Clause 4 - Assessments etc. for adoption support services

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:30 pm ar 11 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 6:30, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 4, line 12, after 'needs', insert

'or the needs of connected persons'.

Despite the universal eulogies that we heard about clause 3, clause 4 may prove more central to the Bill. It certainly contains much more meat, hence we tabled several amendments to it. Amendment No. 95 is simple and harks back to the points that I made under amendment No. 64 to clause 3 about who can call for support services.

Clause 4(1) states that a local authority must respond to the request of persons mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b). We are yet to be given the full identity of those people, which will be in regulations. At their request, a local authority must carry out an assessment of

''that person's needs for adoption support services.''

The point that I made before, and want to echo now, is that an adult might have spotted that someone in the connected persons list, which we do not have in full, is suffering in some way; typically, it might be the adopted child or a sibling of that child who is a minor, and who obviously needs support. As the clause stands, someone whose need for support has, for some reason, not been spotted by the professionals working with him or her can ask for that support only for himself or herself. I am sure that that is not what is intended, but a strict definition of the clause suggests that that would be the outcome.

The problem that we have with the clause—the next group of amendments will address this specifically—is connected to the large amount of regulation and requirement set down for assessments. We think that assessments are necessary, although we are not sure how detailed and time consuming they will be. Our fear is that, although much effort and scarce professional time will go into the assessments, there is no equivalent duty then to provide the support services that an assessment may identify as required.

The amendment is helpful. It would mean that a person who identifies a need for support does not have to identify that need only for himself, but can do so for other connected persons.

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

As the hon. Gentleman said, we are now discussing clause 4, which introduces a new right to an assessment for adoption support services. It delivers on the commitment made in the White Paper to give adoptive families a right to an assessment of their need for adoption support services from their local authority.

The clause goes yet further, extending the right to an assessment to everyone affected by adoption. The persons listed in clause 3(1) will all be entitled to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. They are children who may be adopted, their parents and guardians, prospective adopters and adopted people, their adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians. Additional persons will be prescribed in the regulations made under clause 4(1)(b), who will also have the new right to an assessment. The Government intend those people to include birth and adoptive siblings of adopted people and children who may be adopted.

The amendment would require the local authority, in addition to carrying out an assessment of needs for adoption support services of the person who has requested it, to carry out an assessment of the needs of connected persons. It does not make it clear who those connected persons might be, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman's concern is to ensure that the assessment is as broad as necessary to take into consideration any needs that might be identified.

The Government believe that the amendment is unnecessary. We intend that everyone affected by adoption should be able to approach their local authority for an assessment of their need for adoption support services, and clause 4 provides for that. In addition, parents can request an assessment on the child's behalf. In practice, the needs of adoptive families—adoptive children, their adoptive parents and any adoptive siblings—will be assessed together. It would not be appropriate for the child's needs to be assessed in isolation, so assessment will consider the needs of the family as a whole.

On the rare occasions when a child's needs are assessed in isolation, the local authority will consider the extent to which the people caring for that child have related needs. For example, to meet the needs of a physically disabled child, the adoptive parents might be assessed as requiring respite care. The provisions in clause 4 are flexible enough to allow for that, so there is no need for the amendment.

On that basis, and given the broad scope of those able to request assessment for adoption support and the way in which such assessments will be carried out, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that the issues that he has raised are adequately dealt with.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It is not entirely clear that what the Minister has described will happen, but I think that we are getting at the same point. She said that our amendment does not make it entirely clear who the ''connected persons'' are. That is right, and it will not become clear until the regulations are published. The wording is intended to mirror the wider family who have an interest in the adopted person. Such persons could include the child himself, siblings, grandparents, step-parents, birth parents and others.

We have been assured that the provision will be set out in greater detail in regulations. In using the phrase ''connected persons'' we do not seek to extend the range of people further than the regulations will in any case do, so the Minister need have no fears on that score. She rightly said that the clause and the regulations should be flexible enough to enable as many people as possible to approach the local authority. However, to be brutally frank, children, off their own bat, are not likely to approach the local authority and say, ''I've got a problem, and I need to have my adoption support service requirement assessed.'' Under the clause, somebody who is articulate enough or minded enough to say, ''I need this help now'' could not do that on behalf of someone who is not in that position.

As I have said, minors in particular, but also adults with mental disabilities—those who are not physically children but are of a lower mental age—are more likely to be in need of support services, but they may not have the ability, cause or gumption to ask for it. We ask only for the sealing of a loophole through which everybody could find a route to securing those support services. If the Minister can reassure me that the clause prevents that, my amendment is unnecessary, but I want to hear a little more from her to suggest that we are thinking along the same lines.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 6:45, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

I have outlined the range of people who will be able to ask for an assessment. If the hon. Gentleman's concern is the extent to which an advocate outside that list will be able to request an assessment for adoption support services, I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks. However, he raises an important point about the extent to which someone else could ask for an assessment. I can assure him that a child could request an assessment under subsection (1) and that the parents of a child who is not competent could request an assessment on behalf of the child.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I hope that the Minister will be a little more forthcoming if I give her a practical example. An adopted child could have a mentally impaired birth grandparent or a young sibling who, for various reasons, was having trouble coming to terms with a continued relation with that child. Given that they were not living in the same home as the adopted child, who would instigate support services for them if the adoptive parent saw that there was a problem affecting the child? For obvious reasons, the two people whom

I mentioned would be unlikely to be able to go to the local authority to say, ''I need this support service now.''

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

As I said, although an assessment might be requested by one person, it would in practice involve the whole family and any other people who were affected by the adoption. Clearly, it would not be appropriate for the child's needs to be assessed in isolation; the assessment would need to consider the needs of the family as a whole. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue about advocacy and the route into the assessment process for people who are unable to access it themselves.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I want to make a related point without returning to this morning's discussions about geographical definitions. The Bill relates to England and Wales. In Wales, the Children's Commissioner for Wales has a certain advocacy role. Just by chance I happen to have the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 in front of me. Section 4(5) refers to

''complaints or representations made to the person by or on behalf of a child about services provided in Wales to or in respect of the child.''

Does the Minister envisage that the Children's Commissioner will have a role to play in this context?

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

I do not envisage that the Children's Commissioner will have the title role envisaged under this part of the Bill by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, but clearly the representative role may be significant in raising issues around services that a child might have received. That would not however solve the problem described by the hon. Gentleman of a person acting as an alternative route into an assessment for someone who is unable to access it for themselves.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised an important point, and I undertake to write to him about the specific examples that he cited. The Government intend that people should have the right to access assessments, and we need to consider the implications for those who might be unable to make that approach directly. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by what I have said, or will be so later in Committee, and that he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am glad that time is ameliorating the Minister's attitude and I am grateful for her comments. She is placing the matter on a higher level than I have tried to do. I am not talking about an advocacy situation, and certainly not about children's commissioners. I am talking about a simple relative, step-relative or adoptive relative—who may not be blood-related—pointing out to the local authority that it needs to do something for the adopted person. As the Minister graciously admitted, it is not clear how to access assessment. I am reassured by her statement that the Government's intention is that as many people as possible should have the right to access it. I entirely agree with that. I am now trying to identify the mechanics whereby that right can be exercised. I am

sure that she will go away and get a little post-flight refuelling—[Interruption.] Ah, she has had some in-flight refuelling.

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

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman using the following example. If somebody were incompetent and unable to make a request for assessment, a carer may make it on their behalf; alternatively, somebody could draw the attention of the local authority to the situation, and the fact that no formal request had been made would not preclude the local authority from assessing the person's needs.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Now I am confused. Does that piece of advice constitute an excuse for the Minister not to consider the issue in more detail, or is it a stop-gap? The Minister has clearly identified a potential gap, to which she will undoubtedly want to give further thought. If that thought manifests itself in rewriting part of the clause before Report, we will be manifestly happy to have instigated that—even if the Minister does not give credit where it is due.

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. 69, in page 4, line 18, leave out from ''services'' to end of line 19 and insert

''the local authority has the duty to provide suitable services to that person.''.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 170, in page 4, line 18, leave out ''decide whether to''.

No. 70, in page 4, line 19, after ''person'', insert

''and provide a written explanation of their reasons if those support services will not be forthcoming.''.

No. 71, in page 4, line 20, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

''(5) If a local authority decides that a person has need for adoption support services, the local authority must prepare a plan in accordance with which adoption support services are being provided to the person and keep the plan under regular review.''.

No. 171, in page 4, line 21, leave out ''decide'' and ''has assessed a need''.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

This is quite an extensive group of amendments; our amendments have been grouped with two tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

The lead amendment is absolutely essential and would be a test of the Government's genuineness to turn into reality the bold and well-guided intentions of clause 4. Earlier, I made the point that there is much detail about the duty on local authorities to carry out assessments—that is right for support services. However, there is no matching duty thereafter, if a need is identified, to provide support services to deal with the problem. If the latter does not follow the former, it makes a nonsense of the intentions of the clause.

Subsection (4) begins:

''Where, as a result of an assessment, a local authority decide that a person has needs for adoption support services'', but it continues:

''they must then decide whether to provide any such services to that person''.

We want to firm that up substantially by replacing it with the words,

''the local authority has the duty to provide suitable services to that person''.

Without that, providing an assessment could be seen as a handy way to escape the provision in the clause. That point was raised by a number of witnesses, in more detail, in many of the submissions. All the submissions welcomed support services being much more universally available, but most raised a concern that the assessments should be matched by support services that are forthcoming.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps I am anticipating my hon. Friend's comments, but it seems absolutely bizarre to compel local authorities to carry out resource-intensive assessments without making them go on to do something about it. Already restricted numbers of social workers will be involved in ever-increasing numbers with assessments, and they will be less able to deliver services.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend is right; that is a fear that we have raised. I raised it because I wanted to concentrate on this part of the Bill during the witness sittings. As we have discussed at length, social workers involved in child support are in short supply. We certainly need more of them if we are to increase the number of children adopted, as we want to do.

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

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's intentions. Does he agree that if the amendments were accepted, local authority social workers would be encouraged to skew their assessments in terms of the available resources, rather than making a fair assessment, and if necessary pointing out unmet need?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The logical extrapolation from that is that they can promise the earth in their assessments if they know that they do not have to provide it. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is entirely irrelevant. We need to make it clear that there must be a fair assessment, and that those assessments need to be properly monitored. No doubt the Minister can assure us on the quality of the assessments. It is a fair point that much of the paperwork on which social workers involved in adoption now rely is cumbersome, lengthy and, in many cases, out of date. One has only to look at subject form F1, with which many Government Members will be very familiar. It was faxed to me and caused the expending of no little amount of ink and fax paper. No doubt the Minister could have provided me with a hard copy if I had requested it.

The point is that, as many professionals in the field have said, such forms were designed about 25 years go. They ask questions that are not as relevant—often, largely irrelevant—today, 25 years since the Adoption Act was introduced. That is part of the problem with the assessments. Are they asking the right questions? We need to make sure that the assessment process is fair and valid.

Saying that social workers should not be obliged to provide services, and that that would in some way encourage them to make a fairer assessment in the first place, rather misses the point. We have required local authorities to do certain things and placed duties on social workers elsewhere in the Bill, and we are not asking an awful lot in this context.

Section 27(2) of the Children Act 1989 does not deal specifically with the business of local authorities providing adoption support services, but it does deal with an equivalent. It states:

''An authority whose help is so requested shall comply with the request''.

That is a clear duty to comply, and not to decide whether or not it will provide support services. I should like to see the same terminology applied to appropriate support services.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:00, 11 Rhagfyr 2001

To reply to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, surely there are parallels across the public services. The hon. Gentleman is right, but he has drawn the wrong conclusion. What about special needs in schools? Are we to say that we should restrict local authorities to assessing special needs in schools and not also require them to provide for those needs? We all know that the assessment process is inevitably resource-biased.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is right, and my hon. Friend has raised another appropriate point. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment, it is incumbent on her to give us examples of a social services department carrying out an assessment clearly identifying adoption support services required by the adopted child or connected persons that have not been provided. Under what circumstances would that be acceptable practice? That is the question that she must answer if she is not prepared to accept the amendment. We are not prepared to accept anything that contains the words ''decide whether''. If a need has been clearly identified, everything should be directed at satisfying that need by formulating solutions that deliver services that can solve the particular problem. That is a key point, and Opposition Members will need to be well convinced that that is the Government's intention. The way in which this part of the clause has been fashioned does not suggest that it is.

Amendment No. 70 is contingent on the Government being prepared to accept that that duty rests on the local authority, or at the least that the local authority should have a duty to say why those support services will not be provided. That should be clearly laid out in a formula available to the persons who have requested adoption support services that would decide the form of the review or appeal mechanism that should be available. When we reach clause 12, we shall examine the review mechanism for adoption decisions. There are many other stages in the adoption process where a review of a decision made by a local authority could be appropriate. At the very least, we would call for a written account of why those services are not forthcoming, which could form the basis of an appeal or a claim to another body which may be able to

reverse that decision or provide the support services that a local authority was either not in position to supply or had refused to supply.

Amendment No. 71 deals with the subject of preparing a plan for adoption support services and keeping that plan under review. As we all agree, adoption support is not only provided in an episode; it is required for the lifetime of that child, and in more concentrated amounts up to the time that that child reaches the age of 18. It is right, especially with children who have complex needs, that the plan of support should be regularly reviewed, because their situation may change. Earlier problems may have required a support service that is no longer appropriate, but there may be other effects such as

behavioural problems at school or a whole host of situations for which support is necessary. It would be sensible for the plans drawn up for that child to be reviewed regularly until support services are no longer required.

The three amendments would be useful and I am glad to say that they are supported by my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). The clause as drafted would not achieve what we want to achieve and what the Government have led us to believe they want to achieve.

Debate adjourned.--[Angela Smith.]

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Seven o'clock till Thursday 13 December at half-past Nine o'clock.