Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Llwyd: In connection with means-testing, the Minister raised an important issue that requires examination. She was right to say that greater fairness needs to be introduced into the system. Is the implication of her remark that there will be less means-testing, not more? It is evident that there must be a change from the status quo if the system is to be improved.

Jacqui Smith: The problem with the current system is not the amount of means-testing, but the variations in it, which we must try to get rid of when we design the framework. However, given that we are working out how to target support most effectively, I am not sure that I agree with what I suspect is the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question—that we should avoid means-testing. We should have a coherent system of means-testing.

The other point raised by hon. Members is the interaction between adoption allowance and the tax and benefits system. Clearly, we need to ensure that that interaction does not undermine the tax and benefits system and recognises people's needs for financial adoption support.

As I was saying, after consultation, we will publish the draft regulations on adoption support and financial support that will be provided for under clauses 2, 3 and 4. That will enable us to ensure consistency; I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that consistency is lacking in the current system. The framework must cover detailed circumstances, so it is important that it receives careful consideration and that we consult widely. We must get it right, so that it ensures both consistency in the system and the appropriate level of support.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Does my hon. Friend see any principled reason why there should be any distinction between the way that adoption and fostering allowances are paid, either to support the needs of the child or the adopter's skills?

Jacqui Smith: The relationship between foster care allowances and adoption allowances and some of the questions that have been raised about disincentives are key issues that we will consider when we develop the new framework. That work is already under way with stakeholders who have a detailed understanding of that relationship.

If hon. Members need more certainty—I hope that they do not—let me assure them that the Govt are serious about ensuring that financial support is available and is consistent. The national adoption standards make it clear that children and adopters are entitled to have access to a range of adoption support services, including financial support. For those hon. Members who are keen on homework, I draw their attention to the national adoption standards, in particular to paragraphs A12, C3 and D7, all of which emphasise the importance of financial support and

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assistance. Given those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful, but I am not sure that we are any closer to an explanation than we were when we started to discuss the amendment. I did not detect any hint of an answer to the reasonable question—which I had asked previously—asked by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

The Minister slightly missed the point. She agreed with me on the great diversity in sums awarded in different parts of the country in relation to various services and allowances. She said that the means-testing procedure would need to be examined because of those variations, but my understanding is that there is no variation in means testing. The Benefit Agency rules on how adoption allowances are dealt with vis-a-vis foster care allowances. That does not vary—it is the one bit of consistency in the whole formula. However, the cases are treated, on the face of it, unfairly in terms of what the Bill is intended to achieve. The sums paid by different authorities vary enormously. We have all identified that problem. The means-testing treatment of those sums is standard; it is only the sums themselves that vary. The Minister did not respond properly to that concern.

The Government need more time to sort out how to deal with the problem—the issue is big. They can do it by amending the regulations that we expect to be published in the spring, so I doubt that we will get much more out of Ministers before then. However, the Minister assures us that financial support services are very much in the Government's frame of thinking. On that basis, it would not serve the Committee's purpose to pursue the matter further. However, by raising it now we have drawn to the Minister's attention to how important we, and many people who have made representations to us, think it is. We hope that she will make good the undertakings that she has given to us by ensuring that they appear in the appropriate place in the regulations later next year, by which time we will have finished scrutinising the Bill. On that basis, and because the amendment was only intended to be probing, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Maintenance of adoption service

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I beg to move amendment No. 175, in page 3, line 31, leave out 'and'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 176, in page 3, line 32, after 'services', insert—


    (c) for the co-ordination of any services identified in 4(9).'.

Sandra Gidley: The amendment is a probing one that attempts to clarify who, if anyone, will have overall responsibility for co-ordinating the complete

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needs of the child. Much has been made of the fact that the child is at the centre of the Bill, and many Members have emphasised that many of the children being put up for adoption today have a range of complex needs.

We will discuss clause 4 at a later date, but I share the opinion already expressed that it is one of the most controversial clauses in the Bill. I, too, think that the child is present in name only, and that the necessary financial support is not always provided for. The clause also places no onus on health authorities and local education authorities to provide the practical support that may be identified as necessary. I note from the amendment paper that many Opposition Members feel strongly about these issues, so in the spirit of optimism, I hope that clause 4 will be amended.

Once needs have been identified, not all of them will fall neatly under the headings of ''national health service'', ''social services'' and ''education''. Some will fall into a grey area, and many children will require a multi-agency approach. If parents are trying to get the best for their adopted children and there is a problem, they may find themselves being passed from one agency to another. Buck passing, or budget passing, could be elevated to an art form.

Those of us who had problems with flooding last year will remember what happens when several agencies are involved in solving a problem but none has overall responsibility. People end up being passed from one to the other to try to get to the bottom of the matter. What is really needed is a way to get everybody in one place under somebody who has overall responsibility. It is not clear whether social services has a legal responsibility to take the lead in co-ordinating any other services that might be identified.

Mr. Shaw: I understand the thrust of the hon. Lady's argument, but does she accept that prospective adopters or adoptive parents do not always want to be in the social services system, especially if the adopted child has come from an abusive background? It is not always appropriate for social services to co-ordinate post-adoption services. It is essential that adoptive parents have confidence in whoever is co-ordinating services, and sometimes one step removed will be more satisfactory for prospective or adoptive parents.

Sandra Gidley: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Some people do not have confidence in social services. However, the point remains that nobody seems to have been identified at any stage as having overall responsibility; the role seems naturally to fall to social services because it is involved in most of the work prior to adoption. However, it strikes me powerfully that there should be somebody who can co-ordinate matters and who can be identified as being completely on the side of the parents.

I accept that some parents might believe that co-ordinator should not be social services, but there should be somebody who has an advocacy role, or powers to bring everything together. If there is a problem with social services, perhaps somebody else can be identified to take on the role. The drafting suggests that an adoptive parent will have to fight

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many battles on many different fronts. I hope that that will not be the case, although in practice it is sometimes so. Will the Minister clarify how these issues will be worked out in practice? Who will take the lead and who will have the overall responsibility for ensuring that the needs of the children have been identified and that they have access to the services that they need?

Jacqui Smith: Clause 3 requires each local authority to continue to provide an adoption service in its area. The local authority adoption service must be designed to meet the needs of children who may be adopted, their parents, guardians and prospective adopters, and of adopted people, their adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians. That is a much wider group than that covered by the equivalent provision in the Adoption Act 1976, which does not include adopted adults, their parents and their former guardians.

As part of their adoption service, local authorities must make and participate in arrangements for the adoption of children and for the provision of adoption support services. For the first time, the Bill places on them a clear duty to make and participate in such arrangements and to provide such services. That new duty will tackle the inconsistency in the availability of adoption support services across the country. As the Government set out in the White Paper, improved availability of adoption support services will help to improve the success of adoptive placements and encourage more people to come forward to adopt and look after children.

5.15 pm

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) is concerned about the need for co-ordination. The clause will oblige local authorities to provide their adoption service in conjunction with their other social services and with voluntary adoption agencies in their area, so that services are provided in a co-ordinated manner and without delay. They will be able to make arrangements with registered adoption societies and other persons specified in regulations to provide services on their behalf. Local authorities greatly value the experience and expertise of voluntary adoption agencies, and we expect the current arrangements to continue whereby adoption agencies provide adoption support independently or on behalf of some local authorities.

The hon. Lady raised the specific issue of co-ordination. Clause 3 is intended to set out the requirements for the adoption service provided by local authorities. To that extent, it would not be appropriate within the clause to place requirements on local authorities to make them participate in arrangements to co-ordinate services with health and education providers. However, the Government are committed to ensuring the joined-up planning and provision of adoption support services—

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