§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Burns.]10.34 pm
§ Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)
In this debate I could probably say anything I liked about the physical standards, the care and staffing in unregistrable children's homes, the number of them in the country and the number of placements of children hundreds of miles away from home. I could say that the children being placed are the most disturbed and the most difficult. The Minister could not contradict me because the collation of data is extremely inadequate in every respect.
As the Minister is aware, I have pursued the subject of the debate through numerous parliamentary questions. Recently I have been trying to establish when the social services inspectorate study will be completed. The answer that I received was, "In due course." I hope that when it is completed, it will be published, if for no other reason than to prove me wrong in my belief that it will be as scathing about some of the standards of care as the one in the north-west was.
Following the report by the SSI in the north-west, the Department of Health issued a circular, LAC(93)(16), in August 1993, entitled "Practice guidance on the application of the Arrangements for the Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991 in relation to small unregistrable children's homes". That guidance shows up the illogicality of the current situation in which children's homes of fewer than four children are not required to register, something to which I shall return in a moment.
What has come to be of great interest to me is the difference between an unregistrable children's home and care provided in a family setting as offered in some of the brochures of private agencies. The water in that area is becoming muddied.
On that point, the guidance says that where investigations reveal that the home offers care equivalent to close parental care provided on a 24-hour basis by one or two adults, consideration should be given to making the placement in accordance with Foster Placement (Children) Regulations 1991. Note the word "should". But why on earth should anyone bother? It is much easier to treat it as an unregistrable children's home rather than the expensive, protracted approval process for fostering.
If such homes with fewer than four children had to be registered, they would have to be treated either as children's homes or foster homes, and certainly could not be foster homes posing as children's homes, which is certainly happening at the moment.
On foster homes, let me quickly raise an issue with the Minister, which I think is related to unregistrable children's homes. Clearly, some voluntary agencies—I include independent fostering agencies that register as voluntary agencies—are interpreting the current regulations as allowing them to approve a pool of foster carers, whereas the regulations clearly state that that can be delegated only in relation to a particular child. Even that is not a function that can be delegated to a profit-making organisation, which they are as the profit is essentially the fee paid to families. The Minister might like to consider some of those issues and whether the way forward is for voluntary agencies to be registered as 1157 suitable to approve their own foster parents. They could be registered either by the local authority or by the Department of Health.
The guidance circular states that premises should be inspected before placement to satisfy the authority that they are suitable in relation to the standards set out and then once a year thereafter by an officer from the placing authority. The standards referred to in the guidance are physical standards, and they are important. But my eye was struck by the fact that one of the things that the social worker has to inspect is whether there are any obvious fire risks. I can assure the Minister that when I was a social worker, I doubt whether I would have seen a fire risk if I had fallen over one. The investigation of fire risks should be left to the proper fire authority.
The guidance instructs that police checks should be carried out, but not that a personal reference should be taken up, when looking at the staff who will be caring for the children. Those staff should be interviewed to see that they understand the care that is necessary for the children. The guidance does not specifically say that that should include the proprietor of the home, who may not have the day-to-day care of the children. But the standards that he sets are important for the staff. Nor does it indicate whether a social worker interviewing the staff is entitled to have access to the application form to the agency that employs the carer. Proprietors are to be advised that matters of control and discipline should conform to those that relate to registered children's homes. There is no requirement, however, to keep a record of that.
As for the inspection that must take place before each placement, the guidance does not say by whom it should be done. I presume that it could be done by the placing social worker. If I was placing a child, I could go to the home in the morning, interview some of the staff—the police checks having been carried out—come back in the afternoon and place the child. Also, of course, the local authority that carries out the inspection does not receive one penny. If the homes were required to register, the local authority in the area in which the homes were resident would receive an income. Apart from anything else, requiring inspection before each placement of a child is not a cost-effective way of using resources.
As to the duties of the local authority in which the home resides, authorities placing children in homes in a different area must inform the geographical authority about the placement. The guidance says that the authority should inform itself about the welfare of those children. Does that mean that it has to visit? What responsibilities does it have? Who pays for the time that is required when visiting? Can it charge a fee? In the event of a tragedy, who bears the responsibilities? For example, for a fire, would it be the local authority officer who inspects, the placing social worker who visits or the geographical authority, which, apparently, should inform itself about the welfare of the children?
That will not do. The whole situation is ridiculous, full of anomalies and quite unjustifiable. We are talking about the most difficult children, who are often a danger to themselves and to others. In one children's home in Manchester, a mentally handicapped boy was tortured over time by two younger boys. I am saying that to illustrate some of the difficulties of behaviour that those children present. How can placing authorities fulfil their 1158 responsibility 100 miles away from home? Let the Minister be in no doubt that children are being placed a considerable distance away.
Private agencies might indeed have found a market niche in offering placements for children who are difficult to place, but surely we should ensure that the care that they provide is of the same standard as that found in registrable children's homes.
Why are homes asked to register anyway? Presumably, it is to set out and maintain minimum standards for the physical environment in which the child is cared for, to ensure that the proprietor is a responsible person and to ensure that the people who inspect have an expertise in that and are not just the placing social worker.
I totally agree with standards being set, but why is it not good enough for small children's homes? There is no logic in it. In terms of the overriding principle of the welfare of the child, which underwrites the Children Act 1989, it is unjustifiable to have two-tier standards in private children's homes. Why should anyone go to the trouble of managing a registered children's home when the system allows an easy way out? I think that the Minister—I do not want him to take this personally—is being obstinate, because in the atmosphere of deregulation, he does not want to be seen to regulate. That is the only explanation that I can come up with for his refusal to make small homes register. That is not good enough for the welfare of children.
§ Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) for her kind invitation to take part in the debate. She and I fought shoulder to shoulder in the long campaign for the registration of small private children's homes, and I wish to endorse the powerful argument that she made, but especially the new case that she made on the threat to conventional fostering arrangements.
It is now just over 12 months since my own Adjournment debate on the subject of children's homes in Streatham. In that debate, I highlighted the difficulties faced by the local community, and expressed concerns about the quality of care experienced by the young residents of those homes. I also sought to highlight the anxieties of the local community about the proliferation of small private children's homes in the area. Unfortunately, I have to tell the Minister that the problem has not gone away.
Let me cite a case that arrived on my desk within the past few days. Although I am entirely confident about the facts, I do not propose to name names—partly because the case is so recent and some of the relevant organisations have not had time to furnish me with their account, and partly because I understand that criminal charges are pending. Suffice it to say that the private home concerned is a small unit in the vicinity of Streatham common, and that life for local residents has been a great deal harsher since its establishment in the past 12 months.
This local example raises yet again all the question marks about the arrangements for small private children's homes to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport and I have referred so frequently on the Floor of the House, and which—as we now know—have been exposed in two reports from the social services inspectorate. In this 1159 case, the placing authorities were not local; that is fairly common, too. I am pleased to say that the London borough of Lambeth has adopted a policy of making no new placements in such homes.
There is a question mark, in this case, over the mechanism by which placing authorities are supposed to notify the geographical authority when young people are placed in such homes. The requirement is not obligatory, and the social services inspectorate has drawn attention to the inefficiency of the system and the frequent inaccuracy of registers in such homes.
There is also a question mark over the suitability for semi-independent living of very young people who may have criminal records, and the reliability with which the register of attendance of young people in such homes is maintained. That in itself reflects major questions about the quality of supervision—questions that my hon. Friend has raised—and the extent to which supervisors are continuously present on the premises, as they certainly ought to be.
It is totally unsatisfactory that youthful residents can be away from the premises at all hours of the day—and, in particular, the night—without the application of any disciplinary measures. It is even more unsatisfactory that grossly anti-social incidents may occur on the premises when supervisors are notionally present.
All that is known to the Government. All the problems were set out in the social services inspectorate's report of its study of small unregistered children's homes in the north-west, published in January last year. If recent press accounts are anything to go by, the current report following nationwide study by the inspectorate is even more damning. It reveals that the number of such homes is mushrooming; it also identifies new examples of sharp practice—claims for therapeutic services that are not provided on the premises, and the charging of enormous fees for special treatments that are also not provided. It raises big question marks about the background of those who run small private children's homes. It makes an overwhelming case for change, and for the proper registration and inspection of such homes.
We know that the report is in the Minister's hands, hut it must be said that the last social services inspectorate report languished in the Department of Health for two years. I hope that this evening the Minister will be able to assure us of the report's rapid publication, and of equally rapid Government action, which is now long overdue.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to do another pas de deux with the hon. Members for Stockport (Ms Coffey) and for Streatham (Mr. Hill)—or, rather, a pas de trois. We have had the pleasure of discussing this important topic before, and I have no doubt that we will again.
Let me begin with the hon. Member for Stockport, who had the good fortune to be successful in the ballot.
As the hon. Lady knows, we met to discuss this issue on various occasions and following one of those meetings in September 1993, when I met her and Mr. Bob Lewis, the director of social services for Stockport, I confirmed in a letter dated 30 September that Mr. Lewis had agreed to try to establish through his contacts in the Association 1160 of Directors of Social Services whether the problems that the hon. Lady had described were more widespread. I have to date not received any response from him on that point. The hon. Lady may like to raise that with him.
I also met the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Streatham in February last year. The hon. Member for Streatham also raised in an Adjournment debate in January last year, the topic of homes which are not subject to registration under the Children Act 1989.
The provisions of the Children Act and the regulations linked to them demonstrate our commitment to the protection of vulnerable children, and that does and must mean their protection in a disciplined and safe environment. We are aware of the difficulties faced by local authorities in caring for, and controlling, some of the young people whom it is their responsibility to look after, including children accommodated in small children's homes. I use the word "controlling". This is an important element in caring. My Department has issued guidance to local authorities on permissible forms of control in children's homes, including small homes. I know that problems of control have been perceived in the homes referred to by the hon. Member for Streatham.
All too often we hear of people responsible for homes who misunderstand their responsibilities and powers in this regard. For example, we hear of the reluctance in some cases to lock the doors at night, which to most of us seems a commonsense measure to ensure that children do not go out to places where they would be at risk and to ensure that intruders do not get in to harm the children.
As hon. Members know, following its study of children's homes in north-west England last year, I asked the social services inspectorate to look further at the provision of small unregistered homes. I do not have a report in my hands nor am I sitting on one. The hon. Member for Streatham has obviously seen a document that has not yet been submitted to me. I expect the inspectorate to report to me in the spring. I cannot comment on speculation about the inspectorate's findings in what was probably a recent issue of Community Care magazine, since they have not yet been reported to me.
Let me put all this in context by setting out the current requirements of the legislation relating to the arrangements for the care of children accommodated in small homes. Monitoring the standards of care in unregistered, small, private children's homes is the responsibility of the local authorities that place children in these establishments.
Local authorities have a duty under the Children Act to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children for whom they provide accommodation and maintenance. Local authorities must, as far as is reasonably practicable, ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child and his or her parents, and must give due consideration to those wishes. The local authority is required to ensure, as far as possible, that the accommodation provided is near the child's home, to endeavour to promote contact between the child and his or her parents, and to keep the parents informed. When communication between a child and his or her parent is infrequent or non-existent, the local authority is required to appoint an independent visitor for the child.
Under the Arrangements for the Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991, the local authority responsible for looking after any child is required to record in writing the arrangements made for the 1161 placement and for promoting the welfare of the child. The care plan and the plan for the placement of the child must cover the arrangements for contact with the family, the arrangements to be made for the time when the child is no longer accommodated by the local authority and whether plans need to be made to find a permanent substitute family for the child.
The local authority must arrange a medical examination and assessment for each child. The care plan must record the child's health history and the arrangements for medical and dental care and surveillance and any possible need for vaccination, immunisation and vision and hearing tests. The child's educational history must be recorded, as must any educational need and the action required to meet that need.
The record of all those arrangements must then be sent to the district health authority, the local education authority, the general practitioner, the local authority social services department, if a placement is not in the placing authority's area, and the parents. Records must be kept by the local authority for each child until he or she is 75.
The "local" local authority social services department must keep a register of every child in the establishment, with particulars as recorded in the care plan.
Under the Review of Children's Cases Regulations 1991 the "placing" authority is required to review the case of each child within four weeks of when the child begins to be accommodated by the local authority; then after another three months and then at least every six months after this date.
Each review must examine the care plan already described, and include meetings with the local authority, the child, and others, including, of course, the parents. The child must be told, at each review, of the local authority's complaints procedure.
In addition to that considerable body of legislation, which came into force in 1991 and the accompanying volumes of guidance issued to local authorities at that time, in 1993, my Department issued an important circular, to which the hon. Lady referred, reminding authorities of the requirements of the regulations in relation to the placement of children in small homes and providing practice guidance.
The level of regulation of the care of the children accommodated in small unregistered private children's homes is already very rigorous, but I should like to refer to the actions taken by my Department to monitor the local authorities' care monitoring of the children looked after by them and accommodated in homes not subject to registration procedures.
The performance of local authorities in the exercise of their responsibilities under the Children Act 1989 is monitored primarily through the on-going inspection of social services by the social services inspectorate.
In addition, as I said earlier, in 1993, the inspectorate undertook a study, to which hon. Members referred, of small unregistered children's homes in the north-west of England. That report was published in February 1994. It highlighted many of the positive aspects of those small homes, particularly the opportunities they can provide for care to be tailored specifically to meet the needs of young people in more innovative and flexible ways than is often possible in larger units. It also emphasised, however, the 1162 need for authorities to apply the Arrangements for the Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991 and the Review of Children's Cases Regulations 1991 in a robust and rigorous manner. The report pointed out that where the home offers care which is equivalent to close parental care provided by one or two adults on a 24-hour basis, the Foster Placement (Children) Regulations 1991 might be more appropriately applied. I shall certainly consider carefully the hon. Lady's points about group fostering. She might like to write to me and provide fuller details about that.
The inspectorate has widened its study to cover all local authorities in England and, as I have already said, I await its report.
We have emphasised the need for authorities to apply the arrangements and regulations as robustly as possible. The hon. Lady may recall that a new requirement on small homes for adults to register with local authorities was introduced in 1993. On the face of it, one might wonder why the Government have seen fit to introduce such a measure in respect of adults but not children. The answer is, of course, that the very rigorous arrangements for placement and review regulations which I have described have no parallel in the legislation governing homes for adults, governed by the Registered Homes Act 1984. The regulation of the small homes for adults is a "lighter-touch" form of regulation, including annual returns of particulars to local authorities. There is no requirement on the local authority to inspect.
As I previously announced, my Department is collecting particulars to enable a gazetteer of children's homes, including small unregistered homes, to be produced. The information collection is nearly complete and returns have been provided by more than three quarters of local authorities. Perhaps I might mention in passing that that three quarters does not include Stockport. The hon. Lady might care to raise that issue with her director of social services. However, statistics will be available in the next few months.
I hope that the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman will agree that, while they are absolutely right to raise this issue and while it is vital that we keep the welfare of children in care under constant review wherever they are housed, the legislative arrangements already in place governing the care of children in small homes are, if used properly and in full, adequate to protect the welfare of the children, in so far as legislation can achieve this. I shall, of course, keep the matter under review and have said as much in the past. I shall keep an open mind about any further need to act and shall consider carefully any new evidence presented to me.
§ Mr. Bowis
That is something that we always consider when we receive advice and guidance from our relevant experts. As of now, I do not know what form the reporting will take but we shall certainly consider the matter carefully and seek to ascertain, among other things, whether it is suitable for publication. The statistics from the gazetteer will, of course, be made known.
§ Ms Coffey
The Minister will understand that, if the report is not published, the view might be taken that the reason is that the information contained in it is highly embarrassing to the Government. There is such public interest in small children's homes, and surely the Minister can think of no reason that such a report should not be published.
§ Mr. Bowis
At this time of night, one should not encourage the hon. Lady to speculate about anything, and I shall certainly not speculate on a report that I have not yet seen or on what we shall do to bring the information to a wider audience.
1164 I undertake to consider any new evidence presented to me, including any evidence from the social services inspectorate and any that my colleagues in this pas de trois care to bring to me now or in the future. I urge the hon. Member for Streatham to present me with chapter and verse in respect of the examples that he cited as it is much easier to proceed on that basis than on the basis of anecdotes. I am sure that we all understand that we have to base our policy on facts.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.