HL Deb 10 November 2004 vol 666 cc992-5

56 Before Clause 42, insert the following new clause—

"Payments to foster parents

(1) The appropriate person may by order make provision as to the payments to be made—

  1. (a) by a children's services authority in England or Wales or a person exercising functions on its behalf to a local authority foster parent with whom any child is placed by that authority or person under section 23(2)(a) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41);
  2. (b) by a voluntary organisation to any person with whom any child is placed by that organisation under section 59(1)(a) of that Act.

(2) In subsection (1)— appropriate person" means—

  1. (a) the Secretary of State, in relation to a children's services authority in England;
  2. (b) the Assembly, in relation to a children's services authority in Wales;
local authority foster parent" and "voluntary organisation" have the same meanings as in the Children Act 1989 (c. 41).

(3) In section 23(2)(a) of the Children Act 1989 (C. 41), at the end insert "(subject to section (payments to foster parents) of the Children Act 2004)".

(4) In section 59(1)(a) of that Act, at the end insert "(subject to section (payments to foster parents) of the Children Act 2004)"."

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 56.

This is an issue that has not been before us but, as the House will know, was introduced by the Government in another place. It is essentially the issue of how children's needs are appropriately met by ensuring that foster parents are eligible for appropriate allowances to meet those needs.

We are aware of the diversity of payments being made by authorities. It is clear from the evidence we have and that which others have garnered that some authorities make higher payments than others. One cannot always explain that simply in terms of geography or the age of the relevant child. When one looks at the issues in a little more detail, they become even more complicated. In practice one finds that it is not simply a matter of the allowances that are paid but also of the fees. Some authorities may pay lower allowances and higher fees while other authorities may pay higher allowances but lower fees. So far as one can judge, local authorities are looking at allowances and fees in general and seeking to make judgments about what it is necessary to pay to generate an adequate supply of foster parents.

The issue is important because we are aware that there is a shortage of foster parents. We and authorities are concerned about the number of out-ofauthority placements. This matter touches on issues of more general public policy rather than simply on whether the allowances are appropriate.

Essentially we are taking a power in the Bill. We shall use that power if we do not think that adequate progress is being made after having investigated these issues thoroughly with local authorities. As was explained in detail in another place, we think it is appropriate that we enter close discussions with the relevant local authorities regarding their practice on the matter, seek to research the detail of what is happening and then reach a judgment on how to move forward. Although we think it is important that we have placed this power on the face of the Bill, we shall research the issue carefully and thoughtfully. It is important to have the power but we will not simply rush into using it without a process of exploration and study with local authorities. That, in short, is what we intend to do. I hope that with that explanation the amendment will find support and favour with the House.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 56.—(Lord Filkin.)

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should like to make a couple of very brief comments, as I know the noble Baroness would also like to do.

The Minister is not quite correct in one thing that he said in that this was an issue which excited a lively debate in this House during earlier stages of the Bill. An amendment to which my name was attached was the subject of a very constructive—at least, not a totally destructive—answer from the Minister. I am very pleased, and I am sure that those groups concerned with the fostering and adoption of children, particularly the BAAF, will be delighted by the initiative that the Government have taken in response to the concerns that I and others raised in that debate.

8.45 p.m.

I realise that the powers are permissive only, but I for one have no complaint about that. I am sure that the Government are right to want to research the issue in full before exercising the power that they have granted themselves, but it is a definite step forward for them to have inserted the provision. As the Minister rightly said, the disparities around the country are really quite extraordinary in some cases and not immediately explicable when one looks at them by reference to local conditions or, indeed, to anything. With those few words of welcome, I am delighted to support the amendment.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, we too very much welcome the Government taking up the issue and listening to the concerns expressed in this House at an earlier stage. I want to ask three brief questions. The Minister said that the power was permissive, which we understand. However, we want to be convinced that, following the consultations, the Government will use it to sort out any anomalies and, we hope, address the shortage of foster parents.

I noticed that, in the Minister's letter to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, he mentioned that the Government were looking to a timetable of approximately two years for the consultation. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that estimate from the Dispatch Box? He also mentioned in that letter, and again this evening, that the Government intended to consult local authorities. Will the two key voluntary stakeholder organisations, the BAAF and the Fostering Network, also come within those consultations? They have an enormous amount of expertise available to offer the Government on such matters, and I would very much hope that they would be included.

Can the Minister reassure us that the implementation of the minimum allowance would not be constrained by insufficient resources? The Government might choose to ring-fence the money through a "choice protects" grant. It must be said in that respect that some local authorities already pay good levels of allowances. Others that do not at the moment could, through increasing allowances, save themselves money by reducing the turnover of foster parents, and therefore not having to spend the money that they now spend on recruitment.

We accept that the matter is complex and requires consultation, but I would be grateful if the Minister reassured me on those three points.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, as I feared was the case, it is often a mistake to be brief in the House, because one cuts out of one's response the answers to the questions. They are good questions, so let me respond to them.

We intend to start the process of consultation with relevant partners early next year, to see what is happening. We then intend to spend 2006 working with local authorities on implementing what we think should be more sensible rates. I have missed out a stage in that process, that of evidence in early 2005, leading to discussions with local authorities and certainly the BAAF and the Fostering Network about what we believe to be appropriate national rates. Clearly, issues of geography and the age of the child will play a part in those discussions.

In practice, it will be desirable for us to reach agreement with local authorities on what we feel are appropriate national rates, perhaps at the back end of the coming year. Then we would work with those local authorities on appropriate ways of implementing those rates in practice. If all goes well, and maybe it will, one would not need to invoke the power that the Act would give us. That would be fine. Having the power there will help to concentrate all our minds on the importance of making progress on this issue.

Funding of £113 million over three years has already been made available to local authorities through our Choice Protects grant, which has a specific emphasis on fostering services. The £60 million that will be available in the next financial year will help. Investment in children's services will increase by almost £1 billion by 2007–08, compared with 2004–05.

The issue of what is or is not funded is sensitive for local authorities. But as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, wisely said, a number of authorities are already paying those rates. In some cases, I suspect as a product of doing so, they have a better supply of foster parents and more stability in care for looked-after children. That matters. These are the issues that we will be discussing closely and at length with local authority associations and the local authorities.

I shall say no more at this stage, but that is the timetable for the process.

On Question, Motion agreed to.