HL Deb 18 July 2000 vol 615 cc921-6

1 Clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out ("This section has") and insert ("Subsections (2) to (6) have")

2 Page 1, line 13, at end insert ("or by a foster parent")

3 Page 2, line 4, leave out from beginning to ("or") in line 6

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 1 to 3. I shall speak also to the other amendments grouped with these three amendments. The first group of amendments are minor amendments that clarify the definition of children's homes and tidy up definitions used in the part of the Bill which covers the welfare inspections of boarding schools.

I should like to deal first with Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 7, 192, 194, 240, 241, 244, 245, 258, 259 and 284. At present, the Children Act 1989 exempts from regulation children's homes which accommodate three or less children. This is a loophole that we are closing through this Bill. However, as a result it became necessary to ensure that foster carers were not inappropriately caught by the widened definition and required to be registered by the national care standards commission as children's homes. That is certainly not our intention.

Amendment No. 2 clarifies this position in relation to foster carers generally and Amendment No. 7 defines a foster carer. Amendment No. 245 slightly amends the definition of "private foster" care in the Children Act. This is needed to prevent loopholes which could allow unscrupulous people to avoid registering as a children's home by pretending to be private foster carers.

Amendments Nos. 192 and 194 insert the definitions of "private fostering" and "local authority foster parents" which are in the Children Act into the Bill. Amendments Nos. 241 and 258 ensure that the provisions in the Children Act which set out the circumstances in which a person may foster more than three children without being treated as a children's home also apply to this Bill. Amendments Nos. 1, 240, 259 and 284 are consequential to the changes we are making here.

I turn to Amendment No. 6. We believe it is important that any child who is accommodated in a boarding school for more than 295 days in a year should have the extra protection provided by that school also having to register as a children's home. However, during the Committee stage in this place, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, raised the concern that any boarding school which provided holiday camps during the school holidays would be required to be registered as a children's homes as it would be accommodating children for more than the 295 days specified. The noble Lord was quite right to point that out and I can assure noble Lords that that was certainly not our intention. Amendment No. 6 clarifies this position and puts beyond doubt that an individual child has to be accommodated for more than 295 days before the boarding school is required to be registered as a children's home.

In the other place there was concern about why only children in an independent boarding school should benefit from the extra protection provided by having the boarding school registered as a children's home if children were accommodated for more than 295 days. This is anomalous and there is no good reason why children in voluntary or state sector homes should not benefit from this protection. Amendment No. 5 therefore extends this requirement to all boarding schools.

I turn to Section 82(5). In the other place a number of honourable Members were concerned that homes established under this section of the Children Act would be exempt from regulation as children's homes. Section 82(5) allows the Secretary of State to establish homes to meet the needs of children for particular services or facilities which are not provided in community homes. These homes are currently inspected by the social services inspectorate. We originally decided to exempt them from regulation because it had been decided that the department should no longer continue to run such childcare facilities, as we believe that these services are best provided by local authorities, the health service and specialist facilities in the private sector. It is worth reminding your Lordships that the only remaining home of this kind, Glenthorne, closed last week.

However, while there is no current intention to use Section 82(5) to establish any more of these homes, its use cannot be ruled out for some point in the future. In those circumstances, we decided that these homes should be regulated as children's homes by the national care standards commission and Amendment No. 3 amends Clause 1 accordingly. Amendments Nos. 212, 231, 232 and 235 to 238, and amendments 262 and 263 are consequential to bringing these homes within the regulatory framework.

I turn to community homes. The Bill extends regulation to services not previously regulated, and none is more important than ensuring that looked-after children are properly protected. Therefore, community homes will be regulated for the first time. Amendment No. 199 brings the rather complicated management arrangements which apply to community homes provided by voluntary organisations within the new registration provisions.

When these homes are required to register, the question arises as to who should be treated as "carrying on" the home, and "managing" the home, to use the terminology of Part II of the Bill. Amendment No. 199 enables arrangements to be made, if necessary on a home-by-home basis, for designating who should be treated as requiring to register. This provision enables the registration system to work effectively without unduly disturbing the management and governance systems that apply to community homes.

Amendment No. 15 removes from Clause 4 the definition of what is meant by the term "carrying on" a fostering or voluntary adoption agency. It also removes the provision that carrying on an establishment or agency includes carrying it on otherwise than for profit. Subsection (3)(a) and (3)(b) in Amendment No. 199 would see these provisions reappear word for word in the general interpretation clause, while Amendment No. 190 simply introduces into the Bill the definition of community home used in the Children Act.

Finally, I want to speak to Amendments Nos. 174 to 178, 180, 181, 243 and 254. These are all tidying-up measures. At present, if a boarding school is a children's home or care home, then there is no need for the provisions in Section 87 of the Children Act in relation to welfare in boarding schools to apply. This is because the welfare requirements in relation to registration as a children's home or care home are more stringent than those for boarding schools, so meeting them would mean that it would be unnecessary also to satisfy the Section 87 requirements.

With this Bill, we are extending the Section 87 welfare requirements to further education colleges as well as to all boarding schools. We need, therefore, to exempt colleges as well as boarding schools from Section 87 requirements if they are registered as children's homes or care homes, and this is the intention behind Amendment No. 174. Section 62 of the Children Act imposes functions on local authorities with regard to children accommodated by voluntary organisations. Clause 85(5) amends Section 62 by disapplying it to schools which are voluntary organisations. Amendment No. 178 does the same for colleges.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 175, 243 and 254. We are introducing a new definition of "appropriate authority" for Section 87 of the Children Act as a result of the national care standards commission carrying out welfare inspections of boarding schools and colleges. Amendment No. 175 defines the "appropriate authority" as meaning the commission in England and the National Assembly for Wales in Wales.

Initially, we intended the definition of "appropriate authority" to be used throughout the Children Act, but we now realise that we need to keep the current definition in Section 68 of the Act in relation to persons who are disqualified from acting as private foster carers. Therefore, Amendments Nos. 243 and 254 make clear that the new definition applies, in addition to Section 87, to Sections 65 and 65A, but not elsewhere in the Act.

Finally, Amendments Nos. 176, 177, 180 and 181 are purely technical amendments which amend and correct the definition of "further education corporations".

I well understand that this is a large group of amendments. However, in the main they are responses to concerns raised in this House and in the other place and are tidying up measures. I hope that noble Lords will agree to support them.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I begin by thanking the Minister for speaking so fully to these amendments. There is nothing in them that I would regard as contentious; indeed, a number, such as those which relate to boarding schools, are decidedly welcome.

The Minister was kind enough to write to me last Friday with a comprehensive explanation of all the government amendments that we are considering today. I take this opportunity to thank him for the trouble that he took in doing so. It assisted me enormously in preparing for today's debates but, perhaps more to the point, it will have saved us a good deal of detailed and perhaps unnecessary discussion across the House—something which I am sure we are all keen to minimise.

Having said that, I am unlikely to be alone in the dismay that I felt when confronted with today's list of amendments. No fewer than 289 government amendments to this Bill have been passed in another place, including 20 new clauses and one new schedule. The Bill is now approximately 20 per cent longer than when it left us in the spring. I am the first to recognise that a good number of the amendments represent the Government's response to concerns raised in both Houses during the passage of the Bill. We shall all be grateful for that and, to that extent, I do not wish to sound in the least churlish. However, by any standards, 289 amendments in a Bill of this length is a large mouthful to swallow at one go. Of course, that figure excludes the 185 government amendments inserted during the Lords stages, if I have counted them correctly.

There was a respectable case to be made for having the Bill re-committed. I have no doubt that the Minister will repeat often as we progress through the groupings that a substantial proportion of the amendments are technical in nature. Of course, there will always be amendments of that kind. However, I am sure that some of us long for the day when the majority of technical anomalies are ironed out before Bills are laid before Parliament in the first place. We seem to be moving into a rut in which wholesale amendments to Bills during their passage through Parliament is becoming more and more the norm. On an exceptional basis, it may be unavoidable and possibly even desirable. However, on a routine basis I suggest that it is neither of those things.

I am sure that we shall all pay close attention to the Minister's words today and, at the end, come to our own view as to how strongly the Government are to be congratulated on their overall handling of the Bill.

Baroness Barker

My Lords, even at this late hour it is good to be back at another meeting of the "balance club" which has been through this Bill several times before. After much of the high-flown oratory, it is good to be back doing work which really will make a difference to people who need protection in institutional settings.

I greatly welcome what the Minister said with regard to the work that has been done on the Bill since it left this House. I welcome in particular the work done on the definition of community homes and the work done in the light of many comments made in this House about the position of independent boarding schools. I too regret the list of bingo numbers in front of us this evening. However, I understand that they reflect what has happened throughout the Bill's passage in this House; namely, that the Government are prepared to listen to what many of us had to say based on our own practical experience in these fields. I welcome that very much.

I have one particular point on this group of amendments and that relates to Amendment No. 6. Your Lordships will recall the point which was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, during our discussions about the fact that some boarding schools, particularly those which raise income by letting their premises during school holidays for the purposes of holding activity holidays for children, may be caught under that definition. I understand that Amendment No. 6 is an attempt to clarify that. My point is: people who are teachers in independent boarding schools may well themselves either adopt or foster children, and they may well live on the premises. In that case, it is entirely possible that a fostered or adopted child may live in such premises for more than 295 days a year. I seek clarification from the Minister that a school in that position would not be caught. I know that that is not the intention of this amendment. The last thing that any of us want is for an independent school to be caught for that one single reason. That is the only point of substance I raise on this group of amendments.

Lord Laming

My Lords, I too do not want to raise any objections to any of these amendments, although like the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I suspect that with better parliamentary drafting many of these amendments could have been avoided.

On Amendments Nos. 2 to 7, I noticed that when the noble Lord the Minister spoke to these items he referred to "foster carers" and not to "foster parents". I believe that he was correct to do so. Why do these amendments refer to "foster parents" rather than to "foster carers" which is the correct term nowadays?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I certainly recognise that 289 amendments comprise a somewhat daunting agenda for your Lordships at this rather late hour. I recognise that we are having to focus our minds on many different matters of detail.

In relation to the nature of the debates we have had, it is worth recalling that it was in mid-December, which seems a long time ago, that this Bill had its Second Reading. It has had rather slow progress through your Lordships' House and then into another place. I believe there has been one benefit from that: we have been able to take account of many of the comments and concerns that have been raised. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, in a sense anticipated my response to his strictures about the question of whether the drafting could have been better to start with. No doubt some things could have been done better. But the record indicates that the Government have listened very carefully to the many comments made in your Lordships' House and, indeed, during the passage of the Bill in another place.

Although later we shall come to debate a matter on which there has been disagreement in your Lordships' House right from the start, overall there has been a consensus approach to the main provisions of the Bill because we are all concerned about improving regulation in the care arrangements and in relation to the establishment of a general social council. Therefore, while the challenge for us this evening is to reflect on a considerable number of amendments, the final outcome is a better Bill which has emerged as a result of extremely informed debate in your Lordships' House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked whether the 295 day rule applies to a child who is a student at the school but who lives at the school during the holidays. I am happy to give her the assurance that the provision would not apply in those circumstances.

As regards the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, I am advised that while it is right to refer to foster carers, the term "foster parent" is used in this legislation because that is the term used in the Children Act.

On Question, Motion agreed to.