Clause 111 - Inquiries by local authorities into representations

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:30 pm ar 15 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 5:30, 15 Ionawr 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 260, in page 62, line 18, at end insert—

'(3B) The duty under subsection (3) extends to representations (including complaints) made to the authority by—

(a) any person mentioned in section 3(1) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (persons for whose needs provision is made by the Adoption Service) and any other person to whom arrangements for the provision of adoption support services (within the meaning of that Act) extend,

(b) such other person as the authority consider has sufficient interest in a child who is or may be adopted to warrant his representations being considered by them, about the discharge by the authority of such functions under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 as are specified by the Secretary of State in regulations'.

The clause relates to the changes that the Government are making to the local authority social services complaints procedures. Those procedures have been criticised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who suggested, perhaps rather unreasonably, that local authorities always set out to stymie complaints. That might have been an extreme criticism, but the procedures have been criticised for being too slow and bureaucratic.

The Government want to speed up the process and make it more effective, particularly for children. That is why the Department undertook a review of social

services complaints procedures in 1999-2000. Following that review, the Department issued a consultation document, ''Listening to People'', in June 2000. That document proposed a range of improvements to the procedures and sought views on them. As a result of that consultation, the Government will make several changes to the procedures, many of which do not require primary legislation. However, in response to the consultation exercise, clause 111 changes the complaints procedure established under the Children Act 1989; it implements the changes that require primary legislation.

It is worth remembering that the Committee has already debated clause 12, which introduces an independent review mechanism concerning adoption. That mechanism is being established, as we discussed, for two specific purposes. It will be used to review adoption agency determinations on the suitability of prospective adopters, thereby building confidence in the adopter-assessment process and encouraging more people to adopt. It will also be used to review determinations made by adoption agencies about the disclosure of information held in their records that identifies third parties. As we discussed last week, that will provide a balance for the adoption agencies' use of discretion on the subject.

Adoption is a mainstream social services function. The majority of complaints about local authority adoption services will therefore most appropriately be dealt with through existing social services complaints procedures. Local authorities operate two distinct but similar complaints procedures in respect of their social services functions. The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 inserted into the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, which is known as the LASS Act, the requirement for social services authorities to establish a complaints procedure for any failure to discharge their social services functions. Section 26(3) of the Children Act 1989 requires all local authorities to establish a procedure to consider representations about the exercise of their functions under part III of that Act made by or on behalf of any children looked after or in need. Therefore, local authorities have a dual process for considering complaints, provided for partly by the LASS Act and partly by the Children Act.

Under the existing legal framework, adoption-related complaints are dealt with by the adult complaints procedure established under the LASS Act. The Government do not believe that that is the appropriate procedure to consider all adoption-related complaints. In some cases, it is appropriate for complaints about local authority adoption services to be dealt with through the adult complaints procedure. When a complaint is made by an adult and does not involve or affect an individual child, it is appropriate for the local authority to use the procedure. However, when children are involved or affected, complaints about local authority adoption services should be dealt with through the Children Act complaints procedure. A complaint made by a child himself or on his behalf should, of course, also be dealt with through that procedure.

It might help if I gave other examples for which the Children Act procedure should be used, as would be achieved under my amendment. A complaint made by an adoptive parent about the package of adoption support services provided to the adoptive family by the local authority should be dealt with through the Children Act procedure, as should a complaint made by a birth parent about a decision taken by the local authority that adoption was in the best interests of his or her child.

The Children Act procedure offers a better process for complaints that involve children than that of the LASS Act, as it involves an independent person to oversee the process and has tighter time scales, which allow children's complaints to be dealt with more quickly. The amendment inserts new subsection (3B) into section 26 of the Children Act. It extends the child-focused Children Act complaints procedure to specified local authority functions under the Bill.

The Government intend to prescribe in regulations the types of adoption-related complaints to which the Children Act complaints procedure should apply. As I have explained, they will all be adoption-related complaints that involve or affect children, or which involved or affected them. Other adoption-related complaints that are not prescribed in the regulations will continue to be dealt with through the LASS Act procedure, as under present arrangements. The Government will issue guidance to local authorities to assist them to determine which complaints procedure should be followed in each case.

All the people listed in clause 3(1) will be entitled under the Children Act procedure to make a complaint about the specified local authority adoption functions. Those people are

''children who may be adopted, their parents and guardians'', prospective adopters and adopted people, their adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians. Other people who receive adoption support services from the local authority, such as members of the wider birth family and adoptive siblings, will be able to complain under the Children Act procedure when a child is involved or affected. Similarly, those whom the local authority considers have a sufficient interest in the child concerned, such as its grandparents, will be able to complain.

The provisions are sufficiently flexible to enable adoption-specific requirements to be introduced into the Children Act complaints procedure through regulations, should that be considered appropriate. We will also consider whether it is necessary to introduce any adoption-specific requirements into the adult LASS Act procedure. If it is, we will issue directions accordingly. That will ensure that the local authority social services complaints procedure is as well equipped as possible to meet adoption-related needs.

Given the proposals in clause 111, which improve the breadth and operation of the Children Act complaints procedure, and the fact that the amendment ensures that those procedures apply in

appropriate cases to adoption-related complaints, I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support the amendment.