Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: That is exactly right. The hon. Gentleman backs up my point. It is odd that the system of adoption allowances is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill or in the explanatory notes. This might not be the most appropriate time to raise the matter, because the clause deals with adoption support services as well as the financial support for that. However, it is an appropriate juncture at which to ask these questions so that the Minister, in responding, can reveal some of the Government's thinking about issues that go hand in hand with the subject we are discussing.

Mr. Brazier: It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether there is any other clause that would allow us to debate the subject more fully. So far as I can tell, my hon. Friend is right—there is no other point at which we shall be able to discuss what more than half the members of the Committee are on record as having said is one of the key issues in adoption.

Tim Loughton: We await the Minister's reply on whether she thinks that my proposed amendment would be useful and whether it will be possible to discuss the issue at another stage.

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The other specific point that surprised me was that allowances—certainly those for fostering—tend not to reflect the complexity of the problems that an adopted child might have. Instead, they are usually geared to reflect the qualifications and experience of the parent who is taking on the responsibility. That is certainly the case in West Sussex: the county has various top-up schemes but, in effect, a foster parent is paid an allowance based on his or her qualifications and experience. I do not suggest that they are in it for the money, but foster parents can get the best deal by being as highly trained and qualified as possible, but taking on the least complex child possible.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): My understanding of the schemes under which parents are paid according to their experience is that that is done precisely to ensure that children with complex needs are placed with foster parents who have the greatest skills to undertake the required task. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that a foster parent who has the highest skills would opt to take on the easiest child is nonsense in terms of the design of those schemes.

Tim Loughton: It is not nonsense. I am not suggesting that it is the norm; I am saying that it can and does happen in practice. It would be pointless and counterproductive if all the extra resources went into training potential foster parents so that they could take on especially complex or older children, but they did not actually do that. My point is that there is no compulsion on them to do it—there is no direct link with the money. Because foster parents are in such short supply in certain parts of the country, they can call the shots to a large extent: if they are minded to take on the easier children and they are paid at the higher rate, they can do so.

The hon. Lady frowns. That might not be the case in the part of the country in which she practised, but it is the experience in other parts of the country, including my constituency, that such things can happen. It is strange that the money does not closely reflect the complexities of the child, but instead focuses on the foster parents.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): The hon. Gentleman is talking about enhancements for foster carers. In my experience, certain foster carers are identified after having provided a service to a local authority for a long time; the local authority invests in those foster carers by training them and so on; they will then be entitled to those enhancements to deal with the complex cases that they are expected to take on. The hon. Gentleman says that that does not always happen, but that is a matter of the management of foster carers and the available resources. The situation he describes is certainly not the norm; it is an exception—or even an anomaly. An anomaly is not a good example when speaking about allowances for adoptive parents

Tim Loughton: I agree with the hon. Gentleman; that is what I expected to find. However, I am talking not about enhancements but about the allowances that

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are paid automatically to foster parents. Enhancements are paid on top of that in kind and through various other fees.

We are getting away from the point. We are supposed to be talking about adoption support services. Subsection (6) refers to the form that adoption support services might take. I understand that the allowances paid to adoptive parents must not contain an element of profit: they are not meant to subsidise income but are to pay for the child's basic needs. Fostering allowances, however, offer an income as well as paying the day-to-day costs of looking after the child. Financial support for adoption support services usually pays for petrol to convey the child to various professional services and for adaptations to the family car if the child has a disability. It might also pay for youth activities and membership of youth clubs or other group that might be deemed appropriate. In a minority of cases, adoptive parents may pay directly for therapeutic services, such as speech therapy, although such services are largely provided by the local authority—either directly or contracted out—and the parents receive no money.

The amendment has generated rather more interest than I expected. There seem to be a lot of questions, but the main fact to emerge is the enormous diversity in the ways in which people are treated in different parts of the country. My experience is rather different from that of other hon. Members who have first-hand experience. The variation in adoption services, whether professional services, services in kind or financial allowances and top-ups, is a postcode lottery. If we are to bring about continuity and minimum standards, we need a rather broader spread of the quality benchmark that we are trying to achieve.

When the Minister responds to the debate, perhaps she would deal with those aspects that are probably more appropriate to the wording of the clause, which deals with what finances may be paid in lieu of adoption support services in order to buy adoption support services. Will she also touch upon the whole issue of adoption allowances, including fostering allowances, or at least indicate a more appropriate time when we might more usefully raise that subject and have a meaningful debate?

Jacqui Smith: It is important that I have an opportunity to spell out the Government's thinking on financial support. It would be possible for us to debate the matter when we discuss clause 4—[Interruption.] My hon. Friends are not sure that they want further debate on clause 4, but clause 4 of the Bill will enable us to discuss the matter in greater detail if we want to.

Clause 2(6) provides that adoption support services will include counselling, advice and information in connection with adoption and other services as prescribed in regulations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the list of adoption support services set out in the regulations will include financial support. The amendment provides that the list of adoption support services included in regulations must include financial support, but I hope that I can assure him that that is unnecessary.

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We have already committed ourselves to improving the availability of financial support for adoptive families. The hon. Gentleman referred to the White Paper ''Adoption: A New Approach'', which refers in some detail, on page 41, to financial support. It highlights the fact that

    ''support may be provided financially, in the form of adoption allowances.''

It states:

    ''The Government will introduce new legislation''—

as we are doing now—

    ''to set out a new legal framework for adoption allowances''

and to establish the principles on which those allowances will be based. They should be:

    ''available for adopted children and their new families; for needs specific to adoptive families; to help the placement to last; for needs that cannot be met elsewhere; flexible to meet immediate, ongoing, and future needs; fairly awarded, taking into account the family's ability to meet the needs of the child financially.''

The White Paper adds that new framework obviously needs to be fair and flexible, and I shall return to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) outlined various different forms that financial support could take, and he is right. As we said in the White Paper, we envisage that

    ''Councils will be able to pay adoption allowances as a one-off payment''—

for example to cover an extension to a house in the case of a family who adopt a group of siblings—

    ''as a time-limited payment'',

which might cover the cost of some therapies, such as counselling,

    ''or as an ongoing payment'',

perhaps to cover the cost of visits to birth families as part of contact arrangements.

The hon. Members for Canterbury and for East Worthing and Shoreham both mentioned means-testing and the discrepancies in different parts of the country. The White Paper states our belief that

    ''The current system of means tests is unfair and varies across the country.''

A key role for the new framework will be to

''set out a more consistent approach to means-testing. However, in future, more services will be provided as post adoption support, so families will have to meet fewer needs out of their own pocket.''

That is worth bearing in mind when we consider the balance between financial and other forms of adoption support.

We promised in the White Paper to develop a new national framework for adoption support services and financial support. We are currently developing the framework with the co-operation of a stakeholder group, including representatives of some of the organisations to which the hon. Gentlemen referred, and we intend to publish the framework for consultation in the spring. We will then finalise the framework in the light of responses to the consultation before publishing the draft regulations for consultation.

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