New Clause 14

Part of Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:45 pm ar 3 Gorffennaf 2008.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Ceidwadwyr, Crewe and Nantwich 1:45, 3 Gorffennaf 2008

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.