Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: I welcome all the witnesses to the Committee.

Mr. Shaw: Can I ask in what way the provisions in the Bill relating to placement orders and parental consent need to be amended?

Deborah Cullen (British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering): It seems to be me who has got the short straw on this one. Basically, as far as placement orders are concerned, we are pleased with the way the Bill has changed from the one that was presented in March, in that it has now provided that a placement order cannot be made unless the child is already subject to a care order, or the threshold conditions for a care order are met. We think that that is certainly a big improvement.

The provisions about placement and placement orders are extremely complicated. Even with the help of the flowchart and the explanatory notes, one needs a cold towel around the head to work it all out. One of the difficulties is that it is not clear how the provisions about placement, and to some extent the placement order provisions, dovetail with the Children Act 1989. If I can give one example, under the Children Act, a local authority has a duty under section 20 to provide accommodation for a child whose welfare requires it, and whose parent is prevented from looking after the child themselves. That may be for a whole variety of reasons; it may be very short term or it may be longer term.

Under the Bill, if a parent actually wishes to have their child adopted, clause 18 provides that if the parents consent to adoption, the local authority is authorised to place the child for adoption, and it is not exactly clear how that ties in with the provision about the accommodation of a child under the Children Act. In particular, restrictions are then placed on the ability of the parent to change his or her mind and remove the child from the accommodation in which the local authority placed them, even if the child has not yet been placed for adoption.

For example, if a single mother were to approach the local authority and say that she wished her child to be adopted, and it was satisfied that she really meant that and it should go ahead, it is very likely that, in the short term, the authority would place the child with a foster carer while it made arrangements for the adoption. If she subsequently changed her mind, even before the child had been placed, the Bill provides that she cannot immediately get the child back. She can notify the local authority of her change of mind, and the authority then has as long as 14 days to return the child. If she takes the child without its authority, she could be guilty of a criminal offence.

That seems a very draconian contrast with the provisions in the Children Act concerning the accommodation of the child. Under the provisions, if the parent decides that he or she wished to withdraw the child from accommodation, they have the right to do so. If the local authority considers that that is against the interests of the child and the child would be at risk, it has, of course, the option of applying for an emergency protection order. There seems no reason under the framework of this Bill, why that should not be the recourse that the authority would have if it thought that the child would be at risk of returning.

You also asked about consent to adoption and consent to placement orders on the grounds that to dispense with consent—

The Chairman: Briefly, Ms. Cullen. We know that you are a lawyer.

Deborah Cullen: I am sorry. We set out fairly clearly in our written evidence why we think that the Bill does not make sufficient distinction between those cases in which a parent agrees to adoption and those in which the parent does not agree. In effect, the test would be the same in either case. The court is certainly required to take account of the wishes and views of the parent, but there is nothing special about what the court has to do if it is actually going to override the parent's disagreement to adoption.

Ms Munn: Specifically on that point, I understand that BAAF favoured the form of words suggested by the adoption law review team, which was about adoption being ``so significantly better'' for a child than any other option. Were you not reassured—I assume you were in the room, although I am not sure—by what the Department of Health said about clause 1(4), which sets out the whole range of issues that must be taken into account?

Deborah Cullen: In a way that is reassuring, and I have had similar conversations with the Department of Health already on the subject. In practical terms, I think that the number of cases that would go one way rather than another if a different form of words were used is probably very small. But if you actually put in the Bill that a parent's consent is required for adoption unless it can be dispensed with, and then do not make any distinction between cases in which the parent consents and those in which he or she does not, I am not absolutely sure that that is an appropriate approach. In practical terms, it will probably not make a huge amount of difference.

Ms Munn: On that point, is there not a danger that lawyers could spend a lot of time arguing over what ``significantly'' means?

Deborah Cullen: I think that they could spend a lot of time arguing anyway.

Tim Loughton: Can we talk about support services and, in particular, address questions to the representatives of the Association of Directors of Social Services and of the Local Government Association? Obviously, a lot more responsibilities and activities will be placed on local authorities; we have heard about assessments being a requirement, followed up by support services. What are your thoughts on the resourcing requirements of those? Will assessments delay the putting into effect of the support services that are deemed to be required later? If someone is in need of help, they are in need of help now; they are not in need of booking an appointment for an assessment that will tell somebody that they are in need of help, and perhaps getting that help a few months later. Practically, what will be the impact of this, and how prepared are you for it?

Moira Gibb (Director of Social Services, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea): It seems to me absolutely vital that the Bill, when it becomes an Act, is supported with proper resources. The history of adoption legislation is not one that would give us great cause to have that faith. It will be extremely difficult if the expectations of those involved in adoption are raised, only to be dashed because they have received only an assessment and a service is not made available. The fact that they have come forward for an assessment means that they believe that they have a need for help, but obviously, local authorities and their children's services are struggling at the moment, and it will be impossible. Unless the Government make resources available to support the legislation, it seems to me that they will end up fighting very hard against the clear trend of more children being looked after for longer periods and in more costly ways, in terms of the increase in the number of care orders.

What we will be able to provide will depend totally on the resources that are made available. The sense in the field, I have to say, is that the resources that have been announced are not new resources, because we knew about them already. Therefore, people already feel that there is sleight of hand in the approach to this. We feel very strongly that it is really wrong to expect an improvement in the service unless the resources are made available. It is vital that adoption remains part of children's services as a whole and not simply a service on its own. It is clear that we need to improve children's services planning in order to improve adoption services. We cannot steal money out of one bit of social services to resource the adoption service; it will not make sense for children if we keep doing that.

Tim Loughton: I think the Minister is listening.

Do you think that there should be a statutory duty to provide an assessment? Do you think that there are circumstances under which you should refuse an assessment? If there is to be an assessment, should there be some time limit on when it should be brought in and, if necessary, followed by the support services?

Moira Gibb: It seems to be right that we should have a duty to provide an assessment. Obviously, we are talking about individuals who are parenting children on behalf of the state—on behalf of the rest of us—so if they need help in doing that, it is right that that help is available. It has to be a gateway to services, and we do not want to have an expensive, defensive assessment system that is merely designed to upset and disappoint.

Tim Loughton: In terms of consistency of approach among authorities around the country, is there an enormous gap between good practice and not-so-good practice? What is happening to disseminate best practice to those authorities that are under-performing; indeed, how does one judge that they are under-performing? As a rider to that, on Second Reading we talked about raising the levels in terms of the numbers of adoptions. That begs the question whether there will be targets for local authorities. If so, how will they respond to having targets, or raw numbers, imposed on them?

Moira Gibb: There are a number of points in that. It is very clear that there is varying practice in adoption work, as in all aspects of social services, but what we are seeing is a general trend of improvement. I think that the adoption taskforce was greatly welcomed by my colleagues in terms of the approach that it took towards spreading good practice and in recognising that even in the less well performing authorities there was good practice that could be shared with others.

Again, it is very important that targets do not drive the wrong kind of behaviour. We are all only human and we all want to be part of a well performing service, so we do not want short cuts that simply meet our targets but do not serve the interests of children. Therefore, it is very important that targets in this area are clear and understood and not created simply to meet an ambitious national target; they must be relevant to children locally. It is just as worrying that there are variations in other practices, as in relation to placement for adoption. We need help nationally to support the improvements and to spread best practice.

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