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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

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Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Mr. Joe Benton

†Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
†Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
†Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
†Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
†Dobbin, Jim (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
†Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills)
†Ellman, Mrs. Louise (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)
†Field, Mr. Frank (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow) (Lab)
†Heyes, David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
†Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
†Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
†Randall, Mr. John (Uxbridge) (Con)
†Shaw, Jonathan (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)
David Bates, Hannah Weston, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

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Tuesday 21 June 2005

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Suitability of Adopters Regulations 2005

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Suitability of Adopters Regulations 2005.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Restriction on the Preparation of Adoption Reports Regulations 2005.

Maria Eagle: First, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton? It is not the first time that I have done so, but those of us who have served under your chairmanship before would all acknowledge that you keep us in order in a fair and excellent way. I am sure that you will do so again—not that I, for one, have any intention of being out of order.

I welcome the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who is my opposite number in Committee for the first time. He has brought masses of paper with him, which is always worrying. None the less, it is a pleasure to have him here to debate the regulations.

We are known to agree on something. The hon. Gentleman might recall the occasion back in the 1997 Parliament when he actually sponsored one of my private Member’s Bills, for which I was very grateful. That Bill is now on the statute book. It got there by a slightly circuitous route, but none the less it was something of a joint endeavour. Perhaps we can manage a little of that today, although members of the Committee may of course want to ask specific questions, which I will try to answer.

The two sets of regulations are part of a series of regulations to implement the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The Act modernises the whole legal framework for domestic and inter-country adoption. Key elements of the Act—for example, restrictions on inter-country adoption—have already been implemented, and full implementation is planned for 30 December 2005.

In March and April 2005, just before we were all distracted by other things, the core sets of regulations to implement the Act—notably the adoption agencies regulations and the adoptions with a foreign element regulations—were laid before Parliament. Further supporting sets of regulations will be laid before Parliament in the next few months, so that the legislation will have been fully implemented and all the necessary regulations will have been put in place by December 2005. The restriction on reports regulations and suitability of adopters regulations are therefore a
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small but important element in the implementation of the 2002 Act. Both sets of regulations contribute to the safeguarding of vulnerable children.

Section 94 of the 2002 Act provides for regulations to place restrictions on who may prepare adoption reports. Section 94 and the reports regulations will ensure that adoption reports can be prepared only by qualified social workers employed by or on behalf of adoption agencies, or by properly supervised social work students. Furthermore, the regulations specify that those preparing reports must have at least three years of post-qualifying experience in child care social work, including experience of adoption work, or must be supervised by a qualified social worker with that experience.

The regulations will apply to reports prepared both in domestic and inter-country adoption cases, including reports about the suitability of a person to adopt a child or the suitability of a child for adoption.

The reports form an essential part of the adoption decision-making process. It is vital that they are impartial, accurate and produced by suitably experienced and qualified staff, so that appropriate decisions are made for children whose future well-being and prospects are at stake.

Cases in recent years have highlighted the need for tighter safeguards and clarification on who may prepare adoption reports. For example, there have been inter-country adoption cases of couples privately commissioning independent social workers to write what have turned out to be inaccurate and unjustifiably favourable reports to support their adoption applications. In some instances, that has resulted in unsuitable placements in which the children involved subsequently had to be removed. The reports regulations will put in place appropriate safeguards on the preparation of adoption reports. They should ensure that they are accurate and impartial and are compiled with the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration.

The suitability of adopters regulations address the process of assessing whether people are suitable to adopt a child. There has been considerable variation in the way in which the assessment process was carried out, leading to unreliable judgments and a lack of transparency and clarity for prospective adopters. The regulations therefore set out the information that an adoption agency must take into account when preparing reports about suitability for its adoption panel, which is an independent panel of professionals and people affected by adoption which makes recommendations about suitability. That includes information derived from counselling and preparing the applicants, a Criminal Records Bureau certificate, health reports, personal references and a detailed home study looking at every aspect of family life and relationships.

The regulations also set out what information the agency must take into account when making its decision about suitability. Most importantly, they require the agency to

    “have proper regard to the need for stability and permanence in their relationship”

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    “determining the suitability of a couple to adopt a child”.

The 2002 Act, for the first time, allows unmarried couples to adopt jointly. In the past, those who were unmarried were able to adopt only in their own names, singly. That applies whether a couple is same sex or different sex. The stability and permanence of any couple relationship is vital in adoption. During the passage of the 2002 Act, anxieties were expressed about whether unmarried couples had relationships that were as stable and permanent as those of married couples. As a response to those concerns, the suitability regulations require adoption agencies to focus on that when making reports about suitability.

To support agencies in assessing the suitability of prospective adopters, and especially couple relationships, the Department will issue good practice guidance later in the Session to reinforce the regulations.

That, briefly, is the purpose of the regulations, which I commend to the Committee.

4.37 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton? I think that I have served under you to discuss statutory instruments in the past. I also welcome the Minister to her new post. This is not the first time I have been in this position—in fact, I am a bit of a veteran. I worked on the Adoption and Children Bill first time around, as did various Labour Members, which was a long, arduous and tortuous experience for us, but also a satisfying one.

Three years on from that legislation, it is interesting to see some of the practical implications. The 2002 Act did not take a big-bang approach, but was phased in gradually—rightly, because it introduced some radical changes. We all supported the legislation, although there were a few contentious issues. We had some lengthy but productive debates in Committee, but on Report the issues became contentious, although they concerned matters that were, in fact, ancillary to the thrust of the legislation, which was unfortunate. What the regulations propose is not particularly contentious, but I hope that the Minister will be happy to answer some questions arising from them to clarify some of the points at issue.

One thing that came out of the debate on the original Bill—it also came out in debates on subsequent legislation, most notably the recent Children Act 2004—is that regulations and the legislation that gives rise to them will not work unless we have a skilled work force at the grassroots level to put them into effect. Our biggest concern, and that of all who take a close interest in looked-after children, adoption and fostering, is to ensure that we have the people who are needed to put the legislation into effect.

My first question is on restrictions on the preparation of adoption reports. Will the Minister give us an update on the success of the Government’s campaign to recruit more social workers, particularly for child social work and difficult child cases? The campaign was launched in October 2001 by the then
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Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn). The purpose of the campaign was to raise by 5,000 the number of people applying for social work training by 2004. Was that target reached? Was it translated into people training for social work, who would now be starting to graduate with the new social work degree? Most important, will those newly qualified people go into social work, and particularly into child social work?

It is all very well setting up processes to recruit more people into social work—we all agree on that—but some of us are slightly cynical about it, especially when we hear so much from the Government about recruiting doctors, nurses and front-line health staff, whom we know are needed, but so little about social workers. That is especially so when it comes to the budget for advertising, promotion and recruitment, which is tiny for social work compared with other parts of the health service. Will the Minister give us an update on how successful that recruitment campaign has been and on current vacancy rates?

Whenever I ask parliamentary questions, I usually get the answer that the Government do not collect such information centrally. A lack of information on vacancy rates for social workers would be a big gap. Unless the Government have a handle on the level of recruitment, and how it translates into the number of people coming into post, I am not sure how they can concentrate resources where they are needed most.

A little while ago, I spent the day in a family court—a fascinating day it was too—listening to various cases on the initiation of care proceedings which were being heard by a senior district judge. The interesting factor is that, in every case, the social worker who appeared in court was not the social worker who had started the case. In virtually every case, the social worker was Australian, and very impressive they were.

Because of his professional background, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) will know that continuity of care is important, especially when working with vulnerable children. Unfortunately, that continuity of care is so often not there because we have short-term social workers—social workers from abroad who are on short-term contracts, or agency workers who are paid a premium and who do a good job, but who are simply not able to offer the continuity of care that is so important in difficult family cases. An update from the Minister on recruitment and the number of places that remain vacant is essential.

As for the regulations that deal with properly supervised social work students preparing reports, those trainees will be dealing with complicated cases. I am a little concerned at the prospect of students preparing reports that will be used in court proceedings that will lead to judgments on whether children should be taken into care and on the conditions to be attached to the care orders.

What proportion of reports does the Minister envisages will be prepared by students rather than by fully qualified and experienced social workers? We all know that the best social workers tend to be those who have learned by experience. It is not something that
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can be learned from a text book in college, although that is an important part of the training. Much of their learning depends on dealing with real-life cases and real-life vulnerable people. Trainee social workers must be supervised by a social worker with due experience. Can the Minister give us an idea of the number of qualified social workers who will have to spend their time supervising trainees in the preparation of the reports? That takes social workers away from front-line contact with cases.

What is the opinion of the professional bodies and regulatory agencies? What is the view of CSCI on the progress that has been made on training and recruitment? Is it happy that a lot of work may be undertaken by not yet fully qualified social workers? What is the view of the Association of Directors of Social Services? What is the sufficient amount of experience that is required for a social worker to oversee the writing of the reports?

One major concern when carrying out the preparatory research work for care proceedings is delay. What is the average delay in the promotion of care proceedings? Clearly, if there is a shortage of social workers, who are taking up a much higher caseload than five or 10 years ago, many court proceedings have to be delayed—I saw this just sitting in court—simply because the social worker has not had the time physically to write up the reports that are an essential part of the case and the cases are adjourned. Are such delays being improved on or do they remain a big problem? There seems to be a waste of a lot of professional time in the system.

Part of the regulations stipulate that it will be an offence to prepare, or ask a report to be prepared, by someone who does not meet the description in section 94(2) of the 2002 Act. How much of that problem exists now? How many reports are being carried out by unqualified people?

The Minister mentioned the business of inter-country adoption. It is a well-known practice for people to pay not inconsiderable amounts for private social workers to prepare assessment reports on a prospective adoptee from overseas who is seeking adoption by a UK-based couple. That subject will be dealt with in the proposed Children and Adoption Bill, which the Government published last week and which has its Second Reading in another place in a week’s time. Will the regulations be superseded before they come fully into operation if the section on inter-country adoptions remains in its current form in the new legislation? Will she also give us an idea about the extra costs involved? I spoke this morning to her colleague who will lead on the Bill and it seems that the process will not be as cheap as it is at the moment.

I understand that the Government are proposing to add an administration charge for Government officials who are involved in overseeing inter-country adoptions. I found it difficult to get the answer this morning, but what will that administration charge relate to, given that the purpose of the regulations and
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part of the Bill is to tighten up on the quality of inter-country adoption reports? If the Government are setting a threshold of quality, what value are officials in the Department going to add if those who prepare the reports have met the quality threshold criteria, or is it a way to raise more funds for her Department through a not inconsiderable administration charge?

Another issue that is exercising practitioners was raised by my noble Friend Lord Howe when the regulations were debated in another place recently—namely, the promulgation of guidance on policy areas that straddle both the family courts and the Department for Education and Skills. When care proceedings and applications for placement orders are heard together, there is an unassailable case for a co-ordinated approach by the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Are there plans to produce joint guidance? When does the Minister expect the relevant court rules to be published? That is a more technical point.

The suitability of adopters regulations relate in part to some of the more contentious changes brought about at the later stages of the Adoption and Children Bill, to do with the suitability of unmarried prospective adoptive couples. What has happened to the type of adopters who have come forward since that legislation was enacted? I do not want to express a view on the suitability of the new qualifications for adopters. We have had that argument and I do not want to revisit it. However, for those people who have doubts about the suitability or, more appropriately, the sustainability of unmarried couples taking on adoptions, it would be useful to have a progress report on whether opening up adoption to unmarried couples and same-sex couples jointly rather than singly, as was originally the case, has affected the sustainability of adoption placements.

What we all agreed on, and what is in the legislation, including the Children Act 1989, is that the welfare of the child is paramount. For damaged children who have had difficult experiences early in life, it is essential that their second chance of a stable upbringing in whatever sort of family is viable, because if they are damaged a second time, the implications are considerable. Will the Minister therefore give us more detail on the character of the adoptions that have taken place over the past three years? Will she also comment on the statistics, which suggest that the total number of adoption orders made in this country declined from 5,657 in the year ending December 2001 to 4,479 in 2003, and on the fact that progress in improving adoption rates has so far been, to put it mildly, disappointing?

One worries, therefore, about the Government target of increasing by 40 per cent. by this year the number of adoptions of looked-after children in England. If that target has not been reached—I fear it has not—what measures are the Government taking to reach it? Underlying that question is the hope that children are not being put forward for adoption for the wrong reason, just to meet a target. That would defeat the whole purpose of what all of us want to achieve.

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The other worry stemming from that relates to the wide variation among councils in the use of adoption at the time of the Adoption and Children Bill. Certainly, my experience tells me that adoption rates vary enormously. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford will know full well that the adoption improvement record of Kent county council has improved enormously. Similar parts of the country have remained static or, in some cases, become worse. If the Government are happy that what is being done in Kent is in the best interests of the children being adopted, what are they doing to ensure that that best practice and success is spread throughout the country?

I have asked the Minister quite a lot of questions, to which I am sure she will have no problem whatever responding, either in gloriously full detail now or, if not, by sending a barrage of letters to that effect. Three years on from the 2002 Act and four years on from our lengthy debates on that legislation, which we all supported, we need to be reassured that the practice to which we agreed is producing results. The reason all of us are here and have an interest in looked-after children and adoption is that they are some of the most vulnerable people in society. They require and deserve the best attention from the Government and the authorities. We need to be assured that that is being achieved. If it is not, we need assurances from the Government that they are taking urgent steps to ensure that those records and rates can be improved.

I return to my first point about the regulations. If we do not have skilled, experienced, dedicated and valued—as they have not been—social workers on the ground, everything that we discuss today and that we discussed back in 2001 will come to naught. They are the people who will put the legislation into practice. I am sure that the Minister will agree with that, and I hope that she will assure me that that will come about.

4.57 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Benton. May I also congratulate the Minister on her new post? I find myself in a dilemma because, as I expected, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has given a comprehensive response to the provisions. I will do my utmost not to be repetitive, but to keep my contribution coherent, which is a bit difficult.

I start with what the hon. Gentleman finished with: the core issue of recruitment and training of social workers. I reiterate his questions about that, which must be the basis on which everything else depends.

The Minister and the hon. Gentleman both said that the reports should be prepared by a social worker with at least three years post-qualification or, alternatively, by someone who is supervised by such a person. It was said in another place that the report should be written by someone who knows the child. I was reassured by the Minister’s response, as she indicated that the statutory guidance to the adoption agency mentioned the importance of the reports about a child being written by the worker who knows them or, if the social worker is new, by the person who knows the child and
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will work with the social worker in question. Just for the sake of completeness, I seek a repeat reassurance from the Minister, given that the guidance is not available for us to view. I assume that knowing the child means that the social worker must have seen and met the child.

I also concur with the hon. Gentleman that other reports written in connection with care planning for children also need to be completed by experienced and well trained social workers. For example, a long-term fostering placement or the return of a child to his family are significant decisions in the life of a child, but just might be subject to less scrutiny than an adoption. It is even more important that they should be taken by somebody who knows the child. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

I appreciate the remit of the regulations, but as the special guardianship orders were a very important feature of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, will the Minister say whether there will be similar provisions for reports? I will be happy for her to write to me, as I am slightly off topic, but the issue is relevant in many ways.

The Liberal Democrats welcome the regulations, but are a little unhappy that it has taken so long to lay them before the House. We hope that important changes and the process of getting ready to implement them have not been held up.

I did not serve on the Committee that considered the Bill, but I could not but be aware that there was a great deal of debate about the principle relating to unmarried couples adopting children. It is quite difficult to read the regulations, which rightly specify that the agency must give proper consideration to the stability and permanence of a couple’s relationship. As I understood the Minister, good practice will be included in the guidance. It would have been more comforting to have it in the regulations.

There is quite a lot of draft guidance, on which relevant associations and bodies have been able to comment. I shall discuss a few points that they have made. Following the consultation, I understand that those not considered suitable to be adopters will now have the right to go before a panel, thereby gaining the right to an independent review of their application. The system must be seen to be fair to all prospective adopters, and I welcome the fact that that emerged from the consultation.

There seems to be no reference in the guidance to the issues that arise on consideration of the adoption of a child who is the subject of care proceedings. Again, the hon. Gentleman referred to that. We all know that the sooner a child can be properly placed in a permanent placement, the better. We seem to hear more and more about the importance of that early bond on a child’s emotional development. Speed is therefore of the essence, with the obvious proviso that due care must be taken to get it right. I know that two types of planning—concurrent planning and twin-track planning—help in that respect, although I confess that I have a dreadful habit of forgetting the distinction between the two. Both are regarded as very important practices, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we
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must enable the adoption agency, the local authority and the courts to act together in a co-ordinated way to meet the same objectives. That might involve further training for some of the partners.

In its response to the consultation, a joint committee of five of the leading agencies with an interest in adoption proposed that joint guidance be issued by the Department for Education and Skills, by the president of the family division, or by the new family justice council when it is established when the new Act is implemented.

The disclosure of confidential information is another issue. The guidance appears to leave it to each agency to work out its own procedures. Will the Minister say whether she believes that that is good enough? Examples abound of conflicting, confusing and even misleading advice from different agencies. A lead from the Government, with input from the relevant professional bodies, is urgently needed.

The rights and needs of birth parents and other relatives are insufficiently acknowledged at several points in the regulations and the guidance. Several points need to be addressed. First, pre-birth counselling should be available for parents considering adoption, with information and advice given about the implications of the various options, perhaps through therapeutic counselling where necessary. Secondly, more guidance is needed about the role of the independent support work of parents, emphasising the value of support to birth parents through contact with other couples who have been through the same experience. Thirdly, we should ensure that parents have an opportunity to express their views directly and to comment on information given to the panel about them. That should be done, but it is not always done, and it should not be optional. Clearly, appropriate support might be needed, and it is very important to be clear about the advocacy role played by anyone involved in the proceedings.

Finally, there should also be a role for parents in reviews under regulation 31 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005. in place—as I hope they will be in the final guidance—we can perhaps avoid heartache when there is a change of mind. It might be right for someone to change their mind, but all that support needs to be in place so that things can be managed in the best possible way, with the child, of course, always coming first.

5.6 pm

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