Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Llwyd: When I attended the evidence sittings, I found it useful. We received several memorandums from people expert in the field, and I find it unacceptable that the Government are not addressing the areas identified by those concerned and knowledgeable individuals.

I refer to what Barnardo's said. The evidence given by that organisation clearly states that

    ''provisions contained in clause 4 do give rise to considerable concern. The right to an assessment of their needs will be available to children and families but the local authority is then under no obligation to provide any of the services that it may have decided are needed.''

That is rather illogical. The Bill tries to introduce uniformity across England and Wales in the delivery of adoption services, and hopes to instil best practice, but it does not make a great deal of sense for clause 3 to impose a duty to carry out an assessment if a local authority can decide not to act on it. Together with the question of adoption by unmarried couples and access to information, that area attracted the most attention from the various bodies that gave evidence.

We should remind ourselves of some of the things said to us by some of those knowledgeable people about the services and what is required from them. The ATD Fourth World memorandum states:

    ''Section 4(4) only places a duty on a local authority to decide whether to provide any services to that person. It is recognised by all parties, including the Department of Health, that adopted children, birth parents and adoptive parents all need support. Support services should be on offer to everyone involved who can take them up as they see fit for their own individual circumstances.

    The provision of—not the assessment for—adoption support services should be a statutory duty on local authorities and therefore included in the Bill.''

The argument is developed further.

The Adoption Forum memorandum states:

    ''One of the laudable aims of this Bill is to bring adoption/permanency support into the front line. Adoptions that fail do so because families feel unable to cope and support has been all but impossible to find and fund. If the rate of success is to be improved—and it is difficult to see why there would be much point in upping adoption figures unless adoptions are going to succeed—then there must be help available.''

The memorandum then describes some of the contents of clause 4. On the subject of giving help, it continues:

    ''It seems to us that families are the foremost experts on whether and when they need it; they recognise when they are in crisis and unable to deal with the child. The danger of not providing support at the time of request is that the placement/adoption may break down irretrievably, to the great damage of all concerned and probably great expense to the state in the longer term.

    There are of course degrees of adoption support: some, possibly the major part, will be reasonably easily resolved within a short time, necessitating in the main experienced counselling. Other families will need longer term, more profound assistance with an input from other areas such as health and education—as is made clear in the Bill.

    If families have to go to their LA for assessment they are very likely to find themselves involved in a very long process: waiting for assessment, the assessment, waiting for a decision, waiting again while the LA decide to act on their decision and so on. This could take months, by which time the adoption well may have broken down.

    Given that assessors will have to possess the same finely-honed skills (which are in short supply) as those offering the support itself, surely they would be put to better use in providing it rather than assessing?''

The Adoption Forum also asks,

    ''—What if the LA says yes, you need support but we have no staff to do it?

    —What if the LA says no?''

10 am

Mr. Shaw: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about unmarried couples and birth records, but he is referring to issues of policy and resources. Does he not agree that decisions about spending priorities and allocation of resources should be made by the local authority? If the tap flows continuously in one area of policy, that will affect other areas. I do not accept what he said about there being a queue.

Mr. Llwyd: What worries me is that, as we all agreed previously, some local authorities are failing. That may be due to problems of resources or to other things, but it seems to me that these provisions may be a recipe for further failure. The local authority will be able to say that it could not provide the service because it did not have sufficient resources. I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument, which is logical, but the clause seems to provide a get-out.

Ms Munn: Given that, as we have heard, it is better for children who are looked after for a long time to be adopted—which is generally also cheaper in the long run—is there not an incentive for social services or adoption agencies to ensure that adoption support services are provided to maintain an adoption, rather than the child having to return to being looked after, which is the more expensive option?

Mr. Llwyd: I am sure that the hon. Lady is right because she has considerable experience in the area. In a perfect world, that would be true, but it does not alter the fact that the perception among all the experts who gave evidence is that there is a problem with clause 4. I agree with them.

The memorandum from Adoption UK also states:

    ''The Prime Minister's Review of Adoption and the subsequent White Paper acknowledged that children adopted from the care system will have experienced neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, frequent changes of carer as well as other challenging life events:

    '67 per cent. of looked after children have an identifiable mental health problem'.

    Parenting these children is a rewarding but challenging task and one which must be adequately supported. Without good adoption support, adoptive placements are highly vulnerable to disruption.''

That is obvious. Adoption UK goes on to say:

    ''We welcome some of the changes to Clause 4 and are delighted that adoption support includes all those affected by adoption.

    We do not believe that adoption placements will necessarily be supported if backed by a legal duty to provide an 'assessment of needs for adoption support services' ''.

That goes to the core of this debate. It continues:

    ''Our 30 years experience of supporting adoptive families has shown us that these families need access to the actual provision of support post-placement and post-adoption, not simply an assessment to determine the nature of that support.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 168–352.]

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): All members of the Committee will have sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said and with the views of those doing the relevant work, but if we are to write blank cheques to support families with children, should not the first of those be written for children living with their birth families? Perhaps fewer children would then be in care.

Mr. Llwyd rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman resumes, I request that quotations be kept as short as is consistent with making his point.

Mr. Llwyd: I accept that, Mr. Stevenson; I simply feel that the people concerned are being ignored. I will be brief. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about initial support for birth parents. He is right.

Adoption UK puts effectively the same view as the others that I have cited. I also want to refer to the document provided by the British Association of Social Workers. I know that several Labour Members have lengthy experience in social work. I confess that I do not, and I bow to their expertise in many respects. However, I shall quote the comments of the association. It states:

    ''Clause 4 needs substantial improvement. A distinction should be drawn between the basic service of social work support, which should always be available as the main component of adoption support services, and additional services, such as the payment of an adoption allowance, where there is a case for some exercise of discretion. Social work support in connection with adoption should always be available, and it should not initially be conditional on an assessment of a person's needs having already been carried out. It should not be open to a local authority to decide whether or not to provide it, although once the order is made its duration and intensity should be discretionary. One of our concerns with the present wording is that it may lead to an excessively bureaucratic approach in which nothing will be done to help people until standardised assessment forms have been completed and processed through complex rationing machinery. The end result of this approach can be that time and money which could have been spent on helping people is spent on deciding that their need for help does not have sufficient priority.''

The passage continues:

    ''Sub-clause 4(1) restricts people to asking for support services for themselves. It does not provide, for example, for adopters to seek support for their child, or for the local authority to assess the child's needs at the adopters' request.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 273.]

You have been patient, Mr. Stevenson, and I appreciate that. My point is that people have spent time preparing their memorandums, and thinking about the Bill. They gave up their time to give evidence to us, and, seemingly, they are all wrong and the Government are right. I question that. If the Special Standing Committee procedure means anything, and if it is to be used for other Bills, we should listen to the people who are at the front line in providing the services in question. If they do not know, who does?

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Prepared 13 December 2001