Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: I suspect, from my experience with the initiative on service families children, that we are putting in place a similar process in the Bill. The most important point is that we bring to the attention of agencies and authorities the nature of the support that is needed and facilitate their provision of the relevant assessments and support. The next most important point is that we bring to the attention of health and education bodies the particular needs of children who need adoption support. That is why the Government will issue guidance and directions to health authorities, primary care trusts and local education authorities to ensure joined-up planning and the provision of adoption support services across the various public services. In other words, we shall explicitly bring the needs of children and adoptive families to the attention of authorities.

Mr. Djanogly: Would it not be helpful to discuss how we can change the overall framework to avoid the conflicts that happened in the past? Will the Minister elaborate on how the guidelines will change the structure to facilitate the process?

Jacqui Smith: I shall come to that later, when we deal with education and other issues.

The guidance will spell out the particular needs of children and families that need adoption support. Furthermore, the national adoption standards—I refer hon. Members to standard E1—state that councils will plan and deliver adoption services with local health and education bodies. Once again, the use of guidance and directions will help to deliver that standard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre made a plea for wider reform and for joined-up work on children's services, and I have significant sympathy with that. The Government have made progress on those issues and will continue to do so in, for example, the work that we are starting on the children's national service framework. That framework explicitly includes social services and will examine how we ensure that health and social services are better organised. Directions under the quality protects programme place significant emphasis on working corporately across the organisation and with other partners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre rightly said.

The flexibilities possible since enactment of the Health Act 1999 also enable much better joint working when appropriate for children's services in health and social services. If my hon. Friend is saying that we need to do more in order to ensure that services are joined up, I would agree with him, but I point him to those areas where the Government are making some progress.

Mr. Bellingham: The Minister said that it will be important to bring the needs of adopted children to the attention of local health and education authorities, but where is the sanction or the stick for social services to ensure that those other bodies deliver the services? She must address that point.

Jacqui Smith: I was going to return to that, but the sanctions, the sticks and the monitoring rest with the statutory frameworks that surround the provision of those services, as well as through the requirements that we shall make in guidance and directions.

I was moving briefly to subsections (10) and (11), which ensure appropriate co-operation between local authorities in the exercise of their functions in relation to assessments of need for adoption support services and the provision of any services following such assessments. We discussed this morning the way in which we could ensure that as children moved between local authorities, the criteria were such as to ensure that they received the necessary support, and I do not intend to rehearse that again.

Amendments No. 73, 172 and 145 would place a duty on health bodies and local education authorities, following receipt of a notification from a local social services authority under subsection (9), to provide adoption support services in line with the statutory services that they have assessed a person as needing. For reasons that we rehearsed this morning, the Government do not believe that that is appropriate. As I explained, NHS bodies and education authorities will need to determine whether to provide adoption support services in line with the statutory frameworks within which they operate. That means that when people affected by adoption are entitled to receive services under those frameworks, those services must be provided.

For example, it is clearly appropriate that if a child has special needs—the hon. Member for Canterbury was right that looked-after children tend to have a higher need for SEN provision—the statutory requirements under education legislation that ensure that an appropriate education assessment be carried out. Similarly, if a child has a need for mental health services, it is right that the mental health professional should carry out that assessment under that framework. Of course, the additional element will be that adoption will be dealt with in guidance, and directions on the carrying out of the assessment will have been brought to the attention of those professionals.

I shall give a practical example. Last week, a conference was held to help practitioners to consider how they implement the national adoption standards. At one useful session, officials from the Department for Education and Skills spoke specifically about the educational needs of children who would need adoption support services. The important guidance that has already been issued on the education of looked-after children, to see whether some elements, such as the designated teacher, could be appropriately used to support children going through the adoption process. That is a good example of how the different frameworks can be used to work together effectively for the benefit of children.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister has clearly and lucidly illustrated the heart of the problem with her example. She will know from her surgeries that local education authorities are under pressure, as anyone funded from public resources is, and that there are long waiting lists for people with special needs. Parents find that extremely stressful, as is inevitable, as they fight for their child to go further up the queue. The difference between the adoptive and the natural parent is that, whereas the natural parent has to fight only one battle, to get a special needs assessment for the child, for the adoptive parent, that battle is in addition to all the other struggles involved in looking after what are often very damaged children. That is why we believe that there should be statutory support for such children, rather than guidance and guidelines.

3.15 pm

Jacqui Smith: That is precisely the sort of role that should be fulfilled by the key worker, as we discussed this morning, to support parents. It is also why the particular needs of adopted children will be brought to the attention of education and health providers so that they can be reflected in the assessment, although the assessment must continue to be conducted within the statutory frameworks.

Amendments Nos. 144 and 183 relate to subsection (11). The amendments are not appropriate. It is not reasonable or practical to oblige a local authority to comply with any request for help, where that request may not be compatible with its statutory duties and obligations under the relevant legislation. However, as I have already said, the Bill provides that the local authority must comply with the request where it is consistent with the exercise of its functions. That follows the approach taken in section 27 of the Children Act 1989.

With those detailed responses to hon. Members' concerns about an issue on which we all share the objective of ensuring that agencies work together to provide support for children and adoptive families, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: I am not happy with the Minister's response. We are trying to work out what is in the best interests of the child and we must ensure that services are properly co-ordinated. She talked about the statutory frameworks within which health authorities and education authorities operate, but I do not see how incorporating one of the three amendments would do anything other than complement that framework. I would like to press amendment No. 172 to a vote, but withdraw amendments Nos. 73 and 145, and then vote on amendment No. 183.

The Chairman: Let me explain. Before the Committee is amendment No. 73, with which we are considering the other amendments. Only the hon. Member who moved amendment No. 73 has the right to withdraw it. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to vote on the amendment to which he spoke, he must declare that now, and I will arrange it when we have dealt with amendment No. 73. The same would apply if the hon. Member for Romsey wanted to press her amendment to a vote. Mr. Bellingham, what do you want to do?

Mr. Bellingham: I would like to press amendment No. 183 to a vote.

The Chairman: I will allow a vote to be taken on that amendment when we reach it.

Mr. Djanogly: Following your guidance, Mrs. Roe. I believe that, following your thought process, I am responsible for amendments Nos. 73, 145 and 144.

The Chairman: Only amendment No. 73.

Mr. Djanogly: My apologies, Mrs. Roe.

My opinion is that the matter should be put to the vote. We all agree on the same things, on a superficial level. We want more joined-up thinking and we want bodies increasingly to work together, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said so eloquently.

How is the additional joined-up working to be carried out in practice, in terms of the nitty-gritty? My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk gave a good example of non-joined-up working in unfortunate circumstances. I am sure that all of us could give similar examples from our own constituencies. We want to know how the system proposed under the Bill will work. The problem is that there have been too many examples of working that is not joined-up. The Opposition do not find it acceptable simply to assume that everything will fall into place once the Bill has been implemented. The existing arrangements need to be reviewed.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, West mentioned PCTs in the context of the difference between England and Wales. The other side to his point is that PCTs are new organisations in England as well. We therefore need to think about what operational mechanisms should be put in place to cater for this new kind of organisation. That is not to say, however, that the mechanisms in place for existing bodies are acceptable.

The Minister made it clear that the purpose of the clause is to ensure joint working, but I am still not sure that it does that. It merely gives a statement of intent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury pointed out, when he described it as having no statutory teeth. That is what it comes down to. Nothing in the clause will actually make joint working work, and we already know that it often does not.

Subsection (9) provides for the notification of bodies of the need to work together, but that is not enough. The Minister said that it was an improvement on what we had. That may be the case, but if the effect of the clause is to highlight the need without providing for delivery, its unfortunate impact could be to make things worse by merely drawing fresh attention to the deficiencies of the system. That is not a recipe for delivery.

I disagreed with the Minister about not wanting to cut across various pieces of legislation. One of our problems is the number of disparate bits of legislation. Why can we not use the Bill to review all those bits of legislation and find out how to put in place a system that will address the matter? I am not saying that that would be easy, but we should face up to it in order to get things right. We should put in place a system that crosses the various disciplines.

The Minister was asked to flesh out the proposals, and I do not think that she did so. She mentioned a doctors' conference, which was a good example of consultation. However, it was not a good enough example of the massive levels of consultation that would be required to get the new structure up and running to our general satisfaction. I feel that the Government have not yet given the issue the thought that will be required in terms of the nitty-gritty. She says that the Government recognise that more joined-up thinking is necessary, but how do we go about that? I suggest that much more consultation is needed.

The sticks that exist in various legislation, or that the Minister said existed, to prevent non-delivery, may be well and good. However, we know that the system does not work to the desirable standard. Therefore, even if those sticks do exist, there are either not enough of them or they are in so many different pieces of legislation that no one knows where to look for them. Why cannot we address them in the Bill?

The Minister said that the amendments were inappropriate, but she did not say why.

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