Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: A point that I had meant to mention in connection with the previous clause is equally relevant to this one. Who are we talking about when we refer to ''illegitimate'' adoption societies—ones that are not registered? What is the target of the clause? Is the problem a big one?

Jacqui Smith: I shall come to that after I have dealt with defence points.

Under subsection (4), we consider the basis on which a defence could be provided for a person charged with an offence of causing a person to prepare or submitting to any person a report in contravention of subsection (2). The hon. Gentleman argues that the defence is too lenient and may allow people to evade the intention of the clause. However, the defence is used in other legislation and, most importantly, it applies to subsection (3)(b) alone. It applies not to the person who actually prepares the report but to those who may receive the report without realising that it has not been prepared properly.

The measure does not give a let-out on the basis that they did not know the law to an unqualified or unregulated individual who prepares that report. The defence of not knowing or having reasonable cause to believe is included in a range of other legislation. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I can go through some examples; I assure him that there are quite a few.

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Subsection (5) sets out the penalty on summary conviction when an offence is committed as imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale—that is, £5,000—or both. That shows the significance of the restrictions.

10.45 am

The hon. Gentleman asked about adoption societies, which clause 2(5) defines as bodies

    ''whose functions consist of or include making arrangements for the adoption of children''.

The ''illegitimate'' bodies to which the hon. Gentleman referred would include a person who set himself up as an adoption agency, but who was not registered as such and was not, therefore, subject to the quality control and monitoring that registration entails. With those assurances, I hope that the Committee will allow clause 90 to stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): Clearly, we need to prevent the production of fraudulent reports, but because the system does not always work properly, people go to independent consultants to move the process along. Under the provisions, could an independent consultant—even a high-ranking social worker with 20 years' experience who decided to go private—never produce a report?

I recently spoke to prospective adoptive parents in a London borough, which I need not name, who were involved in two adoptions from the United States of America. They said that the system was so poor that the delays would have lasted for years, and that they had been forced to go to an independent consultant for a report. From what I can make out, the council was relieved that they did so because that removed its responsibility. I suppose that my question comes down to what the word ''prescribed'' encompasses.

Jacqui Smith: Similar points were raised in our discussions on intercountry adoptions in which we rehearsed at some length the problems with private home studies. We also discussed how we might tackle capacity issues, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly).

Private home studies have been open to criticism for several reasons, the most important of which is that there is no way to verify that those who carry them out have appropriate qualifications or experience. We discussed the fact that there will be no way of identifying the necessary qualifications until the General Social Care Council becomes fully operational. Secondly, such persons who carry out studies cannot obtain full police checks on prospective adopters and adult members of the household, but only a printout under the Data Protection Act 1988 of information about current convictions. Thirdly, they cannot obtain from the prospective adopters' local authority information about relevant previous contacts with social services; and, fourthly, they cannot obtain impartial medical advice on the health of the prospective adopters. Fifthly, there are no peer review or management arrangements to oversee the work of those who carry out assessments. Finally, the case could not be considered on its merits by an adoption panel or separate decision maker. The

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Kilshaw case and other high-profile intercountry adoption cases that have gone wrong have involved criticisms of private home studies and individual independent social workers by the judiciary.

As for the hon. Gentleman's point about capacity, agencies can choose to contract with independent social workers to undertake an assessment of adoptive applicants. That will allow additional capacity to be brought into the agency, and ensure that the necessary information is obtained and that checks and balances are built into the system. That, rather than the reinstatement of a system of private home studies, is the way to address problems of capacity. When we discussed establishing such a system, most hon. Members agreed that it would be unsatisfactory in terms of safeguarding the best interests of children involved in adoption.

Tim Loughton: I want to pick up a couple of the Minister's points. I agree with her on the matter of necessary safeguards, but the question is whether the provisions would squeeze out all home study reports produced by anyone other than approved social workers, adoption agencies and others.

For two reasons, home studies are privately commissioned by individuals who want to adopt. One is that it has taken an interminably long time for one to be supplied by a local authority in its capacity as an adoption agency, as in the case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, which involved a London borough. I am sure that such cases are common—I have come across many in which part of the problem of delay is getting someone to come round to start to produce a report. It is obvious that people who are frustrated by delays will commission their own studies.

The second reason why people might commission their own study is that they did not like the result of the first one from the local authority, and want one that is more favourable. In many cases, that would amount to an abuse of the system—unless there had been some degree of negligence and the assessment had not been made properly, although there are now various appeal procedures to cope with such cases, as we discussed in relation to other parts of the Bill.

Unless the Minister can guarantee a reduction in delays in the provision of reports by local authorities, demand for others to produce them will persist. She must assure the Committee that her Department will monitor delays in producing reports—there is wide variation between local authorities; for a host of reasons, some are much more efficient than others. If, as I suspect, she cannot guarantee that, she must allow for the continued provision of home study reports by private agencies that are properly regulated. My understanding was that because of the Care Standards Act 2000, police reports and various other innovations, there is now more of an infrastructure to monitor such agencies, and ensure that they are bona fide and produce completely objective and bona fide reports.

Mr. Djanogly: If, in its role as an adoption agency, an authority did not produce a report within a certain

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time, would it not be a good idea to force it to contract out the production of that report?

Tim Loughton: That is an interesting practical suggestion, which might apply to many other services provided by public bodies. As things stand, it seems that we will have the worst of both worlds: enormous inconsistencies between the times taken for various local authorities to provide the professional report will persist, but the Minister will make it much more difficult for people to go elsewhere to commission a report.

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: In a moment. Without any proper checks that the reports are legitimate in the first place—[Interruption.] Oh dear—I am sorry, Mrs. Roe. I will give way.

The Chairman: Order. I remind Committee members to check that their mobile telephones are turned off. As we all know, it is a breach of the rules to have them switched on in Committee.

Mr. Dawson: I am grateful to my fellow miscreant for giving way. I understand what he and the hon. Member for Huntingdon are saying, but is there not an inherent danger in a couple being able to commission a report that they need to be favourable? There are real difficulties with the Opposition's approach, and a serious distinction must be drawn between it and the argument being advanced by my hon. Friend the Minister, who is saying that any services would be commissioned by the local authority rather than the couple themselves.

Tim Loughton: I agree with nearly everything that my fellow miscreant says. Our proposed solution is not ideal. In an ideal world, all such reports would be produced by proper adoption agencies and local authorities, there would be no problem with their integrity and objectivity and they would be subject to the various appeal systems. Everyone agrees that that is the best way forward. However, the Minister must come clean about the delays in many parts of the country. If we do away with private reports and rely solely on social services departments and adoption agencies, those delays will continue—unless the Minister does something along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, or provides more resources to prevent delay. Otherwise, we must acknowledge the practicalities: people will go elsewhere because they are frustrated by the amount of time the process is taking, or because they want a second opinion. The second of those reasons is not a good one, and should be treated with great suspicion.

There is a grey area in the middle of this issue. The safeguards should be greater, because if people are able to go elsewhere and consequently there is no pressure on local authorities to prioritise the production of home studies, those authorities will not do so, however much they might want to. The absence of such pressure may be a relief to some local authorities because of their workload and the constraints on their departments. If we speed up that system, private reports will wither away and those that

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remain can be severely regulated. If we cannot speed it up, we must recognise that private reports will always have a role but that they must be much more closely regulated in order to legitimise them and make them more objective. If we do not take one of those options we will continue to swim around in the grey area. The time constraints will not improve matters, and the checks on private reports will not improve either.

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