Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: I entirely accept your earlier rebuke, Mr. Stevenson. I should have tried to catch your eye, instead of attempting to intervene on the Minister. I want to make two points, beginning by expanding slightly on my intervention.

There is a difference between the issue dealt with by the amendments and the wider issues of local authority services, about which hon. Members have made sensible points. Of course any social services committee anywhere in the country, and, indeed, any other local government committee, must set its priorities against a mass of conflicting demands, and the money will never be enough to go round. No Opposition Member would challenge that view, which we all understand. However, we must understand something: at every other point while a child is in the care system, there is a statutory duty for the relevant services to be provided.

Jacqui Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Children Act 1989 does not create an individual enforceable duty owed to a child but only a general duty? Section 17 gives local authorities a general duty to

    ''promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need''.

A child's circumstances must nevertheless be examined in the context of the general range and level of services that are provided. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the Act is mistaken.

Mr. Brazier: I accept the Minister's legal point, but the practical fact is that no one believes that any social services department in the country would get away with throwing a child out of a children's home or ending a fostering arrangement because the money had run out.

Mr. Dawson: The hon. Gentleman paints a completely unrealistic picture. Does he not accept that one of the gross iniquities of the system is the fact that fostering has been badly underresourced? Children have been pushed out of the residential care system because of the lack of resources.

Mr. Brazier: I should like to develop my point. The hon. Gentleman and I have often listened to such stories in the all-party groups that we chair. He is right about the system, which is why I have advocated adoption for so long. No one denies, however, that local authorities have a duty to children collectively and, in practice, individually. They sometimes fail to fulfil that duty, although children in the care system are extremely expensive, and everyone understands why the money is spent.

Mr. Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Brazier: I am sorry, but I should like to develop my point. I will then give way to my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw).

The Committee heard advice from two academics that adoption was the best option for most children who had been in the care system for a while, and Sonia Jackson put it in the strongest possible language. Of course, there are exceptions, and many children pass through the system only briefly. However, the best option is adoption.

The amendments tackle the central anomaly in the clause. Local authorities are rightly forced to spend large sums on children up to the point of adoption, although they cannot always easily put their hands on the money. Parents must, however, struggle with children who have often been badly abused—I shall give two brief constituency examples after I have given way—even though relatively small sums could keep the adoption together. The essential maintenance of adoption arrangements is not resourced or given equal priority with other arrangements in the care system. We are talking about priorities.

Tim Loughton: We have moved on slightly, but I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) suggest that social services arrangements were still greatly underresourced given that we heard the other day that everything was sweetness and light.

Was the Minister not being selective when she quoted from a general duty in the Children Act? She referred to section 27, as I did the other day. It places duties on authorities to comply with requests for certain services, including cross-boundary requests.

Mr. Brazier: Indeed; I take my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Shaw: Is not the hon. Gentleman talking about the same issue as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)? He is talking about a flowing tap, but he is mistaken to say that local authorities must provide services on request under their responsibilities in the Children Act. If that were true, social services departments would take into care every child whom a parent presented at their doorstep. They do not do that; they make an assessment of the child's needs and provide appropriate resources, just as the clause says.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. To quote his own words back at him, social services assesses a child's needs and provides appropriately for them. The problem is that there is a statutory duty to make an assessment but not to meet the needs. The hon. Gentleman was a social worker for many years. Does he really believe that if a local authority made an assessment—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

10.15 am

Mr. Brazier: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that if a local authority made an assessment that it was necessary to take a child into care but refused to do so because of resourcing problems, a subsequent inquiry would support that authority's decision?

Mr. Shaw: The point that I am making is that a local authority will not take children into care at the drop of a hat. They will of course make an assessment, but the premise is that the child remains in the home rather than being taken into care. The authorities cannot write a blank cheque. Under the Bill, an assessment is made and resources are provided.

Mr. Brazier: We have reached a point where we do not understand each other. I am saying that an assessment may be made but there is no requirement to provide resources. No one is arguing for a blank cheque. We say that although the local authority makes assessments, the unavoidable danger, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre pointed out on Tuesday, is that their assessment of special educational needs and many other matters may be biased by consideration of available resources. We cannot get away from that in public services.

I shall share one of my constituency cases with the Committee. At my surgery I was visited by a couple who had adopted two girls of 11 and nine years old who had been severely abused. They were not at the prime age for adoption. It was very brave of my constituents to take on children who were that old and had so much baggage. The children were from a London authority, not Kent. I will not name the authority and I do not want to make a party political point because representatives of the authority are not here to defend its decision. The local authority passed on those children, washed its hands of them and said goodbye. My constituents were not asking for money. They were not terribly well off, but they were not asking for adoption allowances. They came to my surgery to ask whether it would be possible to have the bus fare paid to take the children to counselling sessions for the sexual abuse that they had suffered. The local authority would not cover even that.

That refusal was monstrous. From an economic angle, while those girls were in the system they cost the local authority a huge sum of money. Those brave and generous constituents of mine had taken those children out of the system, so they now cost the system nothing. Yet the local authority would not pay even for a bus pass—I am sorry, Mr. Stevenson, I do not mean to be over-emotional about it.

My second argument is that touched on by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, whose constituency name I still cannot pronounce: my hon. Friend—I am proud to call him that—knows that I mean no offence. It is a strong argument, that was mentioned also by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Quotations were read out showing that professionals, too, believed that there was a danger that we would start a bureaucratic blizzard. That would absorb resources that were not available—I am talking not about money, but about social workers' time.

No one is suggesting the writing of blank cheques, but if the first stage is to wait while a social worker assesses a case before deciding whether to pay even for bus passes to take children for counselling, the danger is not only that there will be delay or that resources may not be available, but that the adoption may break down. We have a success rate in adoption of just over 80 per cent. That is quite a good rate. However, there is no reason why it should not—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I must share this with the Committee because I know that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is such a decent man that he will not be offended. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has written out phonetically the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency—Merry-on-ith Nant Con-way—is that a reasonable pronunciation? It has brought some light relief to our proceedings.

Mr. Llwyd: It is Christmas, and I think that we should have a competition. The best pronunciation will get a bottle of wine.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is generous in so many ways. That is just another example. The gist of the second point is that about delay and the possibility that stressing a statutory duty for assessment without putting the resources behind it could backfire. Departments that are very short of social workers might end up doing more assessments and providing less support. That will have a knock-on effect on other children's services, resulting in some of the problems mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

Having finally produced a reasonable pronunciation of the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, I urge the Minister to think again about the clause. She does not have to agree with the wording of our amendments, but the problem needs to be addressed.

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