Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which resonates with what local authorities told us. They mentioned the need to move away from monitoring inputs and believing that ring-fencing always delivers results, to a position in which we fund social services properly and significantly, and monitor outcomes and local authorities' delivery.

Mr. Brazier: Although I strongly support that point, there is a parallel point to be made on overseas adoptions, which brings the debate back to the amendment. With all the Minister's assurances—her answer to my hon. Friend's question was yes—does she expect the current, extremely low level of overseas adoptions to stay the same, increase or decrease over the next few years?

Jacqui Smith: I am not sure that my answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was yes. The record will show my answer, rather than the hon. Member for Canterbury. It is difficult to give an answer to his question, but the trend is towards increasing intercountry adoptions, and that is likely to continue. That is why the need to provide intercountry adoption services has become a statutory duty and why we will be able to reassure hon. Members that those support services will be in place when we reach the relevant discussion.

The Opposition's argument seems to be that local authorities should be able, within the provisos set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, to use in appropriate circumstances independent social workers who, given the support that comes from the context of a local authority, could carry out appropriate assessments. That is not the point of the Opposition's amendment, but the position into which they seem to have been pushed in debate. Authorities may do that, as is highlighted in our regulations and guidance on intercountry adoption.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr.Llwyd) asked how we vet independent social workers. I shall deal with that general point in a moment.

Local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies contracting with independent social workers should check on their experience and qualifications in line with regulation 6(3) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983, which requires all agencies to satisfy themselves that social work staff have such experience and such qualifications as appropriate to the work. It is also, of course, a matter of good administrative practice. However, Opposition Members are not arguing that independent social workers could be contracted to carry out the work under the regulations; rather, they want to reinstate private home studies and give people the ability to choose—and presumably pay for—an independent social worker.

Mr. Bellingham: The Minister is absolutely right to remind me that I was referring to the position before the Oaten private Member's Bill. However, the amendment makes it clear that we are not returning to the pre-Oaten context when a private home study could be done by an independent social worker. It clearly specifies a qualified social worker approved by the local authorities. The Minister has just confirmed that local authorities can contract with the relevant skilled and qualified personnel: I am simply saying that ''agency'' can be included as well. The amendment would simply make that crystal clear in the Bill.

Jacqui Smith: Conservative Members have reined back on what I thought they were suggesting. In that case, given all the provisos that I have rightly stipulated, the hon. Gentleman's amendment may be unnecessary because local authorities can already do that. If the amendment means more than that, it could work against the safeguards that we want to put in place for children. Clause 88 makes it clear that only adoption agencies and those acting under High Court order may arrange adoptions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley right pointed out, that is because we must be able to regulate the assessment and approval process and ensure that all the necessary information and advice—including independent medical advice and access to enhanced police checks—is made available to those carrying out home studies. That is essential to achieving our aim of protecting all vulnerable children, living within or outside the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned the absence of a mechanism for approving social workers, though I was unsure whether he said that in support of the Conservative amendment. That is indeed a problem in the regulation of social workers. In 2002-03 the General Social Care Council, set up by the Government to overcome the problem, will begin to register qualified social workers. Given the different aspects of social work, however, we cannot guarantee that a social worker has the requisite skills and experience to work with children or in adoption services.

Through clause 88, the Bill provides the safeguard of ensuring that only local authorities or voluntary adoption agencies specialising in intercountry adoption can carry out these provisions, including the contracting to carry out home studies. That is the appropriate way of safeguarding children and placing them at the centre of the adoption process.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying various points. I referred to independent social workers and wonder whether they can form a new agency. If so, how will they be constituted and approved? I am not clear about that; perhaps it will be in the regulations.

Jacqui Smith: I am sorry for not addressing the hon. Gentleman's point. Private social workers who wish to band together to create an adoption agency would have to meet the usual requirements for establishing a voluntary adoption agency and would have to register with the social services inspectorate or, in the future, with the National Care Standards Commission to ensure that the structures, support, peer review, scrutiny and supervision are in place to enable the safeguards to work properly.

4.15 am

Mr. Bellingham: That is important, and I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point. What would the local authority's involvement be if couples or single people who wished to adopt from abroad went through an agency?

Jacqui Smith: As I said, clause 88 stipulates who can make arrangements for adoption and carry out home assessments. A couple could adopt through a voluntary adoption agency that was registered or allowed to do intercountry adoption work. I understand that there are four such agencies. In those circumstances, the provisions that I said do not come with a private home study—the placement, the adoption panel and other provisions—would be necessary. I do not believe that there would be any need for recourse to a local authority, given the safeguards that are in place for voluntary adoption agencies.

Mr. Bellingham: I am pleased to hear that, but we still have a problem. The Minister made it crystal clear that it is the Department's intention to encourage local authorities to use the pool of skilled independent social workers. However, as I am still keen to have that put in the Bill, I will not withdraw my amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division No. 3]

Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Loughton, Tim

Blackman, Mrs. Liz
Dawson, Mr. Hilton
Love, Mr. Andrew
Moran, Margaret
Munn, Ms Meg
Shaw, Mr. Jonathan R.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Winterton, Ms Rosie

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 158, in page 43, line 37, at end insert—

    ''(5) Where the adoption agency described in subsection (4) is not the local authority in which the British resident resides, the agency shall inform that local authority that an application under subsection (4)(a) has been made, so that the duties imposed on the local authority under section (Provision of adoption support services for children brought into the United Kingdom) may be exercised.''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following: Amendment No. 22, in clause 3, page 3, line 37, at end insert—

    ''(c) must extend to the provision of services covering intercountry adoption.''.

New clause 3— Provision of adoption support services for children brought into the United Kingdom—

    ''(1) In relation to a child brought into the United Kingdom for adoption where section 80 applies, each local authority must, at the request of—

    (a) the adopters or prospective adopters,

    (b) the child, or

    (c) any other person who falls within a description prescribed by regulations made under subsection (3)

    carry out an assessment of that person's needs for adoption support services.

    (2) Where, as a result of an assessment, a local authority decides that a person has needs for adoption support services under this section, they must then provide such services to that person.

    (3) Regulations—

    (a) shall prescribe the upper limit of any fees charged by a local authority to any person who engages in the actions described in section 80, in relation to those actions,

    (b) may prescribe the persons to be included within subsection 1(c).''.

Mr. Bellingham: Amendment No. 158 would add another subsection (5) to clause 80; it provides that when an overseas adoption takes place in one local authority, and the parents adopting are in another local authority, the support mechanisms must be in place and the local authority in question must inform the other local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will speak to new clause 3; I shall mention it briefly and speak to amendment No. 22, which affects clause 3. New clause 3 would make it crystal clear that in clause 3(3) the adoption and post-adoption arrangements must extend to the provision of services covering intercountry adoption. I want the Bill to include a requirement that couples or individuals who adopt from abroad will have the appropriate support. That is not in clause 3 as drafted, and I should be grateful if the Minister will explain why, or agree to accept the sensible new clause.

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