HC Deb 25 October 1994 vol 248 cc748-50
9. Ms Coffey

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what monitoring her Department is undertaking of the placement of children by local authorities in private children's homes unregistrable under the Children Act 1989.

Mr. Bowis

The social services inspectorate is currently undertaking a study of children's small homes in England.

Ms Coffey

How can the Minister undertake adequate monitoring when his Department has absolutely no idea how many children are placed in children's small homes? His Department does not specifically request that information from local authorities. As he knows, a lot of nonsense is coming from his Department about such homes. When will he introduce legislation that will require those homes to register and enable them to be inspected so that the same standards can apply to all children's homes irrespective of size?

Mr. Bowis

That is precisely what the current study is doing. It is establishing a database of small homes and considering whether the regulations that apply to them are adequately understood and applied. As the hon. Lady knows, unlike homes for adults, small homes for children are covered either by foster home regulations or placement regulations, and that is in addition to the welfare responsibilities of the authority in whose area the home is located.

Dame Jill Knight

As most of the worst cases of bad treatment of children in homes—for example, pin-down—occur in local authority-run homes, why are we being asked to monitor only the private homes?

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend is right. Sadly, the cases of abuse that we have had to investigate occurred in homes run by or under the auspices of local authorities. The homes that we are discussing here are for four children or fewer. Except in my discussions with the hon. Lady about her concerns and with the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) about the impact on the community of children from such homes, I have not heard anyone say that children in such homes are at risk.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will the Minister acknowledge the importance of professional training for officers in charge of residential homes for children? Will he confirm that the Utting report found that 21 per cent. of officers in charge do not have relevant professional qualifications, and can he give the House an assurance that the Government are on target to achieve the Utting recommendation of having all officers in charge of residential children's homes fully qualified by 1995?

Mr. Bowis

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Warner and Utting reports both contributed to our policy making. As he will know, we have set up the support force, which is doing excellent work around the country. He will also know that we have a budget of some £70 million for training and that there are now 5,000 more qualified social workers every year. We are seeking to meet the targets to which he refers. The proof of that is that, 20 years ago, 38 per cent. of field social workers were trained, whereas the figure is now more than 90 per cent.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Only this morning, I was speaking to the owner of a private unregistered children's home in my constituency who stressed that such owners want to be registered and distinguished from what he termed "the cowboys" involved in private care. I met the Minister's predecessor—

Madam Speaker

Order I am waiting for a question from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Bearing in mind the fact that it is now nearly two years since my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and I met the Minister's predecessor at the Department of Health to discuss this matter, why has it taken so long to plug what is, frankly, a dangerous loophole in our child protection legislation?

Mr. Bowis

There is no way that I would be satisfied if I thought that regulations were inadequate to protect children in those homes. That is why we have issued a circular reminding local authorities of their very real powers in such matters. That is why, from now and in future years, the annual gazetteer of children's homes will include the numbers of children placed in such homes so that we know what the position is and can continue to protect children in small homes as well as in the larger ones.

Mr. Rowe

My hon. Friend will know that one of the great difficulties in the care of children, whether in small or in large homes, is that there is such a rapid turnover in the people who look after them. Will he take steps to give much more robust guidance to the statutory services, to encourage caring volunteers to act as long-term mentors for those children and keep an eye on the way in which they are being looked after by the statutory services?

Mr. Bowis

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. So much can be done by statutory services—by inspection, regulation and visits—irrespective of the size of the home. What is needed are friends for children—key workers looking after children and making sure that they are in touch with those individual children's lives, ambitions and hopes so that if they get into difficulties, somebody is there to take note and alert the proper authorities.