HL Deb 12 May 1982 vol 430 cc286-96

7.52 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The main purpose of this Bill is the protection of children and a very particular group of vulnerable children. I am referring to those children in the care of a local authority who are sent to live in privately run children's homes. Unlike all other kinds of accommodation for children in care, it is an astonishing fact that these private children's homes escape control of any kind. Most of them provide a satisfactory, and in some cases excellent, standard of care. But it is scarcely surprising that over the years there have been a number of disturbing incidents affecting children who live in them, incidents usually involving their exploitation in one way or another or dubious standards of accommodation or staffing.

This has not been a great problem, but even if one child or two children suffer, action must be taken. The situation has caused me concern, which I feel certain will be shared by noble Lords. Honourable Members in another place have been disturbed at incidents brought to their attention from time to time and their response to this Bill has demonstrated unanimity of purpose. We might all congratulate the honourable Member for Hartlepool for promoting on this subject a Bill which is long overdue.

To give your Lordships some facts, there are about 170 such privately run homes, operating mainly on a commercial basis, although I understand that one or two are run by charitable trusts. Some 2,500 children in the care of their local authority live in these homes. One problem is that these homes are concentrated in comparatively few areas, mainly in the South and West, while the children who are sent to live in them come from some 50 or more local authorities all over the country, especially the big cities. Most of the children are, therefore, a considerable distance from their home areas and their own social workers are not within easy reach.

These homes fulfill a very useful function in accepting children for whom there would otherwise be no suitable accommodation. But, it is surely quite wrong that these homes should be subject to no sort of statutory regulation or control. I understand that the local authorities, the professional interests and the bodies representing these homes all agree that some form of control is long overdue. I would stress that the independent Children's Households Association themselves welcome this bill.

The Bill now brought before the House sets out a system which I trust will command general approval both inside and outside the House. Briefly, I would describe what is proposed. Clause 1 defines the type of children's home to which the Act will apply, and except for certain independent schools, excludes institutions already subject to some sort of statutory control. Clause 2 will prevent local authorities from placing a child in their care in an unregistered home and make it an offence punishable by a maximum fine of £1,000 for an unregistered home to accommodate a child in care.

Clauses 3 to 6 provide that these homes must apply for registration to the local authorities in whose areas they are situated. The authority may grant or refuse an application or grant it subject to conditions. While the application is being considered existing homes will be allowed to continue in operation. Each home's registration will be subject to an annual review. The registering authorities will be empowered to charge a fee for both the initial registration and the annual review. This fee will cover the cost to them of the inspection and administration necessary in operating the registration scheme. It is expected that the homes will pass on the cost to them of the registration fee in the form of a small increase in the weekly cost charged to the placing authority for each child. A rough estimate is that these weekly fees will need to rise about 75 pence.

If it seems to a registering authority that a home is not operated in accordance with the provisions of the Act it may cancel the registration. A home that has had its registration refused or cancelled may not apply again for six months. Clause 7 deals with the way a home may appeal against adverse decisions made by the registering authority; namely, a refusal to register, conditions imposed on registration, and cancellations of registrations. Such appeals may be brought to an appeal tribunal especially constituted for the purpose whose decision will be binding on the registering authority concerned.

Clause 8 deals with the sort of regulations to be made under the Act. One set will be concerned with the registration procedures, the form in which the application for registration must be made, and so forth. The second set will deal with the way in which these homes must be operated and the provision that must be made for the welfare of children living in them. These regulations should include such matters as the standards of accommodation, staff, equipment to be provided, arrangements for the medical, psychiatric and dental care of the children and so on. They should also require homes not to exceed numbers of children accommodated as notified by the registering authority, and that proper records are kept in respect of the children.

Clause 9 gives the registering authority the power to enter and inspect the home and the children accommodated in it. Anyone authorised to do so would, if required, need to produce evidence of his authority to exercise this power. Clause 10 debars people who have been convicted of offences against children from being involved in the management of registered homes or being employed in them.

Taken together these provisions will, I believe, provide a simple and workable system of controlling these privately run children's homes without imposing too great a burden either on the registering authorities or on the homes themselves. But, more importantly, they provide a much needed degree of protection to the children who are sent to live in them. It is quite wrong that, because of the gap in our present arrangements, a small group of children may be consigned to establishments which escape any regulations. In the expectation of general agreement with the intention of the proposals that I have outlined, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Faithfull.)

8 p.m.

The Countess of Loudoun

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has said, there is a great deal of disquiet over the legislation, or rather the lack of it, for private children's homes, as it stands at the moment, so I very much welcome this Bill. It will protect children from those who use these homes purely for monetary gain, as well as regulate how such homes should be run and the minimum standards of care that must be provided in them. There are many of these homes throughout the country. Along the south coast alone there are about 170 private children's homes. Many of them are satisfactory, but others have caused considerable concern about the welfare of the children living in them. The position at the moment is that the local authorities do not, in general, have the right to inspect them and the Secretary of State has no power to close any private home or to require changes to be made.

County social services lack powers to inspect and regulate the general standards and running of privately-owned children's homes, which provide care only for children placed by local authorities. At present, qualifications of proprietors of private homes are not commensurate with the responsibilities they undertake. Children should be visited at regular intervals, but the caseload of social workers, especially in the London area, is such that regular visits become impossible, children being in private homes spread throughout the whole country.

It is only in crisis situations that the local social services departments might step in, and then only on an informal basis on behalf of the local authority which originally placed the child in the particular home. Many of these children are very young and more often than not they are psychologically disturbed and educationally retarded. In this state they are often placed in private homes run by unqualified staff. So I very much welcome Clause 3 of the Bill dealing with the registration of children's homes, with the attendant regulation on the conduct and inspection of these homes. I also hope that there will be a minimum child care qualification requirement before there is any registration acceptance.

There is only one question that I should like to ask, which is about the timing of registration. Has registration to he immediately prior to a home being opened, and for those homes already in operation is there a specific time limit within which they must register? I should be grateful for clarification on this point. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I very much welcome this Bill which goes some way to allay the anxieties of many of us with the interests of our children at heart.

8.5 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to welcome this Bill introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. I rise to speak because I was fortunate enough to be connected with one or two children's homes and I would like particularly to take this opportunity to praise the really splendid work done by so many of these homes all over the country. I am speaking, of course, of homes run by organisations like Dr. Barnardo's the Church of England Children's Society and other organisations, and I am sure, also, that your Lordships will agree that many of the smaller homes, whose proper regulation and control we would all of us so warmly support, do really splendid work.

Perhaps I could put to your Lordships one or two aspects of the contribution that these homes make to our society. In the first place, as I see it, they give children a sense of identity. The children who are accepted, as many of your Lordships will know—particularly those of us who have had experience of social work—come to the homes battered in mind and in body, and I think that many of us will agree that it is the mental aspect that is almost more important than the physical. They come to the homes suffering from various types of physical and emotional disabilities, behavioural problems and so on. Above all—I am sure that the experience of the noble Baroness in this field is much greater than mine—they suffer from rejection. It is in these homes all over the country, whether they be large or whether they be small, that these children are able to find themselves.

Secondly, I would say that these homes provide a very, very valuable service in bringing out latent talent in children. It is rather like the vegetation, the grass and the flowers that spring from the desert after the rain. The seeds, long dormant, suddenly flourish under the impact of the spring and winter rains. In the same way the qualities and the artistic and other talents of the children, which no one would have imagined existed, and which have lain dormant for so long, are remarkably discovered and developed. Like the plants in the desert these children's talents blossom and flourish.

Perhaps it might interest your Lordships if I tell you about a very few of the children whom I used to visit at one of these homes something like 25 years ago. One of them, largely through his own efforts but undoubtedly under the stimulation of splendid guidance and help from the people who ran the home, managed to get to Sussex University where he took a degree in sociology. Another became a banker and when I last knew him he was an assistant bank manager. He may well be a hank manager by now—a very remarkable achievement. Another did very well in the sphere of printing. Another went into publishing. Two more went into the services. One served with distinction as a petty officer. Yet another became a lieutenant commander, which is really a remarkable tribute to the influence of these homes.

The third aspect of these homes that I would like to put to your Lordships is that they do provide a very valuable meeting point for people of all races, creeds and colours. It is the cement of adversity which throws these children, who come from these diverse backgrounds, together. They feel that they have to help each other out because they all suffer from one or more disability. In that context I am reminded of that wonderful saying of King Sobhuza II of Swaziland, a country which perhaps some of your Lordships may have visited. King Sobhuza, who I did not have the pleasure of knowing, was I think a great pianist and he said that the blending of black and white was like the harmony produced by playing the black and white keys of a piano. So I think that those of your Lordships who have had first-hand experiences of such homes, as I have, will agree that they provide a very valuable service indeed.

The aspect of this Bill which strikes me most—and I gather from the noble Baroness that it will not be discussed in detail as it is not likely to be opposed—and the aspect of it which is of greatest concern to all of us and which has already been mentioned, is the choice of staff. It is not only a matter of eliminating staff who misbehave, and most of us will have heard of tragic examples of that in the past few years; far more important—I am sure that the noble Baroness would agree with me—is the selection of people of right calibre at the outset.

Those of us who were concerned with education would, I am sure, agree that the selection of schoolmasters is of paramount importance, but to my mind the selection of staff to run these homes is of even greater importance, because such staff act as parents. They assume the full responsibilities of parents and, indeed, in many cases—as I have seen myself and as perhaps other noble Lords have also seen—they even exceed what most parents in our country would do. They provide warmth; they provide discipline. That combination of firm discipline and deep warmth—qualities which I referred to briefly when we were discussing the Motion initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs—are of tremendous importance.

What I think is most interesting is that over the years that I have known these homes the attitude towards the staff has somewhat changed. I should add that the homes I knew have now all gone. They were not closed because they were inefficient; they were closed because—and this is an important point on which I am sure the noble Baroness will bear me out—the policy now in the country is to take children away from homes wherever possible, and either board them out or provide adoption at an early age.

But the policy towards the staff of these homes has changed. When I first knew the particular home about which I am speaking, the staff who ran it were always addressed as master and matron—a somewhat harsh and perhaps almost Dickensian approach. But over the years that has changed and now the staff are always known as uncle and auntie, reflecting a very beneficial change. I shall not detain your Lordships any longer, but in supporting this admirable Bill, I would most sincerely express the hope that the work of these splendid homes throughout our country be more widely known and more generally recognised.

8.15 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, for giving such a clear explanation of the Bill and to say at once that we give it all our support. The only surprise is that it has taken so long to have this Bill. I gather that it has taken 10 years to set it up; a working party was set up in 1972 by the DHSS, and Bills have been drafted, but nothing has come of them. So I hope that this Bill will have a swift passage through the House.

I want to ask a very few questions on the Bill. Clause 3(5) seems to be rather curious. Apparently, if a local authority pays no attention to an application for registration, after 12 months the home is deemed not to be registered and, therefore, would have to close. It seems rather curious that by a local authority doing nothing and being lazy, a home can suffer. Perhaps I have not seen the point of it, and maybe the noble Baroness will be able to explain it.

Clause 8(1), dealing with the regulations, says: The Secretary of State may make regulations as to the registration of children's homes, as to the conduct of registered homes, and for securing the welfare of the children in registered homes. (2) Regulations under this section may in particular… (c) make provision for children accommodated in registered homes to receive a religious upbringing appropriate to the religious persuasion to which they belong". I just wondered what happens to those children who do not belong to any particular religious body and how one decided what to do about them.

I also want to know on what date the Act would come into force. Clause 16 says: This Act shall come into force on such day as the Secretary of State may appoint…". It is very nice to have got this Bill this far, but if it is only to sit waiting, it seems rather a pity. What will be the reasons for not bringing it into force at once? We are told in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum that the expenditure will be £100,000 and possibly 10 or 11 extra staff, but, on the other hand, it says in the Bill that this money will be recouped by higher charges. So I just wonder why we are to delay the Act's coming into force once it is an Act.

I have one or two questions on what is not in the Bill. The first concerns the question of secure accommodation and corporal punishment. The use of measures restricting the liberty of young people and the use of corporal punishment are not covered by the Bill. The DHSS Legal Aspects Working Party in 1981, among others, expressed misgivings about the use of secure accommodation as a means of control, even in homes subject to approval and regulation under the Community Homes Regulations 1972. There is no statutory control in voluntary and private homes on this matter and I should like to know what are the intentions.

As regards corporal punishment, Regulation 11 of the Administration of Children's Homes Regulations 1951, governs the use of corporal punishment in voluntary homes and the Community Homes Regulations 1972, which replaced the 1951 regulations in respect of community homes, does not mention corporal punishment specifically. Over the years, various statements have come from the DHSS and a circular in 1972 states: There has been a decline in the use of corporal punishment and it is hoped that the trend will continue". In 1978 the Secretary of State held the view that corporal punishment was neither desirable nor proper. However, a recent report, Caring for Children, showed that there was a good deal of it still going on. But even if it is banned by local authorities in their own homes, they cannot control it in voluntary or private homes. Is there any intention to do anything about this?

Those are the questions that I should like to have answered, either by the noble Lord the Minister or by the noble Baroness, but I wish the Bill well.

8.19 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Baroness has fired about eight barrels at us this evening. In the six seconds since she sat down I am afraid that I have not been able to marshall all the answers, but I shall cover as many points as I can and write to her with pleasure on any points that I omit. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Faithfull may well wish to deal with some of the points when she comes to reply.

I am pleased to be able to respond to this debate, which has introduced such a worthwhile Bill to your Lordships. My noble friend's "pedigree", if I can call it that, gives particular reason for her views to be accorded considerable weight. My noble friend has devoted her professional career—and indeed a great deal of her time in your Lordships' House—to pursuing the wellbeing of children, especially children at risk or in public care. Throughout her career as a children's officer in Oxford, where, I am told, she knew personally every child in her care, subsequently as that city's Director of Social Services, and now in this House, she has given her time and energy unstintingly to pursue what, from her long experience, she believes to be right for children and young people.

It is therefore particularly appropriate that she should have chosen to promote this Bill before your Lordships. The purpose of this Bill is to provide protection for a vulnerable group of children for whom, as a result of an anomaly in the existing range of legislation, there are at present inadequate safeguards. This Bill will meet a need about which there has been agreement among all parties, both inside and outside the House. If your Lordships will permit me, I will outline a little of the background. As my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health explained when he spoke in another place, it was as long ago as 1972 that a working party was set up to consider the registration of all residential homes. The noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to this. There had been some disturbing accounts at that time about conditions in a number of private children's homes. Two years later the working party reported in favour of a registration scheme for children's homes. The necessary consultations with the local authority associations and the professional bodies concerned were then put in hand. By 1978 agreement on the broad details of a system of registration and control had been reached. The problem then, and subsequently, has been to find space for this desirable measure within the crowded legislative timetable. This is a problem from which this Administration was not immune, nor indeed was the previous one.

Perhaps I could enlighten the House by saying something about children in the care of local authorities, and how they come to be placed in these homes. As my honourable friend outlined, the accommodation of children in care is governed by Part III of the Child Care Act 1980. Local authorities may provide accommodation and maintenance for children in their care in a variety of ways, such as boarding them out with foster parents or placing them in community homes (which they run themselves or in association with a voluntary organisation). They can also accommodate them in voluntary homes or, in certain circumstances, in special establishments like a youth treatment centre or a hospital. All these ways of providing for children in care are subject to regulation or control of one kind or another, intended to safeguard the welfare of the children.

In addition, however, local authorities have the option of placing children in their care in privately-operated children's homes. Some of these homes are run simply as a business; a few are registered with the Charity Commissioners. Some also provide education on the premises. As far as we know—and there are no centrally collected figures on this—about 2,500 children in care are so placed. Alone out of all types of establishment providing for children separated from their parents, these homes currently escape any kind of statutory regulation.

My Lords, local authorities who place individual children in these homes do have a responsibility to ensure that they are suitable for the child's needs. They are required to satisfy themselves regularly about the child's continued welfare and that the home provides a stable and affectionate climate in which the child can grow and develop. However, although each child is the responsibility of a particular local authority, no single local authority has the power or responsibility to inspect or monitor the standards of the home as a whole.

Now, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State does have certain powers in respect of these privately-run homes. Under Section 74 of the Child Care Act 1980 he may authorise the inspection both of the premises where children in care are accommodated and of the children. However, where he finds conditions at a privately-run children's home to be unsatisfactory, he does not have power to require the home to institute changes of any sort, to require the removal of children or to prevent further admissions. The Bill plans to remedy matters by giving appropriate powers, not to my right honourable friend, but to the local authority in whose area the home is situated, and this seems entirely appropriate.

We hope that a close association—not purely a regulatory function—will be built up between the registering authorities and homes in their area. A decision, as provided in the Bill, to cancel the registration of a home will, I hope, rarely need to be used. By informal as well as formal contact and discussion with the staff of a home, standards can be influenced and the quality of care offered can be maintained and improved.

My Lords, the scheme proposed in this Bill seems practical and workable, and we envisage only a marginal effect on public expenditure. The costs of running the registration and inspection procedures will be incurred by the few local authorities where the homes are sited, but they should not be out of pocket, for they will recoup those expenses from the registration fees they charge the homes. The costs will actually be met by the much larger numbers of placing authorities, by way of a small increase in the weekly charges they pay to these homes for each child accommodated.

Essentially, therefore, this will be a control system run on behalf of local authorities generally by the few authorities, particularly in the South of England, which act as host to the privately-operated homes. When my department consulted the local authority associations and the professional bodies concerned about a possible registration system, it was a scheme of this sort that was favoured, and so I hope that the proposals in this Bill will be generally welcomed.

May I just touch on one or two of the points that have been made: first, by the noble Baroness, Lady David, about secure accommodation. Children's liberty may be restricted only in accommodation approved for the purpose by the Secretary of State. It is not the intention that such accommodation should be provided in the private children's homes to be approved under this Bill. The noble Baroness also raised a question about Clause 3(5). If a home has not received approval to register after one year the appeals procedure comes into effect and the authority's delays can thus be challenged. It really was for the benefit of the homes that that provision was provided.

On the question of religious upbringing, if a child has no religion then I am assured that none will be imposed on it. I should like again, if I may, to thank my noble friend for introducing this Bill into your Lordships' House, and indeed the honourable Member for Hartlepool in another place. Between them they are promoting this valuable Private Member's Bill; the Government fully support the measure, and I hope that it will soon be on the statute book.

8.28 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, may I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. In answer to Lady Loudoun's questions, homes will need to apply for registration from the date that the Bill commences. The registering authority then has a period of up to 12 months to come to a decision. During this period homes may continue to operate. After the commence- ment of the Bill any new home will need to apply for registration before it starts to operate.

I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, that we should pay tribute to the staff who work in children's homes of all kinds. Equally I should say—and I agree with him—that it is the intention of both the statutory and the voluntary services, so far as is possible and practicable, to keep children within their own families. Where that is not so, we seek to place children in foster homes and give them substitute homes, but reality forces us to admit—well, not forces, but makes us admit—that there are some children who need the care and the surroundings of a children's home.

May I also at this point pay tribute to the Residential Care Association who, over the last five years, have sought to raise the standard of the staff in children's homes. There was a time when very few of the staff in residential accommodation were trained. Now there are many more trained—perhaps not as many as we would like—and I think we must pay tribute to the Residential Care Association who have lifted both the status and the standing of those who work in children's homes.

As an ex-practitioner, I can say, in regard to religion, which was always a difficult matter, that we always subscribed to the regulation that a child should be brought up in the religion in which he was baptized. That sometimes led to difficulty because obviously children went to different churches, had different religions and had different instruction, and often the child who had nothing felt deprived and would say so. But we would never send a child to church or to any form of religious activity without consulting the parents and the child, and it was my experience that when we did that the parents usually said what they wished, and those wishes were carried out. If the parents said specifically, "I do not want my child to have any religion at all", one would abide by those wishes. I must say, in fairness to all parents, that that did not often happen, partly because the children did not want it.

I think my noble friend replied to the noble Baroness about secure accommodation and corporal punishment. Regarding the coming into force of the measure, the date of commencement will depend on negotiations with the local authorities and other interested parties.

Baroness David

I do not think I had a reply about corporal punishment, my Lords. My attention may have slipped momentarily, if there was a reply, but I cannot recall receiving one from the Minister.

Baroness Faithfull

In that case, I will answer the noble Baroness on that matter. Article 10 of the Community Homes Regulations 1972 does not do away with corporal punishment—this applies to local authority homes—and states that corporal punishment may be maintained on the basis of personal and professional relationships. That means that we have not done away with corporal punishment, although that is the effect of it because, with problem and difficult children, it is dangerous to give them corporal punish- ment. From the point of view of good practice, therefore, good residential staff know that corporal punishment is not the way mostly to help the children. Therefore, although corporal punishment has not been forbidden, it is not very much used. I would draw the attention of the noble Baroness to the fact that the homes are inspected by the local authority and that each child has a child care officer. If corporal punishment were used in a way in which it should not be used, I am sure it would come to the notice of the registering authority.

On Question, Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.