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Registration Of Fostering Agencies

Volume 264: debated on Tuesday 24 October 1995

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3.33 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable voluntary and independent fostering agencies to approve foster carers subject to registration and inspection of the agencies.
I am grateful that the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) is present to listen to my introduction of the Bill. The Department of Health's latest figures show that 60 per cent. of children looked after by local authorities are placed with foster families. That proportion has increased since 1989. Foster care is the community's response to the needs of parents and children in difficulties.

The children who are accommodated in foster care are not blue-eyed angels. They have many needs and problems, which can be displayed in very difficult behaviour. They often come at short notice from traumatic family situations which often take time to resolve, either through rehabilitation of the child at home or through alternative long-term foster or adoptive placement.

Foster parents face increasingly complex tasks—for example, contributing to assessments, dealing with parental visits and giving evidence in court, in addition to nurturing hurt and sometimes aggressive children. The majority of foster carers are volunteers; they are not paid. They volunteer for altruistic motives. It is their way of contributing to the community. It is their choice and their decision.

Without their volunteering, the child care system would collapse. It is remarkable, therefore, that, under the present regulations, foster carers are effectively denied the opportunity to choose for whom they foster.

Voluntary organisations have a long tradition of providing services for children—Barnardo's, Catholic Rescue, The Children's Society, and the National Children's Home, to name but a few. Those organisations have contributed to innovative services and provided diversity and choice in the placement of children as a complement to local authority provision. Many of the organisations are already adoption agencies, and they run registered children's homes.

Under present regulations, however, they cannot approve their own foster carers. They can approve parents for life, but not parents for one night. The Foster Placement Regulations 1991, which are clarified by circular number LAC(94)20, state that voluntary organisations can approve foster carers only when delegated to do so by a local authority in relation to a particular child, that those foster carers are deemed to be on the list of the local authority and that any subsequent placements have to be agreed by the local authority. So voluntary agencies can recruit, train and assess, but those foster carers end up on the list of the local authority that has placed the first child. They are owned by the local authority.

As people may have been attracted to an organisation because of their religious beliefs, it is clearly unacceptable that they find themselves as local authority foster parents. If that is what they had wanted to be, they would have applied to the local authority in the first place. A letter sent to me by Norwood Child Care states:
"Foster parents come to our agency because it is Jewish and because it is small. They do not want to belong to the council because of a legal requirement."
The regulations raise other technical issues, which I do not have the time to discuss. The circular also states that, in delegating duties,
"the local authority will need to satisfy itself about the capacity of the organisation to discharge duties on its behalf."
That may not be difficult with adoption agencies, but a number of smaller organisations are coming into the field. One matter of concern is that the study by the social services inspectorate into small, unregisterable children's homes, which was published in August, identified some private organisations running small, unregisterable children's homes in the profit-making sector and parallel voluntary fostering sector.

There is no central point where concerns about agencies can be collated. Termination of approval of foster parents does not constitute termination of approval for an organisation, where problems may have been in the support offered in the placement or in the management of the organisation.

Indeed, the inspectorate's report identified proprietors of children's homes who had had previous convictions for fraud and for sexual and physical abuse. It is worrying that those same proprietors might be running voluntary fostering agencies.

Only registration and inspection similar to that for adoption agencies can ensure that organisations maintain proper standards. That step has the widespread approval of reputable organisations in the voluntary and independent sector, as well as the Association of Directors of Social Services, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering and the National Foster Care Association.

Clarity of responsibility is one of the prevailing issues in child protection. That clarity of responsibility in foster placements will be met by registration and inspection. I am conscious that the Department of Health consultative document, "Moving Forward" asked the question, "Should voluntary and private sector agencies be subject to statutory regulation?" Before one asks that, one should deal with the question whether voluntary agencies can approve their own foster carers.

Earlier this year, the Minister proposed to extend the fostering regulations to include private agencies, to encourage diversity and choice. I find it surprising that he was unaware that the existing regulations were denying voluntary organisations the opportunity to provide that choice and diversity, and denying foster parents the opportunity to make their voluntary contribution to the agency of their choice.

The Government have not provided an opportunity for a debate on the Floor of the House on fostering. Indeed, the statement by the Minister on the result of his initial consultation was issued during the recess, as was the report on small unregisterable children's homes. The House can draw its own conclusions about that timing.

I am aware that this Bill will not make any parliamentary progress, but I am bringing it before the House because the issues it raises are important enough to be a matter of public record. I urge the House to support the Bill, as a clear message to the Minister that we want voluntary agencies to be able to approve their own foster carers, subject to registration and inspection. In doing so, we would recognise the contribution that the voluntary sector makes to children's services, as well as the contribution of the thousands of volunteers who, as foster carers, are the unseen and often undervalued carers of society's most difficult and disturbed children.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Ann Coffey, Mr. Alun Michael, Mr. Keith Hill, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mrs. Barbara Roche, Mr. George Howarth, Mrs. Jane Kennedy, Mr. Kevin Hughes, Mr. Dennis Turner, Mrs. Bridget Prentice and Ms Janet Anderson.