Special Standing Committee
Tuesday 18 December 2001
Mrs. Marion Roe
The Chairman: Under the terms of the programme resolution, we now come to clause 9.
Clauses 9 and 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 9, line 9, leave out 'prescribe' and insert 'recommend'.
The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments: No. 4, in page 9, line 16, leave out 'prescribe' and insert 'recommend'.
No. 5, in page 9, line 18, at end insert
'( ) Regulations under section 9 may prescribe the requirement for adoption agencies and local authorities to publish their fees.'.
Mr. Walter: I hope that I speak for all the Committee in saying that this is a much pleasanter Room in which to conduct our deliberations. It is lighter, warmer and, dare one say, a little more intimate, so that it is possible to hear what is happening on the other side of the Room.
Clause 11 relates to the fees that can be charged in relation to assessments made by adoption agencies and the provision of services under the Bill, most particularly with respect to
My thoughts on the clause stem from a sympathy with some adopted parents about what they perceived to be high charges levied on them for such services. We heard evidence earlier in our proceedings of divergence in the charging regimes of various authorities and other bodies. It seemed to me that we needed to agree that there should be greater transparency.
Under the clause, regulations made under what will become section 9 ''may prescribe the fees'', which means that an all-embracing schedule of fees will be set centrally. I agree that people should know what fees they are to be charged, that those fees should be published, and that there should be no shocks for the users of the service. I agree that there should be no wide divergence between the fees charged by different providers of the relevant service. I am sure that all members of the Committee would agree that the fees charged for the services should not act as a barrier to
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those who want to adopt children. However, I disagree with the concept in the Bill that somehow the Minister and his or her officials know best and will prescribe the level of the fees.
The Care Standards Act 2000 is quite a good guide for the type of procedure that we are considering. The explanatory notes to section 112 of that Act, which refers to charges for local authority welfare services, state that
''the powers of local authorities to charge for certain non-residential social services are to be treated as social services functions as defined in the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 (''LASS ACT''). This will allow statutory guidance to be issued under section 7 of the LASS Act for charges for non-residential services. The need to produce statutory guidance follows the publication of the White Paper ''Modernising Social Services''. This recognised that the scale of variation in local authorities' home care charges was unacceptable''
and that the Audit Commission had highlighted the full extent of the variations. It is right that guidance should be issued by the Minister in such circumstances, and that the Minister should be able to recommend fees, but I do not believe that it is necessary that the Minister should prescribe what those fees should be.
The final sentence of the explanatory note to clause 11 on page 15 states that the charges
''will not include any element of profit.''
That means that, for every body concerned in charging fees, the Minister will be able to make the fine-tuned decision as to what an element of profit would be, and to ensure that the figure prescribed does not include it. I suspect that there is not an official or a Minister who would know intimately the exact cost structure of every agency involved in the procedure, enabling them to ensure that there would be no element of profit in a prescribed national fee. Under a prescribed national scale, we might end up with agencies either making a loss, or setting fees so high to avoid making a loss but making a profit and seeking in some way to hide it in order to ensure that they meet the conditions about not making a profit.
We should work towards the Minister recommending levels or ranges of levels of fees, and requiring, as proposed in amendment No. 5, those fees or scales to be published. That way, there would be no element of surprise to anyone coming to the adoption procedure; they would know their likely costs from the outset.
I am looking for transparency and an indication that we want not to prescribe the fees but to recommend scales within which they should operate. This is not a matter of the Minister knowing best, but of the user of the servicethe potential adopterneeding to know the potential costs and that they will not constitute a barrier. The whole process should be open and transparent.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): The clause amplifies the general regulation-making power in clause 9 for the charging and payment of fees by adoption agencies. Like the amendments, it covers two separate situations in which it is appropriate for the Government to be able to make regulations.
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The hon. Gentleman tended to concentrate on the first aspect, which relates to the ability of adoption agencies to charge for prescribed activities surrounding intercountry adoption. The second relates to prescribing fees that may be paid by adoption agencies to other persons and organisations that provide facilities as part of the adoption service. The clause is therefore not about the charging of fees to individuals who enter the adoption system. I made it clear last week that the Government have no intention to charge domestic adopters for any part of the adoption service.
Judging by the hon. Gentleman's amendments, he seems to think it possible that regulations will not prescribe requirements. By their nature, regulations must prescribe requirements; they cannot simply set out recommendations, although recommendations may be included in guidance when the guidance does not have statutory underpinning.
Amendment No. 3 would prevent the appropriate Minister from setting out in regulations the fees that may be charged and paid by adoption agencies to the persons that provided adoption services. The powers in subsection (1) relate to the second aspect that I described and could be used to make regulations to change the inter-agency fee system, for example. That fee is a payment made by an adoption agency to another adoption agency that has recruited an adoptive family on its behalf and covers the cost of recruiting and assessing that family. The Government believe that the inter-agency fee system operates well, but we have promised to keep it under review. The power will enable us to make any changes to the system that we consider necessary after consultation with those involved. The amendment would prevent us from taking action if it became necessary.
Amendment No. 4 would provide that regulations might not prescribe the fees that local authorities may charge for intercountry adoption services; it would enable those regulations only to make recommendations. I have explained why it is inappropriate for regulations simply to make recommendations. It may help the hon. Gentleman if I describe what we intend to prescribe.
We do not intend to prescribe specific fee levels. We may prescribe that local authorities can charge fees for intercountry adoption in the first place, and specify the services that local authorities may charge for, such as assessing adopters, obtaining medical reports and police checks and preparing post-placement reports for the child's country of origin. We have no intention to set or recommend any particular fee level under the regulations.
Under current legislation, all agencies are bound to charge only reasonable fees; that will continue under the new provisions. Adoption agencies may not make a profit, but each adoption agency will have slightly different costs which they should be able to reflect in the fee charged so as to recoup their costs. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, a nationally set or recommended fee might result in some agencies
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receiving more money than they need, while others, which are not able to cover their costs, are discouraged from assessing intercountry adopters. However, those engaged in intercountry adoption must have some certainty about what adoption agencies can and cannot charge for. That is what we intend to establish through the regulations.
Under amendment No. 5, the regulations would require local authorities to publish their fees. I have some sympathy with the sentiment behind the amendment, but I think it unnecessary. On the whole, fees charged by adoption agencies to adopters, prospective adopters and other adoption agencies are already in the public domain. The level of fees charged between adoption agencies is announced annually by the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, is agreed between the agencies, and is set at £14,931. The inter-agency fee charged by local authorities is agreed by the National Joint Council for Local Government and is set at £10,539. Information on those fees is clearly already in the public domain.
The intercountry adoption guide issued by the Department in April makes it clear that all adoption agencies charging fees to adopters and prospective adopters for intercountry adoption should clearly state what the fee will be before the process starts. The guide offers advice on the type of costs that should and should not be included, and encourages adoption agencies to consider charging fees in instalments. Agencies are also encouraged to provide applicants with a written statement detailing what is included in the fee to achieve transparency, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is important in the circumstances. It is a requirement under current legislation and under clauses 91 and 92 of the Bill that adoption agencies may not derive a profit from that or any other work.
The powers in clause 9 are sufficiently flexible to enable the appropriate Minister through regulations to require adoption agencies to publish their fees or make them known to prospective adopters at the start of the assessment process. We believe that the system works well, but would be willing to consider whether that element was necessary if we received further evidence during consultation on the regulations.
Given those reassurances and explanations about the provisions and their intention, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.