Clause 90 - Restriction on reports

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 15 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The clause is not terribly contentious—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

However, there seem to be a lot of let-outs. We agree that people who are not authorised to do so should not produce reports on prospective adoptions. However, subsection (4) provides that

''Where a person is charged with an offence under subsection (2)(b), it is a defence for him to prove that he neither knew nor had reasonable cause to believe that the report would be, or had been, prepared in contravention of subsection (1).''

In my experience, ignorance of the law is no defence. Anybody could say that they did not realise that a report would be used for the purposes of adoption. I should have thought that there ought to be a greater onus on a person who prepares literature akin to that which would be required for promoting an adoption. Does not subsection (4) give too lenient a let-out for the clause to be effective?

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

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by outlining the restrictions in the clause. The intention is to cover cases of domestic and intercountry adoption in which couples seek to

circumvent the safeguards by commissioning private social workers to write inaccurate favourable reports to support their adoption applications. The clause permits only properly qualified people employed by or working on behalf of adoption agencies to carry out home study assessment reports and post-placement and post-adoption reports. We want to ensure that such reports are impartial and accurate. They are an essential part of the decision-making process, which exists to safeguard the interests of the child and to make an appropriate match between the child and adoptive parents. There is a further risk that placements may be disrupted by private report writers working on post-adoption reports, which are sometimes requested in intercountry adoptions by the country of the child's origin to monitor the way in which a placements is working, as is the case with adoptions from China and the Philippines.

The clause provides for restrictions on the preparation of adoption reports. Under subsection (1), we shall be able to specify that only qualified people in registered adoption societies, agencies or local authorities are able to prepare and write those essential documents, which play a key role in informing decisions in the adoption process. Unqualified and unregulated individuals should not be able to prepare home assessments on prospective adopters or post-placement or post-adoption reports. Under subsection (2), an offence is committed when someone prepares a report that contravenes subsection (1), or causes a person to prepare or submit such a report. Under subsection (3), when a person who works for an adoption society that is not registered commits an offence, the manager is also guilty of the offence. That ensures that the manager of an adoption support service is penalised, as his organisation is not registered.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

A point that I had meant to mention in connection with the previous clause is equally relevant to this one. Who are we talking about when we refer to ''illegitimate'' adoption societies—ones that are not registered? What is the target of the clause? Is the problem a big one?

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

I shall come to that after I have dealt with defence points.

Under subsection (4), we consider the basis on which a defence could be provided for a person charged with an offence of causing a person to prepare or submitting to any person a report in contravention of subsection (2). The hon. Gentleman argues that the defence is too lenient and may allow people to evade the intention of the clause. However, the defence is used in other legislation and, most importantly, it applies to subsection (3)(b) alone. It applies not to the person who actually prepares the report but to those who may receive the report without realising that it has not been prepared properly.

The measure does not give a let-out on the basis that they did not know the law to an unqualified or unregulated individual who prepares that report. The defence of not knowing or having reasonable cause to believe is included in a range of other legislation. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I can go through some examples; I assure him that there are quite a few.

Subsection (5) sets out the penalty on summary conviction when an offence is committed as imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale—that is, £5,000—or both. That shows the significance of the restrictions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about adoption societies, which clause 2(5) defines as bodies

''whose functions consist of or include making arrangements for the adoption of children''.

The ''illegitimate'' bodies to which the hon. Gentleman referred would include a person who set himself up as an adoption agency, but who was not registered as such and was not, therefore, subject to the quality control and monitoring that registration entails. With those assurances, I hope that the Committee will allow clause 90 to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon 10:45, 15 Ionawr 2002

Clearly, we need to prevent the production of fraudulent reports, but because the system does not always work properly, people go to independent consultants to move the process along. Under the provisions, could an independent consultant—even a high-ranking social worker with 20 years' experience who decided to go private—never produce a report?

I recently spoke to prospective adoptive parents in a London borough, which I need not name, who were involved in two adoptions from the United States of America. They said that the system was so poor that the delays would have lasted for years, and that they had been forced to go to an independent consultant for a report. From what I can make out, the council was relieved that they did so because that removed its responsibility. I suppose that my question comes down to what the word ''prescribed'' encompasses.

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

Similar points were raised in our discussions on intercountry adoptions in which we rehearsed at some length the problems with private home studies. We also discussed how we might tackle capacity issues, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly).

Private home studies have been open to criticism for several reasons, the most important of which is that there is no way to verify that those who carry them out have appropriate qualifications or experience. We discussed the fact that there will be no way of identifying the necessary qualifications until the General Social Care Council becomes fully operational. Secondly, such persons who carry out studies cannot obtain full police checks on prospective adopters and adult members of the household, but only a printout under the Data Protection Act 1988 of information about current convictions. Thirdly, they cannot obtain from the prospective adopters' local authority information about relevant previous contacts with social services; and, fourthly, they cannot obtain impartial medical advice on the health of the prospective adopters. Fifthly, there are no peer review or management arrangements to oversee the work of those who carry out assessments. Finally, the case could not be considered on its merits by an adoption panel or separate decision maker. The

Kilshaw case and other high-profile intercountry adoption cases that have gone wrong have involved criticisms of private home studies and individual independent social workers by the judiciary.

As for the hon. Gentleman's point about capacity, agencies can choose to contract with independent social workers to undertake an assessment of adoptive applicants. That will allow additional capacity to be brought into the agency, and ensure that the necessary information is obtained and that checks and balances are built into the system. That, rather than the reinstatement of a system of private home studies, is the way to address problems of capacity. When we discussed establishing such a system, most hon. Members agreed that it would be unsatisfactory in terms of safeguarding the best interests of children involved in adoption.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I want to pick up a couple of the Minister's points. I agree with her on the matter of necessary safeguards, but the question is whether the provisions would squeeze out all home study reports produced by anyone other than approved social workers, adoption agencies and others.

For two reasons, home studies are privately commissioned by individuals who want to adopt. One is that it has taken an interminably long time for one to be supplied by a local authority in its capacity as an adoption agency, as in the case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, which involved a London borough. I am sure that such cases are common—I have come across many in which part of the problem of delay is getting someone to come round to start to produce a report. It is obvious that people who are frustrated by delays will commission their own studies.

The second reason why people might commission their own study is that they did not like the result of the first one from the local authority, and want one that is more favourable. In many cases, that would amount to an abuse of the system—unless there had been some degree of negligence and the assessment had not been made properly, although there are now various appeal procedures to cope with such cases, as we discussed in relation to other parts of the Bill.

Unless the Minister can guarantee a reduction in delays in the provision of reports by local authorities, demand for others to produce them will persist. She must assure the Committee that her Department will monitor delays in producing reports—there is wide variation between local authorities; for a host of reasons, some are much more efficient than others. If, as I suspect, she cannot guarantee that, she must allow for the continued provision of home study reports by private agencies that are properly regulated. My understanding was that because of the Care Standards Act 2000, police reports and various other innovations, there is now more of an infrastructure to monitor such agencies, and ensure that they are bona fide and produce completely objective and bona fide reports.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

If, in its role as an adoption agency, an authority did not produce a report within a certain

time, would it not be a good idea to force it to contract out the production of that report?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is an interesting practical suggestion, which might apply to many other services provided by public bodies. As things stand, it seems that we will have the worst of both worlds: enormous inconsistencies between the times taken for various local authorities to provide the professional report will persist, but the Minister will make it much more difficult for people to go elsewhere to commission a report.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

In a moment. Without any proper checks that the reports are legitimate in the first place—[Interruption.] Oh dear—I am sorry, Mrs. Roe. I will give way.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

Order. I remind Committee members to check that their mobile telephones are turned off. As we all know, it is a breach of the rules to have them switched on in Committee.

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

I am grateful to my fellow miscreant for giving way. I understand what he and the hon. Member for Huntingdon are saying, but is there not an inherent danger in a couple being able to commission a report that they need to be favourable? There are real difficulties with the Opposition's approach, and a serious distinction must be drawn between it and the argument being advanced by my hon. Friend the Minister, who is saying that any services would be commissioned by the local authority rather than the couple themselves.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I agree with nearly everything that my fellow miscreant says. Our proposed solution is not ideal. In an ideal world, all such reports would be produced by proper adoption agencies and local authorities, there would be no problem with their integrity and objectivity and they would be subject to the various appeal systems. Everyone agrees that that is the best way forward. However, the Minister must come clean about the delays in many parts of the country. If we do away with private reports and rely solely on social services departments and adoption agencies, those delays will continue—unless the Minister does something along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, or provides more resources to prevent delay. Otherwise, we must acknowledge the practicalities: people will go elsewhere because they are frustrated by the amount of time the process is taking, or because they want a second opinion. The second of those reasons is not a good one, and should be treated with great suspicion.

There is a grey area in the middle of this issue. The safeguards should be greater, because if people are able to go elsewhere and consequently there is no pressure on local authorities to prioritise the production of home studies, those authorities will not do so, however much they might want to. The absence of such pressure may be a relief to some local authorities because of their workload and the constraints on their departments. If we speed up that system, private reports will wither away and those that

remain can be severely regulated. If we cannot speed it up, we must recognise that private reports will always have a role but that they must be much more closely regulated in order to legitimise them and make them more objective. If we do not take one of those options we will continue to swim around in the grey area. The time constraints will not improve matters, and the checks on private reports will not improve either.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 11:00, 15 Ionawr 2002

Part of the debate is based on a misunderstanding of current law. It is not currently possible to commission private home study reports for either domestic or intercountry adoptions. Hon. Members will remember that we discussed section 13 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which came into force on 30 January 2000 and which amended section 72 of the Adoption Act 1976 to include the assessment of prospective adopters in the definition of ''making arrangements''. By virtue of section 11 of the 1976 Act, the effect of that amendment was to ban privately commissioned home study reports and to make it clear that only a council or voluntary adoption agency may assess and approve an individual as suitable to adopt.

I maintain that the current legal position is right. There should be a structure of accountability, monitoring and peer review for the process of producing an assessment report, which is, let us not forget, crucial to determining whether the child's best interests will be served by the adoption. Monitoring—post-placement and sometimes post-adoption—of the success of the placement, should also figure in the arrangements. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made an important point about the inappropriateness of a direct contract between the relevant person and the person or organisation given the task of assessing their suitability to adopt a child or to continue a placement or adoption. That seems an incestuous and difficult relationship that does not serve the child's interests.

The points made by the Opposition focus on whether the process is currently quick enough. Under clause 90(1), the person who prepares the report must fall within the prescribed description. We shall consult on that, and the criteria I have outlined today and the need for monitoring and quality assurance will be a significant focus of that consultation. We are also taking measures to speed up the process of adoption and to make it fairer, through, for example, the national adoption register, the national adoption standards and the independent review panels. In those ways—not by reducing the quality of the process to enable things to be rushed through in a way that could be inappropriate or even dangerous for children—we shall ensure that children can be appropriately adopted more quickly.

As we have now had a lengthy discussion, I hope that the Committee will feel able to agree that clause 90 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

To return to the question of speed, the Government have stipulated that a planning application for a property should be determined within eight weeks, and every council must reveal at

the end of the year the extent to which it has met that target. The process of adopting a child—a matter that I should have thought was somewhat more immediate, given the sensibilities involved—can sometimes go on for years. Is that right? Is not it reasonable to require that the reports should be produced within a set period, and that if they are not, the council should be obliged to have someone else produce them?

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

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that prospective adopters have other options? It is not necessary that they approach only the local authority in whose area they live, and it is not unusual for prospective adopters to approach other local authorities or independent agencies. They do not have only one place to go. Furthermore, do not some authorities prioritise certain prospective adopters, such as those who want to adopt older children, because they currently have such children in their care, so that a couple wanting a younger child would be better advised to approach an independent agency or other local authority?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The hon. Lady makes several important points with which I do not disagree. On the other hand, she illustrates many of the system's inconsistencies, which will not disappear under the Bill. While approaches to other agencies may be appropriate for people living in some council areas or boroughs—for example, her local council is known to be very slow—the fact that they are able to do so does not excuse those councils from their duty to do a better job.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) makes a crucial point. We are not talking about restricting choice, or, as we shall discuss later, about not putting pressure on the system to ensure quicker adoptions. The system, which is not incoherent, contains choices between quality options that can safeguard the welfare of the child. The hon. Gentleman seems, surprisingly, to be arguing for a choice between a quality option and a slipshod option that would make things a bit quicker regardless of the welfare of the child.

I do not want to repeat arguments that I have made before. The key point is that the restrictions are to do with ensuring that the adoption process works in the best interests of the child's welfare. Of course, time scales are important: that is why the Government have introduced the public service agreement target on time scales, which we published just before Christmas; it is why we have introduced much tougher performance management for local authorities; and it is why we shall publicly ensure that the performance of local authority social services departments is much more open to scrutiny. That is the reason we have already made progress in reducing the time that children spend in care before they are adopted. Those are the actions not of a Government who are unconcerned about time scales, but of a Government who want to speed up the process of adoption in a way that safeguards the interests of the child. The argument is about that fundamental issue.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

There is a large degree of agreement on the clause, but the Minister—unintentionally, I am sure—still seems to be missing the point. Her remarks

about the slipshod option identified the very concern that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and I tried to express. People approach other local authorities or adoption agencies—they have a wide choice—for reasons that relate to the points I made originally: either their local authority is taking too long, or they believe that the requirements of another local authority or adoption agency might be less stringent. The Minister mentioned a third factor—another quality option—involving the wish to adopt a certain type of child or the fact that a local authority is concentrating on a particular type of adoptive parent. Essentially, people's reasons for going elsewhere are either that it will be easier—if they have been rejected by their home agency—or that it will be quicker.

We all want to speed up adoption, but the admission that people may have a choice between a quality option and a slipshod option is an admission that there are slipshod agencies. That is what we must bear down on. Such agencies are the target for improvements in speed, approach and the quality of the adoption services offered. However, I fear that that is not the problem that the clauses deal with.

We need to bring the slipshod option up to the standard of the others, so that good quality options exist in all parts of the country and people can expect a consistently high standard wherever they happen to live, or whichever agency they happen to approach first, whether a local authority or a voluntary adoption agency. I think that the Minister would agree with me. However, we have had a good discussion on the clause and we do not need to take the debate further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 90 ordered to stand part of the Bill.