Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked about the funding implications where an authority pays fees in relation to adoption support arrangements for a child who is placed with it but who must subsequently return to the placing authority because there is a problem. On another clause, we shall consider an amendment that deals with fees, including inter-agency fees, which involve authorities making payments in relation to the recruitment of adopters in alternative authorities. The consultation that followed the White Paper referred to inter-agency fees, about which there has been some concern. Nevertheless, the response to the consultation was such that most people felt that the system should continue, while recognising that it might be necessary to reconsider the guidance provided to local authorities about their financing system in order to ensure that perverse incentives were not built into the system.

I return to the issue of adoption support payments. When a child is placed with an adoptive family living in a different local authority area, it is important that it should be clear where the responsibility for providing adoption support services lies. We shall make regulations, as we said earlier, under subsection (7)(h), setting out a clear system that will apply in such circumstances. We shall consult stakeholders on the regulations in order to ensure that the detail is right. It will be vital to ensure that the new system is supported by appropriate funding arrangements. We shall therefore make regulations under subsection (7)(i) to set out the circumstances in which one local authority may recover from another the expenses of providing adoption support services. The regulations will ensure that the local authority's duties in cases such as those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman are clarified.

This is a complex area, on which there are many views. We need to work with the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association and other stakeholders. It is important to get the details right, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall consult widely on the regulations in order to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Local authority plans for adoption services

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 185, in page 5, line 34, leave out subsection (4).

With the forbearance of the Committee I should like to look at the purpose of the clause. It places a duty on local authorities to prepare and publish plans for the provision of adoption services in their areas. Regulations will prescribe the information that the plans have to contain. I am surprised that we are not to be told in detail what those regulations are. As we have discussed time and again, there is in the Bill mention of regulations, but we do not know what those regulations are. That is a weakness in the Bill, and I ask the Minister to comment specifically on what she believes the regulations will prescribe, what form they will take, how detailed they will be and other appropriate information.

The Minister in question is enabled to direct the form, and the manner in which and the time at which the plan is published by the local authority. That is fineówe are all in favour of that. The local authority can be directed by the Minister to consultówe are happy with that too. However, under subsection (4)(a) the Minister can

    ''direct that a plan is to be included in another document specified in the direction''.

That could be a more general plan for the provision of services relating to children within the local authority. I do not think that it is on for the specific adoption plan to be included in such a general plan. We need clarity, accountability and clear lines of communication that will enable other bodies to intervene or to become involved if there is an appropriate interface for them, as well as an easily understood framework with some flexibility.

That is why my point is simple and straightforward. We want a specific plan that is quite tightly drafted, focused and fairly precise. It should make it crystal clear that it concentrates specifically on adoption services, not on other child-orientated services. That is why the amendment, too, is simple and straightforward. We must remove subsection (4), which gives the Minister the legal power to direct that the plan that we all want the authorities to adopt can be included in another document. That makes no sense whatever. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will agree that we need something much more specific that will lead to a local authority plan that delivers the adoption services that we all badly want for the benefit of children.

Jacqui Smith: Clause 5 is intended to tackle concerns about the planning and management of local authority adoption services. It requires every local authority to prepare and publish a plan for the provision of the adoption services in its area. The detailed requirements that we envisage being in the plan will be set out in regulations and will include providing information about on-going and future work on issues such as recruitment and the assessment of prospective adopters, preparing and placing children for adoption, assessing needs for adoption support, and the provision of adoption support services. Local authorities will be required to review their adoption service plans regularly. In contrast to their services for looked-after children and children in need, there is no specific statutory duty on local authorities to plan their adoption services, even though guidance encourages them to do so.

The hon. Gentleman rightly spent a lot of time arguing for services to be more joined up and integrated, so I find it strange that he is now saying that a statutory requirement to include an adoption plan in, for example, the children's services plan is a bad idea. It is completely appropriate to consider putting the adoption services plan alongside the authority's other work. Wherever possible, the plan will be delivered as part of existing or future planning mechanisms for children's services. As I suggested, we expect local authorities to discharge their new statutory obligation to plan their adoption services by including the plan in their statutory Children Act children's services plans.

The amendment would remove subsection (4) and prevent the appropriate Minister from directing local authorities to include their adoption services plan in another document. That means that authorities would need to produce a separate plan for their adoption services rather than including it in their children's services plan. That would place a new, unnecessary burden on local authorities. It would not mean that the plan was not produced, but simply that it would have to be produced in a less appropriate manner than if it were included in a children's service plan in a joined-up way.

The amendment would also prevent the appropriate Minister from giving local authorities directions in order to modify requirements in the regulations with regard to the content of the plans. It would mean, for example, that the appropriate Minister could not use directions to ensure the production of a tailored plan by individual local authorities or groups of local authorities, such as those involved in consortium arrangements, which, as hon. Members have suggested, is the way that we hope authorities will go.

In the light of that explanation of the purpose of subsection (4) and of the damage that the amendment would do, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for her cogent explanation. I intend to seek leave to withdraw the amendment, but I seek one further piece of clarification first. Local authorities will be preparing adoption services plans, and the explanatory notes say that the appropriate Minister may give a direction, which implies that that would be the exception rather than the rule. The Minister's response to my amendment implied that the plan would normally be included within a wider framework for children's services. I do not necessarily have a difficulty with that, but we surely need a precise focus on adoption services. If she can convince the Committee that that focus will be included in the wider framework for children's services, that will be okay. Why, however, do the explanatory notes imply that her suggested outcome will be the exception rather than the rule?

Jacqui Smith: It would not be appropriate to set out in the Bill the broader framework within which the plan should be made, because planning requirements should, and almost certainly will, change. It is, therefore, appropriate to retain flexibility. In the last part of my response to the amendment, I also noted that it may be appropriate to tailor the plan differently in different circumstancesófor example, where a local authority works in a consortium or where there is a need to accentuate what it includes in its plan because of concerns about its provision of services.

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Djanogly: I should like to speak about the general use of plans. I am not saying that there will be no use for the adoption services plan. To be fair, the Minister mentioned the items that would go into it, although the language was technical, and I admit that I did not understand most of the issues that she raised. That is an admission of my lack of knowledge of the technical language, rather than a mistake on the Government's part. That said, I am not agreeing that what it is proposed to include in the plan will be correct or will work. That will have to be carefully reviewed.

The provisions may help to foster a joined-up thinking approach, but not necessarily. I say that because I have seen many of the plans that the Government have brought into play in local authorities, and councillors are sick to the teeth of them. Many such plans serve no purpose whatever, other than to involve officers and councillors in constant tail-chasing exercises that waste a lot of time and do little to deliver services to the people whom the council is meant to serve. On top of that, preparing the plans in practice is expensive, and they cost money to review. They then go to the Government, who have their tuppenceworth, and more costs are incurred. The impact of putting together the plans, particularly on smaller authorities, can often be out of all proportion to their impact on services.

I am not saying that we should vote against the clause in its entirety, but there is a long way to go before it is generally accepted that the plans will serve the purpose that the Minister discussed.

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