§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]10.30 pm
§ Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)
I am grateful to Madam Speaker for selecting my subject for the Adjournment debate this evening.
I welcome the opportunity to bring directly to the Minister's attention the problems that are being experienced by my constituents in the Greyhound lane area of Streatham arising from the concentration and proliferation of private children's homes in the locality.
In recent months, residents have suffered entirely unacceptable levels of crime and disturbance in the vicinity. Shops and homes have been burgled. local residents have been attacked and robbed in the streets, shop windows and other premises' windows have been wilfully smashed. Public disturbances in the form of fighting in the streets have occurred, passers-by have been subject to various kinds of harassment such as verbal abuse and jostling, and a local shopkeeper has even had a brick thrown at her.
Local residents, and especially those living in Greyhound lane and in the adjacent Barrow, Pathfield, Westwell and Stanthorpe roads, have described their predicament to me as "a reign of terror". They have felt themselves to be "under siege". The situation threatens the stability of the community and raises community tensions.
Although it has worsened recently, this unfortunate state of affairs is not new. In the view of many residents, the growing incidence of crime dates back some five years. Regrettably, it dates back to the first appearance in the locality of private children's homes, housing, among others, young people designated as hard to control, persistent offenders and those with considerable behavioural problems. It is not my wish to suggest that all, or even most, of the young people in the homes are responsible for the difficulties that have occurred. I know that many of them are highly vulnerable. Many have been subject to various kinds of abuse and some are often refugees who have undergone the most dreadful experiences in their young lives.
I am also aware that we live in an ever more lawless society and that Streatham, alas, is no exception, but the relationship between rising crime and the growth of such private homes in the area is too great to be coincidental. In any case, local residents know who the perpetrators of crime have been and where they live. They have seen incidents with their own eyes. I have in my possession detailed diaries of the most appalling disturbances that have been experienced by those living close to such homes. I name no names and give no addresses, for obvious reasons.
Police records link crimes to a hard core of the residents of the homes. There is now a general consensus in Streatham among the police, the local authority—Lambeth—and the local community that the concentration of such homes is excessive, that more rigorous regulation is essential, that the further proliferation of such homes would be a major threat to the well-being of the community and that firm action is now required to check the proliferation.
As the Minister is well aware, the law draws a sharp distinction between the powers to regulate so-called larger 1146 homes, which have four or more residential young people in care, and the regulation of small or satellite homes, which have fewer than four residents.
§ Mr. Hill
I am sorry, no.
There are three main homes in the Greyhound lane area—those run by the Ebony, Omega and Vassel companies. I understand that those homes are capable of housing up to 24 young people between them. Planning permission is obviously required for the establishment of such homes. Frankly, it is a matter for considerable regret that a concentration of homes housing disturbed young people should have been allowed to develop in such a confined area.
Under the terms of the Children Act 1989, those main homes are in the process of being registered by the local authority. That means that the local authority will assess them in terms of staff ratios and rosters for supervision, on the suitability of premises—not least in relation to health and safety requirements—on policies and procedures, on administration and records and also on the qualifications and backgrounds of proprietors, managers and staff, including criminal records.
Unfortunately, the full rigour of that assessment will be limited by the fact that the three main homes in question were established before the coming into effect of the Children Act. I do not intend to speculate whether that was designed to escape the full requirements of registration. As a consequence, however, under the Government's guidelines, those homes are permitted a period of up to seven years before they have to comply in full with the maximum standards of staff qualifications in terms of social or psychiatric work or educational experience.
I believe that such flexibilty is a matter for regret, but, within those restrictions, I am sure that Lambeth will want to impose the most rigorous requirements for those homes before registration is completed by March this year. If they do not match up to the requirements, they should be closed.
I gather that Lambeth social services is responsible for the placement of five only of the young people in the main homes. I cannot understand how other authorities as far away as Brent, Tower Hamlets, Kensington and Camden can justify placing young people in the homes at such a long distance from their own localities. Those young people have no links or identity with the Streatham area. How can they be encouraged to resume a reasonable life in society in such circumstances? How, in all honesty, can there be any serious supervision of them by local social services departments at such a distance?
I appeal to other London authorities to reconsider their placement policies, especially when in practice they are placing young people in what has become a criminal environment. I hope that the Minister will support that appeal. At least the larger homes are subject to scrutiny under the registration procedure and their establishment is subject to planning permission. I sincerely trust that no further permissions will be granted in Streatham.
What gives rise to great anxiety among local residents, however, is the threat of the growth of small or satellite children's homes in the vicinity. Already the Ebony company runs three small units in Greyhound lane and Barrow road, and the Vassel company, based in Greyhound lane, runs a satellite unit a mile away, in Baldry gardens.
1147 Local residents and councillors suspect that four more houses in the neighbourhood may have been purchased for further openings.
Unlike the larger homes, those small homes, because they have fewer than four young people as residents, fall outside the requirements for inspection and registration under the Children Act. They are therefore not subject to any scrutiny by the local authority with regard to standards of staffing, supervision or health and safety requirements.
§ Mr. Hill
I am afraid that time prevents me from taking an intervention.
The local authority simply does not have the power to act. Equally, because proprietors describe those homes as fostering-type residences, the homes are deemed for planning purposes as single family dwelling homes and are not, therefore, subject to planning consent. A loophole in the law is being exploited. They are not family homes; they are residential institutions and should be treated as such. That is why the schedule in part C of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 should be amended to bring premises of that type under planning control. I very much hope that the Minister will make such a recommendation to his colleagues in the Department of the Environment.
By contrast, as the law stands at present, there is in principle nothing to prevent an entire street turning to that type of use. I do not, of course, suggest that that is likely to happen. Nevertheless, we should be in no doubt about how attractive opening small homes is to private proprietors.
With private children's homes of any size, we are talking big money. Proprietors charge between £650 and £950 per young person per week for placements, and the more challenging the young person, the higher the fee. We know that private companies are advertising their Streatham homes as suitable for young people with behavioural problems. If a private company can get away with opening a small home without having to apply for planning consent, with no inspection requirement and no systematic check on the quality of staff or supervision, the temptation is obvious.
I make no comment on the quality of staffing or supervision provided by Ebony, but I am informed that, as well as its three satellite units in Streatham, it operates four small units in Croydon and eight in Merton. That is big business by any standards. I also understand that Lambeth refuses to place any young persons in any of the small homes in Streatham, and has appealed to other London boroughs to reconsider their placement policies.
The Minister cannot claim to be unaware of the anxieties that have arisen about the growing numbers of small private children's homes. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), who is a former social worker and therefore has special expertise, has tabled an early-day motion on the subject, and I understand that she has had several meetings with the Minister to pursue the matter. She has now given notice that she will introduce a ten-minute Bill, of which I am a sponsor, in early February. I gather that, when the Minister met my hon. Friend, he asked for evidence of wider concern about the issue. I am now supplying that.
1148 In any case, the Minister must be aware that, in May last year, the London heads of inspection, the council officers with responsibility for the registration of children's homes, wrote to the social services inspectorate to highlight various concerns about small children's homes. I understand that the overwhelming majority of representations that the Government have received have favoured the regular inspection and registration of such homes, as under the Children Act 1989. However, the Minister has apparently chosen to ignore them, and his circular, published in August, responded instead with what I gather is known as the "lighter touch" approach.
That means that, although local authorities have the responsibility to register such homes, they will not have the right to inspect. All responsibility for deciding on the suitability of the home will rest upon initial pre-placement visits by social workers from placing authorities, and thereafter upon annual visits by those individual social workers.
The drawbacks to the "light touch" approach are obvious. No generally recognised standards of care will apply. If an authority has good cause not to place, there will be no mechanism for communicating reservations to others. It is unreasonable to expect an individual social worker to have all the skills necessary to assess general standards of premises, policies and procedures, staffing, services and facilities. Furthermore, I understand that, because of a dispute about costs between the Department of Health and the Home Office, there is still no facility for police checks on the records of staff and proprietors.
Of course I realise that a Conservative Government will have an ideological commitment to deregulation—but we are talking about the lives and futures of young people, and the quality of life of many local residents in the surrounding communities. Normal arguments about deregulation cannot possibly apply in such circumstances.
I realise, too, that the Government have an ideological commitment to the private sector. No one disputes that there may be a proper role for privately run children's homes, but the children and the local communities should come before profit. What is the special advantage of the private management of such homes when private proprietors have no charter, no requirement for professional qualifications and no professional association?
Why cannot we have the same arrangements for small children's homes as for small adult homes with fewer than four residents? After all, the Government extended the requirement for the registration and inspection of small adult homes this year under the Registered Homes (Amendment) Act 1991. If it is appropriate for adult homes, why is it not for children's homes?
The case for the registration of such homes under the Children Act 1989 is crystal clear. That would help to ensure that such homes are properly run. There is an equally compelling case for bringing those small homes under proper planning control. That would help to prevent excessive concentration in particular localities. Without such measures, the future of the young people concerned and the balance and the well-being of a community such as that in the Greyhound lane area of my constituency may be even further threatened.
I hope that the Minister has listened carefully to my words and that he will act forthwith.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health (Mr. John Bowls)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) on having the good fortune to secure this debate at long last. We both sat through the night before Christmas hoping that the subject would be on the agenda, but the procedures of the night precluded that on that occasion. He referred to one or two matters which relate to my hon. and right hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment. I shall pass his comments on to them, and no doubt they will take notice of what he has said.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the meeting that I had with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey). As he said, that was at the time when we had just issued the circular. We said that we would wait and see how that turned out and that we would look carefully at any further evidence. I said that I would listen carefully, and I have listened carefully tonight and will keep an open mind about some of the points that he has made.
Let me put the issue into context. Children's homes have to deal with a range of young people who are there for a number of different reasons, and some of them would tax the skills and the ability of any of us to care for and control children. There have, of course, been examples, some notorious, of residential child care staff abusing the responsibility that they have for the children in their care, but let me say at once that the staff have a job that can be rewarding and is almost certainly exacting and difficult.
We should also recognise that children and young people who, for whatever reason, cannot be brought up by their parents in their own home have, by definition, problems in life with which they have to come to terms, and to be helped so to do. We must understand the distress that can sometimes be caused to residents living in the vicinity of children's homes when discipline in those homes breaks down. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, there have been problems of that nature in his constituency, and I will return to that matter in a moment.
The problems of residential child care have for some time been exercising all those concerned with policy and provision. The pindown revelations were followed by the Utting report "Children in the Public Care". The Frank Beck trial was followed by the Warner inquiry and its report on the selection of staff "Choosing with Care".
We appointed, as the hon. Gentleman may know, a children's residential care support force under the chairmanship of Adrianne Jones, former director of social services in Birmingham. The support force is working with local authorities and homes to develop collaborative approaches to planning and delivery of care and will work on the improvement of practice and of management. The support force will also work on the development of a code of employment practice.
I believe that one will not have well-run children's homes or good child care generally until and unless there are staff who are trained to professional standards of care and common sense. A large number of residential child care staff have benefited from additional training provided under the Department of Health's annual £30 million training support grant. Of that, £4 million is specifically for the residential child care initiative, under which 130 staff received training last year and the same number this year. We can never be complacent, but we can reasonably claim to be giving appropriately high priority to measures to improve standards of residential child care.
1150 The subject matter of the debate is the regulation of private and voluntary children's homes. Private children's homes in which four or more children are accommodated are required under the Children Act, as the hon. Gentleman said, to register with local authorities. For historical reasons, voluntary children's homes register with the Department of Health, but to the same standards, on which they are inspected by the social services inspectorate.
The children's homes regulations govern the conduct of private, voluntary and local authority children's homes. The regulations require adequate numbers of appropriately qualified staff and suitable accommodation, which includes sufficient washing, bathing and lavatory facilities, adequate heating, decoration and maintenance, adequate laundering arrangements, and a telephone that can be used by the children to make and receive calls in private.
The regulations prohibit the use of physical punishment, deprivation of food or drink, and restriction on contacts with parents whether as punishment or otherwise. Food must be nutritious and a choice is expected to be provided, as far as reasonably practicable, for each main meal.
There are also children's homes regulations governing the administration and registration of the homes. Local authorities are required to visit private and voluntary children's homes regularly within specified periods in particular circumstances. Organisations responsible for private and voluntary homes are required to arrange monthly visits to the homes by a senior member of the organisation.
In addition, the arrangements for placement of children regulations require a written care plan to be prepared and maintained in respect of each child. The plan must cover the arrangements for contact with the family, arrangements for the child's health and education, and arrangements for preparing the child for when he or she leaves the home and, in the case of a child looked after by a local authority, when the child will cease to be looked after.
The review of children's cases regulations require the case of each child in a home to be reviewed formally at six-monthly intervals. All the matters covered in the care plan are included in this review, and formal records of reviews have to be maintained.
The representations procedure regulations for children require local authorities to provide complaints procedures with an independent element in respect of all children they accommodate in homes, and private and voluntary homes are required to do the same in respect of any children placed with them other than by local authorities.
It is clear that the regulations governing children's homes, and the care of the children accommodated in them, are very comprehensive and rigorous. That is as it should be.
Children's homes regimes should be geared to enabling children to overcome the disadvantages of their early life that have resulted in their being there. Children in homes also need to be protected from neglect or exploitation. Like any other children, they need to be brought up in an atmosphere of love, understanding and discipline.
The family provides the essential environment for bringing up children, and a children's home has to be a family environment for them. Children need care, compassion and common sense. They need to be brought up in an affectionate and responsible family atmosphere. Such surroundings provide the best environment for their emotional, physical and developmental needs, and prepare them to pass on family values to their own children.
1151 The Children Act 1989 is among the most comprehensive legislation in the world for the care and protection of children. It asserts their right to be heard, their need for parents, and the continuing responsibility of their parents towards them, based on love and care. That includes instilling respect, responsibility and knowing right from wrong.
§ Mr. Bernie Grant
Is the Minister aware that he is discussing 15 black children, and that the homes are owned by black people? The people in those homes regard the matter as nothing other than a racist attack on the children and on the homes themselves. Does the Minister agree that the so-called evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) has given has amounted to nothing? If crimes have been committed by those children, they should have been enumerated. That would have given a different picture altogether.
§ Mr. Bowis
The hon. Gentleman disagrees with his own hon. Friend. I have to leave them to sort out their dispute. I hope that the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) will accept that racism has no part in my beliefs and that there is no racism in what I am saying in response to the problems that have been raised with me.
As well as all the regulations that I have referred to, voluminous guidance has been issued by the Department of Health on the Children Act and on the regulations. The guidance advises those running homes that good relations with neighbours are important. Children living in children's homes have as much right to live in a neighbourhood as other residents. But, by the same token, the staff and children in a home have responsibilities as good neighbours, and due consideration must be given to neighbours' privacy, property and way of life.
I am aware that there have been reports recently of an increase in street robberies in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and that a link has been suggested with an increase in the number of children's homes in the area. I understand that there has been considerable local concern about this, and officers of Lambeth social services department have met the proprietors of the homes and Streatham police.
The proprietors gave an assurance that they would not seek to open any further small homes in the area, and will establish a procedure for dealing with complaints from local residents. The proprietors were asked to review their admissions criteria and procedures for reporting absconders. A meeting has taken place involving the homes' proprietors and local residents at which the proprietors heard the residents' views and reported on progress made.
I understand that the London borough of Lambeth considers that some young offenders have been inappropriately placed in these homes by local authorities and there should be regulations governing these small homes.
Where three or fewer children are accommodated in an establishment under the Children Act, it cannot be a private children's home. If there is a single named carer for the children, the fostering regulations apply. However, when a small home is run by an organisation with staff on rosters and shifts, the fostering provisions in the Children Act do not apply. I understand that this is the situation with the establishments in Streatham about which there is concern.
1152 The children in such homes are, I understand, nearly all placed in the homes by local authorities. Therefore, although the children's homes regulations do not apply, the placement, representations and review regulations to which I referred earlier do apply.
In response to concerns that arose earlier in the north-west of England, my Department issued a circular in August 1993 which reminded local authorities of their responsibilities under the placement, representations and review regulations, and provided detailed practice guidance for use were children are placed in small homes. I have decided to publish the report of an SSI study of small homes, and I shall place a copy in the Library.
Children in such homes should be visited by a social worker at intervals of not more than three months. Similar standards to those required by the Children Act are advised. In addition, I should make it clear that the local authority in whose area one of the small homes is established has an absolute right and duty to go in and take any necessary action, including removing children, if it is clear that children are not being properly cared for or are at risk.
The circular asked local authorities to extend police checks to prospective staff of small homes who will have direct responsibility for care of children looked after by local authorities. The circular reminds local authorities that they have full responsibility to ensure that police checks have been conducted before they place any child.
I shall keep the question of further regulation under review as we see how the guidance recently issued takes effect. For the time being, I am not convinced that greater regulation of the care of these young people is needed. Their welfare is already safeguarded by the existing regulations in so far as it is possible for that to be achieved by regulations.
Staff looking after the children have ample guidance on how they should care for and control them, including the guidance entitled "Permissible Forms of Control in Children's Residential Care" issued by my Department in April. It is, of course, for home managers to abide by that, and for local authorities to ensure that the children they have placed are being looked after properly and, that homes in that area are being run properly.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will be reassured that the arrangements that are in place for the regulation of children's homes and for the care and control of the children are more than adequate. I hope that the London borough of Lambeth will take steps to respond to the complaints of residents in Streatham to produce an improvement in the situation. I also hope that the care and control of the children in the children's homes about which the hon. Gentleman has been concerned will be such that the longer-term outcome for the children in the homes will be enhanced, and that they emerge as good and responsible citizens, who in turn will become good parents for their own children.
§ Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)
I did not intend to speak, but I was concerned at the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) introduced the debate. He talks about evidence, but gives us none. I understand that there are 14 or 15 black children involved, and that the homes are owned by black proprietors. I also 1153 understand that the police and the assistant director of social services in Lambeth are satisfied with what is happening.
In raising this matter in the way in which he has done, my hon. Friend is casting aspersions on the behaviour and the management ability of the proprietors of those homes. I was absolutely astounded when I was told that my hon. Friend had not even bothered to speak to any of the proprietors or to the children themselves in his constituency. That is an abrogation of his responsibility as a Member of Parliament.
I do not doubt that a number of residents in that area may be concerned about the behaviour of those young 1154 children. I believe that it is the job of the Member of Parliament to speak to everybody concerned, including the children and the proprietors, before he comes to a decision and talks about a reign of terror. I hope that my hon. Friend will meet those people, who have had to come to me. I do not know anything about the situation in Streatham—
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at Eleven o'clock.