Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, social workers do not often get a good press. The general view seems to be that they are young, incompetent and completely devoid of common sense. That view is often based on misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge.

I do not intend to go into details of the cases that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The recent tragedies of two young children in the most awful circumstances at least began to show the public that social workers' concerns about intercountry adoption and the proper assessment of prospective adoptive parents have some basis in fact. It is essential that strong safeguards are in place in all adoption processes.

The hon. Gentleman asks why it is not sufficient to use fully qualified private social workers—approved or, as he suggests, registered, by the local authority. I understand that no provision is made for that. He asks why it would not be sensible. I believe that the Government are right to insist on the stronger safeguards. We all know that adoption is an emotional and demanding process for those involved. Unfortunately, lots of things can go wrong if those conducting the family study and going through the adoption process do not pay sufficient attention to certain aspects.

I worked for an authority that used a private social worker, but the report that came before the adoption panel was found to have a great many gaps and other problems. As a result, the social worker had to return to the family and go through the process again in greater detail. That was an extra source of stress, but it had nothing to do with the situation of the prospective adoptive parents.

An independent social worker is not in a position to benefit from the supervision, structure and support found in local authorities or adoption agencies. We must also bear in mind that there is no current method of ensuring that independent social workers meet the required standard. There is no accreditation at certain stages—there is nothing other than a recommendation, which may come from another independent social worker, to ensure that they have the relevant experience and expertise to undertake the work.

There are clear benefits to families who want to go for intercountry adoption being assessed by adoption agencies. They are able to take part in the work that is done with other adopters, and they can take part in preparation groups in which important issues are discussed. Although additional work may be necessary, examining the reasons for adoption, the process of adoption and why children need to be adopted has clear benefits.

I was worried to hear the suggestion that the Bill gives local authorities a new function. That is clearly not the case. There are couples now, as there have been in previous years, going through the process of intercountry adoption. At the local authority where I used to work, we had a very bad experience involving an independent social worker, and we took the decision that in future all intercountry adoptions would be done by in-house social workers, so that support and training forums could be provided and we could ensure that prospective adopters did not suffer the extra stress of an inadequate report.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the hon. Lady accept that under my amendment, a fully qualified social worker would have to be approved by the local authority? That approval could be withdrawn, and in cases such as the one that she encountered when she was a social worker, in which the local authority was not happy with the work done, approval would be withdrawn and there would be no more work from that private social worker.

Ms Munn: The hon. Gentleman is suggesting an additional process and an additional set of regulations that do not currently exist for local authorities. There is no process whereby a social worker is approved to carry out a certain piece of work. Clearly there are circumstances in which social work departments subcontract certain pieces of work: they generally do so on the basis of some knowledge and experience. However, in the field adoption, that is risky. If problems with a home study subsequently arise and a couple feels that their situation has not been properly dealt with, the position becomes much more complex. The risk is simply too great. I have explored the upside in some detail, so I will not repeat myself, but there are clear benefits for prospective adopters if they go through the process of training and support with other people who will adopt children from this country.

Tim Loughton: I am following the hon. Lady's comments closely and they appear to contain a contradiction. She said earlier that we should not treat as the norm the few tragic examples of cases that have gone wrong. We agree. However, she has just used the example of a case at the authority where she formerly worked. That case involved an independent social worker and went wrong, and on the basis of that one case, the authority took the decision not to employ any independent social workers for any of its work. That seems a strange generalisation to have made. Is it not incumbent on that authority and on every other properly to vet any social workers who are not on the payroll to whom work is contracted out, just as it is incumbent on that department to vet its own people?

Ms Munn: The local authority needs to safeguard prospective adopters and children. The experience of that case was so traumatic for everybody involved that the local authority decided that it would not take such a risk again. The number of intercountry adoptions dealt with by each local authority is relatively small. I am suggesting that it is better and safer to ensure that not only does the social worker have the appropriate support and supervision, but the prospective adopters benefit from the process that other adopters are going through.

Mr. Shaw: Does my hon. Friend agree that the starting point for authorities dealing with adoption agencies should be the precautionary principle? If there is concern about how an agency controls and supervises a case, the authorities must be cautious and take the safe option. The proposal by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has some attraction, but the interests of children and prospective families must be put first. If there is concern about how best to control and supervise a case, the authority's duty is to be cautious, not to take risks.

3.30 pm

Ms Munn: I entirely agree. Opposition Members recognise that local authorities and social services departments are under great stress. Setting up systems to vet, register and keep an eye on independent social workers will add an extra task to those they already have. The number of agencies in each local authority area is relatively small and the amount of administrative work would be completely out of proportion to the gain. Opposition Members are for ever going on about paperwork being the devil of many local authorities, so I should have thought that they would want to avoid increasing it.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is making a mountain out of a molehill. In some cases, including the John Smith case in my neck of the woods and others that have been mentioned, the fault was with the full-time employees of social services departments. That was rare, but it happened.

Jacqui Smith: The fault is with the parents.

Tim Loughton: Of course, but weaknesses in the system were down to the pressures on individuals who were employed by the social services departments. Ensuring that one carries out proper checks on one's own people and on outsiders to whom one has contracted work is not a matter of excessive paperwork. Many social services departments and children's departments work as part of much larger consortiums that extend beyond their area. It is perfectly reasonable to ask that checks be made on independent social workers who are indirectly employed by various local authorities that act together.

Ms Munn: With respect, I return to the same issue. Opposition Members rightly mentioned tragic individual cases, and we had a long discussion about that on Tuesday. Situations that a family finds stressful and distressing may only be a molehill to Opposition Members, but they are clearly a mountain to the people involved and we should not put them at risk.

Mr. Llwyd: We are all interested in doing the best job we can on the Bill. We should bear in mind the plausible and highly sophisticated manner in which many paedophile operations work. If we do not put in place a structure that allows social services departments properly to vet independent social workers, how are we to vet them to ensure that they are fit to do their jobs? There must be a readily accessible and uniform structure across every local authority so that the odd bad egg does not get through. Mine is a simple question, and there might be a simple answer.

Ms Munn: As I said, there is no regulation and there is no single system. The hon. Gentleman might want to level his criticism at the systems that have been in place in this country for many years. Unfortunately, I have had far too much experience of social workers who should not have been in their positions. I do not disagree with the principle of what he says, but we have to deal with reality.

I have been speaking for far longer than I intended. Having made my points clear, I will let someone else have a go.

Mr. Brazier: I am sure that the hon. Lady will not take it the wrong way when I say that she has provoked me into replying to one or two of the points she makes. In some respects, she has misunderstood what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk meant. I know several overseas adopters, one especially well, and it is difficult to exaggerate the hassle and difficulty that many of them have suffered when they have gone to local authorities. To suggest, based on the case she describes, that the problem is all on one side of the equation is to mistake the truth.

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