Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: That is entirely a matter for Parliament to decide. It is for a Standing Committee to decide how to approach the regulations. However great the Government's majority may be, Parliament has a right to scrutinise regulations that are an essential part of legislation such this Bill. I am afraid that the Minister's arguments are a red rag to a bull.

The Minister continued her circular argument in relation to amendment No. 250. To paraphrase, she said that using the word ''or'' rather than ''and'', as we would like, does not mean that a choice must be made between one option or the other, but that ''or'' could mean ''and''. I understand her remarks to mean that ''or'' does not mean ''or'', but that it can mean ''and''. By that logic, the Bill should use ''and'', which cannot mean one or the other.

That was the logic, or lack thereof, of the Minister's argument. On that basis, and because of the flimsiness of her response on this occasion compared with the rather more robust response to the other amendments in the group, I would like to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Division No. 9]

Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Loughton, Tim
Walter, Mr. Robert

Blackman, Mrs. Liz
Brennan, Kevin
Dawson, Mr. Hilton
Love, Mr. Andrew
Moran, Margaret
Munn, Ms Meg
Shaw, Mr. Jonathan R.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Winterton, Ms Rosie

Question accordingly negatived.

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Mr. Brazier: I beg to move amendment No. 244, in page 60, line 28, at end insert—

    'which regulations must at all times bear in mind, that, in general, any delay in provisions of special guardianship support services is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 255, in page 60, line 42, at end insert—

    'as long as the well-being of any person with regard to special guardianship support services is not affected and there is no avoidable delay.'.

Mr. Brazier: I shall be brief, because we have to a large extent rounded this buoy already with our corresponding amendments on the issue of resourcing support services for adoption.

The question is whether we want special guardianship orders to work. Such orders deal, in almost every case, with an older child. The majority of adoptions nowadays are not of babies but of older children, and I suspect that special guardianship orders will nearly always be made in respect of older children. The sort of special circumstances that the Committee discussed earlier are more likely to apply to older children. For such children it is even more important that the support services should be in place.

We have already debated the value or lack thereof of providing for an assessment, but not backing it up with resources. Departing from the amendment just for a second, Mr. Stevenson, I am one of those who questioned whether it was worth having a compulsory assessment if there were no compulsory resources. The specific services that the assessment shows are needed will require specific resources, and an overall lack of resources is the only possible reason for refusing to provide them.

The same argument applies with a vengeance to special guardianship orders. There is, however, one additional argument in favour of such orders. I expect the clause stand part debate to be short, because all parties support it. When we come to that debate, I expect that we will be told that most special guardianship orders occur within a few local authorities. That should not be the case, because the decision should be child-centred. However, I suspect that a few local authorities—the same ones that are resistant to adoption—may see such orders as an easy way out.

Certain authorities have, over the years, resisted adoption for various reasons. I could run off a long list of names, but the excellent league table that the Government have been publishing for several years shows clearly who they are. I suspect that, under pressure, they will consider special guardianship orders as an alternative to adoption. I am sorry if that sounds cynical. A particular reason to accept the amendment is that would go some way to create a strong disincentive to consider guardianship orders in such a light. To be blunt, it would mean that the authorities would know that they would have to pay for and resource special guardianship. That would make them think.

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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): With respect, the hon. Gentleman is in error. Children are likely to be made the subject of special guardianship when they already have relationships with the adults who are caring for them, but have on-going links with their birth families. They may be older children, or there may be other circumstances that would make it inappropriate to sever those links via adoption. Adoption is a completely different route. The hon. Gentleman's arguments are not supported by that example.

Mr. Brazier: I want to reply to both the hon. Lady's points, and do so clearly, but I am in a difficult position, because I find myself wanting to discuss clause stand part before I discuss the individual amendments.

I support the underlying principle of the special guardianship order. Every member of the Committee supports it, as far as I know. It is designed to deal with precisely the kind of circumstances that the hon. Lady has succinctly summarised. We agree on all of that. However, I fear that those authorities that have over the years proved extremely resistant to using adoption—to a scandalous extent, as academic studies and the league tables show—will misuse the provision on special guardianship orders to avoid using adoption. That is my concern.

The extra argument in favour of amendment No. 244, in addition to the arguments analogous to those for the amendments that we tabled on adoption, is that knowing that they will have to provide proper resources will provide local authorities with an incentive to think hard before they send children down that route. That is all that I was saying. I hope that what the hon. Lady said in her intervention is true, but I am not convinced that she is right in respect of every authority.

Mr. Llwyd: I support the amendments. It is never a bad thing to remind ourselves of the fact that delay can be detrimental, although perhaps the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has fully elucidated the reasoning behind the amendments. I do not say that local authorities will cause, or will want to cause, delay, but it is good if such matters are incorporated in legislation. It reminds practitioners that there is a need for speed, in accordance with the best interests of the child.

Looking at the question of dealing with matters promptly, there is no doubt that delay can prejudice the welfare of a child or young person. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) might be right to say that many cases will involve existing relationships. That is all well and good. However, many will not, so there will be situations in which delay could cause harm. The whole Committee agrees on the welfare of the child being the paramount consideration. The provision is another manifestation of our belief that we should look to the welfare of the child or young person.

I was in practice in family law before the enactment of the Children Act 1989. I witnessed a sea change after its introduction. That ground-breaking piece of

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legislation has been referred to extensively today, and will be again. The greatest thing about it was that it enshrined the principle that lawyers, social workers and all those involved in the practice of family law should bear in mind that timetables are vital. That, above all, was how it revolutionised the practice of family law. Some of us were a bit laissez faire about when the next court appearance would be; now everything is scheduled. Anyone who appears before a judge on an application without having done his spadework and obtained his reports is in for a rocket, and rightly so; the procedure has been tightened up.

This amendment follows those lines. It is not mischievous; it will not incur any financial penalty. It merely serves as a reminder that delay can be detrimental to the children in these circumstances. Surely that is worthy of further consideration.

Jacqui Smith: We seem to have gone rather wide of the amendment. The hon. Member for Canterbury has again expressed his concern that special guardianship might be used as a way to avoid using adoption. I understand that concern, and responded to it earlier.

Throughout all our proceedings on the Bill and through the incentives, pressures and signals sent to local authorities, we have made very clear the Government's commitment to increasing the number of adoptions. Our intention is to provide people with an alternative route to security and stability, not to give them a way out of promoting adoption. I hope that the hon. Member for Canterbury recognises that in the light of many of our earlier discussions in which I referred, for example, to the Government's use of the national adoption standards and other measures.

Mr. Brazier: Yes, of course I accept that in full. My concern does not stem from the Government's approach or their policy. It is prompted only by the approach of a small number of local authorities. I hope that the Minister will keep a close eye on the good figures and the detailed statistics that are provided. That was my underlying extra point.

5.30 pm

Jacqui Smith: Let us now discuss the points raised by the amendments. Proposed new section 14F 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. The Government intend to use that power to make regulations to ensure that local authorities make available a range of support services, including financial support where appropriate, for special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders.

Regulations will also be made prescribing the circumstances in which local authorities must, at the request of special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders, carry out an assessment

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of an individual's needs for special guardianship support services. In practice, many of the services for adoption support will be relevant for special guardianship. We are already working on a new framework for adoption support, and will include special guardianship in that consultation.

Subsections (2) to (8) govern the assessment process and, where support services are to be provided, the arrangements for their provision. As with adoption support services, the needs assessment may be carried out at the same time as an individual's assessment for any other purpose. That is one of the ways in which we can overcome the concern about delay represented in the amendment.

For example, it will be appropriate for the assessment for services to happen at the same time as that for suitability. There does not have to be a special guardianship order before the needs assessment can start. It might be a good idea in some cases, so that prospective special guardians have an idea of the type and nature of the support that they would receive. To that extent, an assessment would not hold up the provision of support services; it might well promote it.

I assure the hon. Member for Canterbury that in the guidance that we issue to local authorities on the assessment procedure we shall make clear the need to avoid delay. On the wider issues that he raised, which fall more into the realms of performance management and concerns about services not being delivered properly, I assure him that if there were evidence of a council's failing to meet its statutory obligations or to deliver services as it should, we would take action to ensure that improvements were made. Such action would be decided case by case, depending on the seriousness of the failure. We would hope that, in many cases, performance assessment would have identified a failure in advance. I hope that that reassures him of the seriousness of our desire to ensure that local authorities do not delay the provision of adoption support services and that steps are taken so that that does not happen.

Amendment No. 255 relates to proposed new section 14F (6)(e), which enables regulations to be made setting out the circumstances in which local authorities, subject to conditions, may provide special guardianship support services. We intend to use regulations to enable local authorities to specify, when appropriate, that financial support must be spent on specified items or services. Those provisions are similar to those made for adoption support under clause 4(7)(f). I believe that we discussed examples of when it might be appropriate to set conditions. Financial support could be provided under the regulations on condition that the special guardians did not spend the money in any other way. For example, it might be provided in order to build an extension or to buy a larger vehicle.

Proposed new section 14F(6)(f) enables regulations to be made concerning the consequences of failure to comply with such conditions. We intend to make regulations enabling local authorities to recoup financial support that has not been spent

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appropriately. That may be appropriate when a one-off grant has been paid for a specific purpose, but is unlikely to be appropriate for a regular allowance. We will consult stakeholders on the regulations to be made under these subsections to ensure that we get the detail right.

The amendments are not needed. The assessment process is not intended to delay the provision of special guardianship support services. Its purpose is to provide a way into the system, in order to prevent special guardian families from having to struggle to get the help and support that they need. Furthermore, the power to specify certain conditions on the provision of special guardianship support services is not intended in any way to compromise a person's well-being or to cause delay. In light of that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

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