Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: The Minister has not mellowed over the past few weeks. She may have won the battle on numbers in Committee, but she has not won the war of minds. She did not convince us that adoption support services should merely be an option for local authorities to choose to apply to people whom they have clearly identified as being in need of such services. She says that special guardianship support services would be unique if the amendment were accepted, but they would not be unique if she had agreed to the common-sense approach of our amendments to the clauses on adoption support services.

However, we shall not get any further with the Minister now, and I am sure that hon. Members would like to go on to other more important parts of the Bill. Rather than repeat the arguments again today, we shall save those battles for Report stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 245, in page 60, line 17, at end insert

    'and provide for a review of a decision not to provide special guardianship support services.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 254, in page 60, line 17, at end insert

    'and provide a written explanation of their reasons if those support services will not be forthcoming.'.

Mr. Bellingham: The amendments represent a fallback provision. We were fearful that the Government would not accept the previous amendment. That they did not is a pity, because I

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believe that local authorities should be obliged to provide those services. Now that they will not have that clear legal obligation, it makes sense to oblige them to provide for a review of any decision not to provide those support services, and to give a written explanation of why the services are not to be forthcoming. That is not asking a great deal.

The Minister and her colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), have on several occasions expressed their wish to break down the barriers of officialdom and to remove from decision making the aura of remoteness that often characterises public perception of local government. It is important that decision making and what goes on in social services departments be made more user friendly.

Will Ministers not agree that the cost of implementing the amendments would be negligible, but that they would give a clear signal that the Government believe in being as open as possible and in communicating with the public? That is especially important when a decision on something like providing support services goes against a family or an individual. In such circumstances those making the decision they should at least appear compassionate. I very much hope that the Minister will accept these two modest amendments, which will probably cost nothing but will show the Government in the best possible light.

Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman says, the amendment makes statutory the provision of a written explanation. I do not believe that that is appropriate. When, following an assessment of needs, a local authority decides not to provide special guardianship support services, a complaint may be made to the local authority under the procedures established in proposed new section 14G of the 1989 Act, which I outlined briefly this morning. Amendment No. 254 would require local authorities, when they decide not to provide special guardianship support services following an assessment under proposed new section 14F(2), to provide a written explanation of their reasons for not doing so. That is not a matter for primary legislation.

I agree that it would be good practice for local authorities to provide a written explanation of their reasons for not providing adoption support services or special guardianship support services following an assessment, but the matter should be covered in guidance to local authorities. In some cases, depending on the needs of the person who has been assessed, it might be more appropriate to provide a verbal explanation.

The amendment also impinges on the issue of how people are able to make representations and complaints. The Government are improving the Children Act complaints procedure. We undertook a consultation exercise that resulted in a range of improvements to the procedure, and through clause 111 we are amending the complaints procedure established under the 1989 Act. The Bill implements the changes that require primary legislation.

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In addition, new regulations will be developed and guidance issued to local authorities. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the new special guardianship complaints procedure will reflect those developments, enabling a person who has been refused special guardianship support provision to make representations. That is explicit in the legislation. It is good practice to ensure that transparency surrounds decisions on special guardianship support, but that is more appropriately covered in guidance than via the inflexible approach of incorporating it into legislation. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: Anyone who has had cause to make a complaint against local authorities will know that they can go to all sorts of lengths to obfuscate and delay to make the process as difficult and as painful as possible. The Minister says that guidance can be in put place; I hope that there will be full guidance on the complaints procedure and on what local authorities should do in the circumstances. However, that is no substitute for setting down a clear, well defined process in the Bill.

We are not talking about the average local authority, as the Minister knows, because most will handle the matter compassionately and get it right. We are talking about the small percentage of local authorities that will not behave as she would like. Some will fall below the expected standards of service. It is about those local authorities that I am most concerned.

The Minister says that she would like written explanations in the majority of cases, but that verbal explanations may sometimes be more appropriate. Will she elaborate and tell me in which cases verbal explanations would be more appropriate? Obviously, some people might not be able to read, and people from different ethnic backgrounds might not understand English.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman answers the question himself—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There are conversations taking place here and there that even I can hear, and I am slightly hard of hearing. Please keep it down.

Jacqui Smith: However many people consider something good practice, it is not necessarily appropriate to make provision inflexibly, as proposed in the amendment. That is my major concern and why I oppose the amendment.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): If I heard the Minister correctly, she said that proposed new section 14G of the Children Act 1989 nearly covered the point made in the amendment. It covers special guardianship support services provided, and so relates to complaints about the level or frequency of support services. So far as I can see, it does not explicitly or implicitly cover a refusal to supply those services, which is the point of the amendment.

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Jacqui Smith: I will correct myself if I am wrong, but I think I said that there were two approaches. First, in many cases it might be appropriate to give a written explanation to a person who, following assessment, was not to receive special guardianship support services, but I do not think it appropriate to put a requirement in legislation. Secondly, complaints would be dealt with by the specific points about representations on special guardianship support services covered in proposed new section 14G.

I understand the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) to be suggesting that proposed new section 14G implies that one could complain about only the nature of the provision of service, and not about whether one had been granted access to services following an assessment. The new section makes it clear that regulations may be made under it, so the procedure can be set out in regulations, not only in guidance. I will correct myself if I am wrong, but my understanding is that it covers refusal to provide services.

To answer the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, reasons for refusing the provision of services could be given orally when the request was for advice or guidance only. It would hardly be appropriate to go through the lengthy process of writing down reasons why it was not possible to provide services in such cases.

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Mr. Llwyd: In the light of that explanation, will the Minister point out where in proposed new section 14G that is implicitly or explicitly covered?

Jacqui Smith: I will. New section 14G(1) states:

    ''Every local authority shall establish a procedure for considering representations . . . about the discharge of their functions under section 14F''.

That obviously covers whether local authorities provide special guardianship support services, as well as how they do so.

Mr. Llwyd: That is helpful. Thank you.

Mr. Bellingham: I would like the Minister to say a quick word about the precise circumstances in which she envisages a verbal explanation being more appropriate than a written explanation.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman can keep asking me and I can keep repeating what I have said, or he can accept what I have said, which covered a wide range of situations.

Mr. Bellingham: I accept what the Minister has said.

It has been important to debate the subject, because local authorities will carefully consider what has been said in Committee. The subject is important and no laughing matter. On the basis of our debate and the Minister's positive response—which falls short of accepting the amendment—I intend to seek the Committee's leave to withdraw the amendment.

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