Eleanor Laing condemns Ofsted procedures that allow nursery’s re-registration to hide the fact that a child died

Eleanor Laing leads a Parliamentary debate on the tragic case of two-and-a-half-year-old Rhiya Malin who died in the care of her nursery which subsequently evaded Ofsted inspection by re-registering two months before the inspection was due and thereby effectively wiping the record clean. Mrs Laing condemns a box-ticking culture at Ofsted allows nurseries that are being run as businesses—not for the sake of caring, but simply for the sake of making money—to hide behind the corporate veil.

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am bringing before the House the matter of the death of little Rhiya Malin, who was two-and-a-half years old when she died at Eton Manor nursery in Chigwell in my constituency. I do so because it is our duty here in Parliament to hold public bodies to account. The people of this country rely on Government and Government agencies to protect them from wrongdoing. Sadly, however, we sometimes discover instances in which the attitude of a Government Department or agency is based on a box-ticking, passing the buck and “it’s in the rules, so it’s okay” attitude. Sometimes the real effect on real people, [...] who rely on Government Departments and agencies, is passed by, forgotten or ignored. Sadly, that is true in this case.

Before I begin the main part of what I have to say, I welcome the new Minister to her position. I appreciate that she has played no part whatsoever in and has had no personal responsibility for the matter until now, but some of her predecessors, of whom I am critical, should bear some responsibility for passing the buck and an over-reliance on bureaucratic rules. My intention in bringing the matter to the House’s attention is to ensure that, in future, such matters will be dealt with in a better way and have a more satisfactory outcome.

This is a very sad case. Five years ago, on 8 November 2007, Rhiya Malin, a little girl aged two, died while in the care of Eton Manor day nursery in Chigwell in my constituency. The nursery is still operating. Some of the people who had care of—or, it could be argued, did not have care of—the little girl at the time she died are still working there. The facts speak for themselves. Someone put a child aged two and a half in a nursery. We are not talking about a child aged seven or eight, who can run about and do things that lead to accidents, such as climb trees, go up on roofs or fall off bicycles. We are talking about a two-year-old baby who should have been supervised. She was unaccounted for for 25 minutes, so something went wrong. The facts speak for themselves. That little girl should not have died while in the care of that nursery.

I fully appreciate that it is not the duty of Parliament to hold individuals to account and that some proceedings relating to this matter are still sub judice. I also appreciate that neither the Minister nor anyone else can comment on those issues in public, and I will not do so either, because that would be wrong. The question whether a particular individual was or was not responsible for the apparent negligence that led to Rhiya Malin’s death is a matter for the courts, not us, but the nursery has accepted responsibility for the health and safety failings and it is still trading. The people who failed to find that little dying girl for 25 minutes that day are still there.

I am not interested in dealing with a criminal standard of proof, and I am not interested in retribution—as I said, those are matters for the courts. I just want to ensure that we do all we can to hold public bodies to account and ensure that what happened at Eton Manor nursery that day does not happen again, ever, to any other little child who has been put in the care of people who have been presumed to be responsible but have acted irresponsibly.

One aspect of the case that really upsets me is that Ofsted has treated it as though a child had broken a leg or an arm and it were required to ensure that it did not admit liability for fear of having to spend public money on compensation to the parents of the injured child. That has been its attitude throughout.

For me to receive a letter from one of the Minister’s predecessors suggesting that I could hold Ofsted to account by going to a Select Committee or the ombudsman was an utter insult to a family who are bereaved and a little child who lost her life. There has been a box-ticking mentality of passing the buck. The mentality has been, “We have done everything we were meant to do,” and “It says here that this is what Ofsted should do, so that is what it did—no more, no less—so it is okay. Go away, Member of Parliament. What are you getting so upset about?”

I am getting upset because there were many complaints about that nursery before little Rhiya died. I have evidence of complaints or investigations in September 2004, April 2005, June 2005, September 2005 and September 2007. There may have been many more, but those are the ones of which I am aware. Yet nothing was done. Ofsted appears to have gone in and said, “Well, this could be improved on and that was wrong”, or “This was right, but that could be done better”, and nothing happened. There was probably not a good enough ratio of carers to little children, but it is not for me to make that judgment. It is for Ofsted to make it, and to carry through the job that is assigned to it by ensuring that a nursery—a place where little children are supposed to be looked after—is properly run and properly regulated.

I have delayed and delayed bringing the matter to the House, because we were awaiting the inquest, a judicial review result and the result of health and safety hearings, but it gets to the point where enough is enough. Five years have now passed, and in bringing the matter to the notice of the House and the Minister in public today, I think what I would say to myself if, five years after a tragic incident such as this, a similar incident were to occur in that nursery or some other nursery that could have been prevented if steps had been taken and lessons learned from the death of Rhiya Malin. After five years, I perceive that nothing has changed in that nursery. That is why I have brought the matter before the House. I appreciate that the Minister may be restricted in what she can say because parts of the case are still sub judice, but I do not mind because at least we are airing the matter in public.

One of the most concerning issues is re-registration. Soon after little Rhiya died, the nursery in question was re-registered under a different company name. We all know about the ownership of companies and the corporate veil and so on, but it looks as if deliberate steps were taken to re-register the nursery under a different name so that the record was wiped clean, and so that prospective parents researching whether it was a suitable company and place to put their small children would not have been able to find out that a child died. That change in company might have been a coincidence, and the name might have been changed for some other business, financial or tax reason, but it looks very much as if re-registration occurred because the company wished to conceal its responsibility—or possible responsibility—for what happened when little Rhiya died.

In September 2008 a director of Casterbridge Care and Education Ltd applied to register the five nurseries in that company with another company, Casterbridge Nurseries Ltd., of which they were also a director. Ofsted should have inspected Eton Manor in 2008, but because the company had re-registered, that did not happen.

An e-mail from someone at Ofsted states:

“I have an open CIE case…and the Midlands have an open CIE case…on two provisions within Casterbridge nurseries chain…Both provisions have recently been re-registered as the provider has changed its name from Casterbridge Care and Education Ltd to Casterbridge Ltd. The new certificates giving the new registration numbers have already been dispatched to the provider. The provider’s history with Companies House shows numerous changes of names over the last 5 years and a high number of CIE cases. Is it possible for us to transfer these cases which are logged against the old registrations to the new one? Or are we now in a position where we are forced to accept the provider’s resignation…which would effectively mean that the CIE cases trail is lost and the cases that are now live are simply closed?”

I know the Minister will say that the system has changed since 2008. One of her predecessors wrote to me saying that matters have been improved, and that as a result of this case Ofsted now deals differently with such matters. I am still wary, however, that not enough has been done to pinpoint who was responsible on the day that little girl died, and to make them feel their responsibility.

A letter from Ofsted from December 2009, on exactly the same matter, states:

“On the law as it stands, it is not clear that we have the power to publish the regulatory history of the old company in connection with the new company. Our current position is that we do not do so. We do not have any direct evidence to show that providers have used changes in legal entity to remove a poor registration history deliberately, although we are aware and mindful of the risks on this going forward. However, our registration process is sufficiently robust to pick up any significant concerns, such that if required, we would refuse registration.”

That is not so. A little girl died in that nursery five years ago, and it has gone on trading every day since. Other two-year-olds have been in that nursery every day since the death of Rhiya Malin, and Ofsted has not taken the necessary steps to stop it happening again.

As I have said, this is a complicated matter, but I do not want the Minister and her officials to wriggle out of it by saying, “We cannot hold any particular individual responsible because that is a matter for the criminal law,” or, “We cannot hold this company responsible because the nursery is no longer owned by it—it has changed from being this company to that company and another company.” Individuals within those companies have been involved all along. I know what happens when company names change and ownership changes. I am bringing the matter before the House because somebody somewhere in the chain of responsibility should have stopped passing the buck and ticking the boxes. They should have said, “This is not a case in which a child was injured or something remotely distasteful occurred. A child died in this case. It is not run of the mill. It is not an every day occurrence—thank goodness.” This is an unusual and exceptional case, and it should have been dealt with as such.

As I have said, I appreciate that the Minister has not dealt with the matter before, but I ask her to look at these facts. The nursery is still in operation; the people who were in charge are still there; no one has been held responsible for the death; and nothing has been done to ensure that it never happens again. I hope she can give some answers today, but I appreciate that it is difficult for her to do so. I hope that those in the chain of responsibility—through Ofsted and other Government agencies—sit up and take note. It is unacceptable to allow five years and more to pass after the death of a small child in a place that was regulated by the Government, where such a child should have been safe and properly cared for.

In bringing the matter to the House, I pay tribute to Rhiya Malin’s parents—her bereaved, heartbroken parents. They could have drawn a line under their tragedy, but they did not. They have continued to campaign and to do all they can to ensure that no other parents and little children suffer the tragedy they have suffered. I pay tribute to them for all they have done and continue to do.

The Minister is not afraid of taking on a challenge. I hope that by bringing the matter to the House, I have given her an opportunity to take action to ensure that nurseries such as Eton Manor are safer in future, and that the people who run such nurseries as businesses—not for the sake of caring, but simply for the sake of making money—are not allowed to hide behind the corporate veil.

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for obtaining a debate on this important issue and bringing it to my attention. Rhiya Malin’s tragic death happened a few years ago and was a truly appalling ordeal for her parents. It was also a truly appalling thing to take place in a nursery that—as my hon. Friend points out—is regulated by the Government. She raised two issues in her very passionate speech. The first was about how individuals who had taken decisions in the chain of command had been held to account, and the second was about the way in which Ofsted operates and the role it plays.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is extremely important that Government bodies are held to account and that individuals take responsibility for their actions, whether they are in an agency or a central Department. I will certainly follow up on the specific issues that she mentioned.

My hon. Friend also highlighted the processes that Ofsted goes through, especially how it regulates and inspects nurseries and other child care providers. We launched a new early years foundation stage in September which sets stringent welfare requirements that inspectors regulate against. We are being clear that staff have responsibility for the safety and health of children; that children must be properly supervised in nurseries; and that nursery managers and other staff must fulfil certain qualification requirements. One of the very important factors in the safety of children in nurseries is the quality of management and staff. As she pointed out, I have only recently started work on this portfolio and I will shortly make further comments on staff qualifications and Ofsted regulation in response to the Nutbrown review of qualifications. I hope to talk to my hon. Friend before announcing those new measures. I hope also that they will address some of the issues that she has raised, such as box-ticking rather than understanding outcomes, and looking at what is happening on the ground—both important points that she raised in her speech.

On the particular powers that Ofsted has to intervene, Ofsted can set actions on providers that must be met within specified time scales. If failings are serious or pose a risk to the welfare of children, registrations can and should be cancelled. I will consider the implications of the outcome of the health and safety prosecutions of Casterbridge Care and the staff on duty at the time of Rhiya’s death. In response to my hon. Friend’s points about registration and inspection, I understand that the previous Minister accepted Ofsted’s proposals to retain information about previous registrations on its website for three years, and that information will be kept irrespective of whether there has been a change in ownership. That includes the inspection reports, and complaints and actions taken in respect of them. Parents will be able to press nursery owners, whether related to previous owners or not, about possible links with the previous registration.

It is my priority in this role to put in place a system that ensures that safety and quality in our nurseries and child care provision are the most important things. We want our regulatory system to focus on those two important areas. That is what parents care about. They want to know that if they leave their child in the trust of a nursery, they will be cared for and kept safe. If a nursery is not capable of keeping children safe and secure, it should not be in operation.

I mentioned that we were shortly to respond to the Nutbrown review and to consider various issues, including the salaries and qualification levels of staff operating in the child care industry. We are keen to ensure that it is a professional sector where people take responsibility, where there is proper training and development in all parts of the industry and where quality supervision and best practice are followed in nurseries across the county.

I have also been in discussions with Ofsted about how to ensure that our inspection system is of the best possible quality and cannot be accused of simply ticking the boxes. Inspectors must be properly observing what happens in nurseries and child care settings and ensuring that children are properly supervised, engaged with, educated and given the skills and tools they need to lead a successful life. Evidence shows more and more how important those early years are to children’s future development. And of course parents’ No. 1 concern is to ensure that their children are safe. That is all about the quality of the supervision and the people involved.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on pursuing this case for such a long time. I am concerned that she and the parents, who have gone through an extremely distressing time, have not yet had the full answers and full accountability they need. It is right that public bodies be held to account for their actions. I commit to her that, as well as ensuring that the structures under which Ofsted operates are the best possible and ensuring the safety and quality of the care that our children receive, I will also look into the issues that previous Ministers have undertaken to look into to see what further action can be taken.

Question put and agreed to.

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| Justice for Rhiya

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