Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 94, in page 4, line 12, after 'needs', insert

'or the needs of connected persons'.

Despite the universal eulogies that we heard about clause 3, clause 4 may prove more central to the Bill. It certainly contains much more meat, hence we tabled several amendments to it. Amendment No. 95 is simple and harks back to the points that I made under amendment No. 64 to clause 3 about who can call for support services.

Clause 4(1) states that a local authority must respond to the request of persons mentioned in paragraphs (a) and (b). We are yet to be given the full identity of those people, which will be in regulations. At their request, a local authority must carry out an assessment of

    ''that person's needs for adoption support services.''

The point that I made before, and want to echo now, is that an adult might have spotted that someone in the connected persons list, which we do not have in full, is suffering in some way; typically, it might be the adopted child or a sibling of that child who is a minor, and who obviously needs support. As the clause stands, someone whose need for support has, for some reason, not been spotted by the professionals working with him or her can ask for that support only for himself or herself. I am sure that that is not what is intended, but a strict definition of the clause suggests that that would be the outcome.

The problem that we have with the clause—the next group of amendments will address this specifically—is connected to the large amount of regulation and requirement set down for assessments. We think that assessments are necessary, although we are not sure how detailed and time consuming they will be. Our fear is that, although much effort and scarce professional time will go into the assessments, there is no equivalent duty then to provide the support services that an assessment may identify as required.

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The amendment is helpful. It would mean that a person who identifies a need for support does not have to identify that need only for himself, but can do so for other connected persons.

Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman said, we are now discussing clause 4, which introduces a new right to an assessment for adoption support services. It delivers on the commitment made in the White Paper to give adoptive families a right to an assessment of their need for adoption support services from their local authority.

The clause goes yet further, extending the right to an assessment to everyone affected by adoption. The persons listed in clause 3(1) will all be entitled to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. They are children who may be adopted, their parents and guardians, prospective adopters and adopted people, their adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians. Additional persons will be prescribed in the regulations made under clause 4(1)(b), who will also have the new right to an assessment. The Government intend those people to include birth and adoptive siblings of adopted people and children who may be adopted.

The amendment would require the local authority, in addition to carrying out an assessment of needs for adoption support services of the person who has requested it, to carry out an assessment of the needs of connected persons. It does not make it clear who those connected persons might be, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman's concern is to ensure that the assessment is as broad as necessary to take into consideration any needs that might be identified.

The Government believe that the amendment is unnecessary. We intend that everyone affected by adoption should be able to approach their local authority for an assessment of their need for adoption support services, and clause 4 provides for that. In addition, parents can request an assessment on the child's behalf. In practice, the needs of adoptive families—adoptive children, their adoptive parents and any adoptive siblings—will be assessed together. It would not be appropriate for the child's needs to be assessed in isolation, so assessment will consider the needs of the family as a whole.

On the rare occasions when a child's needs are assessed in isolation, the local authority will consider the extent to which the people caring for that child have related needs. For example, to meet the needs of a physically disabled child, the adoptive parents might be assessed as requiring respite care. The provisions in clause 4 are flexible enough to allow for that, so there is no need for the amendment.

On that basis, and given the broad scope of those able to request assessment for adoption support and the way in which such assessments will be carried out, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels that the issues that he has raised are adequately dealt with.

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Tim Loughton: It is not entirely clear that what the Minister has described will happen, but I think that we are getting at the same point. She said that our amendment does not make it entirely clear who the ''connected persons'' are. That is right, and it will not become clear until the regulations are published. The wording is intended to mirror the wider family who have an interest in the adopted person. Such persons could include the child himself, siblings, grandparents, step-parents, birth parents and others.

We have been assured that the provision will be set out in greater detail in regulations. In using the phrase ''connected persons'' we do not seek to extend the range of people further than the regulations will in any case do, so the Minister need have no fears on that score. She rightly said that the clause and the regulations should be flexible enough to enable as many people as possible to approach the local authority. However, to be brutally frank, children, off their own bat, are not likely to approach the local authority and say, ''I've got a problem, and I need to have my adoption support service requirement assessed.'' Under the clause, somebody who is articulate enough or minded enough to say, ''I need this help now'' could not do that on behalf of someone who is not in that position.

As I have said, minors in particular, but also adults with mental disabilities—those who are not physically children but are of a lower mental age—are more likely to be in need of support services, but they may not have the ability, cause or gumption to ask for it. We ask only for the sealing of a loophole through which everybody could find a route to securing those support services. If the Minister can reassure me that the clause prevents that, my amendment is unnecessary, but I want to hear a little more from her to suggest that we are thinking along the same lines.

Jacqui Smith: I have outlined the range of people who will be able to ask for an assessment. If the hon. Gentleman's concern is the extent to which an advocate outside that list will be able to request an assessment for adoption support services, I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks. However, he raises an important point about the extent to which someone else could ask for an assessment. I can assure him that a child could request an assessment under subsection (1) and that the parents of a child who is not competent could request an assessment on behalf of the child.

6.45 pm

Tim Loughton: I hope that the Minister will be a little more forthcoming if I give her a practical example. An adopted child could have a mentally impaired birth grandparent or a young sibling who, for various reasons, was having trouble coming to terms with a continued relation with that child. Given that they were not living in the same home as the adopted child, who would instigate support services for them if the adoptive parent saw that there was a problem affecting the child? For obvious reasons, the two people whom

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I mentioned would be unlikely to be able to go to the local authority to say, ''I need this support service now.''

Jacqui Smith: As I said, although an assessment might be requested by one person, it would in practice involve the whole family and any other people who were affected by the adoption. Clearly, it would not be appropriate for the child's needs to be assessed in isolation; the assessment would need to consider the needs of the family as a whole. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue about advocacy and the route into the assessment process for people who are unable to access it themselves.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I want to make a related point without returning to this morning's discussions about geographical definitions. The Bill relates to England and Wales. In Wales, the Children's Commissioner for Wales has a certain advocacy role. Just by chance I happen to have the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 in front of me. Section 4(5) refers to

    ''complaints or representations made to the person by or on behalf of a child about services provided in Wales to or in respect of the child.''

Does the Minister envisage that the Children's Commissioner will have a role to play in this context?

Jacqui Smith: I do not envisage that the Children's Commissioner will have the title role envisaged under this part of the Bill by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, but clearly the representative role may be significant in raising issues around services that a child might have received. That would not however solve the problem described by the hon. Gentleman of a person acting as an alternative route into an assessment for someone who is unable to access it for themselves.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised an important point, and I undertake to write to him about the specific examples that he cited. The Government intend that people should have the right to access assessments, and we need to consider the implications for those who might be unable to make that approach directly. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by what I have said, or will be so later in Committee, and that he will withdraw his amendment.

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