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Special Standing Committee
Tuesday 15 January 2002
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
The Chairman: A revised Chairman's provisional selection list has been circulated. New clause 11 has now been grouped with new clause 10 for the purpose of debate. I should also inform the Committee that the Programming Sub-Committee met earlier today and agreed a resolution, a copy of which has been circulated. The Committee must consider that resolution before proceeding to further consideration of the Bill.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Special Standing Committee recommend that two days be allotted for Consideration and Third Reading of the Adoption and Children Bill.[Jacqui Smith.]
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I do not want to eat into the Committee's time this afternoon, but it is useful to put on the record that the Opposition welcome the extension of consideration proposed in the motion, given that much of the Bill has not been covered in Committee, and there are many further issues that may not be covered by the new clauses. We are happy to support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
Special guardianship orders
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 257, in page 60, line 12, after 'guardian', insert 'and,
(c) a birth parent'.[Tim Loughton.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 258, in page 61, line 25, after 'guardian', insert 'and,
(c) birth parents'.
Tim Loughton: At the end of our previous sitting, I had risen but then sat down quietly at the stroke of one o'clock. I must check that my mobile is off, lest it intervene again.
The Minister had just responded to the two Opposition amendments, which are designed to add birth parents to the list of people eligible to request assessments for support services for special guardianships and to make representations to local authorities. The Minister's response was interesting. She said that there were fundamental differences between adoption support services and those required for special guardianship. She also said that the
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amendment was not required because local authorities had a general duty to give support to families generally and to promote the welfare of children living in their area.
In closing, the Minister referred to section 16 of the Children Act 1989, claiming that it already did what we want the amendment to achieve. I have examined that section: it relates to family assistance orders and is only partly relevant to clause 110. She also said that the facility was ''not greatly used'' in any case, but it was, at least, available. We will not press the amendment to a vote, but it is worth putting it on the record, and the Minister should be aware, that although the power may well be available, unless it is actually specified in the Bill it will have very low or nil priority for local authorities, whose resources are stretched to provide all the other support services for which the Bill specifically legislates. That is the problem.
Although I do not think that the Minister has made a convincing enough case that what we are asking for is fully covered in the Bill, I hope that her comments make it implicitly clear to local authorities that there is a requirementone that should be a priority and cannot be ignored.
I said that these were probing amendments. The Minister has not given us categorical reasons why birth parents should not be included in respect of the delivery of services, but she is satisfied that those services will be available through other means. I hope that she is correct. Despite the reservations that I have expressed, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move, amendment No. 253, in page 60, line 17, leave out 'decide whether to'.
We are back on familiar territory. The amendment deals with the thorny subject of the local authority deciding whether or not it should be in the business of providing support services. You might recall an earlier debateI am not sure whether you were in the Chair, Mr. Stevenson, as it was such a lengthy debate that it straddled both yourself and Mrs. Roe in the Chair[Laughter.] That was probably a bad turn of phrase. It is about time someone's mobile phone went off.
The question we dealt with in relation to clauses 4 to 12 was that of adoption support services. We all agree that they are necessary, and an important feature of the Bill is that it beefs them up. However, there was concern at that stage of consideration. Although the Bill makes due provision for the making of assessments of need for adoption support services, which is fine, it then goes a bit wobbly, for want of a better word, about ensuring that if an assessment of need is made, the support services should actually be provided.
Subsection (3) of proposed new section 14F says that
''Where, as a result of an assessment, a local authority decide that a person has needs for special guardianship support services, they must then decide whether to provide any such services to that person.''
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Consistent with our amendments to the adoption support services part of the Bill, amendment No. 253 would leave out ''decide whether to''. If the Minister thinks that local authorities should have the flexibility to decide that, having identified the need for support services, they are not going to provide them, in what scenarios does she think that that would be justified? The problem is that if the requirement for special guardianship support services is not specifically stated in the clause, as was the case with adoption support services, it will assume a low priority for local authorities, which have many pressures on their resources to meet other requirements in the legislation.
The Minister had due notice of the thrust behind the amendment some weeks ago. No doubt she will trot out the same excuses as she did last time.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). It is vital that we ensure the right level of support services in connection with special guardianship orders.
Special guardianship orders may work very well in the majority of cases, but I can envisage cases in which there is a great deal of stress between guardians and birth parents and various problems and tensions build up. In extremis, an application can be made to the court to vary or even to discharge the SGO. That is obviously rather formal, but in some cases it may be the last resort.
In essence, we must put in place services to provide the counselling and help that are needed. That is what concerns me, because it goes to the heart of what we have to do to help children. Once an adoption has taken place, little can be done legally to help the child. In the case of SGOs, a great deal could be done, but going through the legal hoops will be traumatic, difficult and awesome. A proper support service would provide vital back-up. That is why I support the amendment.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): Not only is this territory thorny, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, but it has been well and truly tramped over. Opposition Members are repeating the points they made during our debates on adoption support servicespoints that were well countered not only by me but by some of my hon. Friendsand the debate on whether the right to assessment should lead automatically to a right to provision, and the extent to which the measure is out of line with the principles governing the provision of public services.
Proposed new section 14F of the 1989 Act makes provision for local authority support services for special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders. Under subsection (1), each local authority must arrange to provide support, including counselling, advice and information, and such other services as are prescribed in regulations. Regulations will be made prescribing the circumstances in which, at the request of special guardians and children subject to
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special guardianship ordersfollowing the lead of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), perhaps we can now call them SGOslocal authorities must carry out an assessment of that person's need for special guardianship support services.
The hon. Gentleman raised issues that I suspect would be more appropriately covered by the assessment process. I made it clear this morning that we would set out the type of process that should be gone through during such assessments and preparation. That process is important in relation to SGOs.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): If two children were in similar circumstances except for the fact that one was adopted and the other was the subject of special guardianship, would one of them be entitled to more help than the other?
Jacqui Smith: It would depend on the assessment. We pursued this morning the question of whether or not the services that might be available to support special guardianship would be similar to those available for adoption support, and we said that it would depend on the circumstances of the case. If, for example, financial support were needed to ensure the stability of the placement, I suspect that the two children would receive the same services; on the other hand, if counselling were needed to prepare for the fact that adoption meant a complete move away from the birth family but special guardianship did not, there would be differences.
The important point is that parents and children involved in both special guardianship and adoption support cases have the right to an assessment. That right is the same for both. What results from that assessment is the subject of debate, which is why local authorities should have the discretion to decide whether and how to provide those support services.
The Government intend to use the regulations to ensure that local authorities put in place a range of support services, including financial support, to be available when appropriate for special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders. In practice, as I suggested, many of the services for adoption support will be relevant to special guardianship.
As I said, we are already working on a new framework for adoption support. We will consult widely on our proposals for the framework later this year. In that consultation, we will raise the particular needs of special guardians. We will also consult stakeholders on the regulations that put in place special guardianship support services to ensure we get the detail of those services right.
The Government believe that when the assessment of need for special guardianship support identifies a need for such support, local authorities are best placed to decide, based on need and the resources available locally, whether to provide services to individuals, and, if so, which services. That is not an inappropriate
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form of decision making given the range of services for which local authorities are responsible. As the Committee is aware, the issue was discussed in some detail when we considered clause 4. The same principles apply under clause 110. First, it is an appropriate decision for a local authority to make. Secondly, it is inappropriate to set the provision of special guardianship services above decisions to be made on other services when the same principle, about the right to an assessment and a decision on provision, forms the model for those services.
Proposed new section 14F(4) requires local authorities that decide to provide special guardianship support services following an assessment, when the circumstances fall within what is prescribed by regulations, to prepare a plan for the provision of such services and to keep that plan under review. Regulations made under new section 14F(5) will set out requirements on the manner and frequency of reviewing such plans.
The amendment would require local authorities to provide special guardianship support services that a person has been assessed as needing. As I have said before, it is not needed. The amendment would make the provision of special guardianship support services unique among public services, and it would undermine the legitimate decision-making role of local authorities. As I have argued successfully before, it is not appropriate.