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Registration Of Children's Homes

Volume 21: debated on Friday 2 April 1982

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Amendment made: No. 2, in page 3, line 26, leave out from 'of' to end of line 27 and insert

`children for whom it provides accommodation' —[Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to commend the Bill to the House. As hon. Members will know, the Bill was one of those which, happily, went through on the nod on Second Reading. Therefore, the House has not had an opportunity to hear the purposes behind the Bill or to pay the tributes that should be paid to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) and to other hon. Members, who over the years, have played their part in this achievement.

I have not yet discovered—although I am sure that there is still time—any hon. Member who is opposed to the ideas in the Bill. My right hon. Friend and I are wholly in favour of the Bill, and the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) made a similar point in Committee. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have, over the years, favoured such ideas. It fell to the hon. Member for Hartlepool to take the Bill through the House.

Often, it is difficult for Governments to find legislative time for the most desirable of Bills. This small Bill concerns a small number of children, but it is desperately important. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because when he was fortunate in the ballot he decided to help us and to try to place the Bill on the statute book.

It is more than a decade since a working party was set up to consider the registration of all residential homes. Successive Governments, including this Government and that in which the hon. Member for Crewe served, have been waiting for an opportunity to legislate. In 1972 there were some very disturbing accounts about conditions in a number of private children's homes, which worried us all. In 1974 the working party reported in favour of a registration scheme for children's homes.

The necessary consultations with the local authority associations and with the professional bodies concerned were then put in hand. By 1978 agreement on the broad details of a system of registration and of control had been reached. The problem both then and subsequently has been to find space for this desirable measure within the tight legislative timetable.

As the replies to questions from the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) in November 1980 and January 1981 showed, the Government favoured the introduction of a registration and control scheme for private children's homes and we hoped to see legislation enacted. Indeed, as far back as 1977 my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan), now Minister for Consumer Affairs—who has spent most of the day here—put down a series of questions on the matter. In 1980 my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton), who has recently joined the team in my Department as the other Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, inquired about progress.

I shall tell the House something about the problems of children in the care of local authorities and how they came to be placed in such homes.

The accommodation of children in care is governed by the Child Care Act 1980. Local authorities may provide accommodation and maintenance for children in their care in a variety of ways, such as boarding them out with foster parents, or placing them in community homes, which they run themselves or in association with a voluntary organisation. They can accommodate them in voluntary homes or, in certain circumstances, in special establishments such as a youth treatment centre or a hospital.

The majority of children received into care either remain in their own homes or are placed with foster parents. In June 1980 there were just over 100,000 children in the care of local authorities in England and Wales, of whom over 60,000 were in ordinary family households. Most of the remainder are in community homes for children and about 3,000 are in children's homes run by voluntary organisations.

All these ways of providing for children in care are subject to regulation or control of one kind or another, and are intended to safeguard the welfare of the children placed there. In addition, however, local authorities have the option of placing children in their care in privately operated children's homes. As far as we know—and there are no centrally collected figures on this—about 2,500 children in care are so placed. Alone out of all types of establishment providing for children separated from their parents, these homes currently escape any statutory regulation. Some of these homes are run simply as a business; a few are registered with the Charity Commissioners. Some provide education on the premises.

Where education is provided for children of compulsory school age, these establishments may be classed as "independent schools" and be subject to registration under the Education Act 1944. The amendments accepted by the House today were the result of detailed consideration about the purpose of those establishments and a desire to reduce the extent of the possible—in some circumstances probable—overlap of regulations. The Bill will not include the larger schools which are clearly not catering basically for children in care. A local authority wishing to place a child in one of those larger schools should take particular care to satisfy itself that the well-being of the child will be sustained.

The other exception will be for those independent schools which will be approved for the education of children with special education needs. The rigorous requirements to be set under the 1981 Education Act regulations, will cover many of the requirements that will be applicable to children's homes. My hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, and I have discussed this fully and agree that the regulations will be drawn up in close consultation with my Department.

Furthermore, when such schools are known to accommodate children in care—which might well be the case for schools which provide special education for maladjusted children, as one example—it is proposed that officers of my Department's social work service would be invited to accompany Her Majesty's inspectors when they inspect and report on those schools. In this way I am sure that the concern that we all share for the welfare of those children—who may be very disturbed—will be achieved.

There will still be a group of establishments listed also as independent schools for 50 or fewer boarders, but not providing special education, which are at the same time accepting children in care and providing a home for them. That is the point raised earlier by the hon. Member for Crewe. These will be liable to register under the Bill and meet all its requirements.

It is true that my right hon. Friend has certain powers in respect of those privately run homes. Section 74 of the 1980 Act enables him to authorise the inspection of all premises where children in care are accommodated, and of the children themselves, and that power will not be altered.

However, he does not have power, where he finds conditions at a privately run children's home to be unsatisfactory, to require the home to institute changes of any sort, to require the removal of children or prevent further admissions.

Local authorities which place individual children in the homes have a responsibility to ensure that they are suitable for the child's needs and to satisfy themselves regularly about the child's continued welfare and that the home—especially the people staffing the home—provides a stable and affectionate climate in which the child can grow and develop. However, although each child is the responsibility of a particular local authority, no single local authority has the powers or responsibility to inspect or monitor the standards of the home as a whole. The Bill plans to remedy matters by giving appropriate powers not to my right hon. Friend, but to the local authority in whose area the home is situated. That seems entirely appropriate.

The placing authorities' duties towards individual children will not alter. Their responsibility to act in the place of the child's parents, and preserve his or her individuality and meet each child's individual needs is an essential role. But in future the Bill will provide an additional safeguard, by ensuring that the home meets standards to be drawn up covering the facilities it provides, levels of staffing and the quality and conduct of care, and at all times promotes the children's welfare.

We hope that a close association—not purely a regulatory function—will be built up between the registering authorities and homes in their area. A decision—as provided in the Bill—to cancel——

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

—the registration of a home will, I hope, rarely need to be used. By informal, as well as formal contact and discussion with the staff of a home, standards can be influenced and the quality of care can be improved and maintained. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shabby."] On an informal basis—which has been welcomed by both the vast majority of independent homes——

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 23 April.