Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: I start by apologising to the hon. Gentleman if he found it hard to obtain hard copies of the document, of which I have a hard copy. If it is the document to which he refers, I will assure that he receives a hard copy, to save him using up his precious printer ink. It is a fair criticism, because we must ensure that the regulations and draft regulations that will follow the Bill are available for others to consult on and consider.

At the risk of falling foul of the hon. Gentleman by discussing the matter in too much detail, I start by saying that the clause allows the Secretary of State, after consulting the National Assembly for Wales, to make regulations that set out the procedures or conditions that must be met by any British resident who wishes to adopt a child habitually resident outside the British islands. We intend to consult on the exact contents of the regulations, but we expect that they will be similar to those in place for those wanting to bring children into the United Kingdom for the purpose of adoption.

The conditions include: requiring that prospective adopters apply to and are assessed by an adoption agency in the United Kingdom; that while going through the assessment process, prospective adopters provide as much information as requested by the agency; that prospective adopters agree to carry out police and medical checks; that cases referred to an adoption panel, the home-study assessment and such other information as is required by the overseas authority, is sent to the central authority so that it can be checked; that the proper procedures are followed and all the information collected before a certificate of eligibility is issued on behalf of the Secretary of State and sent to the overseas authority; and that, within 14 days of arrival in the United Kingdom with a child whom they intend to adopt, notice of intention to adopt is given to the local authority in whose area the prospective adopters reside.

A problem with the hon. Gentleman's amendments—although I recognise that they are probing amendments—is that they would require the Secretary of State to make such regulations, rather than give him a permissive power to do so. That would undermine the flexibility of the current approach, which allows the Secretary of State to determine what, if any, conditions should be met before going overseas to adopt and what, if any, conditions should be met on return to the United Kingdom. However, I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the regulations that we intend to make will be along the lines of those I have outlined.

There is some benefit in allowing regulations to follow discussions of the Bill, because it is often appropriate to allow time to consult stakeholders in the field to ensure that we get the detail right.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Reference is made in several parts of the draft regulations to consulting the National Assembly, which is welcome. After the consultation, will the draft regulations return to the National Assembly for implementation by the relevant Committee, or will they be dealt with in a Committee of this House? That is a hot issue in Wales.

Jacqui Smith: I understand that it is a hot issue, but my understanding is that the National Assembly does not make regulations; that is the responsibility of the Secretary of State. The extent of the consultation of the Assembly depends partly on the regulations. As hon. Members have said, there are various different regulation-making processes in the Bill.

Mr. Llwyd: I have not made myself clear. When the draft regulation has been drawn up, it must be overseen by a Committee of this House or the Assembly before it has the force of law. Will it go to the Assembly, or be dealt with in this House?

Jacqui Smith: I am very aware of the sensitivities caused by devolution. I shall correct myself if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Secretary of State will make the regulations and that they will be subject to consideration by the House or a Committee of the House, depending on whether they are subject to negative or affirmative resolution. I hope that that clarifies the matter for the hon. Gentleman. I believe that I am right in what I have said.

Mr. Llwyd: Although I appreciate that the issue has not been devolved, there seems little point in devolution if what the Minister says is a general statement of principle. Frankly, there is no point in another Chamber second-guessing what has already been passed here.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman may want to turn our debate into a discussion about whether Wales should be an independent state, but I am not sure that the rest of the Committee does. Some issues have been fully devolved; others have not. I have attempted to clarify for him what I understand the position to be in relation to the Bill. When drawing up the legislation, we had significant discussions with representatives of the National Assembly for Wales. In this case, the regulations can be made only after consultation—and that is only in the context of intercountry adoption. Other regulations will be made separately.

I was explaining why not every detail is necessarily placed in legislation, or not made available when a Bill is being debated. It is partly to allow time to consult on regulations. Regulations allow us the flexibility to make changes when circumstances change or, in this case, if adoption practice changes. The content of many regulations is often too technical or administrative for inclusion in a Bill.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister's point is well taken. Conversely, she must understand why the Opposition press Ministers if they can on the likely content of regulations—so that we can have a meaningful debate on the provisions of the Bill and there is a framework to our debate.

Jacqui Smith: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why, despite the rather unkind comments of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about my verbosity, I nevertheless attempted to reassure him about what the regulations might contain on this point. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier is absolutely right to say that Members pressing Ministers and bringing points to their attention that should subsequently be considered in regulation is an appropriate part of the process of scrutiny that legislation undergoes. Indeed, I look forward to being pressed further as we continue our debates.

Precedent is very important in law. It goes with precedent that we should use the word ''may'' instead of ''shall'' about regulation-making provisions. I hope that with those short, sharp reassurances, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am devastated; I certainly did not seek to criticise the Minister's verbosity, as she described her output. Indeed, I was complimenting her on her thoroughness in her response to a relatively minor amendment. She spoke with even greater thoroughness in responding to these amendments. I am delighted that she should look forward to being pressed further. Indeed, it will be the thoroughness of the Opposition Members who will ensure that she is pressed on matters of slightly greater import when we come to later amendments.

We can argue until the cows come home about how much of the legislation should be included in the Bill and how much we can trust the Government to leave to regulations. We repeat our complaint that the Committee has not seen and has no knowledge of the regulations despite having to debate the clauses that give weight to them. I take the Minister's point, but we will continue to disagree on that matter. However, in the interest of moving to other clauses, on which we will be able to press her further, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I beg to move amendment No. 142, in page 43, line 34, after 'agency)', insert—

    'or a fully qualified social worker approved by the relevant local authority'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 143, in page 43, line 36, after 'agency', insert 'or relevant social worker'.

Mr. Bellingham: I should like to explain briefly what we are trying to do. Subsection (4) states that

    ''Regulations may require a person . . . to apply to an adoption agency''.

That does not go far enough. If couples or single people, as is allowed, want to adopt a child from abroad, they will have two options. They will be able to go either to a local authority or to an adoption agency. I would imagine that, for the purposes of the Bill, ''agency'' must include local authorities—I see the Minister's officials nodding. However, at the moment, couples can go to private social workers, of whom the overwhelming majority are highly qualified, skilled and experienced. Virtually all of them are former local authority social workers who have retired early or moved into private practice. They carry out a home study and any necessary post-placement studies for couples.

The system has been working very well, but I entirely accept that it broke down badly in the case of the Kilshaws. I think that everyone agrees that the Kilshaws were completely unsuitable for having anything to do with children at all. However, it is worth bearing in mind that in their case, the agency that was used in America broke state laws. It was not just a question of private social workers in this country producing a home-study report that should never have recommended the Kilshaws for adoption in the first place—the law in America was also definitely broken. The children involved have, rightly, already gone back to America and hopefully will be reunited either with their natural parents or with another, more suitable, couple who are able to adopt them.

However, one appalling case, however appalling it is and however bad the publicity, does not justify such a significant change in the law. Throughout the country there are networks of private social workers involved in intercountry adoption. I hope that the Minister will be able to fill me in on that. To some extent, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, we are flying blind on the clause, because much of it will depend on regulations. As the Minister said, there will be consultation on the regulations and they have not yet been finalised. What they say will be critical. The existing regulations are copious, complex and, in many cases, extremely difficult to understand. The clause is, on the face of it, quite simple, but it is governed by highly complex regulations, so a few large question marks still hang over this part of the Bill.

What will social workers who work in intercountry adoption do? Some will join agencies—some have probably already done so—but there is a critical shortage of such agencies. More may be set up, and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether private social workers can form an agency by grouping together and so proceed with the work that they are doing. Many private social workers have a close relationship with the local authority in their area, undertaking home studies and post-placement reports, with local authority social workers involved and visiting the children in question.

3.15 pm

I suspect that local authorities also subcontract tasks to private social workers. It is important to bear in mind the shortage of resources in many social services departments. There is no question but that there is a shortage of key personnel and funds in Norfolk—it is a Labour-controlled authority—and I am sorry to say that the provision of services across the board has suffered because of the shortage of funding. We must not digress, but I hope that Tuesday's settlement will go some way towards redressing those difficulties. The Minister is aware of those shortages and of the problems with morale and recruitment in social services.

Attempts are being made to bring more young people into the profession. I have been involved in the tragic case of Lauren Wright, which arose in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). The case worker, Hugh Morgan, resigned and several other officers were devastated. A mistake was made, but the social services did not kill that child—the stepmother did. None the less, they are the ones to suffer: they attract the worst sort of opprobrium in the tabloids and the local press. Hugh Morgan was a constituent of mine, and many social workers in my constituency have asked me, ''What can we do to encourage more young people into the profession? It will be very difficult.'' A public inquiry into the Victoria Climbie case is under way, and a substantial amount of unpleasant publicity will flow from it. The signal that is being sent to many young people who are thinking of going into the profession is, ''Is it really worth it? You'll do an excellent job 99.9 per cent. of the time and receive no praise. When things go wrong the other 0.01 per cent of the time, you'll get all the blame.''

There is a serious problem with recruiting and resources. I want the Minister to reassure me that social services departments will be able to cope properly with the extra work involved in intercountry adoptions. My amendment may assist them, because it would allow private social workers who are approved and registered by the local authority to carry on doing what they already do.

We are considering an excellent resource that is already in place. The Kilshaw case, while highly regrettable and unfortunate, it involved just one private social worker out of many. I do not know precisely how many intercountry adoptions there are every year, but we were given a figure of about 500, so let us say that there have been 5,000 over the past 10 years. I know of no case other than the Kilshaw case in which intercountry adoption has gone wrong. The agencies deal with thousands of cases, but most are dealt with by private social workers and they have done an excellent job. They are a resource that must be nurtured and encouraged. That would be in the spirit of the Government's ideas about working with the private sector and having partnerships between local authorities and the private sector, which we are seeing throughout the caring services.

Only yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health announced that if people had been waiting for an operation for more than six months, it would be done by the private sector. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will agree that we have been saying for a long time that that should happen, and I am pleased that the Government have picked up one of our policies. Indeed, all local authority services, and not only social service provision, but education and highways departments, are engaging in constructive, pragmatic alliances and relationships with the private sector. The Minister must satisfy us that private social workers, who are an important resource, will be able to help us to achieve what we want—a better, more efficient service.

We want local authorities to carry out their adoption functions as efficiently as possible. Questions are asked about resources, but if local authorities are to take on the extra functions of intercountry adoption and provide a much more efficient service for domestic adoptions, pressure on resources will increase and many personnel will be overworked and stressed—indeed, many social workers cannot go on doing the job that they are doing now. I seek a sensible, pragmatic solution, and I hope that the Minister, in the spirit of the common-sense goals that we are trying to achieve, will be able to satisfy Opposition Members that the Bill will enable that solution to be found. If she cannot, she should accept the amendment.

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