HC Deb 02 February 1994 vol 236 cc891-5


Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the registration of a children's home where accommodation is provided for one or more children, and for connected purposes. At the moment, private children's homes that accommodate four or more children are required to register with local authorities under the Children Act 1989 and are subject to regular inspection by the local independent inspection unit. Where minimum standards are not being met, registration can be withdrawn so that no children can be placed in the unit in question. Where three or fewer children are accommodated in an establishment, it cannot be registered under the Children Act. Moreover, the fostering regulations do not apply because staff are employed on a rotational basis.

Although the Arrangement for the Placement of Children Regulations and the Review of Children's Cases Regulations apply, providing placement, representation and review procedures, children placed in such homes do not enjoy the additional protection that registration and regular inspection provide.

My involvement in the issue arises from a constituency problem brought to my attention by Dr. and Mrs. Lloyd, who had sublet their house and who found out, after thousands of pounds' worth of vandalism and damage had been done, that it had been used as a small children's home by an organisation called Parallel Parents. Some excellent investigative journalism by the local paper, the Stockport Express, and an in-depth documentary on BBC Manchester's "Close Up North" programme uncovered serious causes for concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and I saw the Minister at the time, and expressed our concern. A study by the social service inspectorate was requested by the then Under-Secretary of State in March 1993. The conclusions of that report were placed in the Library earlier this month.

The report looked at 17 authorities in the north-west, of which only six used unregistered children's homes. Those undertaking the study had difficulty in identifying the number of homes in existence; there is no way of knowing how many of those homes are in existence or of monitoring their standards of care or quality, because there is no requirement to register.

Given the recommendation of the Warner report that there should be a national directorate of children's homes with a national code of practice laying down minimum standards, it is incredible that a loophole in the law allows small children's homes to operate with no means of enforcing a consistent minimum standard of care—something demanded of larger homes.

The SSI study said that there was cause for concern about unregistered homes run by organisations such as Parallel Parents. It made the point that children placed in such homes were very difficult children and young people, who had failed to respond in local authority establishments: children with extensive criminal records: children with personality disorders; disturbed children; abused and abusing children; and children with drug and alcohol problems.

Asked on "Close Up North" about his child care approach, Sean Fitzpatrick, the proprietor of Parallel Parents, said: We say, 'Tell us your dreams, and we'll make your dreams come true.' What on earth does that mean?

As for what it means in practice, the SSI study stated tellingly that, in small homes, the most difficult and vulnerable young people were receiving care from staff with the least experience, the least skill and the least training. It expressed concern about young untrained staff undertaking therapy with very difficult children, and about the fact that those staff received little supervision, support or training.

Staff turnover was high and recruitment haphazard. Poor material standards were identified in some of the homes. There was evidence that proprietors were operating with fewer than four children to evade the stringencies of registration, particularly in relation to fire safety. For example, inspectors were appalled to find young people living in a unit that had been refused registration for six children because of a substantial fire risk.

The agencies concerned had clearly moved into providing services in unregistered homes because it had been simpler to set them up than to go through the process of registration. Some agencies were operating satellite unregistered homes in addition to a registered home, and children were being moved from home to home without the local authority being notified. I am sure that the House will agree that that is an unacceptable form of subcontracting.

It is little wonder that there have been concerns about children left unsupervised, and about control being absent, with children allowed to get up when they like and do what they like, and with disturbed childern being a risk to themselves and to others. Children have been placed in homes where the proprietor's expressed philosophy constitutes a total abdication of responsibility for care and control.

Nor can local authorities escape their responsibilities in this matter. The SSI report said that difficult-to-place children, in crisis at the time of the placement, were placed in unregistered homes—an "any port in a storm" approach —at a cost of £500 to £1,500 per week.

The report said that many authorities had taken the publicity of the providing agency at face value and had been disinclined to question providers closely about the details of the provision on offer. Very few asked for information about the outcome.

That damning study concludes that there is a need to ensure that the Arrangements for the Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991 and the Review of Children's Cases Regulations 1991 are applied as required.

Since then, a circular has been issued to local authorities with notes of guidance on the standards that are appropriate. That guidance reminds local authorities that inquiries into standards should treat the placement as if it were in a larger home. It clearly states that the Department of Health does not intend the standard of care to be lower than in a larger home. In that case, why not regulate for registration, and in so doing provide for regular independent inspection to ensure that those minimal standards are adhered to?

The study was confined to the north-west, but the problem is not restricted to that region, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), a co-sponsor of the Bill, made clear in his excellent speech in an Adjournment debate on 20 January 1994, in which he raised concerns about children's homes in his constituency. This is a national problem and a national scandal.

The Bill seeks to make all children's homes subject to registration and independent inspection, which ensures basic standards and an independent assessment of those standards in all homes.

All inquiries into children's deaths have clearly shown that checks have to be made in the placement of children. Those checks do not apply in the placement of children in small children's homes. Only compulsory registration will ensure that, and ensure inspection other than that of the placing social worker.

It is insane to allow the situation to continue. From April this year, small homes for adults will be required to register. Why should not children's homes be required to do so?

Some proprietors provide poorer standards of care than are acceptable, yet local authorities place children in those situations. The House has an obligation to protect vulnerable children from those who would exploit them and from those who do not care enough adequately to protect them.

Only by making registration of all children's homes compulsory can our duty of care to desperate, disturbed young people begin to be fulfilled. Only the House has the power to achieve that. I ask that that power be exercised. I commend the Bill to the House.

3.41 pm
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Superficially, the Bill purports to give children who are already in care some additional protection. At first glance, it would appear that there is a national scandal, with widespread abuse of the existing law. Curiously, however, the only evidence that the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) has been able to produce is a single landlord who has complained that his house was damaged. Apart from the civil remedy that is available in that example, she has not alleged that any of the children in that establishment suffered any damage, which, of course, would be contrary to existing law.

There is a knee-jerk reaction and a socialist tendency to regulate, inspect and, where possible, to provide and extend to NALGO a monopoly in the care of children. I should like to draw attention to the work of several small children's homes in my constituency, where dedicated teams of professionals, who have all the qualifications, provide care on an emergency and respite basis to a small group of disturbed young children. Incidentally, those children are invariably already the subject of care orders, so if they are not being visited regularly by social workers, and if the premises in which they are accommodated are not regularly inspected, local authorities are already abandoning their responsibilities.

Emergency and respite care provides one-to-one security not just for children but for the public, who often need protection from such youngsters, who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. I accept that, if there were a dramatic loophole, and if there had been a catalogue of cases of abuse, the House would be anxious to intervene immediately. But the proposal to extend the control of all those establishments to local authorities and to the muesli-munching, open-toed sandal brigade of social services in those errant county councils would be a very great mistake.

The hon. Lady failed to mention that the problem of providing accommodation certainly for those who have been in conflict with the criminal law is already provided for in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. Later this year, secure training orders will be introduced, and satisfactory accommodation will be provided for those youngsters to ensure that they do not continue to reoffend.

The existing law is perfectly adequate to deal with any complaint. As the hon. Lady mentioned, the Children Act 1989 is in force, and any single case of abuse would be a breach of the existing law. There is no possible reason for extending registration to smaller units that provide an extremely important service.

Some of the homes in my constituency that provide such a service come into conflict with the local authority, which of course is always keen to extend—[Interruption.] Opposition Members sneer and jibe, as though there is something wrong with providing care for those youngsters, who are often young offenders from very difficult backgrounds. I challenge Opposition Members to find better care anywhere else in the country. Torbay has a long and fine tradition of providing such care for very difficult youngsters.

To change the law on the basis of a single complaint from a single landlord would be a waste of the time of the House, and I certainly urge the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No.19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business)—

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is a convention of the House that, when hon. Members oppose a ten-minute Bill, their voices are followed by their vote. The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), who opposed the Bill in a five-minute, rather squalid, speech, never opened his mouth to express opposition to the vote. That is against the conventions of the House, and I hope that you deprecate it, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) acted quite correctly. He opposed by saying, "No." [Interruption.] Order. I heard the hon. Gentleman say, "No." He does not have to cause a Division, he has only to signify no, and the House understands that. Therefore, I am able to declare that the Ayes have it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. You are a bit nearer to the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason). There is not much in it, but you are a shade nearer than we are. I know that the hon. Gentleman has different names. He goes under the name of Rupert Allason, and sometimes under the name of Nigel West. When the Tory Whips could not find him, he had another name, and he now turns out to be a ventriloquist.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has cheered me up on a very gloomy day.

Question agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Ann Coffey, Mr. Keith Hill, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr. David Hinchliffe, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Alun Michael, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Bridget Prentice, Mr. Kevin Hughes, Mr. Alan Milburn, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and Mr. Neil Gerrard.