Political correctness gone mad? The facts behind the Rotherham row

26 November 2012

"Victims of the thought police" screamed one headline. "We want our foster children back", pleaded another. Over the weekend it was revealed that Rotherham Council had removed three children from the care of their foster parents because they were members of the UK Independence Party. 

The council said that it was concerned that the couple could not meet the "cultural and ethnic needs" of the children, who are from an EU migrant background.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have condemned the council's decision and asked for an inquiry into the case.

Here's what we know so far:

Does a foster parent have to declare any of their political affiliation?

No. Appearing on Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday morning, Joyce Thacker, the strategic director of children and young people's services at Rotherham Council, said that the council had not asked the couple about their political views, nor did the council have any right to do so. According to the Daily Mail, the council received an "anonymous tip-off" that the foster parents in question were members of UKIP.

The Fostering Services Regulations for England (2011) provide guidance on what information a candidate foster parent can be asked to supply. There's no mention of a candidate being required to declare any political interests.

Does being a member of a political party bar you from fostering a child?

The council has confirmed that membership of UKIP - or any other political organisation - should not bar someone from fostering a child. 

What are the council's concerns about UKIP?

Ms Thacker said: "There are some strong views in the UKIP party and we have to think of the needs of the children". The council's main concern is a clause in UKIP's manifesto that commits the party to "end the active promotion of the doctrine of multiculturalism by local and national government and all publicly funded bodies".

The Daily Mail and the Guardian have both reported that the parents were told by social workers that they belonged to a "racist" party and so they were unsuitable carers for the children. When asked, Ms Thacker clarified that she did not consider UKIP to be a party of racists. In a 2006 interview David Cameron did not shy away from using this term, describing UKIP as "a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".

The children had been living with their foster parents for 8 weeks. Ms Thacker said that the children were on an emergency placement and that they would've been moved to another home in the long-term. Yet a council spokesman has suggested that there were concerns "regarding the long-term suitability of the carers for these particular children."

This doesn't sit well with Ms Thacker's account of the case - Ms Thacker stated that "it was never going to be a long-term placement for the children"; meanwhile her colleague implies that the children were removed because the arrangement wasn't suitable for the long-term.

Was the council's decision legal?

In her interview on Radio 4, Ms Thacker admitted that the council had taken legal advice before making its decision. She also noted that the council had previously been criticised by a judge for not meeting the children's "cultural and ethnic needs".

The latest volume of foster care guidance (which is underpinned by the 1989 Children's Act) tells us what standards a local authority must adhere to when it places a child in a foster home. According to paragraph 3.46, foster carers and fostering services are obliged to ensure that a child's "faith, ethnic origin, cultural and linguistic background" must be attended to, so that they can "be proud of their identity and heritage". In its policy framework Rotherham Council makes specific mention of this clause; it notes that the population of Rotherham is changing and more ethnic minority children are entering foster care.

In a statement released earlier this afternoon, Rotherham Council's Cabinet Member for Children's Services said:

"...this remains a very complex case involving legal advice relating to the decision in question, particular features of the children's background and an external agency responsible for finding and providing the foster carers concerned."

What we don't know (and what the statement doesn't tell us) is whether the council was advised that it had a legal duty to intervene in this case in order to protect the needs of the children. From what the foster parents have told the national press, they had made a special effort to sing the children's folk songs and to choose "an appropriate school for their religion".

What happens next?

The Secretary of State for Education has asked for an inquiry into this case.

In the meantime an FOI request has been submitted to Rotherham Council. The author has asked for the council to reveal the number of children removed from foster parents in the last year "on account of the parents' known or suspected support" for UKIP. He has also asked the council whether it's made any assessment of "the legal risks under the libel and equalities legislation" of transferring children from their existing foster parents, if they're regarded as politically unsuitable.

Flickr image courtesy of Peter Becker

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