Clause 5 - Local authority plans for adoption services

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:57 pm ar 13 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk 3:57, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 185, in page 5, line 34, leave out subsection (4).

With the forbearance of the Committee I should like to look at the purpose of the clause. It places a duty on local authorities to prepare and publish plans for the provision of adoption services in their areas. Regulations will prescribe the information that the plans have to contain. I am surprised that we are not to be told in detail what those regulations are. As we have discussed time and again, there is in the Bill mention of regulations, but we do not know what those regulations are. That is a weakness in the Bill, and I ask the Minister to comment specifically on what she believes the regulations will prescribe, what form they will take, how detailed they will be and other appropriate information.

The Minister in question is enabled to direct the form, and the manner in which and the time at which the plan is published by the local authority. That is fine—we are all in favour of that. The local authority can be directed by the Minister to consult—we are happy with that too. However, under subsection (4)(a) the Minister can

''direct that a plan is to be included in another document specified in the direction''.

That could be a more general plan for the provision of services relating to children within the local authority. I do not think that it is on for the specific adoption plan to be included in such a general plan. We need clarity, accountability and clear lines of communication that will enable other bodies to intervene or to become involved if there is an appropriate interface for them, as well as an easily understood framework with some flexibility.

That is why my point is simple and straightforward. We want a specific plan that is quite tightly drafted, focused and fairly precise. It should make it crystal clear that it concentrates specifically on adoption services, not on other child-orientated services. That is why the amendment, too, is simple and straightforward. We must remove subsection (4), which gives the Minister the legal power to direct that the plan that we all want the authorities to adopt can be included in another document. That makes no sense whatever. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will agree that we need something much more specific that will lead to a local authority plan that delivers the adoption services that we all badly want for the benefit of children.

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

Clause 5 is intended to tackle concerns about the planning and management of local authority adoption services. It requires every local authority to prepare and publish a plan for the provision of the adoption services in its area. The detailed requirements that we envisage being in the plan will be set out in regulations and will include providing information about on-going and future work on issues such as recruitment and the assessment of prospective adopters, preparing and placing children for adoption, assessing needs for adoption support, and the provision of adoption support services. Local authorities will be required to review their adoption service plans regularly. In contrast to their services for looked-after children and children in need, there is no specific statutory duty on local authorities to plan their adoption services, even though guidance encourages them to do so.

The hon. Gentleman rightly spent a lot of time arguing for services to be more joined up and integrated, so I find it strange that he is now saying that a statutory requirement to include an adoption plan in, for example, the children's services plan is a bad idea. It is completely appropriate to consider putting the adoption services plan alongside the authority's other work. Wherever possible, the plan will be delivered as part of existing or future planning mechanisms for children's services. As I suggested, we expect local authorities to discharge their new statutory obligation to plan their adoption services by including the plan in their statutory Children Act children's services plans.

The amendment would remove subsection (4) and prevent the appropriate Minister from directing local authorities to include their adoption services plan in another document. That means that authorities would need to produce a separate plan for their adoption services rather than including it in their children's services plan. That would place a new, unnecessary burden on local authorities. It would not mean that the plan was not produced, but simply that it would have to be produced in a less appropriate manner than if it were included in a children's service plan in a joined-up way.

The amendment would also prevent the appropriate Minister from giving local authorities directions in order to modify requirements in the regulations with regard to the content of the plans. It would mean, for example, that the appropriate Minister could not use directions to ensure the production of a tailored plan by individual local authorities or groups of local authorities, such as those involved in consortium arrangements, which, as hon. Members have suggested, is the way that we hope authorities will go.

In the light of that explanation of the purpose of subsection (4) and of the damage that the amendment would do, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I am grateful to the Minister for her cogent explanation. I intend to seek leave to withdraw the amendment, but I seek one further piece of clarification first. Local authorities will be preparing adoption services plans, and the explanatory notes say that the appropriate Minister may give a direction, which implies that that would be the exception rather than the rule. The Minister's response to my amendment implied that the plan would normally be included within a wider framework for children's services. I do not necessarily have a difficulty with that, but we surely need a precise focus on adoption services. If she can convince the Committee that that focus will be included in the wider framework for children's services, that will be okay. Why, however, do the explanatory notes imply that her suggested outcome will be the exception rather than the rule?

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

It would not be appropriate to set out in the Bill the broader framework within which the plan should be made, because planning requirements should, and almost certainly will, change. It is, therefore, appropriate to retain flexibility. In the last part of my response to the amendment, I also noted that it may be appropriate to tailor the plan differently in different circumstances—for example, where a local authority works in a consortium or where there is a need to accentuate what it includes in its plan because of concerns about its provision of services.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I should like to speak about the general use of plans. I am not saying that there will be no use for the adoption services plan. To be fair, the Minister mentioned the items that would go into it, although the language was technical, and I admit that I did not understand most of the issues that she raised. That is an admission of my lack of knowledge of the technical language, rather than a mistake on the Government's part. That said, I am not agreeing that what it is proposed to include in the plan will be correct or will work. That will have to be carefully reviewed.

The provisions may help to foster a joined-up thinking approach, but not necessarily. I say that because I have seen many of the plans that the Government have brought into play in local authorities, and councillors are sick to the teeth of them. Many such plans serve no purpose whatever, other than to involve officers and councillors in constant tail-chasing exercises that waste a lot of time and do little to deliver services to the people whom the council is meant to serve. On top of that, preparing the plans in practice is expensive, and they cost money to review. They then go to the Government, who have their tuppenceworth, and more costs are incurred. The impact of putting together the plans, particularly on smaller authorities, can often be out of all proportion to their impact on services.

I am not saying that we should vote against the clause in its entirety, but there is a long way to go before it is generally accepted that the plans will serve the purpose that the Minister discussed.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 4:15, 13 Rhagfyr 2001

I shall not stray into the territory of cunning plans, to which my hon. Friends alluded, although I entirely concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon about the excessive amount of prescription and bureaucracy being placed on local authorities. Only yesterday, I attended a social services conference where a senior director of social services of a shire county revealed that, during the past year, he had received no less than 12 inspections. To cap it all, he has now been approached by a senior official from the Department of Health asking him to co-operate in a study of the number of inspections being carried out by departmental inspectors. It seems to have gone out of control.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

It is also important to mention that the Government have now put in place a plan of plans. Through amendment No. 185, we were discussing whether a plan could be put into another plan. In practice, however, the various council departments settle their plans, and then they have to plan to encompass all the other plans.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It is mind-boggling, and I am sure that it does not achieve anything. It certainly does not lead to the better services that we want to be provided for children involved in adoption, which is the point of our deliberations.

I was surprised that in her recent references to clause 5 and earlier clauses, the Minister did not mention the influence that public service agreements have on adoption services; nor did she tell us of the progress of beacon status. Of the 20 pilot authorities involved in PSAs, eight are involved in setting more stretching adoption targets. How will the terms of clause 5 interact with that? How many of the other 130 local authorities will include adoption targets in their PSAs when the pilot scheme is extended to all local authorities? Can we have more details on the progress of beacon status? I gather that, by September, 12 councils had applied for beacon status for adoption schemes. However, in April 2002, along with everything else that will happening next spring, including all the regulations that will be pouring out of the Department, the Minister anticipates announcing the likely qualifiers.

How many more authorities will apply for beacon status under the adoption scheme? Only a relatively small number seem to include adoption services as part of a PSA or beacon status. That means either that they think they are greatly under-resourced and not in a position to achieve such high standards or that they are not as well advanced as they need to be to cope with the extra duties and responsibilities that will be imposed under the Bill. The Government seem keen to push PSAs and beacon status. Will the Minister update the Committee on the progress on those two schemes as regards adoption services?

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

Although we have already covered the major issues raised by clause 5, hon. Members asked some specific questions about plans. First, the clause ensures that there will be a statutory duty to prepare a plan for adoption services, which will ensure accountability in that service. However, recognising that the planning needs to be coherent, it would be most appropriate for that provision to be included in the overall planning of children's services. In this case, too, the Government are making progress on reducing the number of plans. All current planning requirements have a clear policy intention behind them, often associated with grant regimes. However, we are actively seeking ways of reducing the burden on local authorities. Part of the remit of the children and young people's unit is to simplify the planning requirements affecting children.

On the subject of local PSAs, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right. Many local authorities have chosen to push adoption targets into their local public service agreements, which enable local authorities to free themselves from restrictions and requirements by stretching their adoption targets. On the subject of beacon status, I shall write to him and to other members of the Committee with the details of the Government's beacon council programme and the extent to which that supports us in the work to share best practice between local authorities, to improve adoption services and increase the number of children adopted from care.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.