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'fee of a prescribed amount'

and insert "prescribed fee".

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following Government amendments: Nos. 79, 82 and 44 to 47.

Jacqui Smith: Before I begin, I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on what happened to Government amendment No. 37.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That comes a little later in the amendment paper. I will not overlook it.

Jacqui Smith: I have every faith in you. The Bill is close to my heart and I want to ensure that we get through it all.

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The amendments provide greater consistency in the approach to prescribed fees and ensure that the powers in relation to fees are flexible and clear. Amendment No. 47 is relevant for the purposes of all the other amendments in the group. It inserts a new subsection in clause 131, which provides a general interpretation of the terminology used throughout the Bill, and clarifies the meaning of a power to prescribe a fee.

Where the Bill confers a power to make regulations to prescribe that a fee must or may be charged or paid, or where it confers a power to prescribe such a fee by way of an Order in Council—for example, in relation to the adoption and children register—that fee can be any of the fees set out in the amendment. It could be a fixed amount. Alternatively, it could be a fee not exceeding a fixed amount, as made clear in proposed paragraph (a), or a fee that is calculated in accordance with a formula set out in regulations or in an Order in Council, as made clear in proposed paragraph (b). Proposed paragraph (c) provides that the fee may also be a reasonable fee, determined by the person to whom it is payable.

The remaining amendments ensure that in every case in which the Bill confers a power to prescribe a fee, the term "prescribed fee" is used consistently. That ensures that any of the fees that I have just described can be prescribed in regulations or in an Order in Council. If the provisions already refer to a prescribed fee—for example, in clause 11—an amendment is, of course, unnecessary.

Although I am willing to go into the details of each amendment if hon. Members so wish, I think that that sets out our approach to them all.

Tim Loughton: These amendments will probably be known as the prescribed fee group, because, as the Minister has explained, that is essentially what they deal with. However, I should like to question her on a few issues that arise from them. She said that these amendments had been introduced in the guise of greater consistency, flexibility and clarity. I am somewhat at a loss to understand, for example, why Government amendment No. 43, which simply changes the terminology from

to "prescribed fee", has taken two months to produce after the end of the debates in Committee.

On a more substantive point, under Government amendment No. 79, the word "prescribed" will be inserted before the word "fee" in clause 118(3), which states that the order

Will the Minister clarify—she said that she would like to do so—the guidance, which her Department issued to adoption agencies last August, that gave them the strong impression that her Department had promised to fund the adoption register? Why does the question of fees arise—whether they are prescribed fees, charges or whatever she wants to call them?

On 21 August, it was reported that the Department of Health would pay for the use of the adoption register

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information. A Department of Health briefing, issued on 26 August last year, stated that it

So will the Minister explain exactly where those fees will be directed and for what purpose, as certain adoption agencies have been given the impression that the register would be funded by the Department? That is something of a mystery, so perhaps she could explain that in the interests of clarity and consistency.

I have no argument with Government amendments Nos. 44 and 45, which will bring into effect the charging of prescribed fees for using the contact register, as does Government amendment No. 46.

Government amendment No. 47, which the Minister dealt with first, relates to clause 131. Will she provide further clarification of some of the definitions used in that clause? In particular, will she explain proposed paragraph (c), which states:

How would she define the term "reasonable amount"? Who will determine the amount? How often will it be redetermined to ensure that it is still a reasonable fee? Will the fee differ for the various agencies in different parts of the country? Will it differ by local authority, given that the Minister is apparently a late convert to giving local authorities greater autonomy?

Government amendment No. 47 is rather widely drafted, and hon. Members would benefit if the Minister would provide greater definition, but I am particularly keen for her to explain, for the benefit of the agencies involved, why a fee will apparently be charged, given that it was strongly suggested that no fee would be required of voluntary agencies.

Jacqui Smith: I should like to make it clear that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is right to say that the Government are funding the operation of the adoption and children register. The Government do not intend to charge adoption agencies for the use of the register. However, consequential effects and possible future decisions need to be represented in the legislation. Of course, the existing inter-agency fee system, whereby an adoption agency pays a fee to another adoption agency to cover the costs of recruiting and assessing an adoptive family on its behalf, will continue to operate as it does at the moment, but the Government have promised to keep the inter-agency fee under review. The provisions in clause 118(3) and 119(4) help to provide the flexibility to make changes in the arrangements should that be considered necessary. I reiterate that the Government are indeed funding the register, which is currently operating very successfully, bringing together adopted children and potential adopters.

9.30 pm

Tim Loughton: We need to get this absolutely clear. I think that the Minister is now suggesting that there will not be charges but that the Government are establishing the potential for their introduction. Will she cast her mind forward, as we need clarity for the long term? In what

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circumstances might her Department institute charging for operating the register, so that it will not be wholly Government funded?

Jacqui Smith: I certainly did not say that we were considering imposing charges. I said that a review of the inter-agency fee arrangements, whereby authorities pay each other for the recruitment of adopters, could involve a routing of the fee via the adoption register. What is important is that, in drafting legislation that will exist for some time, we provide opportunities for the consideration of such issues.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the definition in proposed paragraph (c) of amendment No. 47—that the fee may also be reasonable if it is determined by the person to whom it is payable. We discussed the charging of reasonable fees at some length in Committee, such as in the context of inter-country adoption, where it would perhaps most appropriately fit. The Government intend to make regulations under clause 11(2) to enable local authorities to continue to charge prospective inter-country adopters a fee to cover reasonably incurred expenses.

In this context, a reasonable fee would of course bear in mind the fact that each adoption agency has slightly different costs and should be able to reflect those costs in the fee charged. Agencies should not, as was made clear in Committee, be able to recover more money than they expend; they should be able to recover only their costs. What would be a reasonable fee for inter-country work might vary from adoption agency to adoption agency, and it would therefore clearly be inappropriate for a fixed amount to be prescribed. The proposed subsection enables the flexibility on reasonable fees that we discussed at some length in Committee.

I hope that, with those reassurances, hon. Members will feel able to support the amendments.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 12

Independent review of determinations

Mr. Brazier: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 9, line 31, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

'(1) Regulations under section 9 may establish a procedure under which any person in respect of whom a determination has been made by an adoption agency may apply to an organisation or panel, independent of any local authority or voluntary adoption agency but approved by the appropriate Minister for a review of that determination.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 23, in clause 14, page 10, line 40, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

'(1) If as a result of an independent review any local authority is found to have failed, without reasonable cause, to comply with any of the duties imposed on them by virtue of this Act, the appropriate Minister may make an order declaring that authority to be in default in respect of that duty.'.

Mr. Brazier: As the clause stands, most of the important detail is left to regulations. For those of us who have been pressing for many years for an independent appeals process for adoption-related matters, the clause is welcome. None the less, it is disappointing that the Minister said in Committee on 18 December at column

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676 that regulations are likely to focus on only two matters—at least initially. They are, first, prospective adopters' suitability for the new national list, and secondly, the provision of information by adoption agencies.

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