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Lord Northbourne: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister one question: to whom will this assessment be made available? Will it be made available to the Minister, to people who have requested it, to the public? Having asked that question, I should like to reinforce what the noble Earl said. It seems to me that this is an absolutely fundamental issue. If the Government genuinely want to improve the adoption services in this country, they must somehow—either through local authorities or in some other way—make provision for proper support services. I have had representations made to me from all sides on this point. I suggest that if the Government do not do so, the great potential of the Bill will be only 50 per cent exploited.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I deeply wish that I could support the amendment. I speak against it merely because of my broader wish to support children in general. Adoptive children, identified as children in need, should be given the necessary support to be maintained with their families.

I am reminded of the statement that 20 per cent of adoptions break down—a figure written on my heart. The reason for the breakdown is often lack of support. As a long-serving social worker, I am conscious too of the many families where the initial breakdown would not have occurred had they received the kind of support referred to. It is crucial that local authority resources are not directed in such a way that one group of children receives the services while families where children could be helped to be maintained in their own homes do not receive them.

This is a very different issue from placing a requirement on the face of the Bill for the naming of the partners who should be working together, as suggested in an amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. This has to do with the direction of resources.

There is an interesting article in Panel News, a publication for guardians, about supporting adoptive families. It is a beautifully written, deeply disturbing report about the needs of adoptive families. It serves merely to convince me that many of the families with whom I am in touch, and who are at breaking point before their children have gone into care, need the same kind of support dealing with loss, difference, trauma and the results of early deprivation and trauma.

My concern is that all children who are defined as children in need should receive the services they need. However, my many years' experience of working with and in local authorities has taught me that rationing

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must take place. I hope that that will happen as close as possible to the local community. That is why I find myself supporting the Government in this instance.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I want to take up the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, which I strongly support. We are all in agreement that the provision of adoption support is the critical factor for many of the placements. I, too, welcome the resources announced over the weekend. However, like the noble Earl, I have great reservation about how far that money will go. My question to the Minister is: what is the £70 million sum announced supposed to fund; and what will it not fund?

I take on board the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about the need to make sure that birth families have access to good children's services. I also understand the need to integrate adoptive families into the other available services. My big concern is that, across the whole piece, it will not add up for anyone. Therefore, I want to know from the Minister exactly what the £70 million will fund and how it will be integrated into other children's services.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this is an important debate. There is no doubt that the quality of adoption support has an important bearing on the success of adoption placements. All the research that has been undertaken indicates that under the current system families have been reconnected with the adoption process only when problems, sometimes severe, arise.

Equally, the SSI report in 2000 gave a graphic picture of the patchy and uneven response of local authorities to providing adoption support services; of a widespread lack of fully developed and comprehensive adoption support services, with adopters unsure whether or how to access support; and of a lack of adoption support deterring people from pursuing adoptions in some cases. It indicated an overall poor performance, widespread variation and unacceptable delays.

I have no disagreement with any of the general points that noble Lords have put forward in their determination to see that we ensure that very effective adoption support services are available for all who require them and for as long as they need them. But this is an essential plank of the Government's approach to adoption which is being developed in the Bill.

The importance of Clause 4 cannot be underestimated. It gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from their local authority. Where the assessment identifies a need for adoption support—my assumption is that when an assessment is undertaken, that assessment is given to the people who requested such an assessment—the local authority must then decide whether to provide adoption support services to that person.

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We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide whether to provide services to individuals and, if they do so, which services those should be, based on need and on resources available locally. Clause 4(4) underpins that. I listened carefully to the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Howe. As a careful student of his party's pronouncements on the relationship between central and local government—indeed the party of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, debated these issues at great length at its party conference only two weeks ago—I believe that the principle that I have set out very much accords with the thinking on all sides of the House about the relationship between central and local government.

Clause 4(4) makes clear that it is for local authorities to make a decision as to whether to provide adoption support services in each individual case. Ultimately, local authorities provide the adoption service, so they must decide who needs what level of support. We cannot get away from the fact that by requiring local authorities to provide adoption support services to individuals we should be saying in effect that adoption support services should have priority over almost every other service provided by the social services department of a local authority. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is right. I do not believe that it would be right, in principle or in practice, to fetter a local authority's discretion in that way.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to one or two examples. He mentioned in particular the statementing of educational needs. But it must be borne in mind that that is a tightly focused responsibility. The term "adoption support services" covers a wide range of services, from information leaflets to support groups and outings for adopted children to the more intensive specialist therapeutic services.

A duty to provide all adoption support services which a person is assessed as needing would place a duty on local authorities to provide services right across that spectrum to individuals, giving equal weight to all those services. It is for that reason that I am unable to support the amendment. However, I have no doubt that, in arguing against the amendment, equally I have a responsibility to the House to ensure that local authorities do the job effectively, and that Ministers have the means to ensure that local authorities do the job properly.

For the first time, the Bill places a clear duty on local authorities to make and participate in arrangements to provide adoption support services. This new duty will tackle the current inconsistency in the availability of adoption support services across the country. It will require all local authorities to make adoption support services, including financial support—we have just beefed up that requirement in a previous amendment—available. It is my contention that the combined effect of these provisions and the new right to an assessment, backed up by regulations and guidance, will deliver real changes on the ground. This is reinforced by national adoption standards, which state clearly that children are entitled to support

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services to meet their assessed needs and that adopters will have access to a range of multi-agency support services before, during and after adoption. Of course, those assessed and dissatisfied with the response of the local authority can have recourse to the local authority complaints system.

The issue of resources is very important. We announced over the weekend that we will be providing an extra £70 million over three years as a special grant to local authorities for the provision of adoption and special guardianship support services. In answer to the noble Lord, Earl Howe, that will not embrace advocacy services. The grant is in recognition of the need for councils to deliver a step-change in the support services to be provided. My intention is that this sum will benefit every adoptive family to a greater or lesser extent depending on their needs. The money will be ring-fenced, which means that local authorities will be required to use it only for adoption support and special guardianship support services, ensuring that the money will be targeted where it is most needed. Twelve million pounds will be made available in 2003–04, £23 million in 2004–05, and £35 million in 2005–06.

It is also worth pointing out that although the performance of local authorities has come under much criticism in this House, some of it justified, there is none the less evidence that in the past two or three years a considerable number of local authorities have got their acts together. The number of adoptions has increased, and local authorities themselves have increased their spending on adoption services, which has risen from £55 million in 1998-99 to £81 million in 2000-01. That action by local authorities and the injection of this additional money will put local authorities in a strong position to meet the demands that will be placed on their services.

The noble Earl should not underestimate the responsibility of local authorities to act reasonably in deciding, following an assessment, whether to provide adoption support services. Failure to do so will be picked up through monitoring and performance assessment, and action will be taken accordingly. I understand that the noble Earl regards that as retrospective action, but the very fact that local authorities know that this will be an important ingredient to performance assessment will in itself act as a further incentive to ensuring that they do provide adequate adoption support services. I assure the House that council performance is regularly assessed by the Social Services Inspectorate. We also have monitoring arrangements in place to enable us to collect information twice yearly. If it became apparent that there were problems with specific local authorities' adoption support services, we would have no hesitation in drawing that matter to the attention of that local authority and in ensuring that appropriate action was taken. It is also worth saying that from April 2003, local authority adoption services will be independently inspected by the National Care Standards Commission, which is a further way to judge the performance of local authorities.

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I said earlier that I endorse the comments that all noble Lords made about the importance of ensuring that adoption support services are really effective. I do not believe it right to distort local authority proper decision-making processes by way of primary legislation. However, I hope that I have reassured noble Lords of the Government's determination to get this right. I give a commitment to noble Lords that once the new adoption support arrangements are fully in place, we will ask the new commission for social care inspection to conduct a thematic inspection assessing local authorities' performance in providing adoption support services. This will focus in particular on joint working and co-ordination of provision with health education and other local government services. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, will also be pleased, as this will address her earlier point on the previous group of amendments. We intend that this inspection will be conducted jointly with Ofsted and CHAI—the Commission for Health Audit and Inspection—which will take over from the Commission for Health Improvement. That will enable us to ensure that local authorities deliver the services set out in the new framework. I have no doubt whatsoever of the Government's determination to ensure that proper and effective adoption support services are provided.

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