Clause 60 - Counselling

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:15 pm ar 10 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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

Tim Loughton: Before we move on, I would be grateful if the Minister could fill in some of the detail. Given the issues that we have just discussed,

counselling will obviously be important, but how will it be provided? Subsections (1) and (2) start with the words Regulations may require'', subsection (3) begins with the phrase The regulations may authorise'' and subsection (4) begins with the words The regulations may require''. We therefore do not know what will happen. Perhaps she could take the opportunity to tell us.

Mr. Bellingham: I should like more information on the clause. Who will pay for counselling? Will local authorities be provided with extra money? Equally importantly, who will ensure that counselling is carried out to the necessary high standards? Will there be outside inspections or outside control? Will certain standards be laid down? As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the regulations may authorise or require, but it is important to know what independent monitoring there will be. Perhaps the Minister could give us some idea of her intentions.

Mr. Djanogly: My questions are very much along the lines of those raised by my hon. Friends. Are we satisfied that existing counselling services will be adequate for the purposes of the Bill? Is it an area that the Government feel needs to be looked at again? Are they conducting a review into the standards of counselling? In terms of funding, is this an area in which they have identified that new moneys are needed?

I see in the explanatory notes that

Where the counselling is to be provided outside the United Kingdom, the adoption agency may require the person who is to receive the counselling to pay a prescribed fee.''

Jacqui Smith: The clause is about ensuring that counselling is provided where necessary. Under current regulations, there are no obligations on adoption agencies to provide counselling to any person seeking access to information within the existing legislative framework. However, counselling is provided where an adopted person seeks access to the information that would enable him to obtain a copy of his birth certificate from the Registrar-General under the Adoption Act 1976. As has been said, individuals adopted before 12 November 1975 are required to see a counsellor before they are given access to the information. Those adopted on or after that date will be informed of the counselling services that are available to them, but counselling is not a precondition to disclosure of the birth record information.

I think that I made it clear in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre that there is nothing in the Bill that makes counselling compulsory subsequent to enactment of the legislation.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister envisage counselling being carried out by social workers from the departments involved, or will it be done by an independent trained counsellor? Most social workers do a great deal of counselling anyway, but it could be said that they are not trained counsellors. They are not, for example, bereavement counsellors. Will she elucidate on that?

Jacqui Smith: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be less unsure if he had let me continue to the stage at which I was going to talk about that. I was going to say that counselling is of real value in helping adopted people—especially those whose family history includes distressing events—to come to terms with sensitive information about their backgrounds. The clause makes provision in respect of counselling for individuals seeking information under these clauses who are considering whether to consent or object to the disclosure, and those considering an arrangement for the sharing of identifying information through an agreement made under clause 54(6).

Agencies will be obliged, through regulations, to provide information about the availability of counselling services to those seeking information under these provisions, to any person considering whether to object or consent to the disclosure of information under these provisions and to anyone considering entering into an arrangement to share protected information. The first requirement is to make information available.

Adoption agencies will also be obliged, under regulations, to secure the provision of counselling, where the person wishes to take it up, for people seeking information under these clauses in prescribed circumstances. Adoption agencies—in response to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham)—should be able to arrange for agencies with skilled counsellors to provide specialist advice and help or general counselling on their behalf.

Hon. Members asked about standards. As we have previously discussed, monitoring will be carried out by the National Care Standards Commission, which will be the registration authority for registered adoption societies and adoption support agencies. Monitoring of counselling carried out by local authorities would be part of the performance management and inspection regimes that are in place. In relation to the costs, we have already provided £66.5 million for adoption services in England over three years.

When counselling is carried on outside the United Kingdom, the agency will be able to charge for disclosing information. That may ensure that the counselling is carried out by a counsellor where the person lives, as that would be the appropriate way in which to secure counselling in that case. The clause also provides that the regulations may enable adoption agencies to disclose the information needed by the counselling agency to provide the counselling. Through regulations, we shall be able to deal with the details of how the process will work following

consultation and require local authorities, registered adoption societies or adoption support agencies to provide that counselling.

I hope that with that further information, hon. Members will feel able to support the clause.

Tim Loughton: Yet again, the £66 million figure has been trumpeted. I wonder whether those people who are going to benefit from it are aware that it will extend to counselling services as well. It seems to be one of the most overspent sums of money in history.

I have one query. Why is there differential treatment for pre and post 1975 people? Why is it felt that counselling for pre-1975 people is absolutely required and compulsory before they can be given the information, whereas it is not as important for someone adopted after that date?

Jacqui Smith: I know that Opposition Members may address this issue under later amendments. They seek to remove the distinctions between persons adopted before and after 1975. That brings us back to the debate that we were having earlier. Hon. Members will know that Parliament introduced that distinction when it passed the Children Act 1975, parts of which were subsequently enshrined in section 51 of the Adoption Act 1976. It was felt most strongly that the introduction of the provisions that allow for the first time an adopted person to be able to apply for information about their birth record should be set in a framework built on support and guidance.

There were many who felt at the time that the state was reneging on its undertaking to the hundreds and thousands of birth parents—mainly mothers—that their son or daughter would never be able to contact them. Parliament decided that it should safeguard those people by ensuring that the information was disclosed to adopted persons by professional staff with experience of the sensitivities that surround adoption and its consequences. Therefore, it was made mandatory for people adopted before 12 November 1975 that they should see a counsellor before they were given the information provided by the Registrar-General. For persons adopted after 12 November 1975, it was decided that they should have the choice as to whether to receive the information direct from the Registrar-General or to attend an interview before proceeding. That is the reason for the distinction.

Mr. Djanogly: I am not exactly sure why there should be a difference. The reason why the hon. Lady gave was a good explanation for why counselling should happen in pre-1975 cases, but I did not understand how it follows that the counselling should be less adequate post-1975.

Jacqui Smith: The issue is not about the adequacy of counselling but whether it is possible to access information with optional counselling. Pre-1975, counselling is compulsory, but post-1975, including in the Bill, counselling is optional although in many cases beneficial and important.

Mr. Bellingham: I have one more question for the Minister, as she did not really answer my question. We would like to have more of a flavour for who the counsellors will be. I am not trying to nitpick, but am keen to find out more detail on that if possible.

Jacqui Smith: I think that I answered the question. The people will depend on the agency. They could be social workers or trained counsellors. Organisations already provide counselling in relation to access to information under current law. There will be a range of people. The important issue is that there should be quality, and I responded previously as to how we would ensure the maintenance and monitoring of quality.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.