Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Llwyd: I am mindful that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will speak at length to new clause 3.

One great fault in the present situation is the huge variation in the availability and quality of adoption services. It is almost like postcode prescribing, which means that the availability of drugs depends on where one lives in the United Kingdom. An underlying theme of the Bill, much of which I welcome, is its attempt to create a uniformity of good practice and service. The upper limit on fees charged by local authorities in new clause 3(3) is most welcome because—I find it incredible—fees vary between £5,000 and £16,000, depending on the local authority where one resides. It is unsatisfactory that there should be such a wide variation, and a uniform approach is needed.

Whether it is an intercountry or a domestic adoption, people should be able to build into the equation the exact figure that they will have to lay out for the adoption services. A system that allows variations from £5,000 to £16,000, depending on where one resides, is inequitable and unfair and I hope that if the Government cannot accept the new clause they will give a proper response to that huge divergence, which creates unfairness in many areas.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Clerk for helping me to draft new clause 3 so that it can be included in this section of the Bill. It is relevant to intercountry adoption but it specifies matters relevant to adoption services and home studies, which would normally come under clauses 2 to 16, which we shall discuss next week. I want to talk in broad terms about the reasons behind the specific provisions in the new clause and some of the general problems of intercountry adoption.

I welcome the fact that the Minister said that intercountry adoption was an extremely valuable placement choice, but as I said about an earlier clause, that is not necessarily the impression gained by people outside the House. Other hon. Members will also have received a submission to the Committee from the North American Connection, a group involved in adoption between the UK and the United States. The group's comments echo some of the remarks from other practitioners in the field. The submission, from Cynthia Carnegie, the chairman of the group, states:

    ''We are, however, concerned about the attitude towards intercountry adoption that this Bill conveys and the tone used by several MPs during the Bill's second reading. There is little in this Bill to encourage intercountry adopters in the belief that their choice is 'government-approved', despite the declared desire of the Government to ratify the Hague Convention and despite provisions that compel Local Authorities to provide home studies for such prospective adopters. Instead, the broad message that it sends is that such adopters are underhanded, suspicious people, who would only exploit children.''

I am sure that is not the case but it is a perception that has been created and we need to tackle it.

The numbers also bear out some of the suspicions in Cynthia Carnegie's submission. Some 25,000 international adoptions take place every year, the vast majority of which—15,000-odd—are in the United States. In France, a country with a population comparable to our own, the figure is 3,600; in Norway, which has a population of 4 million, the figure is 600, yet the number of applications for intercountry adoptions in this country is between 300 and 350. There seems to be a disproportionate difference between our record on intercountry adoption and that of other countries, many of which are close to us. The figures do not bear out the Minister's suggestion that intercountry adoption is favoured as an extremely valuable placement choice by the Government or anyone else.

The terms of the draft regulations for implementing the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 cast doubt on the seriousness of the Government or the system to promote intercountry adoption. Paragraph 29 of the costs and benefits section of the draft regulations states:

    ''There will also be some small additional burdens placed on local government''—

it is in order to promote intercountry adoption—

    ''and it may be difficult to build the capacity needed to deliver the service required. Overall most additional costs are expected to be minimal and are likely to be met by prospective adopters.''

Paragraph 32 states:

    ''The Bill also allows for the review of the designated list. It has always been the policy intention to review the designated list once the UK had ratified the Hague Convention. However, it has become clear that this cannot happen without changes in the primary legislation as the removal of a country from the list would automatically remove recognition of adoptions made prior to the review of the designated list. This would then undermine the status of children (and adults) adopted in the past from countries included on the list and would not be acceptable.''

We shall come to that matter in the clause. There is a question mark over funding and the capacity of adoption agencies to cope with any great expansion of intercountry adoptions.

As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, adoption agencies have highlighted the problems of complexity and cost of home study assessments, and the lack of adoption support services available to people who bring in children from abroad for adoption.

4.30 pm

The Bill helpfully makes it clear that local authorities must provide home studies. It continues to allow the payment of fees for that service, which is understandable. The problem is that home study assessments can cost as much as £6,000 in some areas. In West Sussex, my local authority, the charge is £1,750. In neighbouring Surrey, it is zero. Childlink, a voluntary adoption society in London, charges £4,000. On top of that, there are legal fees and fees for other professional services.

Even if the Government are unwilling to waive the fee system, surely it would be fair to cap that cost. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is an enormous divergence in the amount of money charged, depending on where one happens to live. Although it is not supposed to be the case, those fees could, to some eyes, be liable to an interpretation of profiteering. There is also no real provision for help or advice beyond the home study.

Mr. Llwyd: I know that a response is due from the Minister on profiteering. The hon. Gentleman is right. What external evaluation is there of an authority's costs? Is there a body that decides whether such costs are reasonable in the circumstances, and is there some substance to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there is an element of profiteering?

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for that intervention. Although I am not suggesting that there is some sort of racket, if a certain authority charges £1,000 and a neighbouring authority charges £2,000, unless it is a loss leader in every social services department that provides that service, certain local authorities will obviously make a profit from it. After all, the overhead costs of providing the home study assessment cannot be greatly different for each local authority, even if they are at opposite ends of the country.

That profit will no doubt be used to offset other parts of the social services budget, which may seem perfectly reasonable. However, the person who loses out is the prospective adopter who needs to be encouraged, as we all agree. It seems very unfair that there should be a postcode lottery on charging for the service. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how that service is regulated, because it appears not to be. The Government need to consider the different charging structures that exist up and down the country.

Mr. Shaw: That is market forces.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is a strange convert to market forces, and I cannot see what great market forces operate between Surrey and West Sussex to justify such a large differential in the cost charge.

Mr. Shaw: Let me set the record straight. I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not favour those market forces. The idea that the state should impose a particular level runs counter to what we normally hear from Conservatives.

Tim Loughton: I am all in favour of market forces and I am certainly in favour of regulators who are there to regulate monopoly providers. Adoption agencies—local authorities—are monopoly providers in this case, because they have to provide the home studies, so market forces cannot operate in the current set-up. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not appreciate that.

The second point of the new clause relates to adoption services. The problem is that there is no real provision of help or advice beyond the home study. Prospective adopters will still be on their own, battling with the bureaucracies of two countries: their own and the country of origin of the child whom they are hoping to adopt. How are people to find reliable contacts and agencies abroad when there is so little official help on offer? Does not the very lack of help mean that people with the best possible intentions are vulnerable to those who might want to exploit them? Does it not lead them into danger?

We have heard about the supposed change, and how local authorities are now more open to intercountry adoptions. The evidence—certainly the figures have not risen appreciable in recent years—does not suggest that this is the case. Although there is a requirement to offer home studies by local authorities, many put such applicants to the bottom of the list because, understandably, they believe that their priority is the child in their care.

People applying for intercountry adoptions have had to wait an inordinate amount of time, sometimes up to two years, just for the start of the home study and some find it virtually impossible to get one at all. The Minister mentioned that only four registered voluntary agencies are able to conduct home studies independently for overseas applications. I gather that two them, both in London, have recently announced that they will no longer be doing so, so the problem is getting worse.

The problems of somebody dealing with another country are many. They have to deal with agencies operating from other countries, most notably in the United States. They have to deal with countries direct even though they have insufficient experience of the system and probably cannot speak the language fluently enough. They have to employ a go-between, a facilitator, with no protection offered to the applicants or the child and they have to find and commission lawyers, social workers and other link professionals to identify the child and take the process through the courts, again with no protection offered.

Beyond the scope of new clause 3, the Government might consider encouraging, and offering start-up help to, voluntary agencies who can offer a complete service to adopters. Many other countries in Scandinavia, mainland Europe and the United States run extremely good and very different organisations that offer safeguards to children and adults.

We could also look at the inclusion of clauses in the Bill that allow local authorities to commission home studies from Britons living abroad and social workers working overseas such as those working for the US intercountry adoption agencies, for example.

It is also fair to say that the home studies process for intercountry adoption is cumbersome. One has to go by the local authority route. The local authority then rightly organises applicants' attendance at introductory meetings and training sessions. Some local authorities will demand medical reports and police checks before starting the assessment process. When that starts a social worker visits the people involved in their home and lengthy interviews ensue.

I am not criticising the thoroughness of that procedure but in some local authorities the requests for paper work from all and sundry seem to be rather excessive compared to other authorities.

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