve each year. They will monitor registration, and we will monitor their effectiveness. That will give us a tool to determine, over time, whether the notification scheme is working. We will then require the inspectorates, in the framework of inspection that we are developing for all children's services, to do their work, and we will require the local safeguarding boards to have regard to how well or otherwise private fostering arrangements are being implemented. We are putting in place several mechanisms that will support the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman gave the example of a suddenly bereaved family who might want to use a register. That is a dangerous route, and I ask him to think that matter through. Using the analogy of the world of child care in the home, the fostering system is similar to the light-touch registration scheme that we propose to implement in the new year for nannies and childminders.

In the system for notification, a simple, basic check is undertaken using the Criminal Records Bureau and the household itself. We try to ensure that there is safety for the child. We do not do the very thorough checks that are carried out for those who become foster carers of looked-after children. It would be an error to assume, from the basic checks that we undertake, that we can provide the same sort of comfort to parents who choose to use a particular private foster carer that we need when we are placing children who are looked-after.

There is a great danger in using the register to say, ''This person has been authorised; this person will be appropriate for dealing with your child.'' Through checking, all we will have done is to ensure that there is nothing—nothing in the ether—that makes a particular private foster carer unsuitable for working with children. One must always be careful with such regulatory frameworks, particularly those relating to the care of children, that one is not giving parents greater security and certainty than can actually be provided.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 3:30, 21 Hydref 2004

The problem at present is that if someone has not been banned from being a private foster carer, the assumption is that they are okay, without there having been any checks at all. The key thing is to ensure that there are appropriate, balanced checks, which are not enormously burdensome in their rigour. Those checks would give a degree of comfort to someone that the person that they are selecting for a private fostering arrangement is at least secure and knows what they are doing for that particular job, just as local authorities must assess the private foster carers that they use for their looked-after children.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

Those basic checks that give some comfort exist in the notification scheme. I agree with all hon. Members that the notification scheme has not worked—there has not been compliance with the regulatory framework. Through the Bill, we are attempting to toughen up the regulatory framework so that local authorities take the task seriously, and will publicise, monitor and deliver in relation to the notification. Moreover, for the first time, we are adding a requirement that local authorities should be informed about a placement before it occurs. They will then have a duty to check out the place and the person before the child arrives. That is a new provision in the notification scheme, which we think will strengthen it.

Having said all that, we have concerns with a registration scheme and the reason why we have included a sunset clause is because I recognise that if those additional duties that we are giving to local authorities in our clause do not work—

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

Order. I ask the Minister if she could kindly address the Chair, because Hansard is having difficulty in picking up her words.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

My apologies, Dame Marion. The reason why we have placed a sunset clause in the Bill is because I accept what hon. Members say and, 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.

Private fostering is a complex area that covers many people. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that through regulations we could limit the measure to that group of children about whom we are all most concerned, but the way in which she has framed her amendments would not enable us to do that. We would have to have a registration scheme that registered all those young people who went to language schools, who fell out with their families and spent some time on a friend's sofa, and who were placed with another relative because their mother went into hospital or was ill. A mental health illness would be a classic example.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

We would have to register young people only if they stayed away for more than 28 days. I have made the point previously. Of course young people clear off and sleep on friends' sofas, but 28 days is a long time. If we do not have a proper registration scheme, we are leaving a huge gap whereby children could be abused. I believe that language schools should be registered. Allowing young people to come to a foreign country without these schools being registered is incredible.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

We are not leaving a huge gap: we have the notification scheme. It has not been properly brought into effect, but we hope that it will prove more effective with the amendments that we are making to it. Our fear remains that, under a formal registration scheme, there is no incentive in the circumstances about which we have most concerns—a young child being privately fostered—for anyone to come forward and be properly registered. In fact, there might well be

a disincentive, because there would be the issue of costs, who pays and so on. When I was a child and my mother was very ill, I was placed with distant relatives for about three months. The idea that they would have had to register to help my mother out would have been completely potty.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

She used to be a conservative.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

It brought me to my senses then.

I think that we have now been around the houses. The only other issue that I want to cover is the barring system, to which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred. He will appreciate that we are reflecting on Sir Michael Bichard's report on what went wrong at Soham. Clearly, arising out of that, we will have to see how we can develop a system whereby information on those who are unsuitable for work with children is taken over local authority boundaries. We take that issue seriously, but it is not totally pertinent to this set of amendments.

I have sympathy with the spirit of the amendments, but I am extremely sceptical about the confidence with which hon. Members claim that a registration scheme would change the world in the direction in which they and I wish to travel. I hope that they will support what we have proposed, which is to strengthen the current notification scheme. However, in understanding exactly where all hon. Members are coming from on this issue, we are taking the powers in the sunset clause, so 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.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. It has been useful, but to my mind the Minister's arguments have not won the day over the other points that have been made. She mentioned the Social Care Institute for Excellence. I understand that the executive summary of the report to which she referred makes an argument for the registration of some private fostering arrangements based on balance and proportionality. It certainly does not dismiss them out of hand.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I have that executive summary in my hands. I was surprised to hear the Minister pray in aid a report that supported the principle of a private registration scheme and said how successful the child minding registration scheme had been. To quote one line:

''Registration of childminders has proved a prerequisite for professionalisation, leading to self-regulation in terms of both standards of care and notification of unregistered childminders.''

The same applies to fostering.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I do not think I have time in this intervention to read on. I would be happy to read out the entire report if the Committee would tolerate it, but I think it probably would not.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

There is clearly a debate to be had on that subject, but I did not want to let that point pass. There are various questions to be asked. As well as the subject of stricter requirement for notification there is the issue of potential enforcement and I would like to raise the question of fines being increased.

The Minister suggested that the current drafting of the amendment would not stand up to the regulations that I envisaged to make the system workable in consultation with all parties. I am sure that if we display the strength of feeling for the amendment now, there is ample time for the Minister to come up with a suitable amendment on Report. There have been many Government amendments during this Committee, and although I thought that they would be exhausted by Report, this is a situation in which one would be acceptable.

The serious point is that nobody feels that now is the time to delay working on a registration scheme. It would not be possible to implement it overnight and time is passing. We live in a slightly different world now and the number of unaccompanied children coming into the country is more of an issue—as we have said, we are not even able to quantify it. The scheme would apply to residents of this country as well as children coming into the country, but the latter is a new development since the Minister was in that situation.

I wish to press the amendment to a vote because it is important for us to convey the strength of feeling on the issue. Having listened to the overwhelming arguments and given that the Minister is prepared to introduce the system in a few years' time, the question is why not introduce it now. We have not had an answer.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Rhif adran 10 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 38 - Power to establish registration scheme in England

Ie: 6 MPs

Na: 10 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I beg to move amendment No. 152, in

clause 38, page 29, line 26, leave out 'six months' and insert

'51 weeks (or, in the case of an offence committed before the commencement of section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c.44), not exceeding six months)'.

I intend to deal with the amendment quickly, to give time for debate on other amendments. The amendment brings the length of the prison sentence in line with the Criminal Justice Act 2003. If hon. Members wish to debate the amendment, I shall give greater detail.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 38, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 39 to 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.