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'fee of a prescribed amount'
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 Councilfor example, in relation to the adoption and children registerthat 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 feefor example, in clause 11an amendment is, of course, unnecessary.
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
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:
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.
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
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. 47that 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.
'(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.'.
'(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