Clause 80 - Restriction on bringing children in

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 6 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey 2:30, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 159, in page 43, line 16, leave out 'six months' and insert 'one year'.

Having been greatly enriched by that piece of information, I turn to more mundane matters. The Bill makes it an offence to bring any child into the United Kingdom for whom an overseas adoption order has been granted during the previous six months if the required UK procedures have not been complied with. I am trying to find out why the period decided on was six months.

Intercountry adopters frequently have to remain in the overseas country for three or more months—sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, up to a year—usually in order to comply with the overseas requirements. In practice, the provision would rarely be invoked, but if it is meant as a deterrent to people trying to circumvent the system, would it not be better to extend the period from six months to one year? That time frame would be in line with the usual one-year qualification for children to be admitted to the UK as de facto dependents when they have been adopted by UK nationals while living overseas. There appears to be a slight inconsistency between the two provisions.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I welcome you back to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. I am pleased to back in Committee following the sterling work of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).

We have moved to the part of the Bill that deals with the protections and additional safeguards that the Government have introduced in relation to intercountry adoption. The clause is an important part of a package of measures to ensure that intercountry adoption takes place only where the same minimum safeguards as those for domestic adoptions have been applied.

The clause re-enacts the restrictions in section 56A of the Adoption Act 1976, which was inserted by section 14 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 and brought into force on 30 April 2001. It makes it a criminal offence for a British resident to bring a child into the UK for the purposes of adoption—if they are intending to adopt them in the UK—unless they comply with the prescribed requirements.

The Adoption of Children from Overseas Regulations 2001 make it a requirement that prospective adopters apply to a local authority or voluntary adoption agency through procedures similar to those followed in domestic adoptions. The adopters then receive a certificate of eligibility, issued by the Secretary of State. The clause also extends the restrictions—this relates to the issue in hon. Lady's amendment—to British residents who bring into the UK a child whom they adopted outside the British islands within the previous six months and whom they do not intend to adopt in the UK. They might choose to do that because the adoption order is recognised under UK law or because they are content to have an adoption order just from the child's state of origin and do not want the arrangement recognised in the UK.

In reviewing the law on intercountry adoption earlier this year, the Government concluded that the restrictions on bringing children into the UK for the purposes of adoption alone were insufficient because they did not catch those who returned to the UK with a child whom they had adopted overseas but did not intend to adopt in the UK. Clause 80 attempts to redress that situation by requiring British residents who bring into the UK children whom they adopted outside the British islands to comply with prescribed procedures and conditions. Those will be the same as the procedures and conditions for British residents who want to bring a child into the UK for the purpose of adoption.

The Bill requires anyone who returns with a child who is less than six months old and for whom they have an adoption order made in a country outside the British islands to comply with prescribed procedures and conditions to avoid committing an offence. The amendment would extend the length of time to a year. I understand that the hon. Lady is using the amendment to ask why we chose six months.

The hon. Lady mentioned the period for which someone might need to remain overseas before the adoption order was made. The Bill provides for a six-month period that begins after the adoption order is made, and the period will be longer for someone in an overseas country if we take into account the length of time up to that point.

In drafting subsection (1)(b), we carefully considered the time limit. We were keen to ensure that we caught those who lived in the UK and adopted a child who was habitually resident outside the British islands. However, we were also keen not to catch those who lived and perhaps worked outside the British islands and who might still be considered to be habitually resident in the UK, but who—because they, effectively, lived in the country where the adoption process took place—legitimately wished to adopt through the procedures in that country.

We decided that six months seemed a reasonable length of time. It is long enough to catch unscrupulous individuals who, to avoid committing an offence, take a short leave of absence to live outside the British islands and adopt through the procedures of the country in which they live. However, it is also short enough not to catch those who live and work overseas. I hope that I have made it clear that the six-month qualifying period commences only once an adoption order has been granted.

The hon. Lady referred to the time period. In considering it, we looked carefully at immigration service arrangements for deciding whether to grant entry clearance. Each case is determined on its merits and there is no set time limit, but the immigration service will usually treat favourably applications for entry clearance for children who are de facto dependents, where the child has lived with the family for a minimum of six months and the family has lived overseas for about 12 months. That shows that there is equivalence—to the extent that it is possible to achieve equivalence given the discretion over immigration clearance.

Extending the period to 12 months would not increase our chances of catching those leaving the country for a short period in order to adopt. However, it would increase our chances of catching those who legitimately choose to go through the adoption procedures in the country where they live. I hope that my clarification will lead the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

That was helpful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I beg to move amendment No. 160, in page 43, line 23, after 'step-parent', insert 'or foster parent'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 163, in page 45, line 3, after 'step-parent', insert 'or foster parent'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Welcome back to our proceedings, Mrs. Roe. I would recommend a glance at the Hansard of this morning's events, which were educational and illuminative. I shall also recommend that when the Bill reaches the other place their lordships glance over our proceedings on clause 68, as the provision is particularly relevant to them.

Having had insufficient time this morning to discuss the clutch of clauses before the Committee under the stringent programme resolution, we now move to another part of the Bill. We were unable this morning to discuss an issue even thornier than aristocratic sperm—that of incest, which left many questions unanswered.

Clause 80, on restrictions on bringing children into the country, addresses the complex subject of intercountry adoption. By way of introduction, I should say that many of the professional and voluntary bodies that made representations to the Committee raised concerns about the real meaning and intent behind the clauses in chapter 6 because they seem to leave unanswered many questions about the Government's attitude to intercountry adoption. The amendments are probing, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that our concerns have been taken into account. Amendment No. 160 would add to the list of people to whom clause 80 applies the status of foster parent. Amendment No. 163 would do the same with clause 82, which deals with people wishing to take children out of the country.

The Bill seems to make foster parents non-people in the adoption process. Those covered in the two clauses are adopters, prospective adopters, parents, relatives, guardians and step-parents, but nowhere does it specifically mention foster parents. It is essential to protect the rights of foster parents as current guardians of children and as prospective adopters. The Minister may believe that their specific role is covered, but as they are not mentioned in the clause, it would be useful to have that on record. We have heard that many foster parents become adoptive parents, that it is a beneficial part of the adoptive process flow chart and that it can also speed up that flow chart because they are already recognised and have the necessary experience.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I support my hon. Friend's amendments. Foster parents adopt many foreign children, especially in inner-city areas with a high proportion of asylum seekers. I have seen plane loads of children arriving unaccompanied in this country, their passports having been destroyed. They will be put straight into care homes. Early adoption may be suitable. For those placed with foster parents, the provision could provide problems on the best course of action, so I support the proposed addition.

Clause 82 states that its provisions do not apply if

''the proposed adopters are parents, relatives or guardians of the child (or one of them is)''.

There should be an ''or'' after that; otherwise it would imply that all the conditions had to be fulfilled in order to qualify.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 2:45, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) suggested that the Government were not sufficiently concerned about support for intercountry adoption, or about its complexity. We acknowledge that intercountry adoption can be an extremely valuable placement choice for some children. It is in line with international conventions to which we are a signatory. However, in line with international law, we believe that children should be protected to the same extent on intercountry adoptions as on domestic ones.

That brings us to the problem of the hon. Gentleman's amendments. In some ways, they almost represent a misunderstanding of what clauses 80 and 82 try to achieve. They place restrictions on the movement of children in the context of intercountry adoption, ensure that the safeguards are met and allow exceptions to those restrictions.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

If a child who is habitually resident in another country comes to this country as an asylum seeker, is he therefore no longer habitually resident in another country? Would he be resident in this country?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I suspect—I will clarify it with the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong—that the position of a child who sought asylum in this country would partly be determined by whether he was accompanied by his parents and, if not, the extent to which he was covered by the Children Act 1989. If he became a looked-after child, the provisions on his domestic adoption would be those that we discussed earlier. If an asylum-seeking child was unaccompanied on entering the country, the foster parent would not have brought him into the United Kingdom. Therefore, the facilities to enable the foster parent to adopt the child would be those that we discussed under parts of the Bill relating to domestic adoptions.

Clauses 80 and 82 deal with restrictions on movement of children out of or into the country in relation to intercountry adoption. The provisions that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham aims to amend are the exceptions to those restrictions. We have clarified the groups of people to whom it would not be appropriate to apply the restrictions in the clauses, which are designed to provide safeguards. I hope that I can show the hon. Gentleman why it is appropriate to apply the restrictions to step-parents.

Clause 80 requires prescribed conditions to be met by those habitually resident in the UK before they adopt a child habitually resident outside the British islands. Clause 82 prevents the removal from the UK of children who are Commonwealth citizens or habitually resident in the UK for the purpose of adoption outside the British islands, unless certain conditions are met.

In both cases, the restrictions do not apply where at least one of the proposed adopters is the parent, relative or guardian of the child or a step-parent of the child. That is consistent with current law, and recognises the links and relationships between the child and any prospective adopter who falls into one of those categories. It would be seen as unreasonable to restrict the ability of a close relative or guardian of the child to take him out of or bring him into the country.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham would extend the exemption to the restrictions to include foster parents. That would mean that any foster parent could remove a child from the UK and adopt him outside the British islands. Also, anyone habitually resident in the UK who fostered a child in the child's state of origin could bring him back to the UK after adopting him in his state of origin or with the intention of adopting him in the UK without penalty. For a number of reasons, I do not believe that to be appropriate.

If the amendment were made, there would be no distinction between the foster carer who had looked after a child for a significant period, and the one who had had care of the child for only a few days. That would open a large loophole in the restrictions that we are trying to put in place to protect vulnerable children. Some foster carers should not be prevented from being positively encouraged to adopt the children in their care, given the time scales and conditions that we discussed last week, but that has to be within the restrictions that relate to domestic adoptions.

The amendment would mean that the unscrupulous—unfortunately, we know that some people may be unscrupulous in their approach to intercountry adoption—could avoid having to be assessed and approved as suitable to adopt, as a child habitually resident outside the UK could be placed with them in a foster placement overseas before adoption. Such people could travel abroad and undertake some sort of foster placement that would enable them, if there were not a restriction, to bring the child back into the country in order to adopt. That would undermine our attempts to ensure that those who wish to adopt children from outside the British islands do so only where, as a minimum, the same safeguards as in domestic adoptions have been applied.

If the amendment were made, it might be possible to foster a child overseas, where the meaning and legal standing of foster care might be quite different to that in UK law, and return to the UK with that child with the intention of adopting him. That would mean that children resident in the UK might be removed from the country for adoption by a foster parent with whom they had been resident for only a short time. That would be despite the fact that the foster parent would have no right to apply for adoption in the UK without the agreement of the local authority given that the child had been resident with him for less than a year. We discussed such issues last week.

There would also be a definitional problem on foster placements made by overseas agencies. In the UK, only placements made through local authorities would allow an individual to be recognised as a foster carer. Placements made by the parents are considered to be private fostering arrangements and the carers to be private foster carers. A range of practices exists in other countries, including placements by parents and a range of organisations. That would cause serious difficulties in identifying whether an individual could legitimately claim to be a foster parent to a child, and therefore exempt from the clauses.

The amendments do not take into account who has parental responsibility for the child and whether that person consents to the child being removed. In the case of a child resident in the UK, we would want to ensure that the birth parents and the local authority had an opportunity to consider and have their views heard on any potential adoption or move outside the British islands. Schedule 2 of the Children Act 1989 states:

''A local authority may only arrange for...any child...to live outside England and Wales with the approval of the court'',

''with the approval of every person who has parental responsibility for the child''.

The proposals would undermine the role of foster parents and the trust that they can engender in children and their families and social workers. After all, most foster carers aim to provide care and support to children on a short-term basis, so that those children can return to their birth families.

Each year, thousands of children are successfully rehabilitated with their families after short periods in foster care. If it were possible for a foster family to remove a child from the United Kingdom and adopt them outside the British islands, the effective use of foster placements would be reduced, and the suspicion would increase that a child in that situation would not return to his own family. If the amendments stood, they would have an impact on voluntarily accommodated children and could increase the number of contested care proceedings.

I understand the concern of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that throughout the Bill we should recognise that it is often beneficial to the child that foster parents are able to adopt the children for whom they are caring. However, that should be allowed only within the conditions in the clauses that we debated last week—not as an avoidance of those conditions through the intercountry adoptions to which the amendments might lead.

With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful to the Minister. The amendments are relatively minor probing amendments, and the Minister went into enormous detail to refute them. Having achieved our intention that foster parents should not be regarded as non-persons, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I beg to move amendment No. 156, in page 43, line 30, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 157, in page 43, line 38, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

These are also probing amendments, which relate to the thorny problem of ''shall'' and ''may'' and the even thornier problem of the detailed regulations that apply to the Bill.

The Government produced an enormous set of draft regulations entitled Implementing the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which is available only on the Department of Health website, and not in hard copy. Those regulations are in draft form alone, and we do not know how they apply to this clause. It seems strange that those regulations do not form a statutory part of a requirement; they are only a ''may'' part of the requirement, although we are going to the trouble of introducing those regulations and legislating for them in advance. Will the Minister give us an explanation for that?

I am glad to see the hon. Lady wielding a hard copy of those documents, because her Department said when my office inquired about obtaining them that they were available only on the internet. Perhaps they should be more widely available to those without access to the internet or those who risk using up enormous quantities of ink from their printer.

However, these are only probing amendments, and I am sure that the Minister will allay our fears in a detailed manner, as she usually does.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 3:00, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

I start by apologising to the hon. Gentleman if he found it hard to obtain hard copies of the document, of which I have a hard copy. If it is the document to which he refers, I will assure that he receives a hard copy, to save him using up his precious printer ink. It is a fair criticism, because we must ensure that the regulations and draft regulations that will follow the Bill are available for others to consult on and consider.

At the risk of falling foul of the hon. Gentleman by discussing the matter in too much detail, I start by saying that the clause allows the Secretary of State, after consulting the National Assembly for Wales, to make regulations that set out the procedures or conditions that must be met by any British resident who wishes to adopt a child habitually resident outside the British islands. We intend to consult on the exact contents of the regulations, but we expect that they will be similar to those in place for those wanting to bring children into the United Kingdom for the purpose of adoption.

The conditions include: requiring that prospective adopters apply to and are assessed by an adoption agency in the United Kingdom; that while going through the assessment process, prospective adopters provide as much information as requested by the agency; that prospective adopters agree to carry out police and medical checks; that cases referred to an adoption panel, the home-study assessment and such other information as is required by the overseas authority, is sent to the central authority so that it can be checked; that the proper procedures are followed and all the information collected before a certificate of eligibility is issued on behalf of the Secretary of State and sent to the overseas authority; and that, within 14 days of arrival in the United Kingdom with a child whom they intend to adopt, notice of intention to adopt is given to the local authority in whose area the prospective adopters reside.

A problem with the hon. Gentleman's amendments—although I recognise that they are probing amendments—is that they would require the Secretary of State to make such regulations, rather than give him a permissive power to do so. That would undermine the flexibility of the current approach, which allows the Secretary of State to determine what, if any, conditions should be met before going overseas to adopt and what, if any, conditions should be met on return to the United Kingdom. However, I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the regulations that we intend to make will be along the lines of those I have outlined.

There is some benefit in allowing regulations to follow discussions of the Bill, because it is often appropriate to allow time to consult stakeholders in the field to ensure that we get the detail right.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

Reference is made in several parts of the draft regulations to consulting the National Assembly, which is welcome. After the consultation, will the draft regulations return to the National Assembly for implementation by the relevant Committee, or will they be dealt with in a Committee of this House? That is a hot issue in Wales.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I understand that it is a hot issue, but my understanding is that the National Assembly does not make regulations; that is the responsibility of the Secretary of State. The extent of the consultation of the Assembly depends partly on the regulations. As hon. Members have said, there are various different regulation-making processes in the Bill.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I have not made myself clear. When the draft regulation has been drawn up, it must be overseen by a Committee of this House or the Assembly before it has the force of law. Will it go to the Assembly, or be dealt with in this House?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I am very aware of the sensitivities caused by devolution. I shall correct myself if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Secretary of State will make the regulations and that they will be subject to consideration by the House or a Committee of the House, depending on whether they are subject to negative or affirmative resolution. I hope that that clarifies the matter for the hon. Gentleman. I believe that I am right in what I have said.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

Although I appreciate that the issue has not been devolved, there seems little point in devolution if what the Minister says is a general statement of principle. Frankly, there is no point in another Chamber second-guessing what has already been passed here.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman may want to turn our debate into a discussion about whether Wales should be an independent state, but I am not sure that the rest of the Committee does. Some issues have been fully devolved; others have not. I have attempted to clarify for him what I understand the position to be in relation to the Bill. When drawing up the legislation, we had significant discussions with representatives of the National Assembly for Wales. In this case, the regulations can be made only after consultation—and that is only in the context of intercountry adoption. Other regulations will be made separately.

I was explaining why not every detail is necessarily placed in legislation, or not made available when a Bill is being debated. It is partly to allow time to consult on regulations. Regulations allow us the flexibility to make changes when circumstances change or, in this case, if adoption practice changes. The content of many regulations is often too technical or administrative for inclusion in a Bill.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister's point is well taken. Conversely, she must understand why the Opposition press Ministers if they can on the likely content of regulations—so that we can have a meaningful debate on the provisions of the Bill and there is a framework to our debate.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why, despite the rather unkind comments of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about my verbosity, I nevertheless attempted to reassure him about what the regulations might contain on this point. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier is absolutely right to say that Members pressing Ministers and bringing points to their attention that should subsequently be considered in regulation is an appropriate part of the process of scrutiny that legislation undergoes. Indeed, I look forward to being pressed further as we continue our debates.

Precedent is very important in law. It goes with precedent that we should use the word ''may'' instead of ''shall'' about regulation-making provisions. I hope that with those short, sharp reassurances, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am devastated; I certainly did not seek to criticise the Minister's verbosity, as she described her output. Indeed, I was complimenting her on her thoroughness in her response to a relatively minor amendment. She spoke with even greater thoroughness in responding to these amendments. I am delighted that she should look forward to being pressed further. Indeed, it will be the thoroughness of the Opposition Members who will ensure that she is pressed on matters of slightly greater import when we come to later amendments.

We can argue until the cows come home about how much of the legislation should be included in the Bill and how much we can trust the Government to leave to regulations. We repeat our complaint that the Committee has not seen and has no knowledge of the regulations despite having to debate the clauses that give weight to them. I take the Minister's point, but we will continue to disagree on that matter. However, in the interest of moving to other clauses, on which we will be able to press her further, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I beg to move amendment No. 142, in page 43, line 34, after 'agency)', insert—

'or a fully qualified social worker approved by the relevant local authority'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 143, in page 43, line 36, after 'agency', insert 'or relevant social worker'.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I should like to explain briefly what we are trying to do. Subsection (4) states that

''Regulations may require a person . . . to apply to an adoption agency''.

That does not go far enough. If couples or single people, as is allowed, want to adopt a child from abroad, they will have two options. They will be able to go either to a local authority or to an adoption agency. I would imagine that, for the purposes of the Bill, ''agency'' must include local authorities—I see the Minister's officials nodding. However, at the moment, couples can go to private social workers, of whom the overwhelming majority are highly qualified, skilled and experienced. Virtually all of them are former local authority social workers who have retired early or moved into private practice. They carry out a home study and any necessary post-placement studies for couples.

The system has been working very well, but I entirely accept that it broke down badly in the case of the Kilshaws. I think that everyone agrees that the Kilshaws were completely unsuitable for having anything to do with children at all. However, it is worth bearing in mind that in their case, the agency that was used in America broke state laws. It was not just a question of private social workers in this country producing a home-study report that should never have recommended the Kilshaws for adoption in the first place—the law in America was also definitely broken. The children involved have, rightly, already gone back to America and hopefully will be reunited either with their natural parents or with another, more suitable, couple who are able to adopt them.

However, one appalling case, however appalling it is and however bad the publicity, does not justify such a significant change in the law. Throughout the country there are networks of private social workers involved in intercountry adoption. I hope that the Minister will be able to fill me in on that. To some extent, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, we are flying blind on the clause, because much of it will depend on regulations. As the Minister said, there will be consultation on the regulations and they have not yet been finalised. What they say will be critical. The existing regulations are copious, complex and, in many cases, extremely difficult to understand. The clause is, on the face of it, quite simple, but it is governed by highly complex regulations, so a few large question marks still hang over this part of the Bill.

What will social workers who work in intercountry adoption do? Some will join agencies—some have probably already done so—but there is a critical shortage of such agencies. More may be set up, and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether private social workers can form an agency by grouping together and so proceed with the work that they are doing. Many private social workers have a close relationship with the local authority in their area, undertaking home studies and post-placement reports, with local authority social workers involved and visiting the children in question.

I suspect that local authorities also subcontract tasks to private social workers. It is important to bear in mind the shortage of resources in many social services departments. There is no question but that there is a shortage of key personnel and funds in Norfolk—it is a Labour-controlled authority—and I am sorry to say that the provision of services across the board has suffered because of the shortage of funding. We must not digress, but I hope that Tuesday's settlement will go some way towards redressing those difficulties. The Minister is aware of those shortages and of the problems with morale and recruitment in social services.

Attempts are being made to bring more young people into the profession. I have been involved in the tragic case of Lauren Wright, which arose in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). The case worker, Hugh Morgan, resigned and several other officers were devastated. A mistake was made, but the social services did not kill that child—the stepmother did. None the less, they are the ones to suffer: they attract the worst sort of opprobrium in the tabloids and the local press. Hugh Morgan was a constituent of mine, and many social workers in my constituency have asked me, ''What can we do to encourage more young people into the profession? It will be very difficult.'' A public inquiry into the Victoria Climbie case is under way, and a substantial amount of unpleasant publicity will flow from it. The signal that is being sent to many young people who are thinking of going into the profession is, ''Is it really worth it? You'll do an excellent job 99.9 per cent. of the time and receive no praise. When things go wrong the other 0.01 per cent of the time, you'll get all the blame.''

There is a serious problem with recruiting and resources. I want the Minister to reassure me that social services departments will be able to cope properly with the extra work involved in intercountry adoptions. My amendment may assist them, because it would allow private social workers who are approved and registered by the local authority to carry on doing what they already do.

We are considering an excellent resource that is already in place. The Kilshaw case, while highly regrettable and unfortunate, it involved just one private social worker out of many. I do not know precisely how many intercountry adoptions there are every year, but we were given a figure of about 500, so let us say that there have been 5,000 over the past 10 years. I know of no case other than the Kilshaw case in which intercountry adoption has gone wrong. The agencies deal with thousands of cases, but most are dealt with by private social workers and they have done an excellent job. They are a resource that must be nurtured and encouraged. That would be in the spirit of the Government's ideas about working with the private sector and having partnerships between local authorities and the private sector, which we are seeing throughout the caring services.

Only yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health announced that if people had been waiting for an operation for more than six months, it would be done by the private sector. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will agree that we have been saying for a long time that that should happen, and I am pleased that the Government have picked up one of our policies. Indeed, all local authority services, and not only social service provision, but education and highways departments, are engaging in constructive, pragmatic alliances and relationships with the private sector. The Minister must satisfy us that private social workers, who are an important resource, will be able to help us to achieve what we want—a better, more efficient service.

We want local authorities to carry out their adoption functions as efficiently as possible. Questions are asked about resources, but if local authorities are to take on the extra functions of intercountry adoption and provide a much more efficient service for domestic adoptions, pressure on resources will increase and many personnel will be overworked and stressed—indeed, many social workers cannot go on doing the job that they are doing now. I seek a sensible, pragmatic solution, and I hope that the Minister, in the spirit of the common-sense goals that we are trying to achieve, will be able to satisfy Opposition Members that the Bill will enable that solution to be found. If she cannot, she should accept the amendment.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley 3:15, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, social workers do not often get a good press. The general view seems to be that they are young, incompetent and completely devoid of common sense. That view is often based on misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge.

I do not intend to go into details of the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The recent tragedies of two young children in the most awful circumstances at least began to show the public that social workers' concerns about intercountry adoption and the proper assessment of prospective adoptive parents have some basis in fact. It is essential that strong safeguards are in place in all adoption processes.

The hon. Gentleman asks why it is not sufficient to use fully qualified private social workers—approved or, as he suggests, registered, by the local authority. I understand that no provision is made for that. He asks why it would not be sensible. I believe that the Government are right to insist on the stronger safeguards. We all know that adoption is an emotional and demanding process for those involved. Unfortunately, lots of things can go wrong if those conducting the family study and going through the adoption process do not pay sufficient attention to certain aspects.

I worked for an authority that used a private social worker, but the report that came before the adoption panel was found to have a great many gaps and other problems. As a result, the social worker had to return to the family and go through the process again in greater detail. That was an extra source of stress, but it had nothing to do with the situation of the prospective adoptive parents.

An independent social worker is not in a position to benefit from the supervision, structure and support found in local authorities or adoption agencies. We must also bear in mind that there is no current method of ensuring that independent social workers meet the required standard. There is no accreditation at certain stages—there is nothing other than a recommendation, which may come from another independent social worker, to ensure that they have the relevant experience and expertise to undertake the work.

There are clear benefits to families who want to go for intercountry adoption being assessed by adoption agencies. They are able to take part in the work that is done with other adopters, and they can take part in preparation groups in which important issues are discussed. Although additional work may be necessary, examining the reasons for adoption, the process of adoption and why children need to be adopted has clear benefits.

I was worried to hear the suggestion that the Bill gives local authorities a new function. That is clearly not the case. There are couples now, as there have been in previous years, going through the process of intercountry adoption. At the local authority where I used to work, we had a very bad experience involving an independent social worker, and we took the decision that in future all intercountry adoptions would be done by in-house social workers, so that support and training forums could be provided and we could ensure that prospective adopters did not suffer the extra stress of an inadequate report.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

Does the hon. Lady accept that under my amendment, a fully qualified social worker would have to be approved by the local authority? That approval could be withdrawn, and in cases such as the one that she encountered when she was a social worker, in which the local authority was not happy with the work done, approval would be withdrawn and there would be no more work from that private social worker.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting an additional process and an additional set of regulations that do not currently exist for local authorities. There is no process whereby a social worker is approved to carry out a certain piece of work. Clearly there are circumstances in which social work departments subcontract certain pieces of work: they generally do so on the basis of some knowledge and experience. However, in the field adoption, that is risky. If problems with a home study subsequently arise and a couple feels that their situation has not been properly dealt with, the position becomes much more complex. The risk is simply too great. I have explored the upside in some detail, so I will not repeat myself, but there are clear benefits for prospective adopters if they go through the process of training and support with other people who will adopt children from this country.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am following the hon. Lady's comments closely and they appear to contain a contradiction. She said earlier that we should not treat as the norm the few tragic examples of cases that have gone wrong. We agree. However, she has just used the example of a case at the authority where she formerly worked. That case involved an independent social worker and went wrong, and on the basis of that one case, the authority took the decision not to employ any independent social workers for any of its work. That seems a strange generalisation to have made. Is it not incumbent on that authority and on every other properly to vet any social workers who are not on the payroll to whom work is contracted out, just as it is incumbent on that department to vet its own people?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

The local authority needs to safeguard prospective adopters and children. The experience of that case was so traumatic for everybody involved that the local authority decided that it would not take such a risk again. The number of intercountry adoptions dealt with by each local authority is relatively small. I am suggesting that it is better and safer to ensure that not only does the social worker have the appropriate support and supervision, but the prospective adopters benefit from the process that other adopters are going through.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 3:30, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

Does my hon. Friend agree that the starting point for authorities dealing with adoption agencies should be the precautionary principle? If there is concern about how an agency controls and supervises a case, the authorities must be cautious and take the safe option. The proposal by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has some attraction, but the interests of children and prospective families must be put first. If there is concern about how best to control and supervise a case, the authority's duty is to be cautious, not to take risks.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I entirely agree. Opposition Members recognise that local authorities and social services departments are under great stress. Setting up systems to vet, register and keep an eye on independent social workers will add an extra task to those they already have. The number of agencies in each local authority area is relatively small and the amount of administrative work would be completely out of proportion to the gain. Opposition Members are for ever going on about paperwork being the devil of many local authorities, so I should have thought that they would want to avoid increasing it.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Lady is making a mountain out of a molehill. In some cases, including the John Smith case in my neck of the woods and others that have been mentioned, the fault was with the full-time employees of social services departments. That was rare, but it happened.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Of course, but weaknesses in the system were down to the pressures on individuals who were employed by the social services departments. Ensuring that one carries out proper checks on one's own people and on outsiders to whom one has contracted work is not a matter of excessive paperwork. Many social services departments and children's departments work as part of much larger consortiums that extend beyond their area. It is perfectly reasonable to ask that checks be made on independent social workers who are indirectly employed by various local authorities that act together.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

With respect, I return to the same issue. Opposition Members rightly mentioned tragic individual cases, and we had a long discussion about that on Tuesday. Situations that a family finds stressful and distressing may only be a molehill to Opposition Members, but they are clearly a mountain to the people involved and we should not put them at risk.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

We are all interested in doing the best job we can on the Bill. We should bear in mind the plausible and highly sophisticated manner in which many paedophile operations work. If we do not put in place a structure that allows social services departments properly to vet independent social workers, how are we to vet them to ensure that they are fit to do their jobs? There must be a readily accessible and uniform structure across every local authority so that the odd bad egg does not get through. Mine is a simple question, and there might be a simple answer.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

As I said, there is no regulation and there is no single system. The hon. Gentleman might want to level his criticism at the systems that have been in place in this country for many years. Unfortunately, I have had far too much experience of social workers who should not have been in their positions. I do not disagree with the principle of what he says, but we have to deal with reality.

I have been speaking for far longer than I intended. Having made my points clear, I will let someone else have a go.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am sure that the hon. Lady will not take it the wrong way when I say that she has provoked me into replying to one or two of the points she makes. In some respects, she has misunderstood what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk meant. I know several overseas adopters, one especially well, and it is difficult to exaggerate the hassle and difficulty that many of them have suffered when they have gone to local authorities. To suggest, based on the case she describes, that the problem is all on one side of the equation is to mistake the truth.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I did not suggest that the problem was all on one side of the equation. We know that many local authorities have been reluctant to take on intercountry adopters, for the good reason that they are trying to place many children for adoption and they naturally want to encourage people to consider adopting a child who is waiting for a prospective adopter in the looked-after system. I do not disagree with that approach. However, the Government are trying to make it easier for people to take up intercountry adoption. Attitudes have changed during the past few years.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I understand that, but I still think that the hon. Lady misses the point. All members of the Committee acknowledge that social services departments are currently extremely short of resources. Even if the Government were to give them an unlimited budget tomorrow, shortages in number of social workers would continue leave them short of resources for a long time. Of course departments have the attitude that she mentioned—they strive to do the best they can for looked-after children, and in those circumstances they do not want to divert resources to intercountry adoption. That is precisely the reason for the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk.

If I understood my hon. Friend correctly, what he said should not be terribly controversial. He said that it is the quality of service or regulation applied that is important, not who provides it. No doubt, the Minister will tell him that the amendment is defective because it does not lay down a system for properly checking on the relevant social workers. However, operating some form of check on social workers would require far less local authority time than taking on extra work in adoption and other matters. The cynical truth is that, in practice, local authorities would not be able to take on that work, and it would become even harder to adopt children from overseas.

I have spoken many times on the Floor of the House about my enthusiasm for getting children in care adopted, and I have always supported the Bill. To the best of my memory, this is the first time that I have ever spoken on the subject of intercountry adoption. My concern is for British kids in care, some in institutions but more in fostering placements who are all too often moved rapidly from place to place. However, in a presentation in a Committee Room in another place last year, I heard a lady—I think that she was a noble Lady—describe the testimony of a family that had started an adoption procedure when they discovered a group of babies that had been fed to pigs in a third-world country; I believe that it was Vietnam. An intervention was made in time to recover the last baby before it was eaten. The child has now been adopted and is in this country.

No one has the right to adopt a child, and obviously not all cases are as extreme as the one that I described, but almost every child adopted by a loving family in this country has a much better chance in life than they would have had if they had remained in the circumstances from which they were adopted. The idea that local authorities, which are so overstretched, can resource this practice properly and provide the timely, unstressful and affordable assessments that are needed seems completely unrealistic. The Minister may correct me, but I believe that there will be no other avenue open to intercountry adopters—I think that I saw the Minister nodding.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I apologise to the Minister and give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I fear that the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of local social services is outdated. Significant changes have been made in intercountry adoption, and guidance has been issued during the past two years. I do not want to over-generalise, but the attitudes in the two local authorities in which I have worked within the past five years was considerably different; there was no delay. The Government have put large additional sums into adoption through the quality protects programme, so that area of work is much better resourced.

I must also point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is no less costly—in fact, I suggest that it would be more costly—to bring in a private social worker, because not only does the local authority have to pay for that out of its own resources, but it has to spend time regulating and checking that social worker's work. I think that the hon. Gentleman is in error.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Some parts of the hon. Lady's intervention—I am as grateful as ever—cover old ground, but I pick up one point. We must not allow confusion. It is and undeniable and extremely welcome truth that the attitude towards adoption in many local authorities has changed for the better. As little as two or three years ago, the league tables showed that only about 10 or 15 per cent. of authorities handled adoption properly. A large proportion of authorities—by no means all, alas, but a much larger proportion—are now doing their best.

That much is undeniable, but the hon. Lady confuses that with the fact that the number of social workers available is shrinking. Two or three years ago, social work departments were overstretched; they are now even more stretched. The extra money that she referred to is extremely welcome, but it is not ring-fenced.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Again, I fear that the hon. Gentleman is in error. It is indeed ring-fenced, in expectation that a significant proportion of money from the quality protects grant is spent on adoption. Although it is no doubt true that there has been a loss of social workers generally, adoption is usually an area in which social workers want to work and there is, as a result, no lack of staff.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am not going around the subject again, but whenever I have debated adoption—not only in Westminster, but on the airwaves two or three years ago, in the days when the social work climate was very different—I always came up against the resource argument. Social workers are in even shorter supply now than they were two or three years ago. The proportion of social workers who are fully qualified to deal with children has risen slightly, but it is still a long way short of what is needed. Local authorities will have to handle every case of intercountry adoption, yet many of them are already struggling to deal with the children in their own care.

I wish to make only one other point, because we cannot dwell on this amendment for ever—perhaps an Opposition Whip should not have been the one to say that. There is evidence of a growing and welcome consensus that the quality of a service is much more important than who provides it. The Government's recent announcements on the national health service and the use of private hospitals are a good example. I commend the amendments and look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 3:45, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

Several times, Opposition Members have said that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley is missing the point. She is not. Within social work, adoption is a popular field to work in.

The hon. Member for Canterbury spoke about resources and delays within the adoption system. The children and family social workers who are attached to the child are responsible for carrying out assessments. The adoption workers find prospective adopters and suggest a match. The shortages are at the front end—in the children and family sector. Shortages may not be in evidence at at the back end, where the adoption workers are. The proposition that additional private sector social workers will somehow fill a gap is simply false.

Local authorities can use private sector social workers in specific circumstances—to undertake child-focused or therapeutic work, for example. They can do so now and will continue to do so. Crucial aspects of a good adoption procedure are security of information and a good supervisory regime, so that social workers undertaking home visits have a clearly established professional relationship that is open to scrutiny by an agency. Prospective adopters are being interviewed not by an individual, but by an approved adoption agency or institution. That is the crucial safeguard against collusive relationships. The Kilshaw example shows that that is where the dangers lie.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

If the hon. Gentleman's first point about the absence of resource constraints on adoption workers is correct, he has reached the heart of a party political divide—probably the first we have seen in this Committee—in saying that the social services department rather than an individual makes the choice.

The Committee had to accept earlier that private fostering could not be regulated. Yet, as my own constituency shows, huge numbers of schoolchildren can stay in this country with families whose members have been revealed by random police checks to include abusers or criminals. Why, then, should individuals who wish to provide homes for these children not be subject to a properly qualified social worker of their choice?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about private foster carers. I am on record as having spoken about that issue time and again, and I hope that we can debate it in greater detail later in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister agrees, so before I make myself unpopular again, I shall move on.

The crucial matter is supervision and security of assessment. It is not an ideological issue: I am comfortable with the concept of private adoption agencies. It is not a case of private and public, good and bad. When a home visit assessment is undertaken, the atmosphere is understandably emotional. A couple may be desperate for a child that they were not able to conceive naturally; that is sad and painful, but it is part of the atmosphere. If the person who makes the assessment is not subject to checks, balances, reviews and peer supervision, a dangerous collusive relationship may arise. Social work is not a pure science: much of social work and working with children takes place in a world of grey areas, but the best possible assessment must be made.

I support the Government, although I have tabled amendments when I did not support them. In my experience, adoption is not about recruitment. It is important that assessments are carried out by people who are subject to checks and balances. Because of the importance of supervision, the Government are right to take a precautionary line. I agree that other people could provide a service, but precaution is the important guiding principle. The amendments should be rejected.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Although I do not accept his point about resources, I have the highest respect for the hon. Gentleman, whose argument is entirely consistent. The Minister recognises, although the hon. Gentleman does not, that it is impossible to regulate private fostering. How is it consistent to confine people who want to offer a permanent home to people from overseas by using such a heavy-handed approach? We have a completely open approach in respect of a range of other families who have foreign children in their homes, whether through fostering or hosting the thousands of visits every year by schoolchildren.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

The hon. Gentleman is losing the argument. He lost the argument on recruitment and on the quality of security of assessment and now he says that private fostering is impossible to regulate. I do not believe that it is, and neither do the Association of Directors of Social Services, Sir William Utting and Lord Laming. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we can take risks in one case so we can do so in another, my response is that two wrongs do not make a right.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Does my hon. Friend agree that being part of the local authority or adoption agency system rather than being assessed by an independent social worker means that applicants are automatically hooked into a range of services and support, from initial training to adoption support and post-adoption services?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Bringing prospective adopters into the system is good because of the support that they receive; they are able to discuss their experiences with other prospective adopters. Furthermore, it creates another check and balance on the social worker.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

We have moved into the field of fiction. We will discuss those points in the debate on new clause 3.

People who adopt from abroad do not usually get any post-adoption services at all—that is the most frequent complaint that we hear from them. I hope that we will have the hon. Gentleman's support for our new clause 3, whereby we propose to introduce some plans in that respect.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

The hon. Gentleman has introduced another factor to try to justify the amendments, but they are all toppling over, one by one. He uses an emotive and horrific example about children and pigs, but such cases are not the majority, nor does it follow that independent social workers will provide solutions for all children in such dreadful circumstances.

We need to ensure a safe, secure system. It is important for both prospective adopters and social workers that they have support and supervision. In that way we ensure quality and further the child's best interests, which underpin the Bill.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The debate has been greatly assisted by the expertise of my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). They have enabled us to extract from the debate the key issues and the confusion in the Opposition's approach to the amendment. The Opposition have oversimplified the problems that arise when completely independent social workers are able to carry out what are, in effect, private home studies. I will come to the legislative position on that shortly.

My hon. Friends' eloquent arguments caused the Opposition to retreat from the position that I thought the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk took at the beginning—that there should be a return to the ability to offer a private home study, although there should be some notion of approval, the details of which were not clear. However, under pressure, Opposition Members suggested instead that they were talking about the ability for social services departments or other adoption agencies to be able to call on the resource—well approved—that might be provided by an independent social worker.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister heard me refer to the ideological divide between whether the social services department or the individual potential adopters make the choice, subject to the social worker being properly qualified.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman highlights the other important division that has emerged in the debate, which is whether the assessment of prospective adopters should be for the convenience and the use of the prospective adopters, or for the child. Talking about prospective adopters choosing who is appropriate to assess them is to depart from the notion that, in assisting prospective adopters, we are trying to ensure that the best interests of the child are safeguarded in that potential placement.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggested that the Bill changes the law in respect of independent social workers ability to conduct home studies. He is wrong. The provision was in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, so it has already been debated and agreed by this House. Private social workers have not been able to carry out private home studies since 31 January 2000, when section 13 of the 1999 Act was brought into effect. It is worth reminding ourselves why the House decided that that was right.

Private home studies have been criticised for several reasons, not only because of a few highly publicised cases, as some Opposition Members have suggested. There were tragic cases that should not have been allowed to occur, but they are not the sole reason why private home studies were wrong. Other reasons include the fact that individuals carrying them out were not required to have qualifications or experience. They could not obtain police checks on prospective adopters or other adult members of the household. They did not receive information from the local authority on previous contact with social services, and they could not obtain impartial medical advice.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, no peer review or management arrangements oversaw the work of the assessors, and cases could not be considered on their merits by an adoption panel or separate decision-making body. In one instance, a person who was in the direct employ of the adopters acted as judge and jury. Those overwhelming disadvantages of private home studies rightly determined the decision made in the 1999 Act.

It has been suggested that we should allow independent activity because local authorities are not properly supporting those undertaking intercountry adoptions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley said, that has changed. A local authority circular issued by my Department in 1998 encouraged local authorities to establish an intercountry adoption service. That became a statutory duty with the implementation of section 9 of the 1990 Act on 30 April. The Department of Health provides help and assistance to people carrying out intercountry adoptions by contacting and sending papers to overseas authorities, and informing prospective adopters of progress.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggested that the justification for the clause was based on the recruitment and morale of social workers. The Committee shares the concern that we should recruit sufficient social workers and maintain their morale. In the vast majority of cases, social workers do an excellent job in transforming children's lives. Extra resources must go into social services departments—since 1996-96, we have increased resources to social services by 20 per cent. in real terms, and we must maintain that investment. At the risk of bringing party political discord into the Committee, I contrast that figure with the less than 0.5 per cent. increase a year under the previous Government and the fact that the Conservative party has been unwilling to say whether it would match the Government's investment in social services.

We have already addressed recruitment by launching a campaign, which I hope that hon. Members have seen in magazines and newspapers. We have received more than 12,000 responses and we are investing in training to ensure that we recruit vital people into social work.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk 4:00, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

In the aftermath of the Victoria Climbie and Lauren Wright cases, which produced much ignorant reporting from the tabloid press, how would the Minister and her Department refute their claims and rebuild the esteem of social workers?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I am not sure that that is in the amendment's remit, but I agree that it is an important task. On the Lauren Wright case, I said that, although the system had failed, social workers carried out an important function. I stated what I said earlier: the vast majority do a fantastic job and turn around the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society. That is why we are investing in the recruitment campaign and increased levels of training. We will continue to support and build morale in social work and the social care work force, both by the injection of extra resources and other initiatives. There is no disagreement about the need to recruit and retain more social workers, although we might disagree about whether to invest money in doing that.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

There has been much talk about quality protects money and ring-fencing for adoption services. Will the Minister confirm that adoption funding will no longer be ring-fenced from 2002-03 and that other parts of social services departments will therefore be able to use it for other reasons?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

No. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley rightly pointed out, the money for adoption has been through the quality protects grant route and, although it is not in the quality protects grant ring fence for adoption, it is nevertheless covered by the provision that it must be spent on children's services. More importantly, the Department's monitoring of the quality protects expenditure requires evidence of the outcomes, improvements and use to which the extra Government investment in adoption has been put.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why we are setting ambitious targets for local authorities to get more looked-after children into good, caring adoptive families, and that that will drive the process and resources in the right direction?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which resonates with what local authorities told us. They mentioned the need to move away from monitoring inputs and believing that ring-fencing always delivers results, to a position in which we fund social services properly and significantly, and monitor outcomes and local authorities' delivery.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Although I strongly support that point, there is a parallel point to be made on overseas adoptions, which brings the debate back to the amendment. With all the Minister's assurances—her answer to my hon. Friend's question was yes—does she expect the current, extremely low level of overseas adoptions to stay the same, increase or decrease over the next few years?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I am not sure that my answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was yes. The record will show my answer, rather than the hon. Member for Canterbury. It is difficult to give an answer to his question, but the trend is towards increasing intercountry adoptions, and that is likely to continue. That is why the need to provide intercountry adoption services has become a statutory duty and why we will be able to reassure hon. Members that those support services will be in place when we reach the relevant discussion.

The Opposition's argument seems to be that local authorities should be able, within the provisos set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, to use in appropriate circumstances independent social workers who, given the support that comes from the context of a local authority, could carry out appropriate assessments. That is not the point of the Opposition's amendment, but the position into which they seem to have been pushed in debate. Authorities may do that, as is highlighted in our regulations and guidance on intercountry adoption.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr.Llwyd) asked how we vet independent social workers. I shall deal with that general point in a moment.

Local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies contracting with independent social workers should check on their experience and qualifications in line with regulation 6(3) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983, which requires all agencies to satisfy themselves that social work staff have such experience and such qualifications as appropriate to the work. It is also, of course, a matter of good administrative practice. However, Opposition Members are not arguing that independent social workers could be contracted to carry out the work under the regulations; rather, they want to reinstate private home studies and give people the ability to choose—and presumably pay for—an independent social worker.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The Minister is absolutely right to remind me that I was referring to the position before the Oaten private Member's Bill. However, the amendment makes it clear that we are not returning to the pre-Oaten context when a private home study could be done by an independent social worker. It clearly specifies a qualified social worker approved by the local authorities. The Minister has just confirmed that local authorities can contract with the relevant skilled and qualified personnel: I am simply saying that ''agency'' can be included as well. The amendment would simply make that crystal clear in the Bill.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

Conservative Members have reined back on what I thought they were suggesting. In that case, given all the provisos that I have rightly stipulated, the hon. Gentleman's amendment may be unnecessary because local authorities can already do that. If the amendment means more than that, it could work against the safeguards that we want to put in place for children. Clause 88 makes it clear that only adoption agencies and those acting under High Court order may arrange adoptions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley right pointed out, that is because we must be able to regulate the assessment and approval process and ensure that all the necessary information and advice—including independent medical advice and access to enhanced police checks—is made available to those carrying out home studies. That is essential to achieving our aim of protecting all vulnerable children, living within or outside the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned the absence of a mechanism for approving social workers, though I was unsure whether he said that in support of the Conservative amendment. That is indeed a problem in the regulation of social workers. In 2002-03 the General Social Care Council, set up by the Government to overcome the problem, will begin to register qualified social workers. Given the different aspects of social work, however, we cannot guarantee that a social worker has the requisite skills and experience to work with children or in adoption services.

Through clause 88, the Bill provides the safeguard of ensuring that only local authorities or voluntary adoption agencies specialising in intercountry adoption can carry out these provisions, including the contracting to carry out home studies. That is the appropriate way of safeguarding children and placing them at the centre of the adoption process.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying various points. I referred to independent social workers and wonder whether they can form a new agency. If so, how will they be constituted and approved? I am not clear about that; perhaps it will be in the regulations.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 4:15, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

I am sorry for not addressing the hon. Gentleman's point. Private social workers who wish to band together to create an adoption agency would have to meet the usual requirements for establishing a voluntary adoption agency and would have to register with the social services inspectorate or, in the future, with the National Care Standards Commission to ensure that the structures, support, peer review, scrutiny and supervision are in place to enable the safeguards to work properly.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

That is important, and I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point. What would the local authority's involvement be if couples or single people who wished to adopt from abroad went through an agency?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

As I said, clause 88 stipulates who can make arrangements for adoption and carry out home assessments. A couple could adopt through a voluntary adoption agency that was registered or allowed to do intercountry adoption work. I understand that there are four such agencies. In those circumstances, the provisions that I said do not come with a private home study—the placement, the adoption panel and other provisions—would be necessary. I do not believe that there would be any need for recourse to a local authority, given the safeguards that are in place for voluntary adoption agencies.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I am pleased to hear that, but we still have a problem. The Minister made it crystal clear that it is the Department's intention to encourage local authorities to use the pool of skilled independent social workers. However, as I am still keen to have that put in the Bill, I will not withdraw my amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Rhif adran 3 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 80 - Restriction on bringing children in

Ie: 6 MPs

Na: 9 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I beg to move amendment No. 158, in page 43, line 37, at end insert—

''(5) Where the adoption agency described in subsection (4) is not the local authority in which the British resident resides, the agency shall inform that local authority that an application under subsection (4)(a) has been made, so that the duties imposed on the local authority under section (Provision of adoption support services for children brought into the United Kingdom) may be exercised.''.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to consider the following: Amendment No. 22, in clause 3, page 3, line 37, at end insert—

''(c) must extend to the provision of services covering intercountry adoption.''.

New clause 3— Provision of adoption support services for children brought into the United Kingdom—

''(1) In relation to a child brought into the United Kingdom for adoption where section 80 applies, each local authority must, at the request of—

(a) the adopters or prospective adopters,

(b) the child, or

(c) any other person who falls within a description prescribed by regulations made under subsection (3)

carry out an assessment of that person's needs for adoption support services.

(2) Where, as a result of an assessment, a local authority decides that a person has needs for adoption support services under this section, they must then provide such services to that person.

(3) Regulations—

(a) shall prescribe the upper limit of any fees charged by a local authority to any person who engages in the actions described in section 80, in relation to those actions,

(b) may prescribe the persons to be included within subsection 1(c).''.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

Amendment No. 158 would add another subsection (5) to clause 80; it provides that when an overseas adoption takes place in one local authority, and the parents adopting are in another local authority, the support mechanisms must be in place and the local authority in question must inform the other local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will speak to new clause 3; I shall mention it briefly and speak to amendment No. 22, which affects clause 3. New clause 3 would make it crystal clear that in clause 3(3) the adoption and post-adoption arrangements must extend to the provision of services covering intercountry adoption. I want the Bill to include a requirement that couples or individuals who adopt from abroad will have the appropriate support. That is not in clause 3 as drafted, and I should be grateful if the Minister will explain why, or agree to accept the sensible new clause.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am mindful that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will speak at length to new clause 3.

One great fault in the present situation is the huge variation in the availability and quality of adoption services. It is almost like postcode prescribing, which means that the availability of drugs depends on where one lives in the United Kingdom. An underlying theme of the Bill, much of which I welcome, is its attempt to create a uniformity of good practice and service. The upper limit on fees charged by local authorities in new clause 3(3) is most welcome because—I find it incredible—fees vary between £5,000 and £16,000, depending on the local authority where one resides. It is unsatisfactory that there should be such a wide variation, and a uniform approach is needed.

Whether it is an intercountry or a domestic adoption, people should be able to build into the equation the exact figure that they will have to lay out for the adoption services. A system that allows variations from £5,000 to £16,000, depending on where one resides, is inequitable and unfair and I hope that if the Government cannot accept the new clause they will give a proper response to that huge divergence, which creates unfairness in many areas.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful to the Clerk for helping me to draft new clause 3 so that it can be included in this section of the Bill. It is relevant to intercountry adoption but it specifies matters relevant to adoption services and home studies, which would normally come under clauses 2 to 16, which we shall discuss next week. I want to talk in broad terms about the reasons behind the specific provisions in the new clause and some of the general problems of intercountry adoption.

I welcome the fact that the Minister said that intercountry adoption was an extremely valuable placement choice, but as I said about an earlier clause, that is not necessarily the impression gained by people outside the House. Other hon. Members will also have received a submission to the Committee from the North American Connection, a group involved in adoption between the UK and the United States. The group's comments echo some of the remarks from other practitioners in the field. The submission, from Cynthia Carnegie, the chairman of the group, states:

''We are, however, concerned about the attitude towards intercountry adoption that this Bill conveys and the tone used by several MPs during the Bill's second reading. There is little in this Bill to encourage intercountry adopters in the belief that their choice is 'government-approved', despite the declared desire of the Government to ratify the Hague Convention and despite provisions that compel Local Authorities to provide home studies for such prospective adopters. Instead, the broad message that it sends is that such adopters are underhanded, suspicious people, who would only exploit children.''

I am sure that is not the case but it is a perception that has been created and we need to tackle it.

The numbers also bear out some of the suspicions in Cynthia Carnegie's submission. Some 25,000 international adoptions take place every year, the vast majority of which—15,000-odd—are in the United States. In France, a country with a population comparable to our own, the figure is 3,600; in Norway, which has a population of 4 million, the figure is 600, yet the number of applications for intercountry adoptions in this country is between 300 and 350. There seems to be a disproportionate difference between our record on intercountry adoption and that of other countries, many of which are close to us. The figures do not bear out the Minister's suggestion that intercountry adoption is favoured as an extremely valuable placement choice by the Government or anyone else.

The terms of the draft regulations for implementing the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 cast doubt on the seriousness of the Government or the system to promote intercountry adoption. Paragraph 29 of the costs and benefits section of the draft regulations states:

''There will also be some small additional burdens placed on local government''— it is in order to promote intercountry adoption—

''and it may be difficult to build the capacity needed to deliver the service required. Overall most additional costs are expected to be minimal and are likely to be met by prospective adopters.''

Paragraph 32 states:

''The Bill also allows for the review of the designated list. It has always been the policy intention to review the designated list once the UK had ratified the Hague Convention. However, it has become clear that this cannot happen without changes in the primary legislation as the removal of a country from the list would automatically remove recognition of adoptions made prior to the review of the designated list. This would then undermine the status of children (and adults) adopted in the past from countries included on the list and would not be acceptable.''

We shall come to that matter in the clause. There is a question mark over funding and the capacity of adoption agencies to cope with any great expansion of intercountry adoptions.

As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, adoption agencies have highlighted the problems of complexity and cost of home study assessments, and the lack of adoption support services available to people who bring in children from abroad for adoption.

The Bill helpfully makes it clear that local authorities must provide home studies. It continues to allow the payment of fees for that service, which is understandable. The problem is that home study assessments can cost as much as £6,000 in some areas. In West Sussex, my local authority, the charge is £1,750. In neighbouring Surrey, it is zero. Childlink, a voluntary adoption society in London, charges £4,000. On top of that, there are legal fees and fees for other professional services.

Even if the Government are unwilling to waive the fee system, surely it would be fair to cap that cost. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is an enormous divergence in the amount of money charged, depending on where one happens to live. Although it is not supposed to be the case, those fees could, to some eyes, be liable to an interpretation of profiteering. There is also no real provision for help or advice beyond the home study.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 4:30, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

I know that a response is due from the Minister on profiteering. The hon. Gentleman is right. What external evaluation is there of an authority's costs? Is there a body that decides whether such costs are reasonable in the circumstances, and is there some substance to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there is an element of profiteering?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful for that intervention. Although I am not suggesting that there is some sort of racket, if a certain authority charges £1,000 and a neighbouring authority charges £2,000, unless it is a loss leader in every social services department that provides that service, certain local authorities will obviously make a profit from it. After all, the overhead costs of providing the home study assessment cannot be greatly different for each local authority, even if they are at opposite ends of the country.

That profit will no doubt be used to offset other parts of the social services budget, which may seem perfectly reasonable. However, the person who loses out is the prospective adopter who needs to be encouraged, as we all agree. It seems very unfair that there should be a postcode lottery on charging for the service. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how that service is regulated, because it appears not to be. The Government need to consider the different charging structures that exist up and down the country.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman is a strange convert to market forces, and I cannot see what great market forces operate between Surrey and West Sussex to justify such a large differential in the cost charge.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

Let me set the record straight. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not favour those market forces. The idea that the state should impose a particular level runs counter to what we normally hear from Conservatives.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am all in favour of market forces and I am certainly in favour of regulators who are there to regulate monopoly providers. Adoption agencies—local authorities—are monopoly providers in this case, because they have to provide the home studies, so market forces cannot operate in the current set-up. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not appreciate that.

The second point of the new clause relates to adoption services. The problem is that there is no real provision of help or advice beyond the home study. Prospective adopters will still be on their own, battling with the bureaucracies of two countries: their own and the country of origin of the child whom they are hoping to adopt. How are people to find reliable contacts and agencies abroad when there is so little official help on offer? Does not the very lack of help mean that people with the best possible intentions are vulnerable to those who might want to exploit them? Does it not lead them into danger?

We have heard about the supposed change, and how local authorities are now more open to intercountry adoptions. The evidence—certainly the figures have not risen appreciable in recent years—does not suggest that this is the case. Although there is a requirement to offer home studies by local authorities, many put such applicants to the bottom of the list because, understandably, they believe that their priority is the child in their care.

People applying for intercountry adoptions have had to wait an inordinate amount of time, sometimes up to two years, just for the start of the home study and some find it virtually impossible to get one at all. The Minister mentioned that only four registered voluntary agencies are able to conduct home studies independently for overseas applications. I gather that two them, both in London, have recently announced that they will no longer be doing so, so the problem is getting worse.

The problems of somebody dealing with another country are many. They have to deal with agencies operating from other countries, most notably in the United States. They have to deal with countries direct even though they have insufficient experience of the system and probably cannot speak the language fluently enough. They have to employ a go-between, a facilitator, with no protection offered to the applicants or the child and they have to find and commission lawyers, social workers and other link professionals to identify the child and take the process through the courts, again with no protection offered.

Beyond the scope of new clause 3, the Government might consider encouraging, and offering start-up help to, voluntary agencies who can offer a complete service to adopters. Many other countries in Scandinavia, mainland Europe and the United States run extremely good and very different organisations that offer safeguards to children and adults.

We could also look at the inclusion of clauses in the Bill that allow local authorities to commission home studies from Britons living abroad and social workers working overseas such as those working for the US intercountry adoption agencies, for example.

It is also fair to say that the home studies process for intercountry adoption is cumbersome. One has to go by the local authority route. The local authority then rightly organises applicants' attendance at introductory meetings and training sessions. Some local authorities will demand medical reports and police checks before starting the assessment process. When that starts a social worker visits the people involved in their home and lengthy interviews ensue.

I am not criticising the thoroughness of that procedure but in some local authorities the requests for paper work from all and sundry seem to be rather excessive compared to other authorities.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

Given that the assessment process expected for intercountry adoption is not more onerous than that for domestic adoptions—they are the same—is the hon. Gentleman arguing the process for adoption from overseas should have fewer safeguards than that for adoption in this country?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

As the Minister knows full well, I am suggesting precisely the opposite. In practice—the figures set against the total number of children adopted bear this out—various local authorities make it harder to adopt through the intercountry route by over-egging some of the perfectly reasonable and right requirements. I am in no way suggesting what the Minister rather mischievously suggested I was suggesting.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

It would be interesting to hear about authorities that require a lot of information and ones that require less. Can the hon. Gentleman give examples?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It would be entirely iniquitous of me to do so. I certainly do not want to display the attitude shown by the Secretary of State for Health when he attended the Local Government Association conference of people from social services departments. He waved his finger at them and named and shamed departments rather than giving them the support that they needed. We all know that certain social services departments operate in the most awful conditions. Vacancies for child care workers in some boroughs in London and the south-east are running at as high as 50 per cent., which compounds the problem.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Two points need to be made. First, the Minister is factually incorrect. My understanding is that there is an extra stage for overseas adopters in that an overseas adoption also has to be approved by the Department of Health, which can overturn the decision of the social services department. That does not apply to domestic adoptions, so the process for overseas adopters is longer.

Secondly, I have just been on the telephone to the Adoption Forum's director, Liv O'Hanlon, who is also an overseas adopter. It might help the Committee to know that she says that it has cases on its books of people who have been waiting more than 18 months for a home study, because departments are struggling to find places for their own children in care and they keep putting those people's files to the bottom of the pile. We discussed that point more generally under a previous amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for backing up my argument.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

I intervene again not to ask the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friend to name and shame departments, but to question their sweeping statements. It is on the record that during an evidence session I asked the lady to whom the hon. Member for Canterbury referred about sweeping statements about foster carers—I think that she referred in evidence to people who were little better than well informed amateurs or something like that. However, in shaping the legislation, we need to be specific. Sweeping statements are simply not good enough to bolster an argument.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury gave examples of people who seem to be waiting an inordinately long time.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I shall give one more example, so that we can be absolutely concrete and people cannot argue that there are any grey areas. As a measure of the overstretch in the system, two of the four voluntary agencies that the Minister mentions—Childlink and Norwood Ravenswood—recently suspended indefinitely all services to international adopters.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 4:45, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

Those are the two agencies to which I referred earlier. I have examined the rigorous process of home studies and my hon. Friend has mentioned the additional stage after all the studies have been done and the whole package has been put before a panel that decides yes or no, which is that the Department of Health has to approve—or not—the application. As the law stands, there is no appeal against its denial. When we debate clause 12, will the Government enlighten us about whether there are any forms of redress for prospective intercountry adopters who are turned down and then find that the Department of Health ruled against them, even through they were recommended by their local adoption agency?

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

For the hon. Gentleman's information, I should put it on record that the Department of Health does not ''approve'' as an additional part of the process and make the procedure longer.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am confused. My information is that the Department has a say in whether an intercountry adoption takes place.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Perhaps I can assist. The papers go to the Department, but the process up to that stage is exactly the same as for someone who wants to adopt within Britain. The papers go to the Department so that it can check that the procedures have been correctly followed—it is not an approval process. Yes, it is an extra stage, but there is not additional paperwork and it is not an approval process. I hope that that is clear.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

But it is an extra stage, which begs the question why the Department finds it necessary to check intercountry adoption processes but not every ordinary adoption and home study. The hon. Lady has confirmed my assertion that an extra stage is inserted in the system.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Department of Health is prolonging the process and making matters more difficult. Does he not accept that the Department will be ensuring that all the necessary information has been gathered so that it can issue a certificate of eligibility? That certificate can be used by overseas adopters to assure other countries that they have gone through all the suitable processes, thereby ensuring that the adopters do not have to go through the processes again. Should that not be seen as a way of assisting communication between countries, not as something that lengthens the process?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister and I are saying the same thing. However, she cannot deny that an extra period of indeterminate length, which does not apply to non-intercountry adoptions, is being added to the process to ensure that everything in this country happens properly.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

No, or we will never make progress with the new clause.

The figures do not bear out the claim that intercountry adoptions have been promoted in recent years. There is a feeling among prospective intercountry adopters that they are in some way regarded as second-class citizens. Many adoptions come from the United States and European countries where standards might be expected to be high. Perhaps more worryingly, child care workers in my constituency told me that of 50 home assessments that they undertook, 10 were for intercountry adoption. That is a large percentage, but they said that the majority of children are coming from China and Thailand. The record of care that one would expect from a Chinese children's home, for example, leaves a lot to be desired. I am told that 98 per cent. of adopted children from China are female, which is no coincidence, having much to do with China's attitude to the superiority of the male sex and the terrible ramifications of that.

The Minister mentioned that the extra stage might speed up the process in the country from which the children are coming. Applicants must choose a country, prove their links to and interest in it and then stick with it. It would be unfortunate if, as sometimes happens for political reasons, that country were to close its overseas adoption programme. The couple would have to go to another country for reassessment, which means another panel sending a reference to the Department of Health. Other European countries with a strong commitment to the development of children's welfare create packages, including tax breaks and adoption leave, which help applicants to succeed in bringing needy children into their family.

We will deal with the issue of adoption services in our deliberations on clause 2 next week. We hear that although local authorities will be legally obliged to carry out assessments of need, they will not be required to provide adoption support services. If we are going to impose a greater requirement on local authorities to provide services to adoptive families, we should take children adopted from overseas into consideration. Their needs are no less than those of an adopted child from this country—in fact, often their needs are greater because of the additional problems of assimilating a child from a foreign culture who speaks a foreign language and so on.

New clause 3 would ensure that intercountry adopters would not suffer discrimination and that they would receive the same support as all other adoptions. It would also ensure that cost or differences between local authorities will not create a disincentive to home assessment. Those are the principles behind the new clause, which I commend to the Committee.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Government are unsympathetic to intercountry adoption, even though I have made it clear that that is not the case. To reinforce the point, I remind him that we had a lengthy debate last week about putting the child at the centre of the adoption process. That is right, whether in domestic or in intercountry adoptions. The Government have clearly stated that when it is in the interests of the child to be adopted through an intercountry adoption, the same safeguards apply as for domestic adoptions. Support and services should be available for people engaged in intercountry adoptions.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the number of intercountry adoptions was falling—

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I am glad to hear that, because the number of intercountry adoptions has increased. He compared, apparently unfavourably, the number of intercountry adoptions in this country with those in France and other European countries. He should remember that the United Kingdom has more domestic adoptions that any other European country. France and Denmark, for example, have barely any domestic adoptions, which means that their people are more likely to adopt from overseas. Other countries also adopt less from care, hence more people adopt from abroad. Only about 1 per cent. of children in care in Norway are adopted, and about 1.5 per cent. in France.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

Does the United Kingdom include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man for those purposes?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

The hon. Gentleman can see that brows are furrowed. I doubt that the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man would make a significant difference to the trend, but I will try to find the answer for him.

To return to my point on international comparisons, the hon. Member for Canterbury said that he frequently emphasises the need to ensure that children out of care in this country have a route into adoption. We need to do more, but the fact is that 5 per cent. of looked-after children in this country are adopted, compared with 1 per cent. in Norway and 1.5 per cent. in France. We should be pleased about that.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised the issue of fees, suggesting that they was somehow an example of prejudice against people engaging in intercountry adoption. The amendments would prescribe an upper limit for any fees charged by a local authority to anyone wishing to adopt a child who is habitually resident outside the British islands. However, under the legislation, agencies are bound to charge only reasonable fees. The hon. Gentleman.mentioned profiteering, but agencies may not make a profit. Our adoption guide published in April includes guidance on the type of costs that may be included. Each agency will have slightly different costs and it should be able to reflect those and recoup them in the fee charged. A nationally set fee might mean that some agencies received more than they needed, whereas other agencies could not cover their costs and might be discouraged from assessing intercountry adopters. Capping the level at which agencies could charge adopters would adversely affect agencies located in especially expensive areas such as London, where there is already great demand. That could result in extensive waiting lists.

Opposition Members were right not to argue that it should not be possible for local authorities and adoption agencies to recoup the costs of assessment from intercountry adopters. It would be difficult to suggest that social services departments should use income from services for which they can legally charge—for example, for home care services for elderly people—to subsidise the cost of assessments for people who want to undertake intercountry adoptions, important though those assessments may be.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy asked about how people could complain about the charges if they thought that a profit was being made. There are various options: they could use their local authority's complaints procedure; if there was fraud or criminal activity, they could go to the police; and if there was maladministration, they could go to the local government ombudsman. They could also make representations to the Department of Health, as we have powers to monitor and inspect local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies.

There is help for people who want to undertake intercountry adoption. Agencies may give advice and support to prospective adopters throughout the process and help them to decide whether a proposed match is right for them. I have already outlined what the Department of Health does. The Opposition's amendments reflect a misunderstanding that the provisions relating to adoption support do not extend to intercountry adoption. Clause 3 requires each local authority to continue to provide an adoption service in its area. The facilities that local authorities must provide as part of their adoption service include making and participating in arrangements for the provision of adoption support services. Those facilities will cover all types of adoption, whether they are intercountry, relative or step-parent, or foster care adoptions.

To answer to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, clause 4 makes it clear that anyone who is affected by any type of adoption may approach their local authority for an assessment of their need for adoption support services. I suspect that we will argue next week about the right to assessment and the duty to provide. All I will say for now is that the legislation gives people the right to request and receive an assessment from their local authority. Local authorities have a duty to provide an adoption support service, but they also have discretion as to whether and how they provide adoption support services to an individual following an assessment. Exactly the same provisions apply to people who are undertaking intercountry adoption. Finally, adoptive leave is available from 1 April 2003 for all domestic and intercountry adoptive families. I believe that the Opposition voted against that provision.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 5:00, 6 Rhagfyr 2001

That was a swift round-up a lengthy debate, and I would like to refute much of it. For example, the fact that Norway and France have poor records of internal adoptions is not an excuse for saying that we should counter it by having a higher level of internal adoptions and that we do not need a lower number of external adoptions. That is nonsense.

I specifically asked the Minister about what I called profiteering, even though I was not suggesting that authorities are making vast amounts of money from adoptions. However, the Minister does not know the figures. I asked how the system was regulated and whether she knew the different costs and charges of various authorities. I was not suggesting a nationally set down fee but a capped level—a maximum. Hopefully, many authorities will be well below the maximum for the reasons that she set out, which include the lower cost of living in some parts of the country. Again, she missed my point.

We will not press the new clause at this time, preferring to come back to the issue on Report, if the Speaker allows. We shall also press the issues in the light of the support service clauses that we still have to debate in the Committee, to which our new clause 3 is pertinent. I will leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk to decide whether he wishes to press his amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 80 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Angela Smith.]

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Five o'clock till Tuesday 11 December at half-past Ten o'clock.