Adoption and Children Bill

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Amanda Finlay (Director of Public and Private Rights, Lord Chancellor's Department): The child being a party to proceedings will happen automatically in placement order cases, and children will be able to apply to courts for leave to be made party to adoption proceedings. That will be given effect by rules once the Bill comes into effect.

James Paton: That was made clear in the explanatory notes. The rules will be made under clause 126.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): May we turn to adoption support services? There has been a widespread welcome for support services being made available and extended to a wider constituency. There is a duty on local authorities to carry out assessments. Can the Department of Health officials explain how those assessments will work? They could be seen as delaying and hindering support services coming in and taking effect when they are needed. What are the mechanics of the process?

James Paton: That is absolutely not the intention. They were developed to deliver the White Paper commitment to give new adoptive families a right to request an assessment of their needs for adoption support. That was a response to the performance and innovation unit report inquiry and the subsequent consultation, which showed that on too many occasions adoptive families feel like they have to fight the system, as it were, to get a proper assessment of their support needs, and that too often public services are not co-ordinated in providing such support. The assessment process is intended to address both those concerns. The assessment is available at the request of the adoptive family. It is intended that it will facilitate a joined-up look at what services should be put in place to help the placement to succeed.

The details of how the assessment process will work will be set out in the new national framework for adoption support, which the White Paper stated that the Government would develop in consultation with stakeholders. That work has already begun and the plan is to issue the draft framework for consultation next spring. The White Paper sets out the objectives and the Bill sets out the legislative framework under which they can be delivered, but the details of how the process will work is something that we want to develop with stakeholders, including adoptive families and social services representatives, to ensure that the system works in the way that we want and does not lead to any of the problems that you have identified.

Mr. Loughton: The trouble is, of course, that we are looking at the Bill now: it will have passed through Parliament by the time the regulations are published, let alone by the time the results of the consultation emerge.

What will happen if a local authority refuses to provide an assessment? We all recognise that there is an acute shortage of social workers, particularly in the child care field; if they are all focused on providing assessments, who will be left to provide services? How is the process to be resourced?

James Paton: Dealing with the first point about the assessment process, the Bill provides that adoptive families have a right to request and receive an assessment for support services.

In terms of resourcing, the Government have already provided £66 million over four years to support the White Paper programme, and of course the resources required to implement the Bill will be addressed in the forthcoming spending review process.

On the shortage of social workers, the Government recognise that there are problems. That is why they recently launched a recruitment campaign to attract more people into the profession.

Tim Loughton: Will that money be ring-fenced? What happens when social services departments do not provide an assessment, or their subsequent support services are not up to scratch? What onus is there on them to provide, and what is the penalty if they do not?

James Paton: With regard to social services departments failing to perform their duties under the Act, the Bill contains default clauses, one of which is clause 15—

Sandra Walker: It is clause 14.

James Paton: They allow the Secretary of State to issue directions to authorities to help them comply with their duties under the Bill. The social services inspectorate currently inspects social services adoption functions. In future the National Care Standards Commission will inspect such functions. Any failure to deliver services will be drawn to the Secretary of State's attention. He has a range of powers under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 and the Local Government Act 1999.

Tim Loughton: Although I can see that we have the framework to say, ``You are not doing properly what you are supposed to be doing'', how will failure be judged? Will there be a time limit by which an assessment must be made, and a further time limit by which the support services that that assessment deems are necessary come into effect? Will such time limits be included in the regulations that are to be issued in spring?

10.30 am

James Paton: These are all issues on which we shall consult in terms of how the process should work in detail and what the standards should be. However, the National Care Standards Commission will need a set of standards against which to inspect. Those standards will include the provision of adoption support services. Standards will be applicable, but their detail and how the process should work in terms of precise time scales is something that we shall develop with a range of stakeholders. After that process, we shall set out guidance and regulations to be inspected against and enforced as I have described.

Tim Loughton: On intermediary services, do you agree that they have a valuable role to play, and has consideration been given to making them a statutory obligation?

James Paton: There are circumstances in which intermediary services can play a useful role. When two parties in the adoption process want to make contact, it is often better for that to be handled through an adoption agency that has the appropriate expertise. In terms of whether consideration has been given to putting this on a statutory basis, this is one of several potential adoption support services on which we shall be consulting as part of the development of the framework. The intention is that the powers will allow us to prescribe that local authorities must put in place a range of adoption support services. Local authorities will be obliged to put in place arrangements to provide the range of services that we develop through the framework. It is obviously open for that to include intermediary services, which will be consulted on alongside other potential adoption support services that form part of the framework.

The Chairman: Mr. Brazier, you have a question on the registration of adoption support providers.

Mr. Brazier: There is concern that the provision could kill off small self-help groups. Looking at the exemptions in the relevant clause, the one that seems to be missing is groups that are run wholly or mainly by adopters. Are the Government planning to force little groups of adoptive parents, who get together in the same way as other groups of parents get together, to register?

Cathy Morgan (Section Head, Adoption and Permanence, Department of Health): The intention is to try and regulate a sensitive position in terms of vulnerable people who are affected by adoption. The regulatory burden will need to be proportionate to the level of protection that can be offered. We do not intend to prevent individuals from meeting in their homes in a supportive environment. However, if services such as counselling were to be provided, they would fall within the boundaries of the registration. We shall be consulting on those standards so that we can ensure that we are not over-regulating the system. The intention is not to close down small groups of people getting together.

Mr. Brazier: We have a problem throughout the Bill because, for reasons that one can well understand, we are establishing in clause after clause a framework for regulations. The real business will be contained in statutory instruments, which may go through on the nod or be considered very briefly in Standing Committee. It is crucial that clause 8, which includes six groups of exemptions, should have a seventh—a paragraph (g) should be added to cover groups that wholly or mainly meet in people's own homes and are wholly or mainly organised by adopters themselves.

James Paton: That is something that we shall look at. The intention is certainly not to police the activities of individuals in their homes; it is to regulate the provision of counselling in a sensitive setting for potentially vulnerable people so that it is of appropriate quality and conducted by people who are appropriately qualified or equipped to perform that function. That is the intention and we shall look at the point.

Mr. Brazier: That would be good. It would be nice if the issue could be covered in the Bill, rather than considered in a Standing Committee at a later stage by a group of people with a rubber stamp.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I hope that that is not a suggestion that parliamentarians would merely rubber-stamp something. Mr. Brazier: Minister, I stand reproached.

The Chairman: To turn to clauses 53 to 62 covering access to information, I am interested in what appears to be a change of tack on the rights of adopted people to gain access to their birth certificates. We have received, as you are probably aware, significant evidence expressing concern about that issue. I recognise that there has always been a problem with balancing the rights of an adoptive child with those of the birth parents. During the last Session, when we looked at the child migrant issue--you are probably familiar with it, Mr. Paton--we met people who were denied any knowledge of their birth and natural parents, and I am concerned that we seem to be going over the same ground now. The National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents, for example, said that it was appalled at the changes made to the Bill; I wonder what your response is to such concerns. Why are the changes being introduced now?

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