Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: Historically, the process of gearing up to a child's adoption involved assessing the parents, seeing whether the child was suitable and assessing support services to a degree. After the adoption had been sorted out, authorities—some more than others, I admit—tended to forget the case and move on to the next. Social workers are busy people, and there are other adoptions to be made and other tasks to be done. Times move on and sometimes adoption agencies would merge and circumstances would change.

Clearly, we are moving towards a different type of regime and are stressing the importance of continuing services and support to both the child and parents. To that extent, I support my hon. Friend's amendment, as the idea of a champion, lead person and on-going contact who will maintain what can become a weak link is excellent.

Jacqui Smith: I agree with Opposition Members that, when a child is placed with an adoptive family that lives in a different local authority area, it is important to define clearly where the responsibility for assessing needs for the provision of adoption support services lies. It is important that adoption support services are provided for in legislation and in terms of resources.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Lady mentions the importance of cases where people move on to different authorities, but circumstances can change for adoptive families too. An adoptive family in which the parents thrive may be destitute three or four years later. What may not be seen as a necessary on-going contact might suddenly become important, perhaps several years later, regardless of whether the same authority is involved.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about whether there is a time limit on the right to apply for an assessment, and I shall respond to that in a moment. First, I shall continue the argument that I was making about circumstances in which adopted children move from one authority to another.

Adoptive families tell us that when they adopt children from other local authority areas they do not always receive a satisfactory adoption support service. I hope that no member of the Committee would disagree that the standard of service in the case cited by the hon. Member for Canterbury was unacceptable. We must use the Bill, the framework that follows it and the resources that deliver it to overcome precisely such problems. It is not good enough for families not to get the necessary support.

11.15 am

We have not touched on the important contribution of national adoption standards to raising standards of adoption support. I draw hon. Members' attention to adoption standards E1 and E6. E6 states:

    ''Councils, with the relevant agencies listed in 1), will provide or commission a comprehensive range of pre- and post-adoption services''—

the hon. Member for Huntingdon made the important point that we should not stop at the point of adoption—

    ''consistent with any national framework or regulation. These will facilitate and support adoption and meet the needs of children who move between local authority areas. Criteria for access will be clear, concise and understandable.''

That brings us to point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised about what those criteria should be. Subsection (7)(h) enables regulations to be made to set out a clear system for assessing needs and providing adoption support services in cases where a child is placed with an adoptive family in a different local authority area. We will make regulations under subsection (7)(i) to set out the accompanying funding arrangements. We will consult stakeholders on the regulations as part of the development of the new national framework to ensure that we get the detail right.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I hate to labour a point that I have made in previous sittings, but the clause does not extend to Scotland. What happens to a child from a Scottish local authority? Will the Minister be able to make regulations that affect Scotland?

Jacqui Smith: A child who came from a Scottish local authority to an English or Welsh local authority would benefit from the requirement on local authorities to provide an adoption support service, as we discussed under clause 3. I shall correct myself if I am wrong, but I believe that an assessment could be requested for adoption support services. The Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament must determine which provisions are made for adoption support in Scotland, but they are concerned about precisely the issues that we are discussing.

I referred to the importance of ensuring that there was no gap in provision when a child was adopted in another local authority, and I said that we would consult on the regulations. There is a certain logic to saying that the local authority in which the child lives should provide adoption support up to the point of adoption and that responsibility should subsequently pass to the local authority in whose area the adoptive family lives. However, that might not always be appropriate, which is one reason why it is important to take time to consult.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about a local authority providing therapeutic support or support with a disability or illness. There could be an argument for continuing such support when a child moves to another authority.

Mr. Brazier: Indeed, but there could be a much more common case. We shall discuss funding arrangements later, but a local authority that operates the new national register will be dissuaded from encouraging prospective adoptive parents in its area to take on a child from another area if it finds that it will have to fund the adoption support services.

Jacqui Smith: As I said, we will also make regulations under subsection (7)(i) setting out the accompanying arrangements. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point—it is necessary to ensure that the funding arrangements promote the provision of good adoption support services and do not give an incentive to local authorities not to find adoptive families or not to provide the services that children deserve.

In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon about circumstances changing, it is possible for a family to request another assessment if their circumstances change. If an adoptive family moves, they can also request an assessment from the new authority in whose area they find themselves.

Hon. Members have raised other points around the issue of local authorities having a duty to co-operate with each other. Subsections (10) and (11) of clause 4 place local authorities under a duty to co-operate in the provision of adoption support services. Interestingly, given the comment that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made earlier, that is equivalent to section 27 of the Children Act 1989, in that it makes it a duty for local authorities to comply with their statutory obligations on the identified needs of a child.

The amendment also provides that the regulations must identify a lead person to provide the support services. I have sympathy with the idea that, where the adoption support plan is complicated, it is very important that the family concerned have someone to whom they can turn to find their way through the maze. That is why the Government made it clear in the White Paper that looked-after children and their new adoptive families would have a key worker, so that families would be able to use that worker as a gateway for access to adoption and support services, should they wish to do so.

Mr. Djanogly: If the key worker moves job, or if other circumstances arise in which contact is lost, does the authority have a duty to pass on the name of the new key worker? As time goes on, people retire or move jobs. I should be interested to hear the Minister's view on that.

Jacqui Smith: It is appropriate for the family to have a key worker, but obviously people retire and move on. Therefore, the family should be entitled to a person and if that person moves on, another named person should take their place to act as the family's key worker. The person will be important in helping the family to access the services, and we shall issue guidance to local authorities on the use of key workers as part of the new framework for adoption support services. I hope that, on the basis of those reassurances, hon. Members will feel that their amendment is not necessary.

Tim Loughton: The detail in which the Minister has responded to the amendment reinforces my point that the situation at the moment is complex. It is not clear to many people working in the field exactly where the buck stops and it is not clear to many hon. Members present. That makes it highly unlikely that it is clear to the people who need the services in the field. The Minister rightly says that much of the effectiveness will depend on what financial arrangements are made place and whether the money follows the child.

I was heartened by the Minister's response to the legitimate points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. She said, in the context of complex requirements, that changeover-time renewed assessments would be available. I hope that that will be made explicit in the information given to adoptive parents.

It is important that as much information as possible is given to adoptive parents, and to all those in the field of adoption, at as early a stage as possible. Those involved should feel that someone is holding their hand all the way through. The field is very difficult, particularly for those with complex arrangements. The issue has an impact on the cases involving Scotland mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and on support in overseas adoptions. On the basis of the Minister's response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Bellingham, Mr.
Brazier, Mr.
Brennan, Kevin
Dawson, Mr.
Djanogly, Mr.
Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr.
Loughton, Tim
Love, Mr.
Moran, Margaret
Munn, Ms
Shaw, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Walter, Mr.
Winterton, Ms Rosie

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Prepared 13 December 2001