Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Munn: I fear that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I did not suggest that the problem was all on one side of the equation. We know that many local authorities have been reluctant to take on intercountry adopters, for the good reason that they are trying to place many children for adoption and they naturally want to encourage people to consider adopting a child who is waiting for a prospective adopter in the looked-after system. I do not disagree with that approach. However, the Government are trying to make it easier for people to take up intercountry adoption. Attitudes have changed during the past few years.

Mr. Brazier: I understand that, but I still think that the hon. Lady misses the point. All members of the Committee acknowledge that social services departments are currently extremely short of resources. Even if the Government were to give them an unlimited budget tomorrow, shortages in number of social workers would continue leave them short of resources for a long time. Of course departments have the attitude that she mentioned—they strive to do the best they can for looked-after children, and in those circumstances they do not want to divert resources to intercountry adoption. That is precisely the reason for the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk.

If I understood my hon. Friend correctly, what he said should not be terribly controversial. He said that it is the quality of service or regulation applied that is important, not who provides it. No doubt, the Minister will tell him that the amendment is defective because it does not lay down a system for properly checking on the relevant social workers. However, operating some form of check on social workers would require far less local authority time than taking on extra work in adoption and other matters. The cynical truth is that, in practice, local authorities would not be able to take on that work, and it would become even harder to adopt children from overseas.

I have spoken many times on the Floor of the House about my enthusiasm for getting children in care adopted, and I have always supported the Bill. To the best of my memory, this is the first time that I have ever spoken on the subject of intercountry adoption. My concern is for British kids in care, some in institutions but more in fostering placements who are all too often moved rapidly from place to place. However, in a presentation in a Committee Room in another place last year, I heard a lady—I think that she was a noble Lady—describe the testimony of a family that had started an adoption procedure when they discovered a group of babies that had been fed to pigs in a third-world country; I believe that it was Vietnam. An intervention was made in time to recover the last baby before it was eaten. The child has now been adopted and is in this country.

No one has the right to adopt a child, and obviously not all cases are as extreme as the one that I described, but almost every child adopted by a loving family in this country has a much better chance in life than they would have had if they had remained in the circumstances from which they were adopted. The idea that local authorities, which are so overstretched, can resource this practice properly and provide the timely, unstressful and affordable assessments that are needed seems completely unrealistic. The Minister may correct me, but I believe that there will be no other avenue open to intercountry adopters—I think that I saw the Minister nodding.

Jacqui Smith: Not me.

Mr. Brazier: I apologise to the Minister and give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley.

Ms Munn: I fear that the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of local social services is outdated. Significant changes have been made in intercountry adoption, and guidance has been issued during the past two years. I do not want to over-generalise, but the attitudes in the two local authorities in which I have worked within the past five years was considerably different; there was no delay. The Government have put large additional sums into adoption through the quality protects programme, so that area of work is much better resourced.

I must also point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is no less costly—in fact, I suggest that it would be more costly—to bring in a private social worker, because not only does the local authority have to pay for that out of its own resources, but it has to spend time regulating and checking that social worker's work. I think that the hon. Gentleman is in error.

Mr. Brazier: Some parts of the hon. Lady's intervention—I am as grateful as ever—cover old ground, but I pick up one point. We must not allow confusion. It is and undeniable and extremely welcome truth that the attitude towards adoption in many local authorities has changed for the better. As little as two or three years ago, the league tables showed that only about 10 or 15 per cent. of authorities handled adoption properly. A large proportion of authorities—by no means all, alas, but a much larger proportion—are now doing their best.

That much is undeniable, but the hon. Lady confuses that with the fact that the number of social workers available is shrinking. Two or three years ago, social work departments were overstretched; they are now even more stretched. The extra money that she referred to is extremely welcome, but it is not ring-fenced.

Ms Munn: Again, I fear that the hon. Gentleman is in error. It is indeed ring-fenced, in expectation that a significant proportion of money from the quality protects grant is spent on adoption. Although it is no doubt true that there has been a loss of social workers generally, adoption is usually an area in which social workers want to work and there is, as a result, no lack of staff.

Mr. Brazier: I am not going around the subject again, but whenever I have debated adoption—not only in Westminster, but on the airwaves two or three years ago, in the days when the social work climate was very different—I always came up against the resource argument. Social workers are in even shorter supply now than they were two or three years ago. The proportion of social workers who are fully qualified to deal with children has risen slightly, but it is still a long way short of what is needed. Local authorities will have to handle every case of intercountry adoption, yet many of them are already struggling to deal with the children in their own care.

I wish to make only one other point, because we cannot dwell on this amendment for ever—perhaps an Opposition Whip should not have been the one to say that. There is evidence of a growing and welcome consensus that the quality of a service is much more important than who provides it. The Government's recent announcements on the national health service and the use of private hospitals are a good example. I commend the amendments and look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

3.45 pm

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Several times, Opposition Members have said that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley is missing the point. She is not. Within social work, adoption is a popular field to work in.

The hon. Member for Canterbury spoke about resources and delays within the adoption system. The children and family social workers who are attached to the child are responsible for carrying out assessments. The adoption workers find prospective adopters and suggest a match. The shortages are at the front end—in the children and family sector. Shortages may not be in evidence at at the back end, where the adoption workers are. The proposition that additional private sector social workers will somehow fill a gap is simply false.

Local authorities can use private sector social workers in specific circumstances—to undertake child-focused or therapeutic work, for example. They can do so now and will continue to do so. Crucial aspects of a good adoption procedure are security of information and a good supervisory regime, so that social workers undertaking home visits have a clearly established professional relationship that is open to scrutiny by an agency. Prospective adopters are being interviewed not by an individual, but by an approved adoption agency or institution. That is the crucial safeguard against collusive relationships. The Kilshaw example shows that that is where the dangers lie.

Mr. Brazier: If the hon. Gentleman's first point about the absence of resource constraints on adoption workers is correct, he has reached the heart of a party political divide—probably the first we have seen in this Committee—in saying that the social services department rather than an individual makes the choice.

The Committee had to accept earlier that private fostering could not be regulated. Yet, as my own constituency shows, huge numbers of schoolchildren can stay in this country with families whose members have been revealed by random police checks to include abusers or criminals. Why, then, should individuals who wish to provide homes for these children not be subject to a properly qualified social worker of their choice?

Mr. Shaw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about private foster carers. I am on record as having spoken about that issue time and again, and I hope that we can debate it in greater detail later in the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister agrees, so before I make myself unpopular again, I shall move on.

The crucial matter is supervision and security of assessment. It is not an ideological issue: I am comfortable with the concept of private adoption agencies. It is not a case of private and public, good and bad. When a home visit assessment is undertaken, the atmosphere is understandably emotional. A couple may be desperate for a child that they were not able to conceive naturally; that is sad and painful, but it is part of the atmosphere. If the person who makes the assessment is not subject to checks, balances, reviews and peer supervision, a dangerous collusive relationship may arise. Social work is not a pure science: much of social work and working with children takes place in a world of grey areas, but the best possible assessment must be made.

I support the Government, although I have tabled amendments when I did not support them. In my experience, adoption is not about recruitment. It is important that assessments are carried out by people who are subject to checks and balances. Because of the importance of supervision, the Government are right to take a precautionary line. I agree that other people could provide a service, but precaution is the important guiding principle. The amendments should be rejected.

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Prepared 6 December 2001