Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): The rights of the child are paramount. That spirit runs through the clauses of the Bill. However, the more I read the Bill, the more I realise that few provisions state that the child has rights. We have seen that the child's consent will be ignored, in effect. We have heard something similar on the child's right to be heard in hearings, and we shall see it again in relation to appeals to the panel under clause 12. Although we talk about the child's interests being paramount, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of giving the child rights, there are none in the Bill. My hon. Friend maintains that the question of delay should be put in terms of what is likely to prejudice the child's welfare. I fully support his view. It is generally agreed that under the Bill delay is undesirable. In reaching a view as to what constitutes a delay, it should be stated that the child's welfare, primarily, should be kept in mind.

Jacqui Smith: Clause 4 gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from their local authority. It is therefore important to make clear the nature of that assessment and the important contribution that it should make to the provision of adoption support services.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) was concerned with the position of the child, and I assure him that the clause enables children to, for example, request an assessment in their own right. The voice of children in relation to the rights to assessment under the clause can be heard clearly. Different types of assessments will be made for different groups of people. The detail of the assessment process will be set out in regulations made under subsection (7)(b). Those regulations will be drawn up following consultation with stakeholders, as part of the new framework for adoption support services that we are developing, which we shall publish for consultation in the spring.

Clause 4(4) provides that, when the assessment identifies a need for adoption support services, the local authority must decide whether to provide adoption support services to that person. I want to respond to the feeling expressed—in fact, I think it was an assertion—by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I think that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, who is no longer in the Room, was suggesting the same thing—that an assessment would put up a barrier to the provision of adoption support services, or hold up the system.

The Government's view is that assessment is crucial to the provision of those adoption support services and that view was supported by, for example, Margaret Dight of the Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham, in her evidence. Replying to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, she talked about the importance of

    ''an accurate assessment of need.''

She commented:

    ''That assessment has to be made by individuals who are fully informed on issues around the adoption process, the implication of a child's background and life experiences and how that will impact on the child in placement and the on-going needs of the family.''

She also said,

    ''we are looking at detailed, skilled, professional assessments, which need to be done rapidly''—

I agree about that—

    ''and take cognisance of the skills and knowledge in different disciplines and different organisations.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 104.]

There is a need for assessments to be carried out in a timely manner, but it is also important to recognise the significance of the assessments, not as something holding up the process, but as something to ensure that it is carried out as quickly and effectively as possible.

Amendment No. 72 seeks to qualify subsection (7)(f), which enables regulations to be made setting out the circumstances in which local authorities may provide adoption support services. We intend to use the regulations to enable local authorities to specify, where appropriate, how financial support should be spent. For example, financial support might be supplied to make alterations to the home of a family that is adopting a large group of siblings. That financial support could, under the regulations, be provided on condition that the family spent that money in that way. Subsection (7)(g) enables regulations to be made concerning the consequences of failure to comply with those conditions. The provision allowing conditions to be imposed on adoption support is sensible and important. It should not and will not lead to delay.

10.45 am

Amendment No. 90 seeks to amend subsection (6), which enables regulations to be made in respect of local authority assessments for adoption support and the provision of services. It would provide for the regulations at all times to take account of the likelihood that a delay in the provision of adoption support services would prejudice a child's welfare.

That amendment is not needed. The assessment is not intended to delay the provision of adoption support services. Its purpose is to enable adoptive parents and others involved in the adoption process to find a way into the system and to make it unnecessary for them to struggle to get the help and support that they need. It will also help to ensure that the various public services required to supply joint post-adoption support liaise properly.

Given those reassurances about the nature of the clause and the regulations that will go with it, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister. She has tried to explain a linkage with the considerations in clause 1, which we believe is necessary. On that basis, we look forward to reading the regulations. It would not be appropriate for me to press the amendment, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sandra Gidley: I beg to move amendment No. 186, in page 4, line 42, after 'conditions', insert:

    'and provide for an independent review of a decision not to provide adoption support services'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 187, in page 4, line 42, after 'conditions', insert:

    'and provide for a review of a decision not to provide adoption support services'.

Sandra Gidley: Amendment No. 186 is similar to those tabled by others on these Benches, including the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. It deals with the problem of review. In practice, most of the decisions will be taken by social services departments that form part of a county council or a unitary authority. Such bodies usually have reasonably well publicised complaints procedures. However, those are not the same as review procedures. Some might regard them as an adequate resource for a disgruntled adoptive parent who is unhappy with a decision. I do not.

It is essential for the Bill to contain a clearly defined right to a review. However, the amendments tabled by others would mean that that review could be carried out by persons who had worked closely with the officers who took the disputed decision. That could be problematic. Labour members of the Committee have, on numerous occasions, highlighted the fact that some people have less than happy relationships with their social services departments. It seems appropriate that there should be a mechanism for review that is removed from the body that took the decision. All parties involved would then be reassured as to the independence of the review. That is all that I want to say, because the amendments are self-explanatory.

Tim Loughton: As the hon. Lady says, there is a great similarity between the two amendments, and I want to back mine.

On the basis of the Minister's comments, we hope that few people will fail to receive the support that they need. The important point, however, is that it should be made clear to them why they have not qualified and how they could qualify. An earlier Conservative amendment referred to a written review of a decision, but amendment No. 187 does not even do that—we simply want a review mechanism.

Clause 12 relates to reviews and appeals later in the adoption process, which largely involve prospective adopters whose application to adopt has been turned down. The provision is a good addition to the Bill, but it raises the question whether there should be review and/or appeal mechanisms at other stages of the adoption process. As all hon. Members have said, placement is one of the most crucial parts of the process and it is important that it is built on firm foundations so that it can last. If it does not, the child may become the subject of multiple placements, which would have severe consequences for him and require additional support later. For obvious reasons, we should avoid that at all costs.

I am, however, not happy about the basis on which support services will not be provided. The hon. Lady mentioned that matter, and I asked the Minister about it. A fully transparent and accountable arrangement should be put in place for such decisions. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy asked what would happen if the local authority said that a family needed support but had no staff to provide it. What will happen if it tells the family that it does not need support, but the family feels that it does? The problem will remain as far as the family is concerned. Will any family that feels that it needs support first have to submit to assessment by the local authority or could it seek private help elsewhere? There must be a review process for people who do not get the goods that they feel that they need.

When we debated an earlier clause, I echoed many of the representations that were made to us when I said that families involved in adoption that cry for help usually need it. They are best placed to know when something is wrong and when they need help. It can be humiliating for many families to seek help, but it is best that they do and that they receive it. If we are really talking about only a small number of cases in which help will not be forthcoming, as the Minister suggested, a review mechanism would not be cumbersome or prohibitively costly. It would, however, place an extra check and balance on local authorities so that they tried their absolute hardest to provide support services. If they did not, they would have to be accountable for their decision.

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Prepared 13 December 2001