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Children: Fostering

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

Question 3

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Somebody Else’s Child campaign by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to raise awareness of private fostering, what further steps they will take to raise awareness of the obligation on foster carers to notify the relevant authorities of their fostering arrangements.

My Lords, we welcome and support BAAF’s campaign and will be providing a further grant of £123,000 for a two-year follow-up programme of awareness-raising activity on the obligation to notify local authorities of private fostering arrangements. We are also working to promote good practice and have established an advisory group to advise on this work and to assess the effectiveness of the current notification scheme and options for strengthening it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful and encouraging reply, and applaud the Government for investing in this campaign. While most children consulted about their experience of private foster care say they enjoy the experience, some do not. Does the Minister recall the experience of Victoria Climbié, who was in a private foster care arrangement, and whose carer tortured and then killed her? Will the Minister say what members of the public should do if they are concerned that a child may be in a private foster arrangement that is undeclared? How should they act, and why should they act?

My Lords, we all remember the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, whose experience has been brought into sharp focus in recent times. That is why the Government believe that safeguarding children is one of our highest priorities. It is also why we also believe that helping children to stay safe is the responsibility of all of us. I would advise anyone who has a concern about the safety of a child, whether or not they may be privately fostered, to contact their local authority and, in the case of private fostering, to make sure that they report their concerns to the private fostering unit.

My Lords, the Minister says that she is very concerned about children in private arrangements, but will she tell the House why those on the government Benches are ignoring the private fostering registration scheme being recommended by this side of the House?

My Lords, we are not ignoring the idea, which has been carefully scrutinised in debates on a couple of Bills. There is now a consensus on the need to let the current system bed in, and then review it. That is why we are working with BAAF to raise awareness of the need for private fostering arrangements to be legal, and why BAAF itself has supported the need to carefully review the current system. It shares our reservations about the introduction of a registration scheme at this point.

My Lords, is it not the case that some privately fostered children are trafficked? How can these children be protected?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an extremely important concern. The Government are very concerned about human trafficking. On 17 December, we ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. As part of that wider strategy we set out a UK action plan on tackling human trafficking which specifically involves additional measures designed to safeguard the child victims of trafficking. We are working with others to ensure that we can make the most of the opportunity that the visa process represents to protect these children.

My Lords, I am sure that we all agree that the interest of the child is paramount. However, if we are encouraging neighbours and the general public to inform on people who may be fostering a child, how will we prevent intrusion into family life and offence caused to, say, grandparents who may have taken over care of their grandchildren for a short while? What penalties will be put in place if those grandparents do not declare the fostering arrangement?

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s question gives me an opportunity to talk about the work being done to raise awareness among ethnic minority communities, such as west African communities, that have a particular history of private fostering. It is important to build trust and to help these communities to understand that notifying the local authority is about protecting the interests of the child and they need not feel fearful about it. It is part of the work that we are doing, and will continue to do, to raise awareness of the need legally to notify the local authority.

My Lords, will the Minister update the House on the Government’s plans to recruit and train an adequate number of social workers so that these arrangements can be properly monitored?

My Lords, my noble friend is aware more than most that, if we are to ensure that the safeguarding work which is vital for children’s safety is undertaken, we must have an adequate number of social workers in post in local authorities. We recently announced the establishment of an expert task force to look at how social work should be developed in the light of recent concerns and the review of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. We are investing more than £70 million in a range of pilots to look at recruitment and retention and how social workers can be supported in their initial year of post-training. An enormous amount of work is being done but we must ensure that we support social workers in the development of that profession.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some children in private fostering do not see their social workers as often as they should and, perhaps even more important, they do not see them on their own? What more can the Government do about that?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. It is a requirement in the regulations that privately fostered children have the opportunity to speak to their social worker alone and that local authorities are responsible for ensuring that this requirement is met. Our guidance emphasises not only that but that the child can at any time seek to see his or her social worker. That is part of the national minimum standards, and we will of course make sure that Ofsted look at it when it undertakes its inspections.