Clause 2 - Basic definitions

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 11 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:30, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 3, line 7, leave out subsection (4).

There is a degree of frivolity in our proceedings, Mrs. Roe, but it would be entirely out of order for me to explain why. The gist of it is that several Opposition Members are serving on more than one Standing Committee, which makes life interesting.

Amendment No. 20 is probing. We want to know why subsection (4) is necessary. The fact that we are debating clause 2 more than half way through the Committee's proceedings reflects the rather odd order of consideration—the most unusual that I have come across. We are in our fourth week of deliberation, but only now are we debating definitions.

Why is an adoption society that is an unincorporated body not allowed to apply for registration? I note that the clause does not say merely that it cannot register; it says that it cannot even apply to register. It seems odd that such a body should not be allowed to apply to be considered for registration. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

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

Welcome back, Mrs. Roe. We are now on the 10th of 20 sittings, so we are well set.

We come to the part of the Bill that deals with adoption support, particularly the improved provision that the Government will be making under the Bill for the right to an assessment for adoption support for a range of people involved in the adoption process. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have expressed an interest in ensuring that we increase the number of children who can be adopted. One way of ensuring that those adoptions are high quality placements and that a sufficient number of people are attracted into adoption is to support them during the adoption and post-adoption process, to give those children the secure lives that we hope adoption will provide.

Clause 2 provides several basic definitions for the adoption service provided by local authorities and approved voluntary adoption agencies. Those definitions are used throughout the Bill. At present, voluntary adoption agencies in England and Wales are

inspected and approved by the social services inspectorate. From April 2003, they will be inspected and listed by the National Care Standards Commission in England, and by the National Assembly in Wales, under part II of the Care Standards Act 2000. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, the amendment proposes the removal of subsection (4), which provides that an adoption society that is an unincorporated body may not apply for registration under part II of the Care Standards Act.

First, it is worth explaining the current position. Under the existing legal framework, registered adoption societies must be incorporated bodies. To that extent, the Bill does not propose a change. That requirement is currently contained in regulation 2(2) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983; it has therefore been included in regulations for some time, and we have decided to provide for it expressly in the Bill.

Why is it important that a registered adoption society be an incorporated body? An incorporated body is a separate legal entity. It is something of a legal person, which is separate and distinct from individual members of the body. An unincorporated body has no such separate legal existence and is not in law distinguishable from its members. As we discussed at length in previous sittings, adoption agencies may have parental responsibility for a child as well as many other important functions. That is a significant responsibility that must be clearly defined in law. It is therefore vital that all adoption societies registered under the 2000 Act are incorporated bodies.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises both that the amendment would restate the current position in the Bill, and that the significance of the activities and responsibility vested in adoption societies is such that it is important to ensure that they have the legal status of incorporated bodies. That is the logic of the Government's approach, so I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

On the basis of that clear explanation, 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. 65, in page 3, line 18, leave out 'may' and insert 'will'.

Welcome back, Mrs. Roe. We are discussing adoption services, one of the most important subjects in the Bill. It is fair to say that all the representatives of the groups that we saw during our evidence-taking sittings, as well as the vast majority of representations that we have received, welcomed the improvements the Bill makes. The changes provide for a greater range of adoption support services before, during and after the act of adoption, and for those whose problems may or may not be solved by adoption. We echo the welcome that they have received.

On more substantial provisions, we will want to probe the Government's intentions more closely, but I thought it suitable to table the probing amendment to

the clause, which is about basic definitions and starts chapter 2. Clause 2(6) loosely defines adoption support services as

''counselling, advice and information in connection with adoption''— we will discuss that in more detail later—

''and...such other services as are specified in regulations (which may include financial support).''

The final sentence of the explanatory notes on clause 2 states:

''The Government's intention is that the services set out in the regulations will include financial support.''

To probe the Government's real intentions, we have tabled an amendment that would substitute ''will'' for ''may''.

At this stage, it is appropriate to raise the subject of adoption allowances. Certain groups that have made representations to us have said how necessary it is to clarify that subject, which was touched on in the White Paper. We largely agree with the range of measures that the Government are introducing to promote the adoption as soon as possible of more children and to ensure that all adoptions, including those extra ones, are as stable, lasting and effective as possible. This part of the Bill relates to that second aim. The provision of the right support, which in no small way includes financial support, is crucial to that aim. In a fairly detailed survey by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, financial support is identified as a key consideration, although it is not the most important, when people put their names forward to become adopters.

A problem arises because of the wide variation in adoption allowances, let alone the support services available. That makes it difficult for adoption agencies to advise prospective adoptive parents on the level of financial support that they might receive. That has material implications for decisions to adopt, how many children to adopt and whether to adopt what might be described as complex children. When I considered the subject in more detail with local child care workers, I was struck by the differential between allowances for adoption and allowances for fostering.

That goes a long way to explain why more foster parents do not become adoptive parents. Less than a quarter of foster parents in my county consider going on to be adoptive parents because in many cases the financial reward for doing so is prohibitively small: for example, in West Sussex an adoption allowance available for a child aged between four and seven works out at £54.89 a week, which is means-tested and less child benefit, whereas for a child of equivalent age who is fostered, the care allowance is £153.58—almost treble the sum. That is a big difference, even though taking on an adoptive child is obviously a far larger and longer-term commitment.

There is also an anomaly in the system whereby an adoption allowance is considered in the means-testing for income support, whereas foster care payments are not. That is another disincentive for parents to become

adopters. The Government need to consider that big financial gap, which is wider or narrower depending on which local authority one deals with.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The distinction between adoption and foster allowances does not apply only in means-testing. In an unfortunate case, the former wife of an extremely worthy constituent had taken his own children away; he and his current wife adopted a child, but their adoption allowance was taken into account by the Child Support Agency when it assessed him.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is yet another complication. I am sure that we all know of cases in which such sums are taken into account in calculations that are already extremely complicated. There seems to be an anomaly in the system that militates against the Bill's aim, which is to promote adoption, make it more attractive, and make more people able to undertake the commitment that it involves. All the good intentions in the Bill will count for nothing unless the whole system of adoption is properly resourced. That means resourcing allowances for parents who have taken on that commitment.

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)

Like other Committee members, the hon. Gentleman will have a copy of the memorandum of evidence from Barnardo's, which states:

''As an agency placing children whom local authorities consider hard to place, we have been dismayed by how few of those children actually qualify for an adoption allowance—15 out of 52 in 1998/99 and 16 out of 68 in 1999/00. We are unable to advise families what level of financial support they might receive as this varies so much from one local authority to another. If the Government is serious about significantly increasing the number of families coming forward to adopt, this will mean attracting a wider range of families.'' —[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 352.]

That issue must be addressed.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 4:45, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

That is exactly right. The hon. Gentleman backs up my point. It is odd that the system of adoption allowances is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill or in the explanatory notes. This might not be the most appropriate time to raise the matter, because the clause deals with adoption support services as well as the financial support for that. However, it is an appropriate juncture at which to ask these questions so that the Minister, in responding, can reveal some of the Government's thinking about issues that go hand in hand with the subject we are discussing.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether there is any other clause that would allow us to debate the subject more fully. So far as I can tell, my hon. Friend is right—there is no other point at which we shall be able to discuss what more than half the members of the Committee are on record as having said is one of the key issues in adoption.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We await the Minister's reply on whether she thinks that my proposed amendment would be useful and whether it will be possible to discuss the issue at another stage.

The other specific point that surprised me was that allowances—certainly those for fostering—tend not to reflect the complexity of the problems that an adopted child might have. Instead, they are usually geared to reflect the qualifications and experience of the parent who is taking on the responsibility. That is certainly the case in West Sussex: the county has various top-up schemes but, in effect, a foster parent is paid an allowance based on his or her qualifications and experience. I do not suggest that they are in it for the money, but foster parents can get the best deal by being as highly trained and qualified as possible, but taking on the least complex child possible.

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

My understanding of the schemes under which parents are paid according to their experience is that that is done precisely to ensure that children with complex needs are placed with foster parents who have the greatest skills to undertake the required task. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that a foster parent who has the highest skills would opt to take on the easiest child is nonsense in terms of the design of those schemes.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It is not nonsense. I am not suggesting that it is the norm; I am saying that it can and does happen in practice. It would be pointless and counterproductive if all the extra resources went into training potential foster parents so that they could take on especially complex or older children, but they did not actually do that. My point is that there is no compulsion on them to do it—there is no direct link with the money. Because foster parents are in such short supply in certain parts of the country, they can call the shots to a large extent: if they are minded to take on the easier children and they are paid at the higher rate, they can do so.

The hon. Lady frowns. That might not be the case in the part of the country in which she practised, but it is the experience in other parts of the country, including my constituency, that such things can happen. It is strange that the money does not closely reflect the complexities of the child, but instead focuses on the foster parents.

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

The hon. Gentleman is talking about enhancements for foster carers. In my experience, certain foster carers are identified after having provided a service to a local authority for a long time; the local authority invests in those foster carers by training them and so on; they will then be entitled to those enhancements to deal with the complex cases that they are expected to take on. The hon. Gentleman says that that does not always happen, but that is a matter of the management of foster carers and the available resources. The situation he describes is certainly not the norm; it is an exception—or even an anomaly. An anomaly is not a good example when speaking about allowances for adoptive parents

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; that is what I expected to find. However, I am talking not about enhancements but about the allowances that

are paid automatically to foster parents. Enhancements are paid on top of that in kind and through various other fees.

We are getting away from the point. We are supposed to be talking about adoption support services. Subsection (6) refers to the form that adoption support services might take. I understand that the allowances paid to adoptive parents must not contain an element of profit: they are not meant to subsidise income but are to pay for the child's basic needs. Fostering allowances, however, offer an income as well as paying the day-to-day costs of looking after the child. Financial support for adoption support services usually pays for petrol to convey the child to various professional services and for adaptations to the family car if the child has a disability. It might also pay for youth activities and membership of youth clubs or other group that might be deemed appropriate. In a minority of cases, adoptive parents may pay directly for therapeutic services, such as speech therapy, although such services are largely provided by the local authority—either directly or contracted out—and the parents receive no money.

The amendment has generated rather more interest than I expected. There seem to be a lot of questions, but the main fact to emerge is the enormous diversity in the ways in which people are treated in different parts of the country. My experience is rather different from that of other hon. Members who have first-hand experience. The variation in adoption services, whether professional services, services in kind or financial allowances and top-ups, is a postcode lottery. If we are to bring about continuity and minimum standards, we need a rather broader spread of the quality benchmark that we are trying to achieve.

When the Minister responds to the debate, perhaps she would deal with those aspects that are probably more appropriate to the wording of the clause, which deals with what finances may be paid in lieu of adoption support services in order to buy adoption support services. Will she also touch upon the whole issue of adoption allowances, including fostering allowances, or at least indicate a more appropriate time when we might more usefully raise that subject and have a meaningful debate?

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

It is important that I have an opportunity to spell out the Government's thinking on financial support. It would be possible for us to debate the matter when we discuss clause 4—[Interruption.] My hon. Friends are not sure that they want further debate on clause 4, but clause 4 of the Bill will enable us to discuss the matter in greater detail if we want to.

Clause 2(6) provides that adoption support services will include counselling, advice and information in connection with adoption and other services as prescribed in regulations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the list of adoption support services set out in the regulations will include financial support. The amendment provides that the list of adoption support services included in regulations must include financial support, but I hope that I can assure him that that is unnecessary.

We have already committed ourselves to improving the availability of financial support for adoptive families. The hon. Gentleman referred to the White Paper ''Adoption: A New Approach'', which refers in some detail, on page 41, to financial support. It highlights the fact that

''support may be provided financially, in the form of adoption allowances.''

It states:

''The Government will introduce new legislation''— as we are doing now—

''to set out a new legal framework for adoption allowances'' and to establish the principles on which those allowances will be based. They should be:

''available for adopted children and their new families; for needs specific to adoptive families; to help the placement to last; for needs that cannot be met elsewhere; flexible to meet immediate, ongoing, and future needs; fairly awarded, taking into account the family's ability to meet the needs of the child financially.''

The White Paper adds that new framework obviously needs to be fair and flexible, and I shall return to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) outlined various different forms that financial support could take, and he is right. As we said in the White Paper, we envisage that

''Councils will be able to pay adoption allowances as a one-off payment''— for example to cover an extension to a house in the case of a family who adopt a group of siblings—

''as a time-limited payment'', which might cover the cost of some therapies, such as counselling,

''or as an ongoing payment'', perhaps to cover the cost of visits to birth families as part of contact arrangements.

The hon. Members for Canterbury and for East Worthing and Shoreham both mentioned means-testing and the discrepancies in different parts of the country. The White Paper states our belief that

''The current system of means tests is unfair and varies across the country.''

A key role for the new framework will be to

''set out a more consistent approach to means-testing. However, in future, more services will be provided as post adoption support, so families will have to meet fewer needs out of their own pocket.''

That is worth bearing in mind when we consider the balance between financial and other forms of adoption support.

We promised in the White Paper to develop a new national framework for adoption support services and financial support. We are currently developing the framework with the co-operation of a stakeholder group, including representatives of some of the organisations to which the hon. Gentlemen referred, and we intend to publish the framework for consultation in the spring. We will then finalise the framework in the light of responses to the consultation before publishing the draft regulations for consultation.

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) 5:00, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

In connection with means-testing, the Minister raised an important issue that requires examination. She was right to say that greater fairness needs to be introduced into the system. Is the implication of her remark that there will be less means-testing, not more? It is evident that there must be a change from the status quo if the system is to be improved.

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

The problem with the current system is not the amount of means-testing, but the variations in it, which we must try to get rid of when we design the framework. However, given that we are working out how to target support most effectively, I am not sure that I agree with what I suspect is the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question—that we should avoid means-testing. We should have a coherent system of means-testing.

The other point raised by hon. Members is the interaction between adoption allowance and the tax and benefits system. Clearly, we need to ensure that that interaction does not undermine the tax and benefits system and recognises people's needs for financial adoption support.

As I was saying, after consultation, we will publish the draft regulations on adoption support and financial support that will be provided for under clauses 2, 3 and 4. That will enable us to ensure consistency; I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that consistency is lacking in the current system. The framework must cover detailed circumstances, so it is important that it receives careful consideration and that we consult widely. We must get it right, so that it ensures both consistency in the system and the appropriate level of support.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

Does my hon. Friend see any principled reason why there should be any distinction between the way that adoption and fostering allowances are paid, either to support the needs of the child or the adopter's skills?

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

The relationship between foster care allowances and adoption allowances and some of the questions that have been raised about disincentives are key issues that we will consider when we develop the new framework. That work is already under way with stakeholders who have a detailed understanding of that relationship.

If hon. Members need more certainty—I hope that they do not—let me assure them that the Govt are serious about ensuring that financial support is available and is consistent. The national adoption standards make it clear that children and adopters are entitled to have access to a range of adoption support services, including financial support. For those hon. Members who are keen on homework, I draw their attention to the national adoption standards, in particular to paragraphs A12, C3 and D7, all of which emphasise the importance of financial support and

assistance. Given those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful, but I am not sure that we are any closer to an explanation than we were when we started to discuss the amendment. I did not detect any hint of an answer to the reasonable question—which I had asked previously—asked by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

The Minister slightly missed the point. She agreed with me on the great diversity in sums awarded in different parts of the country in relation to various services and allowances. She said that the means-testing procedure would need to be examined because of those variations, but my understanding is that there is no variation in means testing. The Benefit Agency rules on how adoption allowances are dealt with vis-a-vis foster care allowances. That does not vary—it is the one bit of consistency in the whole formula. However, the cases are treated, on the face of it, unfairly in terms of what the Bill is intended to achieve. The sums paid by different authorities vary enormously. We have all identified that problem. The means-testing treatment of those sums is standard; it is only the sums themselves that vary. The Minister did not respond properly to that concern.

The Government need more time to sort out how to deal with the problem—the issue is big. They can do it by amending the regulations that we expect to be published in the spring, so I doubt that we will get much more out of Ministers before then. However, the Minister assures us that financial support services are very much in the Government's frame of thinking. On that basis, it would not serve the Committee's purpose to pursue the matter further. However, by raising it now we have drawn to the Minister's attention to how important we, and many people who have made representations to us, think it is. We hope that she will make good the undertakings that she has given to us by ensuring that they appear in the appropriate place in the regulations later next year, by which time we will have finished scrutinising the Bill. On that basis, and because the amendment was only intended to be probing, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.