Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I have a brief question. I should like to declare an interest. My wife and I are parents of an adopted child aged two and a bit and so could benefit from the Bill. With your permission, Mr. Hinchliffe, rather than mention this every time that I speak, I shall mention it now to put it on record. Let me put this question to you, Mr. Paton: should prospective adoptive families have access to information about a child's history?

James Paton: Yes. Current best practice, obligations and guidance are that prospective adoptive families should be provided with full information about a child's background to help them cope successfully and to promote a successful placement. Our intention is to continue that current best practice. The information provisions enable us to prescribe what information prospective adopters should receive about a child.

Mr. Bellingham: Can you comment specifically on medical histories and their relevance?

James Paton: That is relevant. I think that I am right to say that current regulations—yes, regulation 12 of the current agency regulations—oblige adoption agencies to provide prospective adopters with information about the child, his state of health and medical background. That is relevant and we would expect such information to continue to be provided.

Sandra Walker: The current regulations specifically say the history of the child's health and the current state of his health.

Liz Blackman: We have had several conversations about that issue and I do not propose to go back over old ground because it is on record. On record last time, Mr. Paton, you said that an expert group was developing a code of practice around the issue of disclosure of information during the prospective adoption period. How has that developed?

James Paton: We published a draft practice guidance in August and we are currently consulting on it. I believe that that included the importance of the provision of information around the placement process.

Liz Blackman: So what is the time frame for the consultation?

Cathy Morgan: The closing date is 30 November.

James Paton: It is live and being taken forward.

Liz Blackman: That was the first point that I wanted to check. Secondly, I asked you a question about the difference in performance between authorities in terms of successful adoption rates. One issue that you identified as being key was the quality of record keeping, which still remains the case. Obviously, one needs good record keeping to support the disclosure of information, so I wonder where we are on that. I know of the taskforce that is going around and driving up best practice, but my understanding is that it has not, in the first instance, specifically targeted authorities that do not have such a good record. Perhaps, it should have done so because by targeting authorities with less success in this area, driving up their practice will happen more quickly. Will you make some comments on that?

Mark Ferrero: Could I answer that, please? The first wave of councils that the taskforce worked with included some that had very poor records, which was discovered when it visited them. It has done some good work in looking at how one should track children who are in the care of the council to see where they are, where they are placed and what their needs are. It has produced a tool to help other authorities get a better handle on their record keeping as a core element in their looking after children.

It is worth adding that as part of the implementation exercise for the national adoption register we are asking all councils to use the taskforce's tool. We want them to examine the records of children in care for whom adoption has been identified as the plan to make sure that that is still appropriate. We want councils to review and update their records, and set them on a sound footing so that they can submit good quality data to the national adoption register. We are doing, and we have done, quite a lot to tackle this underlying problem that we all acknowledge as a big challenge, especially for those authorities where the turnover of staff is very high.

Mr. Brazier: Amanda Finlay, I am sorry to put you on the spot, but I asked you a question on 24 April in Committee, and you promised to come back to me in writing. I shall therefore ask it to you again, although I know that we have had a little thing called a general election in between. To quote Sir Ronald Waterhouse:

    ``the Law Commission should inquire into the position of local authorities in relation to the publication of reports commissioned by them with a view to strengthening the defence of qualified privilege (or widening it) and giving guidance at least on their relationship with their insurers''.

The point that I made then which underlies this is that it is not a legal requirement for local authorities to tell the truth, which astonished me when I discovered it but in fact it never has been. Furthermore, local authorities told us off the record that in some cases they can be required by their insurers to lie, and they can be in breach of their insurance policies if they do not do so. I see the hon. Member for Cardiff, West nodding. We are dealing with damaged children, and although one can see where the local authorities are coming from it is by any standards unsatisfactory that that should be the position.

Amanda Finlay: I understand from my supporting officials that I wrote to the Chairman. I am sorry that I have not got that letter with me. I ought to send you a copy and any further up-to-date information.

Mr. Brazier: Thank you very much.

Tim Loughton: May I come back to the updating and review of records to which Mr. Ferrero referred. Is this being catered for within the remit of the £66 million that has been allocated? Given the enormous shortages in personnel in child welfare departments, are you convinced that that will be a meaningful updating of records that will provide a standard benchmark for all local authorities across the country in time for the new legislation?

Mark Ferrero: What I forgot to mention is the work that we are doing in parallel with that on the integrated children's system. We are developing a system to track and monitor all children in the looked after system with exemplars of how they should be recorded and how case notes should be made. That work is in hand. It is fair to say that the taskforce's work is aimed at addressing the immediate problems faced by social services departments in identifying the number of children that they have who are looked after and for whom adoption is the plan. Such a plan may not be appropriate because it might have been made months or even years in the past.

The taskforce's work also helps to equip social services departments to participate properly in the register, which is a meaningful exercise. The £66 million is a funding stream through quality protects, which is addressing children's systems across the piece and looking at how they can be improved.

I take the point about social services departments that are short of staff, and that will be a problem for them. The Government are addressing that through their recruitment campaign. In the shorter term, however, we have the taskforce to go in, give hands-on help and spread best practice, which will help councils across the board address what is already their responsibility.

Tim Loughton: With respect, recruiting, if it works, and when it eventually brings on stream new social workers, is entirely irrelevant to information on children in care now, which you said you are updating and reviewing. How many children in care are we talking about on average per authority? The money is being stretched to pay for this review, as well as all manner of other things. It sounds like the right thing to do, but I am concerned that nothing like the detail that is needed will be available by the time the legislation comes into force and all the new extra responsibilities are placed on local authorities.

11.15 am

Mark Ferrero: The taskforce is looking at cases where adoption is the plan. Its remit is adoption and permanence, and that is my remit. On the broader, looked-after children system, we have to remember that most children in care return to their birth families and are in care for a relatively short period. That is being addressed through the integrated children system work that we are doing. There are already responsibilities on local authorities to record and track the children of whom they are corporate parents, but we recognise that they need help in actually maintaining those records and keeping them up to date. That is why we are doing this extra work to help them improve.

Ms Munn: I have two brief questions on intercountry adoption. First, in what way will it tighten up the issue of the countries from which children can be adopted?

Cathy Morgan: The Bill, as it stands, has been strengthened in three main places. In clause 80, we have introduced a new offence. Where a child has been adopted overseas by a British resident in the previous six months and brought into the country, that resident must have been through the proper approval and assessment procedures. The intention is to catch anybody wishing to adopt from an overseas country and bring the child back when that is not for the purposes of adoption. The legislation as it stands is for bringing a child into the UK for the purposes of adoption, and that means adopting the child in a UK court.

Where somebody goes to another country, adopts, brings the child back and says, ``Actually, we don't want to adopt the child here,'' we would be unable to catch them under current legislation, whether or not the adoption order is recognised in respect of the designated list. Part of clause 80 would prevent that, because they would be bringing in a child with an adoption order that was less than six months old. We will also bring into force, through clause 83, restrictions on which adoption orders are actually recognised. There will be clear criteria set out in regulations, explaining the sort of systems that a country must have for that adoption order to be recognised under UK law.

Finally, we are also doing some other work—it is not actually Bill-related, but it will effectively link in with it—on the ratification of The Hague convention. It is acknowledged that the majority of the best country systems are those belonging to countries that have already signed up to The Hague convention on intercountry adoption. At the moment, it is not open to British residents to apply to a great number of those countries because the UK has not ratified. When the UK ratifies, those systems will be open to UK residents. That should mean that people will be able to adopt from overseas, and can be sure that they are going through decent systems.

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