Clause 4 - Assessments etc. for adoption support services

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am ar 13 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Amendment proposed [11 December]: 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.'.—[Tim Loughton.]

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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 Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

The clause in some ways baffles me. I cannot begin to fathom—nor could many of those who made submissions on the Bill—why it will not be mandatory to provide services necessary to cater for an identified need. As the Bill stands, the following scenario is likely. First, a child is assessed for need; secondly, the assessment identifies the need; thirdly, the local authority ignores the assessment.

The local authority might have a variety of reasons for ignoring the assessment, but I suspect that the most likely would be pressure on funding. Indeed, the Minister alluded to budget problems on Tuesday. We all know that strict budgets mean that other social services functions will suffer. For instance, they can fund only a fixed number of nursing home beds, which is one of the factors that contributes to bed-blocking.

Another trend, which I have noted particularly in my constituency, is that budgetary pressures on local authorities make them take a ''this will do for this child'' attitude when dealing with children with special educational needs instead of doing the best that they can. I fear that the same attitude will pervade the adoption services. Given that the Government rightly want to increase the number of adopted children, I can foresee adoption services budgets coming under huge pressure. The clause will provide local authorities with an easy get-out; the Bill makes it far too easy for them to say no. Prospective adoptive parents might also face the scenario of support services being provided for a year and then withdrawn because other cases are thought to be more worthy. It seems unfair that they should be promised support but with no guarantee that it will continue to be forthcoming in the long term.

I firmly believe that the Bill will be counter-productive—especially if the Government are genuine in trying to boost the number of adoptive parents. If complex needs require a certain amount of financial support, prospective adoptive parents will need to be reassured that the support will be forthcoming for as long as is necessary. If the amendments were accepted, the situation would be much clearer. The local authority could provide support, and the adoptive parents would be secure in the knowledge that that support would be on-going.

As I said, the Minister came clean when we were discussing clause 3 by saying that decisions would have to be made in the light of available resources. In what other instances might local authorities decide not to support an identified need?

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

I thought that hon. Members were going to make rather more of a meal of the amendment.

Clause 4, which we began debating on Tuesday, gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their need for adoption support services from the local authority. As such, it provides an extremely important step forward in enabling families and adopted children to access the necessary adoption support. The assessment will ensure that adoptive families and others must no longer fight against the system to get the support that they need. It will also ensure that public services are properly joined up and co-ordinate the provision of adoption support services. Where the assessment identifies that a person needs adoption support services, the local authority must decide whether to provide them.

Opposition Members have feigned incredulity that such a system could pertain to local authorities or public services. The system is, however, appropriate because local authorities are best placed to decide—on the basis of need and the resources available locally—which services to provide and whether to provide them. That form of decision making is appropriate given the range of services that local authorities and other public services provide.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I find this very hard to understand. What is the point of making it compulsory for a local authority to assess a need if it need do nothing about it? That is an artificial exercise.

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

The fact that the hon. Lady finds something hard to understand does not mean that it is not the sensible and appropriate way in which to organise public services.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister obviously got out of bed on the wrong side this morning after a very late night that was of her party's making. She referred ungraciously to our feigned incredulity, but our concerns reflect statements that many witnesses made before the Committee and in representations. The Bill talks not about which services to provide, but about ''whether to'' provide them—that is the point.

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

If the Opposition's argument is that providing adoption support services is crucial to increasing the number of adoptive parents, I agree. However, I disagree with their proposal that assessments should be automatically translated into action. That would be quite unusual for public services.

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

In a moment.

Clause 3 spells out, for the first time, the duty on local authorities to provide adoptive families with services—to increase the number of adoptions, as we all want.

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

No, not at the moment. I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) in a minute.

By giving local authorities extra resources for adoption support services, the Government will ensure that they are provided to individuals, and we shall discuss the details of provision later.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is similar to that in many other services? Only the other day, I sought an assessment for my parents from the Liberal-Democrat run council in Sheffield. It struggled to offer one and made it clear to my mother on the telephone that it would not provide certain services even if she was assessed as having a need.

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

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I cannot comment on the failures of the Liberal Democrat council in Sheffield, but my hon. Friend is right. The Conservative Government introduced the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, which also established a relationship between assessment and the right of local authorities to decide how and whether to provide services. Therefore, determining the provision of services in such a way is not unprecedented.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

If we are sharing out blame, I could throw equal light on Labour-controlled Southampton city council, under which we have problems accessing special educational needs provision, and, to be even-handed, Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council—

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. It is right and proper for hon. Members to emphasise a point by identifying specific experiences, but we do not want to start a political debate about local authorities throughout the country.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

Just because there is already a problem does not mean that we should perpetuate it by passing a similarly flawed Bill.

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

The logic of the hon. Lady's argument is that, contrary to the Government, she does not believe that local authorities are best placed to make such decisions.

Sandra Gidley indicated dissent.

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

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is the logic of her position. Although it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that there is a duty to provide services, which the Bill provides, and that local authorities have the wherewithal to make decisions about how resources are allocated—which will undoubtedly be easier under a Labour Government who make the resources available in the first place—the local authorities themselves should be able to make the decisions.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Before we sky-rocket off into more party political nonsense, I remind the hon. Lady that she has just repeated that clause 3 puts a duty on local authorities to provide services. Can she point out in which phrase or part of clause 3 there is a duty on local authorities to provide adoption support services?

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

The responsibility is clearly laid out in clause 3.

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

At the beginning—''to maintain an adoption service'', and as we discussed. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. We are doing very well. You are being very kind to me, and my life is easy. I should like, with your co-operation, to keep it that way, so please let us have no interjections from sedentary positions.

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

In fact, subsection (2)(b) provides a duty to maintain an adoption support service. The duty to provide resources is there, as is the responsibility, which the Government take seriously. Nevertheless, local authorities have discretion in their decisions.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am afraid that the Minister is not convincing. The clause makes provision for the maintenance of adoption services and for the arrangements for the provision of adoption services, but makes no provision placing a duty on a local authority actually to provide those services. That is the point. The wording of the clause contains no duty on local authorities to provide a support service. That is not what the Minister said.

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

I am afraid that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Clause 3 clearly states:

''Each local authority must continue to maintain within their area a service designed to meet the needs, in relation to adoption, of—''

and lists the people for whom the service should be available. Subsection (2) says:

''Those facilities must include making, and participating in, arrangements . . .

(b) for the provision of adoption support services.''

There is a clear duty to put in place an adoption support service. That has been introduced in legislation for the first time. Later, we shall talk about the responsibilities in terms of planning and, therefore, accountability for ensuring that those adoption support services are in place.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Under that very wording, a local authority could maintain a fleet of dustcarts and a fleet of rubbish collection men and have no duty to collect any rubbish. The same principle applies to the clause.

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

The hon. Gentleman is stretching credulity a little.

I turn to the argument of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) that local authorities are very likely just to ignore assessments. That is not my experience of local authorities. In the past, local authorities may not have provided adequate adoption support services when they did not have a duty or the resources to do so. The Bill attempts to set that problem 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) 9:45, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I have one brief point. I followed what the Minister said about clauses 3 and 4, but she gave the game away when she said that local authorities would provide services according to the resources that they had. That is a let-out for local authorities not to provide services, but their doing so is the point of the Bill.

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

I am at a loss to work out how local authorities could provide services without taking their resources into consideration. Resources are important and local authorities need to make decisions on the basis of those that they receive. However, in law they now have not only the responsibility and duty to maintain adoption support services, but increased resources with which to do so. Opposition Members may say that this debate is deteriorating into party political points, but that is the distinction between this Government and the Conservative Government. We are supplying and are pledged to continue to supply the resources to enable the services to be provided.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that the implications for other services provided by local authorities could be devastating if we accepted the amendments? Parameters need to be determined by local authority members when they consider their budget, their priorities and the level of council tax that they want to set. We in the House should not be so prescriptive as to hamstring local authorities. Many people might be put at a disadvantage and find that one group that requires services is given preference over another, but it cannot be right for us to decide such matters; they are for local authorities.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes an important point about the responsibilities of local authorities. The Committee is rightly concerned to ensure that adoption support services are in place to support the objectives that we all have to increase the number of adopters. We are also dealing with local authorities, which rightly have a range of responsibilities. They are locally accountable to their electorate in deciding how money is spent.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I take the Minister back to the argument that I put at the end of our previous sitting? Local authorities have a statutory duty to look after children in care, and we all support that. It is an extremely expensive statutory duty, but it is right. The anomaly on adoption—it will remain after the Bill is enacted and was borne out by the academic testimony that we heard—is that the only non-compulsory part of the equation is the procedure that provides the best outcome for children who have been in care for a while, which is almost always the cheapest outcome for the local authority even if it provides all the adoption services.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. Interventions should be as short as possible. I think that the Minister got the point.

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

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, there has been another misunderstanding about the extent to which it is the responsibility or duty of the local authority to provide a service, and the extent to which that local authority has discretion about how it provides support for any individual. There is a distinction. I do not agree that the Children Act 1989 has the effect that Conservative Members and the hon. Member for Romsey are trying to create through the amendment.

I would like the Committee to consider some details of the amendments, some of which came up on Tuesday afternoon. Amendments Nos. 71 and 171 are about the necessity to provide a plan following an assessment. Subsection (5) proposed in amendment No. 71 would require local authorities, where they decide to provide adoption support services following an assessment and the circumstances fall within a description prescribed by regulations, to prepare a plan for the provision of those services and to keep that plan under review. Regulations that we will make under clause 4(7)(d) will set out requirements as to the manner and frequency of reviewing plans.

The previous version of the Bill, introduced in the spring, required local authorities, in every case in which they decide to provide support services following an assessment, to prepare a plan for the provision of those services and keep that plan under review. We have given the issue of plans careful consideration since then, and we have decided to make a change so as not to place unnecessary burdens on local authorities, particularly in light of the much wider responsibilities to provide an assessment in this Bill compared with the previous one.

In many cases in which a local authority provides adoption support services following an assessment, it will be appropriate for it to draw up a plan to co-ordinate the provision of those services. For example, where an adoptive family is provided with a number of different services following an assessment, the details of those services will need to be recorded in a plan to ensure that the family receives the services at the appropriate times.

However, in some cases a plan will not be needed. For example, where services are provided on a one-off basis, such as an individual session of counselling for an adopted adult preparing to receive information about their birth family, a plan will not be necessary to co-ordinate their provision. We do not want to place unnecessary burdens on local authorities, so the regulations will be used to make it clear where a plan is required. That is an important proviso, given the extended right to assessment in the Bill.

We have already had some discussion of amendments Nos. 69 and 170, which would require local authorities to provide the adoption support services that a person is assessed as needing, following an assessment under clause 4. We have heard a few of the arguments already, but I hope that I can reassure hon. Members and contradict the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Romsey that somehow local authorities are looking for a way out of providing such services.

A local authority must act reasonably when deciding whether to provide an adoption support service following an assessment, but it is for the local authority to make that decision. In doing so, it will take the resources available to it into account. That follows the approach taken to service provision in the vast majority of public services, including other social services and the health service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear on Second Reading on 29 October that, ultimately, local authorities provide the adoption service, so they must decide who needs what level of support. The substantial extra funding that the Government have made available will help to ensure that many more people get the support that they need, and we will continue to consider the need for resources in light of the forthcoming spending review process.

Amendment No. 70 would require local authorities, where they decide not to provide adoption support services, to give a written explanation of their reasons for not doing so. That is not a matter for primary legislation. It will be good practice for local authorities to do so following an assessment, but it is more appropriate for the issue to be covered by guidance to local authorities. In some cases, depending on the needs of the person who has been assessed, it may be more appropriate or necessary to provide a verbal explanation of that decision.

We are developing a new national framework for adoption support services in consultation with experts in the adoption field. We will publish that framework for consultation in the spring. If we decide after consultation that it would be appropriate to require local authorities to give a written explanation of their reasons for not providing adoption support services, we shall issue guidance to local authorities to that effect.

We have had a lively start today in debating the amendments. Under other amendments, we shall go on to consider in more detail how the right to assessment and extra resources provided by the Government and the other provisions in the Bill will lead to much improved adoption support services for families. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) feels able to withdraw the amendment.

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)

When I attended the evidence sittings, I found it useful. We received several memorandums from people expert in the field, and I find it unacceptable that the Government are not addressing the areas identified by those concerned and knowledgeable individuals.

I refer to what Barnardo's said. The evidence given by that organisation clearly states that

''provisions contained in clause 4 do give rise to considerable concern. The right to an assessment of their needs will be available to children and families but the local authority is then under no obligation to provide any of the services that it may have decided are needed.''

That is rather illogical. The Bill tries to introduce uniformity across England and Wales in the delivery of adoption services, and hopes to instil best practice, but it does not make a great deal of sense for clause 3 to impose a duty to carry out an assessment if a local authority can decide not to act on it. Together with the question of adoption by unmarried couples and access to information, that area attracted the most attention from the various bodies that gave evidence.

We should remind ourselves of some of the things said to us by some of those knowledgeable people about the services and what is required from them. The ATD Fourth World memorandum states:

''Section 4(4) only places a duty on a local authority to decide whether to provide any services to that person. It is recognised by all parties, including the Department of Health, that adopted children, birth parents and adoptive parents all need support. Support services should be on offer to everyone involved who can take them up as they see fit for their own individual circumstances.

The provision of—not the assessment for—adoption support services should be a statutory duty on local authorities and therefore included in the Bill.''

The argument is developed further.

The Adoption Forum memorandum states:

''One of the laudable aims of this Bill is to bring adoption/permanency support into the front line. Adoptions that fail do so because families feel unable to cope and support has been all but impossible to find and fund. If the rate of success is to be improved—and it is difficult to see why there would be much point in upping adoption figures unless adoptions are going to succeed—then there must be help available.''

The memorandum then describes some of the contents of clause 4. On the subject of giving help, it continues:

''It seems to us that families are the foremost experts on whether and when they need it; they recognise when they are in crisis and unable to deal with the child. The danger of not providing support at the time of request is that the placement/adoption may break down irretrievably, to the great damage of all concerned and probably great expense to the state in the longer term.

There are of course degrees of adoption support: some, possibly the major part, will be reasonably easily resolved within a short time, necessitating in the main experienced counselling. Other families will need longer term, more profound assistance with an input from other areas such as health and education—as is made clear in the Bill.

If families have to go to their LA for assessment they are very likely to find themselves involved in a very long process: waiting for assessment, the assessment, waiting for a decision, waiting again while the LA decide to act on their decision and so on. This could take months, by which time the adoption well may have broken down.

Given that assessors will have to possess the same finely-honed skills (which are in short supply) as those offering the support itself, surely they would be put to better use in providing it rather than assessing?''

The Adoption Forum also asks,

''—What if the LA says yes, you need support but we have no staff to do it?

—What if the LA says no?''

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 10:00, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about unmarried couples and birth records, but he is referring to issues of policy and resources. Does he not agree that decisions about spending priorities and allocation of resources should be made by the local authority? If the tap flows continuously in one area of policy, that will affect other areas. I do not accept what he said about there being a queue.

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)

What worries me is that, as we all agreed previously, some local authorities are failing. That may be due to problems of resources or to other things, but it seems to me that these provisions may be a recipe for further failure. The local authority will be able to say that it could not provide the service because it did not have sufficient resources. I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, which is logical, but the clause seems to provide a get-out.

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

Given that, as we have heard, it is better for children who are looked after for a long time to be adopted—which is generally also cheaper in the long run—is there not an incentive for social services or adoption agencies to ensure that adoption support services are provided to maintain an adoption, rather than the child having to return to being looked after, which is the more expensive option?

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 sure that the hon. Lady is right because she has considerable experience in the area. In a perfect world, that would be true, but it does not alter the fact that the perception among all the experts who gave evidence is that there is a problem with clause 4. I agree with them.

The memorandum from Adoption UK also states:

''The Prime Minister's Review of Adoption and the subsequent White Paper acknowledged that children adopted from the care system will have experienced neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, frequent changes of carer as well as other challenging life events:

'67 per cent. of looked after children have an identifiable mental health problem'.

Parenting these children is a rewarding but challenging task and one which must be adequately supported. Without good adoption support, adoptive placements are highly vulnerable to disruption.''

That is obvious. Adoption UK goes on to say:

''We welcome some of the changes to Clause 4 and are delighted that adoption support includes all those affected by adoption.

We do not believe that adoption placements will necessarily be supported if backed by a legal duty to provide an 'assessment of needs for adoption support services' ''.

That goes to the core of this debate. It continues:

''Our 30 years experience of supporting adoptive families has shown us that these families need access to the actual provision of support post-placement and post-adoption, not simply an assessment to determine the nature of that support.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 168–352.]

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

All members of the Committee will have sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said and with the views of those doing the relevant work, but if we are to write blank cheques to support families with children, should not the first of those be written for children living with their birth families? Perhaps fewer children would then be in care.

Mr. Llwyd rose—

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman resumes, I request that quotations be kept as short as is consistent with making his point.

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 accept that, Mr. Stevenson; I simply feel that the people concerned are being ignored. I will be brief. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about initial support for birth parents. He is right.

Adoption UK puts effectively the same view as the others that I have cited. I also want to refer to the document provided by the British Association of Social Workers. I know that several Labour Members have lengthy experience in social work. I confess that I do not, and I bow to their expertise in many respects. However, I shall quote the comments of the association. It states:

''Clause 4 needs substantial improvement. A distinction should be drawn between the basic service of social work support, which should always be available as the main component of adoption support services, and additional services, such as the payment of an adoption allowance, where there is a case for some exercise of discretion. Social work support in connection with adoption should always be available, and it should not initially be conditional on an assessment of a person's needs having already been carried out. It should not be open to a local authority to decide whether or not to provide it, although once the order is made its duration and intensity should be discretionary. One of our concerns with the present wording is that it may lead to an excessively bureaucratic approach in which nothing will be done to help people until standardised assessment forms have been completed and processed through complex rationing machinery. The end result of this approach can be that time and money which could have been spent on helping people is spent on deciding that their need for help does not have sufficient priority.''

The passage continues:

''Sub-clause 4(1) restricts people to asking for support services for themselves. It does not provide, for example, for adopters to seek support for their child, or for the local authority to assess the child's needs at the adopters' request.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 273.]

You have been patient, Mr. Stevenson, and I appreciate that. My point is that people have spent time preparing their memorandums, and thinking about the Bill. They gave up their time to give evidence to us, and, seemingly, they are all wrong and the Government are right. I question that. If the Special Standing Committee procedure means anything, and if it is to be used for other Bills, we should listen to the people who are at the front line in providing the services in question. If they do not know, who does?

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I entirely accept your earlier rebuke, Mr. Stevenson. I should have tried to catch your eye, instead of attempting to intervene on the Minister. I want to make two points, beginning by expanding slightly on my intervention.

There is a difference between the issue dealt with by the amendments and the wider issues of local authority services, about which hon. Members have made sensible points. Of course any social services committee anywhere in the country, and, indeed, any other local government committee, must set its priorities against a mass of conflicting demands, and the money will never be enough to go round. No Opposition Member would challenge that view, which we all understand. However, we must understand something: at every other point while a child is in the care system, there is a statutory duty for the relevant services to be provided.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Children Act 1989 does not create an individual enforceable duty owed to a child but only a general duty? Section 17 gives local authorities a general duty to

''promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need''.

A child's circumstances must nevertheless be examined in the context of the general range and level of services that are provided. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the Act is mistaken.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I accept the Minister's legal point, but the practical fact is that no one believes that any social services department in the country would get away with throwing a child out of a children's home or ending a fostering arrangement because the money had run out.

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

The hon. Gentleman paints a completely unrealistic picture. Does he not accept that one of the gross iniquities of the system is the fact that fostering has been badly underresourced? Children have been pushed out of the residential care system because of the lack of resources.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should like to develop my point. The hon. Gentleman and I have often listened to such stories in the all-party groups that we chair. He is right about the system, which is why I have advocated adoption for so long. No one denies, however, that local authorities have a duty to children collectively and, in practice, individually. They sometimes fail to fulfil that duty, although children in the care system are extremely expensive, and everyone understands why the money is spent.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am sorry, but I should like to develop my point. I will then give way to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw).

The Committee heard advice from two academics that adoption was the best option for most children who had been in the care system for a while, and Sonia Jackson put it in the strongest possible language. Of course, there are exceptions, and many children pass through the system only briefly. However, the best option is adoption.

The amendments tackle the central anomaly in the clause. Local authorities are rightly forced to spend large sums on children up to the point of adoption, although they cannot always easily put their hands on the money. Parents must, however, struggle with children who have often been badly abused—I shall give two brief constituency examples after I have given way—even though relatively small sums could keep the adoption together. The essential maintenance of adoption arrangements is not resourced or given equal priority with other arrangements in the care system. We are talking about priorities.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We have moved on slightly, but I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) suggest that social services arrangements were still greatly underresourced given that we heard the other day that everything was sweetness and light.

Was the Minister not being selective when she quoted from a general duty in the Children Act? She referred to section 27, as I did the other day. It places duties on authorities to comply with requests for certain services, including cross-boundary requests.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Indeed; I take my hon. Friend's point.

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

Is not the hon. Gentleman talking about the same issue as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)? He is talking about a flowing tap, but he is mistaken to say that local authorities must provide services on request under their responsibilities in the Children Act. If that were true, social services departments would take into care every child whom a parent presented at their doorstep. They do not do that; they make an assessment of the child's needs and provide appropriate resources, just as the clause says.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. To quote his own words back at him, social services assesses a child's needs and provides appropriately for them. The problem is that there is a statutory duty to make an assessment but not to meet the needs. The hon. Gentleman was a social worker for many years. Does he really believe that if a local authority made an assessment—[Interruption.]

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that if a local authority made an assessment that it was necessary to take a child into care but refused to do so because of resourcing problems, a subsequent inquiry would support that authority's decision?

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

The point that I am making is that a local authority will not take children into care at the drop of a hat. They will of course make an assessment, but the premise is that the child remains in the home rather than being taken into care. The authorities cannot write a blank cheque. Under the Bill, an assessment is made and resources are provided.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

We have reached a point where we do not understand each other. I am saying that an assessment may be made but there is no requirement to provide resources. No one is arguing for a blank cheque. We say that although the local authority makes assessments, the unavoidable danger, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre pointed out on Tuesday, is that their assessment of special educational needs and many other matters may be biased by consideration of available resources. We cannot get away from that in public services.

I shall share one of my constituency cases with the Committee. At my surgery I was visited by a couple who had adopted two girls of 11 and nine years old who had been severely abused. They were not at the prime age for adoption. It was very brave of my constituents to take on children who were that old and had so much baggage. The children were from a London authority, not Kent. I will not name the authority and I do not want to make a party political point because representatives of the authority are not here to defend its decision. The local authority passed on those children, washed its hands of them and said goodbye. My constituents were not asking for money. They were not terribly well off, but they were not asking for adoption allowances. They came to my surgery to ask whether it would be possible to have the bus fare paid to take the children to counselling sessions for the sexual abuse that they had suffered. The local authority would not cover even that.

That refusal was monstrous. From an economic angle, while those girls were in the system they cost the local authority a huge sum of money. Those brave and generous constituents of mine had taken those children out of the system, so they now cost the system nothing. Yet the local authority would not pay even for a bus pass—I am sorry, Mr. Stevenson, I do not mean to be over-emotional about it.

My second argument is that touched on by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, whose constituency name I still cannot pronounce: my hon. Friend—I am proud to call him that—knows that I mean no offence. It is a strong argument, that was mentioned also by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Quotations were read out showing that professionals, too, believed that there was a danger that we would start a bureaucratic blizzard. That would absorb resources that were not available—I am talking not about money, but about social workers' time.

No one is suggesting the writing of blank cheques, but if the first stage is to wait while a social worker assesses a case before deciding whether to pay even for bus passes to take children for counselling, the danger is not only that there will be delay or that resources may not be available, but that the adoption may break down. We have a success rate in adoption of just over 80 per cent. That is quite a good rate. However, there is no reason why it should not—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I must share this with the Committee because I know that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is such a decent man that he will not be offended. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has written out phonetically the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency—Merry-on-ith Nant Con-way—is that a reasonable pronunciation? It has brought some light relief to our proceedings.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is generous in so many ways. That is just another example. The gist of the second point is that about delay and the possibility that stressing a statutory duty for assessment without putting the resources behind it could backfire. Departments that are very short of social workers might end up doing more assessments and providing less support. That will have a knock-on effect on other children's services, resulting in some of the problems mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

Having finally produced a reasonable pronunciation of the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, I urge the Minister to think again about the clause. She does not have to agree with the wording of our amendments, but the problem needs to be addressed.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—I will try that again—[Laughter.]

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. I will not try to beat the hon. Gentleman's pronunciation, but may we please return to the amendments?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The hon. Gentleman referred to the independent evidence that was presented to us. In her memorandum, at column 380, Monica Bradbury, a very experienced professional working in social services, clearly makes the point that, as the Bill stands, individuals do not have the right to receive the services that they might have been assessed as needing. That could not be clearer.

I also refer to the evidence that was cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) a second ago. Professor Sonia Jackson sums up the situation very well. She says that it is very unfortunate that the Bill does not place a duty on local authorities to provide support services, but only a duty to assess need. She concludes, at column 428, that there should be a right to adoption support, not simply to assessments.

I wholly endorse the words of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury in urging the Minister to look carefully at what the professionals and a number of experts working in the field have advised us to do. Surely the point of our Special Standing Committee exercise was to collect evidence from such experts, to listen to what they had to say and to learn from it—to be flexible and, above all, to listen.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

This has been quite a debate. What a contrast there has been between what I can only describe as the curmudgeonly attitude of the Minister, who has been so ungracious in the way in which she has received the amendments, and the munificence of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friends in supporting the amendments. The Minister has become confused about the underlying intention of the amendments—they are genuinely intended to improve the Bill and to ensure that what the Government have led us to believe they intend is carried out. The Minister said that it was crucial to provide adoption support services; we all agree with that. That is why we are debating the clause and why the additions to the Bill have been universally welcomed. Then the Minister said that the Government did not want to place unnecessary burdens on local authorities. Then she started to say that local authorities must act reasonably. She seems to be continually changing her emphasis.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in each case my remarks related to different amendments? For example, the second quotation about not placing undue burdens related specifically to an amendment concerning a written plan following every single assessment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I could have cited many more quotations. My point is that the treatment of the amendments and the Minister's expectations of local authorities seemed to shift the more we debated the amendments. Whatever she says, she failed singularly to show where, in clause 3 or clause 4, a duty is placed on local authorities to deliver those support services that we all agree are necessary. We are not the only ones who are saying that—nor are the organisations whose names the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy recited the only such organisations to share our view of the matter. We have all received such representations, and I could add one more. The Children's Society said:

''There is nothing in the bill requiring the said authorities to comply with the request and to provide support services, which fall within their respective functions. Our experience across a range of health and education authorities is that if there is no requirement to provide services these services will not commonly be provided.''

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

Opposition Members, including the hon. Gentleman, have quoted the expert witnesses who testified before us. We accepted some of the representations as individual Members and some of them along party lines. It was a matter of choice. I am referring to the issue of unmarried couples, on which the hon. Member for Canterbury did not accept 29 of the expert witnesses' recommendations. Just because we receive representations does not mean that we should automatically accept them. The child care agencies are not local authorities; they have a responsibility to campaign for children. They would never say, ''There is enough money.''

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point and he is right. The fact that we receive many representations on a subject, be it this subject or others in the Bill, does not necessarily mean that they are right. However, if those making the representations had no evidence to support them that we should take note of, I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to challenge the premises on which they made those representations during the witness stage. I cannot recall, having re-read Hansard, any examples of Labour Members challenging representations that said that the provision of support services after an assessment should be a duty. I am not entirely sure why the hon. Gentleman makes that point now.

No one on the Committee is suggesting that an enormous band of local authority social services departments is actively looking for loopholes to get out of providing services to adoptive children. The vast majority of those in local authority social services departments take their responsibilities highly seriously. That is what they are there for, and that is why they do their job. They do their best to translate their responsibilities into hard-line, sharp-end services. However, in the Bill, we are trying to ensure continuity in the provision of support services, a higher general standard and a higher benchmark. Unless there is a duty on social services departments to provide those support services, the provision will still be patchy.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 10:30, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

The hon. Gentleman is coming to an important point of clarification. Opposition Members seem to have said that they want the local authority to be under a duty to meet an adoptive family's needs in every case. That is absurd.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It would be absurd for the amendments to suggest that. Labour Members have used phrases such as ''blank cheques'' and ''flowing taps''. We all know that there are still severe restrictions, despite what the Minister would have us believe about the Government's enormous munificence in providing almost unlimited extra resources to social services departments. If we are to promote adoption as much as we all want, those resources will have to be more widely spread.

It would make a mockery of the intentions behind clauses 3 and 4 if there were effectively a blank cheque and flowing tap for the provision of assessments of need, but no accompanying duty of care to provide those services. That would be more than nonsense, as it would be a cruel hoax on people who desperately need assessments to be made of the support that they require. We are concerned about the length of time that an assessment might take, and the resources that would go into the provision of the assessment. The time of sharp-end people in short supply might be better spent providing services as swiftly, effectively and comprehensively as possible. That is the premise that underlies the amendment.

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

I still do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He tells us that he does not want to write a blank cheque to support adoption services, but does not make it at all clear where he would draw any distinction.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We are going round in circles. We have made it clear that the wording of the clause, which allows an authority to decide ''whether to'' provide—not whether to provide the extent or timing of provision, but whether to provide at all—is completely out of sync with the provisions that say that an assessment must be made. Our amendments would get rid of any mentions of ''whether to''.

Even more extraordinarily, the Minister will not give me any examples, as I challenged her to at the start of the debate, of circumstances in which she thinks it appropriate for a social services department not to provide support after it has undertaken an assessment of and identified a family's needs. She did not reassure us that there was not a good case for a written review in primary legislation. Such reviews may be part of good practice, and I hope that many local authorities undertake or will undertake them anyway, but we are again expected to wait for guidance that will go to consultation in the spring. Given the undertakings that we have had from the Government so far, I am not confident that they will extensively address the shortfalls that we have identified. On that basis, my colleagues and I are as determined as when we started the debate to press the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Rhif adran 4 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 4 - Assessments etc. for adoption support services

Ie: 7 MPs

Na: 8 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I beg to move amendment No. 90, in page 4, line 29, at end insert

', which regulations must at all times bear in mind, that, in general, any delay in provision of adoption support services is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.'.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 72, in page 4, line 42, after 'conditions', insert

'as long as the well-being of any person with regard to adoption support services is not affected and there is no avoidable delay.'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

This is familiar territory that relates to the previous debate. We are concerned about the length and complexity of the assessment procedure that leads to the provision of services. We all agree that it is always in the best interests of the child to intervene as early as possible, be it to remove a child from a dangerous situation or to settle a child with new prospective adopters and give as much support as possible to ensure that a placement works. It therefore seemed sensible to amend the provisions that allude to regulations about the assessments and the reviewing of plans that will be drawn up after the provision of adoption services. Those regulations will be drawn up eventually; we hope to see them in the spring.

No provisions in clause 4 correspond to the essential considerations that we discussed under clause 1 on the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and the fact that delay in acting should generally be seen as not in the child's best interests. The intention of amendment No. 90 is that the regulations, when they are drawn up, must

''bear in mind, that, in general, any delay in provision of adoption support services is likely to prejudice the child's welfare''.

I hope that the Minister and her colleagues would not seek to disagree with that self-evident fact. The question that needs answering is whether the Bill takes sufficient account of those considerations, as I do not see an obvious link between clause 4 and clause 1. Similarly, amendment No. 72 details certain provisions of the regulations along the same lines.

The amendments are probing, and I should be delighted if the Minister would reassure me that the considerations will automatically be taken into account through interpretation of the clause as it stands.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The rights of the child are paramount. That spirit runs through the clauses of the Bill. However, the more I read the Bill, the more I realise that few provisions state that the child has rights. We have seen that the child's consent will be ignored, in effect. We have heard something similar on the child's right to be heard in hearings, and we shall see it again in relation to appeals to the panel under clause 12. Although we talk about the child's interests being paramount, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of giving the child rights, there are none in the Bill. My hon. Friend maintains that the question of delay should be put in terms of what is likely to prejudice the child's welfare. I fully support his view. It is generally agreed that under the Bill delay is undesirable. In reaching a view as to what constitutes a delay, it should be stated that the child's welfare, primarily, should be kept in mind.

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

Clause 4 gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from their local authority. It is therefore important to make clear the nature of that assessment and the important contribution that it should make to the provision of adoption support services.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) was concerned with the position of the child, and I assure him that the clause enables children to, for example, request an assessment in their own right. The voice of children in relation to the rights to assessment under the clause can be heard clearly. Different types of assessments will be made for different groups of people. The detail of the assessment process will be set out in regulations made under subsection (7)(b). Those regulations will be drawn up following consultation with stakeholders, as part of the new framework for adoption support services that we are developing, which we shall publish for consultation in the spring.

Clause 4(4) provides that, when the assessment identifies a need for adoption support services, the local authority must decide whether to provide adoption support services to that person. I want to respond to the feeling expressed—in fact, I think it was an assertion—by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I think that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who is no longer in the Room, was suggesting the same thing—that an assessment would put up a barrier to the provision of adoption support services, or hold up the system.

The Government's view is that assessment is crucial to the provision of those adoption support services and that view was supported by, for example, Margaret Dight of the Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham, in her evidence. Replying to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, she talked about the importance of

''an accurate assessment of need.''

She commented:

''That assessment has to be made by individuals who are fully informed on issues around the adoption process, the implication of a child's background and life experiences and how that will impact on the child in placement and the on-going needs of the family.''

She also said,

''we are looking at detailed, skilled, professional assessments, which need to be done rapidly''—

I agree about that—

''and take cognisance of the skills and knowledge in different disciplines and different organisations.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 104.]

There is a need for assessments to be carried out in a timely manner, but it is also important to recognise the significance of the assessments, not as something holding up the process, but as something to ensure that it is carried out as quickly and effectively as possible.

Amendment No. 72 seeks to qualify subsection (7)(f), which enables regulations to be made setting out the circumstances in which local authorities may provide adoption support services. We intend to use the regulations to enable local authorities to specify, where appropriate, how financial support should be spent. For example, financial support might be supplied to make alterations to the home of a family that is adopting a large group of siblings. That financial support could, under the regulations, be provided on condition that the family spent that money in that way. Subsection (7)(g) enables regulations to be made concerning the consequences of failure to comply with those conditions. The provision allowing conditions to be imposed on adoption support is sensible and important. It should not and will not lead to delay.

Amendment No. 90 seeks to amend subsection (6), which enables regulations to be made in respect of local authority assessments for adoption support and the provision of services. It would provide for the regulations at all times to take account of the likelihood that a delay in the provision of adoption support services would prejudice a child's welfare.

That amendment is not needed. The assessment is not intended to delay the provision of adoption support services. Its purpose is to enable adoptive parents and others involved in the adoption process to find a way into the system and to make it unnecessary for them to struggle to get the help and support that they need. It will also help to ensure that the various public services required to supply joint post-adoption support liaise properly.

Given those reassurances about the nature of the clause and the regulations that will go with it, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:45, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I am grateful to the Minister. She has tried to explain a linkage with the considerations in clause 1, which we believe is necessary. On that basis, we look forward to reading the regulations. It would not be appropriate for me to press the amendment, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I beg to move amendment No. 186, in page 4, line 42, after 'conditions', insert:

'and provide for an independent review of a decision not to provide adoption support services'.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

With this we may discuss amendment No. 187, in page 4, line 42, after 'conditions', insert:

'and provide for a review of a decision not to provide adoption support services'.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

Amendment No. 186 is similar to those tabled by others on these Benches, including the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. It deals with the problem of review. In practice, most of the decisions will be taken by social services departments that form part of a county council or a unitary authority. Such bodies usually have reasonably well publicised complaints procedures. However, those are not the same as review procedures. Some might regard them as an adequate resource for a disgruntled adoptive parent who is unhappy with a decision. I do not.

It is essential for the Bill to contain a clearly defined right to a review. However, the amendments tabled by others would mean that that review could be carried out by persons who had worked closely with the officers who took the disputed decision. That could be problematic. Labour members of the Committee have, on numerous occasions, highlighted the fact that some people have less than happy relationships with their social services departments. It seems appropriate that there should be a mechanism for review that is removed from the body that took the decision. All parties involved would then be reassured as to the independence of the review. That is all that I want to say, because the amendments are self-explanatory.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

As the hon. Lady says, there is a great similarity between the two amendments, and I want to back mine.

On the basis of the Minister's comments, we hope that few people will fail to receive the support that they need. The important point, however, is that it should be made clear to them why they have not qualified and how they could qualify. An earlier Conservative amendment referred to a written review of a decision, but amendment No. 187 does not even do that—we simply want a review mechanism.

Clause 12 relates to reviews and appeals later in the adoption process, which largely involve prospective adopters whose application to adopt has been turned down. The provision is a good addition to the Bill, but it raises the question whether there should be review and/or appeal mechanisms at other stages of the adoption process. As all hon. Members have said, placement is one of the most crucial parts of the process and it is important that it is built on firm foundations so that it can last. If it does not, the child may become the subject of multiple placements, which would have severe consequences for him and require additional support later. For obvious reasons, we should avoid that at all costs.

I am, however, not happy about the basis on which support services will not be provided. The hon. Lady mentioned that matter, and I asked the Minister about it. A fully transparent and accountable arrangement should be put in place for such decisions. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy asked what would happen if the local authority said that a family needed support but had no staff to provide it. What will happen if it tells the family that it does not need support, but the family feels that it does? The problem will remain as far as the family is concerned. Will any family that feels that it needs support first have to submit to assessment by the local authority or could it seek private help elsewhere? There must be a review process for people who do not get the goods that they feel that they need.

When we debated an earlier clause, I echoed many of the representations that were made to us when I said that families involved in adoption that cry for help usually need it. They are best placed to know when something is wrong and when they need help. It can be humiliating for many families to seek help, but it is best that they do and that they receive it. If we are really talking about only a small number of cases in which help will not be forthcoming, as the Minister suggested, a review mechanism would not be cumbersome or prohibitively costly. It would, however, place an extra check and balance on local authorities so that they tried their absolute hardest to provide support services. If they did not, they would have to be accountable for their decision.

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

I am very pleased to see that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is back.

The sentiments behind the amendments, and many of the arguments deployed, are very sensible. I raised the issue on Second Reading in an intervention on the Secretary of State, who showed a willingness to examine and further consider the operation of local authority complaints procedures. When we have a much improved adoption support system with statutory duties on local authorities, with much improved financial resources, of course local authorities will have to pay due heed to assessments and the level of their resources. It is important, and entirely in line with everything else that the Government are trying to do, to support carers and young people in placements. It is consistent with the operation of openness, clarity and honesty in decision making in these profoundly important areas that we have a clear and efficient system of appeal, where decisions can be challenged and, we hope, improved upon.

The amendments are in line with the Government's other good intentions on advocacy for young people in care. It is very important that the views of young people who are being looked after and of those who were adopted are heard loudly and clearly, and that their rights and interests are respected. If the Minister cannot accept the exact wording of the amendments, I hope that further consideration will be given to an appeals process. Amendments could be tabled later, but if the Bill cannot be changed, perhaps the regulations could be strengthened in respect of this important area of policy.

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)

The amendments are a sensible step forward. They introduce a procedure whereby it is hoped that best practice will be instilled in each local authority. They also provide for an arm's length inquiry into any decision, which will give some comfort to those adoptive parents who feel aggrieved that they have not been provided with certain services. That could be a means of explaining a decision, and would be of some comfort to the parents. It is a useful addition to the Bill, which it improves. I do not think that it necessarily has huge resource implications, but I hope that in due course the Minister will respond on the matter, because this part of the Bill is important and the amendments represent a useful addition to the provisions on service delivery.

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

I have some sympathy with the idea that it is important to provide an appropriate route for people to express their concern about decisions that are taken surrounding adoption support provision. Where a local authority decides not to provide adoption support services following an assessment of needs, a complaint may be made to the local authority in the usual way. Given that adoption is a mainstream social services function, it is right that the majority of complaints about local authority adoption services should be dealt with through the existing social services complaints procedure. However, I have considerable sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, which is why the Government are currently improving the local authority social services complaints procedure and speeding it up, especially for children.

The Department undertook a review of social services complaints procedures in 1999–2000. Following that review, we issued a consultation document, ''Listening to People'', in June 2000. The document proposed a range of improvements to the procedure and sought views on them. We shall have the opportunity under clause 111 to amend the complaints procedure established under the Children Act 1989 in response to that consultation. The Bill implements those changes that require primary legislation, and new regulations, directions and guidance will be developed to deal with the need for independence—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Romsey. The guidance will clarify the role of the independent person, stressing the responsibility of councils to take account of what independent persons say during the complaints process.

The amendments are not needed in light of the action that we are already taking to improve the local authority social services complaints procedure. However, I recognise what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about clause 12. We have promised to consult on the determinations to be made under the new independent review mechanism to be established under clause 12. The Bill's provisions are sufficiently flexible to allow the independent review mechanism to be extended to determinations made by adoption agencies. I undertake to consider the results of consultation carried out under the independent review mechanism, along with the other issues raised by hon. Members today.

I have spoken about the improvements that we intend to make to the local authority complaints service system. This is not an appropriate time to make those changes, but the Bill will enable us to consider the matter further—if, for example, we thought that the complaints procedure changes were not adequate.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey 11:00, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I am almost reassured. I accept what the Minister said about independence. However, I am still a little concerned that as changes to the complaints procedure can be made, they could easily be changed again in two or three years' time, perhaps under a different Government, perhaps not, and there will be no overall consistency. It seems to me that a provision in the Bill would be more reassuring for people going through that process. Nevertheless, I accept that we may revisit the issue later in our deliberations, and 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. 95, in page 5, line 3, after 'area', insert

', which should include the respective duties placed on either or both of those authorities and the identification of a lead person in the authority to provide support services to that person.'.

This is another probing amendment. We have spoken at various times about adoptions out of local authority area, and I hope that that practice will increase. Finding appropriate adoptive parents outside the local authority area is better than not finding them at all. The legislative teeth that will be given to the register and the additional resources that we hope will be given to the national register will make long-distance adoptions much more likely. I realise that there must be checks and balances and that there are downsides as well as upsides. One of the questions that has been posed—

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. Is it my imagination, or is it dark and gloomy in the Room? Is it possible to turn up the lighting a little? It is a bit grim at the moment.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns—it may also be a little chilly. However, the enlightenment provided by hon. Members' contributions is helping the situation. I shall ask the clerk and the badge messengers to consider your points and, if improvements can be made, I am sure that they will be.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That was a very good point of order and an even better response, Mr. Stevenson. Perhaps we should issue scarves, given the temperature in the Room.

When speaking to people involved in adoption, I notice a general confusion over who continues to provide services when a child is adopted out of the area from which he or she comes. My understanding is that the placing authority will continue to bear the duty of care for the child, through adoption allowances, grants to make adaptations for children with disabilities or a dowry, in effect, to someone who lives locally to take responsibility for the child. There are various ways of achieving the same effect.

The problem is that it remains unclear where the buck stops, and it may be less clear to the new adoptive family exactly where the buck stops for services that may be provided. I refer especially to adopted children with complex requirements, such as a speech therapist or an educational psychologist. That theme emerged during the evidence sittings. The child may need counselling for previous experiences of domestic violence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury vividly described. [Interruption.] Ah, the lights have come on—the enlightenment has indeed occurred.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am so tempted to reply to that remark made from a sedentary position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury gave an example. A London authority placed a child in his constituency and then divested itself of all responsibilities to that child even to the extent of providing bus fares or giving counselling to help that child recover from the problems that led to the adoption. That seems patently absurd, and I wonder whether the parents of that child were fully aware of where the buck lay and that they were duty bound to receive various support services after the adoption.

Support would include multidisciplinary approaches, including educational and health support, which might come from a primary care trust or specialist health providers in a health authority. We must make it as easy as possible for the adoptive family to access that support and to know their entitlements and whom to approach for those services.

The amendment specifies that a

''lead person in the authority to provide support services''

should be identified. That would make it as clear as possible where adoptive families could go for help.

There have been cases in all our constituencies of children with special educational needs that have involved a process of repeated buck passing between the education authority, an authority care trust and social services. I have been involved in cases in which we have been so frustrated that we have brokered a deal, for example, for the placement of a child at a special school, and each of those three bodies has paid a third of the costs. However, it takes a hell of a lot of effort and wastes a lot of time merely to reach that stage. If a lead person were identified for children with complex requirements, we would hopefully have a champion who could cut through such red tape and ensure that the child received the support that he or she needed as soon and as effectively as possible, without all the bureaucracy that I fear so often goes with it.

I hope that my probing amendment is helpful. It is certainly in the best interests of the child and gives as much support as possible to adoptive parents in difficult circumstances, especially those who have taken on the big challenge of children with complex educational or medical needs. [Interruption.] If the Minister could dry herself off, perhaps she would like to respond.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Historically, the process of gearing up to a child's adoption involved assessing the parents, seeing whether the child was suitable and assessing support services to a degree. After the adoption had been sorted out, authorities—some more than others, I admit—tended to forget the case and move on to the next. Social workers are busy people, and there are other adoptions to be made and other tasks to be done. Times move on and sometimes adoption agencies would merge and circumstances would change.

Clearly, we are moving towards a different type of regime and are stressing the importance of continuing services and support to both the child and parents. To that extent, I support my hon. Friend's amendment, as the idea of a champion, lead person and on-going contact who will maintain what can become a weak link is excellent.

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

I agree with Opposition Members that, when a child is placed with an adoptive family that lives in a different local authority area, it is important to define clearly where the responsibility for assessing needs for the provision of adoption support services lies. It is important that adoption support services are provided for in legislation and in terms of resources.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The hon. Lady mentions the importance of cases where people move on to different authorities, but circumstances can change for adoptive families too. An adoptive family in which the parents thrive may be destitute three or four years later. What may not be seen as a necessary on-going contact might suddenly become important, perhaps several years later, regardless of whether the same authority is involved.

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

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about whether there is a time limit on the right to apply for an assessment, and I shall respond to that in a moment. First, I shall continue the argument that I was making about circumstances in which adopted children move from one authority to another.

Adoptive families tell us that when they adopt children from other local authority areas they do not always receive a satisfactory adoption support service. I hope that no member of the Committee would disagree that the standard of service in the case cited by the hon. Member for Canterbury was unacceptable. We must use the Bill, the framework that follows it and the resources that deliver it to overcome precisely such problems. It is not good enough for families not to get the necessary support.

We have not touched on the important contribution of national adoption standards to raising standards of adoption support. I draw hon. Members' attention to adoption standards E1 and E6. E6 states:

''Councils, with the relevant agencies listed in 1), will provide or commission a comprehensive range of pre- and post-adoption services''—

the hon. Member for Huntingdon made the important point that we should not stop at the point of adoption—

''consistent with any national framework or regulation. These will facilitate and support adoption and meet the needs of children who move between local authority areas. Criteria for access will be clear, concise and understandable.''

That brings us to point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised about what those criteria should be. Subsection (7)(h) enables regulations to be made to set out a clear system for assessing needs and providing adoption support services in cases where a child is placed with an adoptive family in a different local authority area. We will make regulations under subsection (7)(i) to set out the accompanying funding arrangements. We will consult stakeholders on the regulations as part of the development of the new national framework to ensure that we get the detail right.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset 11:15, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I hate to labour a point that I have made in previous sittings, but the clause does not extend to Scotland. What happens to a child from a Scottish local authority? Will the Minister be able to make regulations that affect Scotland?

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

A child who came from a Scottish local authority to an English or Welsh local authority would benefit from the requirement on local authorities to provide an adoption support service, as we discussed under clause 3. I shall correct myself if I am wrong, but I believe that an assessment could be requested for adoption support services. The Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament must determine which provisions are made for adoption support in Scotland, but they are concerned about precisely the issues that we are discussing.

I referred to the importance of ensuring that there was no gap in provision when a child was adopted in another local authority, and I said that we would consult on the regulations. There is a certain logic to saying that the local authority in which the child lives should provide adoption support up to the point of adoption and that responsibility should subsequently pass to the local authority in whose area the adoptive family lives. However, that might not always be appropriate, which is one reason why it is important to take time to consult.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about a local authority providing therapeutic support or support with a disability or illness. There could be an argument for continuing such support when a child moves to another authority.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Indeed, but there could be a much more common case. We shall discuss funding arrangements later, but a local authority that operates the new national register will be dissuaded from encouraging prospective adoptive parents in its area to take on a child from another area if it finds that it will have to fund the adoption support services.

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

As I said, we will also make regulations under subsection (7)(i) setting out the accompanying arrangements. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point—it is necessary to ensure that the funding arrangements promote the provision of good adoption support services and do not give an incentive to local authorities not to find adoptive families or not to provide the services that children deserve.

In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon about circumstances changing, it is possible for a family to request another assessment if their circumstances change. If an adoptive family moves, they can also request an assessment from the new authority in whose area they find themselves.

Hon. Members have raised other points around the issue of local authorities having a duty to co-operate with each other. Subsections (10) and (11) of clause 4 place local authorities under a duty to co-operate in the provision of adoption support services. Interestingly, given the comment that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made earlier, that is equivalent to section 27 of the Children Act 1989, in that it makes it a duty for local authorities to comply with their statutory obligations on the identified needs of a child.

The amendment also provides that the regulations must identify a lead person to provide the support services. I have sympathy with the idea that, where the adoption support plan is complicated, it is very important that the family concerned have someone to whom they can turn to find their way through the maze. That is why the Government made it clear in the White Paper that looked-after children and their new adoptive families would have a key worker, so that families would be able to use that worker as a gateway for access to adoption and support services, should they wish to do so.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

If the key worker moves job, or if other circumstances arise in which contact is lost, does the authority have a duty to pass on the name of the new key worker? As time goes on, people retire or move jobs. I should be interested to hear the Minister's view on that.

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

It is appropriate for the family to have a key worker, but obviously people retire and move on. Therefore, the family should be entitled to a person and if that person moves on, another named person should take their place to act as the family's key worker. The person will be important in helping the family to access the services, and we shall issue guidance to local authorities on the use of key workers as part of the new framework for adoption support services. I hope that, on the basis of those reassurances, hon. Members will feel that their amendment is not necessary.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The detail in which the Minister has responded to the amendment reinforces my point that the situation at the moment is complex. It is not clear to many people working in the field exactly where the buck stops and it is not clear to many hon. Members present. That makes it highly unlikely that it is clear to the people who need the services in the field. The Minister rightly says that much of the effectiveness will depend on what financial arrangements are made place and whether the money follows the child.

I was heartened by the Minister's response to the legitimate points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. She said, in the context of complex requirements, that changeover-time renewed assessments would be available. I hope that that will be made explicit in the information given to adoptive parents.

It is important that as much information as possible is given to adoptive parents, and to all those in the field of adoption, at as early a stage as possible. Those involved should feel that someone is holding their hand all the way through. The field is very difficult, particularly for those with complex arrangements. The issue has an impact on the cases involving Scotland mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and on support in overseas adoptions. On the basis of the Minister's response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.