Adoption and Children Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Brazier: I thank the Minister for that explanation. Once again, the amendments propose something that we would like in the Bill rather than in regulations. None the less, she has given us a full range of assurances on the regulations and on one aspect of performance management. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Djanogly: I, like all other hon. Members, support the concept of special guardianship. It will move the debate forward, provide a wider range of powers which will fit more circumstances, and be generally useful. However, the Committee should realise that not everyone feels the same. Indeed, many representations have been made against the clause. It is fit and proper that the problems that have been mentioned should be on the record. It is also fit and proper that the Government should address those problems.

It could be said that the provisions on SGOs could allow a bias against adoption. It has often been said that, in recent years, adoption has increasingly been seen as a measure of last resort. Professor Jackson, in her oral evidence to the Committee, referred to an anti-adoption culture. It is feared that some local authorities will use special guardianship orders to sideline adoption. Special guardianships deprive a child of the security of adoption, because they are not permanent. It is the permanence of adoption that provides the ultimate security for the child.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend has recollected for me a point that I raised earlier. We heard evidence that about 30 years ago, in previous adoption legislation, a similar measure was produced, but that it was given up because there was so little interest in it. As someone who supports special guardianship orders in principle, my hon. Friend is right to put the case against them. The academic evidence about them was pretty lukewarm, and it is right that we should have a short discussion on the subject.

Column Number: 846

Mr. Djanogly: For a child previously in care, special guardianship orders, unlike adoption orders, can be discharged by a court at the request of the local authority. Again, that attacks the concept of permanence. If special guardianship orders are to offer a permanence similar to adoption, as the Government have stated, why are the same restrictions not imposed on those who may apply for them? There is not even an upper limit on the number of individuals who can apply for special guardianship orders for the same child.

Furthermore, and finally, statistical evidence suggests that cohabiting couples are four times more likely to break up than married couples. Such relationships are not as stable as marriage. Research also shows that placing children with same-sex couples has an even poorer outcome; and by its very nature it deprives children of either a male or female role model in the home.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I note that the hon. Gentleman is reading from the briefing note supplied by the Christian Institute. I have not seen such evidence. Yes, cohabiting couples are probably more likely to split up, but the hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. Many cohabiting couples do not regard their relationship as long term and are not thinking about children. If one isolates those couples who are thinking about children, I suspect that the figures would be different. Where is the evidence that adoption by same-sex couples results in a poor outcome for the children? We heard evidence—I thought that it was powerful—that occasionally children have been successfully placed in that sort of environment. We heard no evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Djanogly: My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury wants to address the same point.

Mr. Brazier: I do not want to bore the Committee by going over ground that we have already covered. I will give the hon. Lady a copy of the Library's 1997 study of the subject. It is based on official statistics, which show that at the 10-year point, 85 per cent. of relationships break up where children are involved—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. This sort of vicarious intervention does not help. If hon. Members want to intervene or to catch my eye, they are entitled to do so.

Mr. Djanogly: The points made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury are both fair. The evidence suggests that cohabiting couples are more likely to break up than married couples. That is unarguable, and the Government should address the fact.

Jacqui Smith: At the start of this debate, I spelled out the principles of special guardianship orders and said that they have been well received. However, although the arguments of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) against special guardianship orders were not strong, it is worth pursuing the matter briefly.

Column Number: 847

The hon. Gentleman once again said that the introduction of special guardianship orders might create a bias against adoption. As I have said in previous responses, that is most certainly not the Government's intention. Mechanisms are in place that will ensure that even if local authorities were considering the use of special guardianship orders as a way to avoid adoption—I cannot envisage why they would consider that appropriate—there would be ways in which a failure to deliver an increased number of adoptions could be highlighted and monitored. As I have spelled out, the Bill is intended to increase the use of adoption. Special guardianship is an alternative designed to meet the needs of children for whom adoption is not appropriate. As I suggested to the hon. Member for Canterbury, it may equally be seen as a more stable alternative to long-term fostering or a residence order.

The hon. Member for Canterbury raised the issue of why previous attempts to introduce something similar to special guardianship orders had failed. There may have been a variety of reasons why those initiatives were unsuccessful. First, the public perception of what was intended may have affected their success. It is also important to consider possible concerns about the extent to which support services would be provided to people entering into those arrangements. That is why the Government were right to include provisions in the Bill specifically relating to special guardianship support services. The intention is to ensure that, where special guardianship is appropriate but does not happen, the reason for not entering into it does not relate to insufficient support for those who might do so.

Furthermore, several of the Bill's provisions, including those on adoption support, are aimed directly at increasing the use of adoption. I think that everybody across the Committee has recognised that the provisions are important to increasing the number of people who feel able to adopt, which will help more adoptions to last. The independent review mechanism, in giving some right of redress to those people rejected as prospective adopters, will also encourage more people to come forward to adopt. The Adoption and Children Act register will ensure that we bring together, across the country, those who are willing to offer a home to a child and children looking for a home. It will facilitate more and quicker matches for adoption, so that more adoption can happen. Those provisions show that the Government certainly do not have a bias against adoption and have made significant progress in promoting it.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon raised some more points around the issue of special guardianship orders. First, he made the point that there was no upper limit on the number of people who can apply for a special guardianship order. There is no upper limit, but nor is there for other orders such as residence orders. However, it would be very unusual for more than two people to be granted a special guardianship order. Both the assessment process and the court

Column Number: 848

process would ensure that if an inappropriate number of people were applying for a special guardianship order it would be unlikely that they would get it.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman raised a point about same-sex couples and special guardianship orders. The argument began with the extent to which it is appropriate for same-sex couples to take out special guardianship orders, but it will be up to the court, in accordance with the principle of the paramountcy of welfare, to make the order. There is no express provision about to whom an order may be made. It could be made to any two people, such as two sisters. Circumstances in which a special guardianship order would be appropriate include those in which the child's extended family have taken on responsibility for him or her. A range of different people could undertake special guardianship orders. The important thing is that it would be up to the court, in accordance with the principle of the paramountcy of welfare, to make the order.

I do not intend again to go over the arguments on the importance of special guardianship orders. As many members of the Committee have said, there is widespread support for the principle of special guardianship orders. There was widespread support in the consultation—the orders are seen as providing an important opportunity for children and young people to gain permanence and stability. In light of that, I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 110 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 111

Inquiries by local authorities into representations

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 260, in page 62, line 18, at end insert—

    '(3B) The duty under subsection (3) extends to representations (including complaints) made to the authority by—

    (a) any person mentioned in section 3(1) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (persons for whose needs provision is made by the Adoption Service) and any other person to whom arrangements for the provision of adoption support services (within the meaning of that Act) extend,

    (b) such other person as the authority consider has sufficient interest in a child who is or may be adopted to warrant his representations being considered by them, about the discharge by the authority of such functions under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 as are specified by the Secretary of State in regulations'.

The clause relates to the changes that the Government are making to the local authority social services complaints procedures. Those procedures have been criticised by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who suggested, perhaps rather unreasonably, that local authorities always set out to stymie complaints. That might have been an extreme criticism, but the procedures have been criticised for being too slow and bureaucratic.

The Government want to speed up the process and make it more effective, particularly for children. That is why the Department undertook a review of social

Column Number: 849

services complaints procedures in 1999-2000. Following that review, the Department issued a consultation document, ''Listening to People'', in June 2000. That document proposed a range of improvements to the procedures and sought views on them. As a result of that consultation, the Government will make several changes to the procedures, many of which do not require primary legislation. However, in response to the consultation exercise, clause 111 changes the complaints procedure established under the Children Act 1989; it implements the changes that require primary legislation.

It is worth remembering that the Committee has already debated clause 12, which introduces an independent review mechanism concerning adoption. That mechanism is being established, as we discussed, for two specific purposes. It will be used to review adoption agency determinations on the suitability of prospective adopters, thereby building confidence in the adopter-assessment process and encouraging more people to adopt. It will also be used to review determinations made by adoption agencies about the disclosure of information held in their records that identifies third parties. As we discussed last week, that will provide a balance for the adoption agencies' use of discretion on the subject.

Adoption is a mainstream social services function. The majority of complaints about local authority adoption services will therefore most appropriately be dealt with through existing social services complaints procedures. Local authorities operate two distinct but similar complaints procedures in respect of their social services functions. The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 inserted into the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970, which is known as the LASS Act, the requirement for social services authorities to establish a complaints procedure for any failure to discharge their social services functions. Section 26(3) of the Children Act 1989 requires all local authorities to establish a procedure to consider representations about the exercise of their functions under part III of that Act made by or on behalf of any children looked after or in need. Therefore, local authorities have a dual process for considering complaints, provided for partly by the LASS Act and partly by the Children Act.

Under the existing legal framework, adoption-related complaints are dealt with by the adult complaints procedure established under the LASS Act. The Government do not believe that that is the appropriate procedure to consider all adoption-related complaints. In some cases, it is appropriate for complaints about local authority adoption services to be dealt with through the adult complaints procedure. When a complaint is made by an adult and does not involve or affect an individual child, it is appropriate for the local authority to use the procedure. However, when children are involved or affected, complaints about local authority adoption services should be dealt with through the Children Act complaints procedure. A complaint made by a child himself or on his behalf should, of course, also be dealt with through that procedure.

Column Number: 850

It might help if I gave other examples for which the Children Act procedure should be used, as would be achieved under my amendment. A complaint made by an adoptive parent about the package of adoption support services provided to the adoptive family by the local authority should be dealt with through the Children Act procedure, as should a complaint made by a birth parent about a decision taken by the local authority that adoption was in the best interests of his or her child.

The Children Act procedure offers a better process for complaints that involve children than that of the LASS Act, as it involves an independent person to oversee the process and has tighter time scales, which allow children's complaints to be dealt with more quickly. The amendment inserts new subsection (3B) into section 26 of the Children Act. It extends the child-focused Children Act complaints procedure to specified local authority functions under the Bill.

The Government intend to prescribe in regulations the types of adoption-related complaints to which the Children Act complaints procedure should apply. As I have explained, they will all be adoption-related complaints that involve or affect children, or which involved or affected them. Other adoption-related complaints that are not prescribed in the regulations will continue to be dealt with through the LASS Act procedure, as under present arrangements. The Government will issue guidance to local authorities to assist them to determine which complaints procedure should be followed in each case.

All the people listed in clause 3(1) will be entitled under the Children Act procedure to make a complaint about the specified local authority adoption functions. Those people are

    ''children who may be adopted, their parents and guardians'',

prospective adopters and adopted people, their adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians. Other people who receive adoption support services from the local authority, such as members of the wider birth family and adoptive siblings, will be able to complain under the Children Act procedure when a child is involved or affected. Similarly, those whom the local authority considers have a sufficient interest in the child concerned, such as its grandparents, will be able to complain.

6 pm

The provisions are sufficiently flexible to enable adoption-specific requirements to be introduced into the Children Act complaints procedure through regulations, should that be considered appropriate. We will also consider whether it is necessary to introduce any adoption-specific requirements into the adult LASS Act procedure. If it is, we will issue directions accordingly. That will ensure that the local authority social services complaints procedure is as well equipped as possible to meet adoption-related needs.

Given the proposals in clause 111, which improve the breadth and operation of the Children Act complaints procedure, and the fact that the amendment ensures that those procedures apply in

Column Number: 851

appropriate cases to adoption-related complaints, I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support the amendment.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 15 January 2002