One fundamental cause of the tension between private owners and inspectors is the contradictory stance of the Department of Health. By statute, anyone is entitled to be registered as a proprietor unless it is shown that they or the premises are "unfit". This is usually interpreted by the courts as denoting total incompetence or lack of probity to a high degree.
However, the Secretary of State instructed local authorities in 1990 that one of the main purposes of inspection was to encourage providers to raise standards: "It should be seen as an integral part of the registration process and should be used to ensure high standards of service." Yet when inspection units tried to follow this advice the department issued a circular in 1993 complaining that the guidance had been applied over-strictly "and a number appear to have insisted on even higher standards without justification".
Proprietors and local authorities, let alone consumers, are entitled to have a clear statement from the Department about where the balance lies. At the same time, thought could be given to the anomaly that private homes and nurseries are subject to regulation and standards higher than those required of council-run establishments.
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