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Foster Carers

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

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How many children are looked after by private foster carers. [103195]

Data on the number of children looked after by private foster carers are not collected centrally. The Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to

"satisfy themselves that the welfare of children who are privately fostered within their area is being satisfactorily safeguarded and promoted".

The Minister will know that the social services inspectorate wrote to Departments and estimated that as many as 40,000 or 50,000 children are privately fostered. Those children are afforded less protection than children who are child-minded. She will also know that Lord Laming had little to add on safeguards for children who are privately fostered, other than the recommendations that came from the Utting inquiry on children living away from home. Will she tell us when a Green Paper will arise from the Laming inquiry into the Victoria Climbié case? Why are the Government so reluctant to introduce a registration scheme for privately fostered children, as recommended by Utting?

I pay to tribute to my hon. Friend for his continued concern about the protection of privately fostered children. Although I share his objective, I have not always shared his view on the most effective way of ensuring that protection. As he has suggested, we have taken action to ensure that the legal responsibilities that already exist for private fosterers and local authorities are taken forward. A letter from the chief inspector has outlined that, and there have been an SSI inspection and a leaflet campaign to raise awareness. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear when we published the report of the Climbié inquiry, we will give a full response to Lord Laming's recommendation that we should review legislation in this area at the time of the children's Green Paper. I believe that that Green Paper will be published later in the spring.

Does the Minister agree that many children in foster care will go on to be adults in adult placement care? Is she aware that the number of adult placement carers is falling because of the Government's decision to have them regulated by the National Care Standards Commission? When will the Government announce the decision of their review of that matter? Does the Minister accept that adult placement carers are looking after vulnerable adults in their own homes? Those homes are not care homes and they should not be regulated by the NCSC and made subject to all manner of rules and bureaucracy that are completely unnecessary.

The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of adult placements, which has also been raised by several of my hon. Friends, and by at least one of his hon. Friends, who visited me, along with representatives of the National Association of Adult Placement Services. As a result of that meeting, we are undertaking a consultation on how to ensure that, in putting in place the necessary regulation to ensure that vulnerable people who are cared for in adult placements get the protection that they deserve, we also continue to recognise the specific circumstances of those who care for vulnerable people in their own homes. It is not true that the conditions for adult placement schemes are the same as for care homes; indeed, they never have been. What we have done is to listen to the genuine concerns of those who undertake this very important role, to undertake a consultation, and to make changes that will help to promote the work of those who care for vulnerable people in their own homes.

To return to the subject of private fostering, I well understand that my hon. Friend often has to wrestle with huge problems that require major investment, organisational change and cultural reorganisation within complex health and social care systems. Does she agree that, by contrast, private fostering would be simple to crack, would require almost no investment, and would provide great protection for children? Indeed, it is the sort of job that she could knock off before breakfast one morning. Will she therefore join me in looking forward to the blithe new morning when she will have the opportunity to do that?

Perhaps I should point out to my hon. Friend that one of the things that I am wrestling with, as he puts it, is what we need to do to ensure that the changes that we make really do make a practical difference to vulnerable children. As my right hon. Friend made clear in responding to the Climbié inquiry, our consideration of the issues arising from private foster care will be based on what will make a practical difference to the protection of those children, on how we can ensure that the considerable protection already provided in legislation is carried through properly, and—perhaps most importantly—on how we can ensure that local authorities fulfil their responsibilities to those children. We discovered that, even under the current legislative framework, Gloucestershire local authority, for example, has taken action and increased the number of notifications of private foster carers from 11 to 224 in the past three years. That is—