Clause 8 - Adoption support agencies

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset 4:30, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 7, leave out line 17.

I suppose that the amendment is probing. The paragraph that I seek to delete contains a catch-all phrase—an Uncle Tom Cobbleigh phrase—that covers anyone else who happens to be thought of at the time. The clause is about adoption support agencies and defines bodies that should not be regarded as such. Subsection (2) lists entirely logical exceptions, although I note from an earlier discussion that paragraph (d), with which we are not especially concerned now, does not include local health groups in Wales alongside health authorities and others. No doubt we shall come to that subject at some other stage.

The phrase that I object to is in subsection (2)(f), which reads:

''any person, or description of persons, excepted by regulations''.

I thought that the explanatory notes might clarify who those people might be. About the providers in the list, they state that

''These providers are not to be registered under Part 2 of the Care Standards Act as they are already regulated'',

and that

''Subsection (2)(f) provides a power to make regulations to add to this list''.

We have had no sight of the regulations. We have no idea who the person or persons to be excepted by the regulations might be. If one were making simple law, it might be more logical to state that all the relevant people would be excepted in the regulations, rather than listing people in the clause and then adding anyone else whom we might want on the list under regulations. The drafting of the clause does not specify what we want it to achieve.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

Before my hon. Friend moves too far from his point about regulations, will he fill me in on the impact that those regulations will have on the clause? I have been trying to work it out.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlights the fact that we do not have sight of the regulations, so we have no idea what will provide for the exemptions. The Committee should have guidance on the subject. All that the explanatory notes say is that there will be power to introduce such regulations.

I object to catch-all phrases in legislation that give Ministers the power to amend the law in a way of which Parliament might not have conceived. I seek guidance as to what is meant by subsection (2)(f).

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 agree with what the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) said, and I hope that I pronounced his constituency correctly. Regulations and statutory instruments are part of the process of all legislation, but the Bill seems top-heavy in terms of legislating not by the back door, but not by the front.

If draft regulations exist, will the Minister supply the Committee with them by our next sitting? Time and again, on clause after clause, we hear of draft regulations that will be put together at some time in future for consultation, regardless of whether consultation like that that has recently taken place with members of the public or another form of it. If she did supply us with them, we would have at least an idea of some of the regulations.

I appreciate the fact that regulations are pieces of secondary legislation, and understand the legislative process, but I am sure that the Minister's officials will have some draft regulations in mind. If they do, surely it would be good to produce them for the Committee at this stage.

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

I shall respond to the last point first. The Bill has emerged from a White Paper accompanied by national adoption standards that clearly set down what we want to see. It has been subject to significant scrutiny during its passage through Parliament, including our discussions in the Special Standing Committee. I recognise the concern that regulations that come out of the Bill should be properly consulted on, but we have had this argument before. The suggestion that we should prepare regulations in advance of a piece of legislation that sets the statutory basis for them is largely unworkable and unprecedented.

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

I have been in the House long enough to know that what the Minister says is right. I did not say that letting a Committee see regulations in advance was normal, but that it would be good in this case. The Bill is the second attempt to make such provisions. The Minister lists with great pride the number of consultations that there have been, so there is even less reason for not producing draft regulations.

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

Regulations are secondary legislation. It is right that they be informed by the scrutiny of primary legislation as it passes through the House. It would be perverse for the Department to be so presumptuous as to determine in advance the likely result of the scrutiny then to be reflected in the regulations.

Clause 8 amends the Care Standards Act 2000 to make provision for the registration of adoption support agencies under part II of that Act. Later, we may discuss the significance of that. The hon. Member for North Dorset is concerned about the possibility of exemptions to the need to register. The thinking behind the clause is that adoption support providers already regulated through other means, such as approved voluntary adoption agencies, NHS providers and the Registrar-General, will be exempt from the requirement to register as an adoption support agency. That will help to avoid the unnecessary duplication of registration.

The providers that are exempt from the requirement to register are listed in subsection (2)(a) to (e). The hon. Gentleman suggested that it might have been better if we had not bothered to list them, but I suspect that we would once again have been criticised for not placing provisions in the Bill. However, it may not be appropriate for other organisations in the future to be registered in the way set out in the Care Standards Act. That is why subsection (2)(f) provides a power to make regulations to add to the list of adoption support providers that are not obliged to register as adoption support agencies. Why are they not listed in the Bill? Had we been able to see into the future and to know which providers would be affected, we would of course have been able to list them.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

Surely, we could amend the Bill when legislation to create another statutory body is passed.

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

We debate adoption legislation only rarely, and it is right that it should make it clear, as subsection (2) does, that it may not be appropriate to duplicate regulations for other organisations in the future. Had we not included subsection (2)(f), I suspect that we would quite rightly have been asked about future organisations that it might not be appropriate to register.

Those are the reasons for the clause taking the form that it does. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment to ensure that there is no unnecessary duplication of regulation, with its associated burdens.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I am not particularly comforted by the Minister's response. I thank the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy for his intervention and for pronouncing the name of my constituency correctly—at least he does not call it Dorset, North, as some do.

To return to the thrust of the amendment, I am not especially happy with the Minister's response. I understand that the Department of Health probably considers the provision to be a good way of proceeding, for reasons of administrative convenience. The Minister did not share her thoughts on this, and we can only speculate on what those other organisations might be. I fear, however, that one of them might be some form of English regional government, which could be added to the list without reference to the House.

Although I am unhappy and dissatisfied with the Minister's answer, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I beg to move amendment No. 91, in page 7, line 17, at end insert—

'(g) organisations operated wholly or mainly by adoptive family members.'.

I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept this modest amendment. I am struggling hard to improve my record on advocacy, and I had thought of getting a makeover, but I could not afford one. However, my barber did the best that he could at lunch-time with such raw material as remains.

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

What did the hon. Gentleman have for lunch?

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

It was instead of lunch.

All that I seek is an exemption. It is surely so obvious that no one could object. At our hearings during the earlier phase of this Special Standing Committee—unlike the hon. Gentleman, I did not keep statistics—I asked the representatives of one organisation after another whether they thought that small self-help adoption groups should be regulated; and in every case the answer was no. Several people gave similar answers, saying that bodies like theirs needed to be regulated but that families who provide their own self-help adoption services did not.

I do not have to tell the Committee—most hon. Members are very knowledgeable about support groups—that whether it is a bereavement group, a group with alcohol problems or a mother and toddler group, bringing people together with a shared experience is an important part of building confidence. Adoption is a parallel. Bringing groups of adoptive parents together is a thoroughly sensible way of helping them through the problems associated with adoption, and many local authorities rightly encourage it.

It may be that the Minister will say—let us put our earlier discussions behind us—that the exemption is not necessary because local authorities will, of course, be light-handed in dealing with such groups. It seems to me, however, that an exemption needs to be placed in the Bill, and I shall make one analogy to illustrate why. We are forced to argue by analogy—[Interruption.] I will gladly give way to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 4:45, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I was making a sedentary comment to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I see.

As with so much of the Bill, the measures with which we are dealing are essentially frameworks for regulation and do not spell out what should be done. We therefore have to say what could happen and what has happened under parallel or similar legislation. The Children Act 1989 is the most recent and relevant legislation, and we have often referred to it in our debates. When that Act came into force, a string of small playgroups in my constituency were closed by over-zealous social workers. I arrived just in time to save one from closure; I discovered that it was being closed because it had insufficient provision of lavatories. The mathematical equation in the regulations showed that the playgroup had just below the right number. We were quickly able to show that the formula in the Department's guidance for the number of lavatories was not to be interpreted mechanically, and that group was saved. Two other groups, however, had already gone down—[Hon. Members: ''The pan?''] It is 10 minutes to 5 on a Thursday afternoon, and I am delighted to give way to the Minister.

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

Was the hon. Gentleman flushed with success?

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I reassure the Minister that, although I have no expertise in that area, I was pleased to be on the front page of my local paper, which associated me with rescuing a playgroup from that lavatorial problem.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although in Army circles it is appropriate to call such machines lavatories, the law does not recognise that word? In law, they are called toilets.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am reassured. I am learning all the time. I am glad to say that that playgroup is now thriving. I have visited the lavatories in question and they seem adequate for the job.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

Order. It would be helpful if the Committee returned to the amendment.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should mention that the playgroup shared premises with my surgery.

You are right, Mrs. Roe, to return the debate to the amendment. My point is that legislation that the whole Committee would agree was passed in good faith—after lengthy consideration in Committee, during which hon. Members of all parties made very constructive contributions—has had an unfortunate effect on small groups of the kind I have been discussing. Those groups were not, of course, mother and toddler groups run by parents, but playgroups. We should take care that the Bill, whose principles have strong support on both sides of the House—notwithstanding a few votes on matters of detail—does not produce an unintended consequence.

Having had a bit of a laugh about my visits to the barber and a few other things, I remind the Committee that there really is scope for the clause, unless it is amended, to do a lot of damage. Adoption self-help groups are extremely important. Getting groups of people together, typically in the house of someone who is an adopter—the treasurer and secretary, if the group bothers to have a treasurer, are likely to be adopters—is important. Those groups do not need heavy-handed regulation. Surely it is reasonable for them to be exempted from the regulatory framework, however much we support the principle of regulation for more formal and structured adoption groups.

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

I do not disagree with the sentiments of the hon. Gentleman and I hope that I can reassure him that the amendment is unnecessary. Clause 8(1) makes it clear that an adoption support agency for which there would be a registration requirement is an undertaking. The term ''undertaking'' has the same meaning as in section 121 of the Care Standards Act 2000. It includes any business or profession, whether voluntary or profit making. It does not extend to a self-help group meeting in a person's own home.

The amendment would insert a new subsection (2)(g) in clause 8, excluding organisations operated wholly or mainly by adoptive family members from the requirement to register, but it is not needed. Informal groups that meet in people's homes will not be classed as adoption support agencies. Those wishing to hold a support group meeting in their own home will not be required to register as an adoption support agency. The Government have no intention of, or interest in, preventing individuals from meeting in their homes in a supportive environment. We would encourage that. I agree that such groups can play an important role.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I anticipate that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury may want to ask the same question as mine. The Minister used the phrase ''in their own home''. For an extended group of families it might not be physically possible to meet in one of their homes. They might need to use the village school, community centre or school hall. Would there still be no restriction in that event?

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

The emphasis that I placed on meeting in a group member's own home did not imply that that was a condition. The important point is that the groups should be informal self-help groups that do not provide counselling or some of the other services that the clause is rightly intended to regulate. There has, of course, been some demand for regulation of such groups.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

Many of the groups first came into being through groups of families coming together for mutual support. When does a group cease to be a group of families and become a group that requires registration?

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

The hon. Lady is right. What starts as a self-help group may develop into a group that offers counselling or other services to others. The point at which a group begins in a substantial way to provide adoption support services to others—this emerged clearly when we took evidence—is the point at which it would come under the auspices of the Bill. It would be a question of fact in each case, but I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he wanted—that groups of adoptive families informally joining together for mutual support, not for the provision of services as I have outlined, would not be subject to the registration requirements.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am delighted with the Minister's assurances. If the amendment is otiose, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy put it, it can easily be withdrawn. My key question is a follow-up to that asked by the hon. Member for Romsey. In quoting a moment ago from the Care Standards Act 2000 the Minister referred to voluntary organisations—rightly, because a high proportion of organisations that need to be regulated are voluntary. The crucial transition that she described relates to the provision of services. However, an over-bureaucratic, domineering local authority could easily argue, for example, that a self-help group involved counselling. My direct question is: why can we not employ a definition that turns on whether the group is wholly or mainly run by adopters? That would create a clear dividing line.

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

The details of the registration will be the subject of regulations and national minimum standards at a later stage. However, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands one point. The registration will be undertaken not by some supposedly irrational or unreasonable local authority, but by the completely rational and reasonable National Care Standards Commission.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful for the Minister's clear assurances. I hope that she has covered all the points. I retain a slight uneasiness after my earlier experience, to which, Mrs. Roe, I promise I shall not refer again. However, on the basis of the Minister's categoric assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. I realise that the time is approaching 5 o'clock, when we may end our deliberations. You may not be aware that, during this morning's discussions under the chairmanship of Mr. Stevenson, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was placed on record as undertaking to give a bottle of wine—although its location was unspecified—for the best pronunciation of the name of his constituency. Indeed, Mr. Stevenson was heard to express interest in whether he would qualify for such an award. We would not want the Committee's proceedings today to end without allowing the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy to judge who has won that prestigious award.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Further to that point of order, Mrs. Roe. I feel that it would only be fair to other members of the Committee if I disqualified myself from the competition.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that nothing in Standing Orders qualifies me to determine whether the prize should be given, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Cant—[Laughter.]— the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will determine that himself.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Angela Smith.]

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o'clock till Tuesday 18 December at half-past Ten o'clock.