Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 19 which is grouped with Amendment No. 18. In doing so I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Howe, on the elegant way in which he focused on the question which exercised all of us in Grand Committee; namely, the extent to which appeal mechanisms should be allowed or should be able to be used and the balance that needs to be struck between allowing those appeals and clogging up the whole adoption system.

In Grand Committee none of us expressed a wish to see a system which is already struggling to cope become completely silted up with endless appeals. The noble Earl focused on four of the key points on which people ought to have the right to an independent review.

In Amendment No. 19 I seek to provide the missing link which the Minister needs in order to make sure that adoption support services are provided in the way that he outlined; that is, locally and appropriately. I do not think that one can get much more local and appropriate than allowing individual families the right to appeal against a decision not to provide adoption support services. That strikes right at the heart of what we are all trying to achieve; namely, appropriate services for children and individual families.

As the Minister said in our earlier discussions on adoption support, performance across the country is extremely patchy. That sometimes results from the allocation of resources but more often it results from policy. At the moment it is known that some local authorities have policies of not providing support. If one is unlucky enough to live in an area covered by such a policy and yet have an adopted child for whom one is in great need of services, it is important to have recourse to some kind of independent review.

In Grand Committee we discussed at length, with much help from the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, whether local authority complaints procedures were an appropriate vehicle to use. I considered over the summer what was said about the use of such procedures. I was not convinced that they would be sufficiently independent, or seen to be sufficiently independent, to satisfy the needs of adoptive parents. Adoptive parents have to deal with many issues, many of which are highly charged and emotional. I have talked to many of them and to many of the organisations that represent them; they stressed that it is easier to accept an adverse decision if one has faith that the process by which that decision was made was fair. For many of them, an appeal to the same body that made the original decision is not fair. I therefore believe that such empowerment of parents is important.

14 Oct 2002 : Column 646

As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said, for the first time in the Bill we have an independent review of determinations, which is welcome. If and when such a body is established, widening the scope of its activities to a small extent, enabling it to function in the way that I have outlined and providing an appeal mechanism on the suitability of adoption support will not necessarily involve much further expense. We have a group of people who will be sufficiently skilled and experienced in the provision of adoption support and in making judgments about adoption. We should simply add one task to their list of jobs.

I therefore believe that this is an important matter. I do not believe that giving prospective adopters that power would extend their ability to challenge decisions so much that it will upset the careful balance under which the adoption system currently works. In fact, I believe that it will strengthen that because it will be seen to be fair by those involved. I therefore recommend the amendment.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, this is an important debate. The establishment of an independent review mechanism is a distinct step forward. Clause 12 enables the appropriate Minister to establish such a mechanism to review what are described as qualifying determinations that are made by adoption agencies.

We have already signalled our intent to provide for the independent review mechanism to review determinations about suitability to adopt and determinations about access to information. The issue of appeals in relation to suitability to adopt was floated in the White Paper. We extended determinations about access to protected information because the Bill underpins a new scheme for consistent access to information held by adoption agencies. Those agencies will be under a new obligation to take account of the views of the person the protected information is about and the welfare of the adopted person as well as all the other circumstances of the case and matters that may be prescribed in regulations determining whether to release that information. I believe that that is very important.

I hasten to add that in identifying those two areas for the independent review mechanism—it will come into operation in relation to them—our approach is not cast in stone. The important point is that the clause is constructed to allow for flexibility and response to emerging trends and potential problems. The use of a regulation-making power to set out which determinations will be reviewed by the independent review mechanism is intended to ensure that there is the flexibility to consider which determinations the mechanism could usefully be used for and, as I said, to allow for the list to be reviewed in the light of developing practice.

Setting out in the Bill certain determinations that the regulations must provide for the independent review mechanism to review removes some of that flexibility. If in the light of experience it were to prove undesirable

14 Oct 2002 : Column 647

for one of those determinations to be reviewed—if, for example, it proved to be disproportionately expensive to do so—the effect of the amendment would be to remove the flexibility to remove that determination from the list.

The amendment seeks to set out in the Bill the fact that the independent review mechanism will review adoption agency determinations relating to the suitability of prospective adopters both before and after the adoption panel stage and it relates to the supply of information about the child to any person including the child and to the suitability of a child for adoption by particular prospective adoptive parents; in other words, the matching stage.

Looking at the list of determinations suggested by the noble Earl, there are drawbacks to each of them. The first suggestion is that of,

    "suitability of prospective adopters at the adoption panel stage".

The Government have stated repeatedly throughout the passage of the Bill that it is their intention for the independent review mechanism to review those determinations. I say to the noble Earl that we fully intend to prescribe that determination in regulations made under subsection (2).

The second suggestion involving determinations concerns,

    "the suitability of prospective adopters at the pre-panel stage".

We understand and are sympathetic with the sentiment behind that suggestion. The PIU report highlighted the fact that a large number of people do not reach the panel stage. It identified a number of reasons why that happens. Some applicants are properly rejected as a result of police checks, medicals or negative references. It surely would not be appropriate for those applicants to apply to the independent review mechanism if they have failed to meet the minimum requirements on objective grounds. The review panel would be unable to tell the applicant any more than the social worker about the reasons for the rejection. Some people decide not to proceed as a result of having acquired more information about what is involved, having decided, perhaps, to pursue fertility treatment or become pregnant. Other reasons given for applicants not reaching panel stage include dropping out as a result of the assessment process itself (for example, it may be felt that the process is too intrusive). We are attempting to resolve problems in the assessment process through the recent review of adopter assessment and the consultation document issued last week. Key among the reforms suggested by that document is a desire to make the adopter assessment process as fair and transparent as possible across the country. Finally, it is suggested that some applicants are counselled out by social workers. That may be as a result of something that is revealed during the assessment process which persuades the social worker that the applicants are unlikely to be approved by panel and the social worker may feel that it is pointless for the applicants to go through the potentially stressful adoption panel stage when they believe that there is little or no chance of success.

14 Oct 2002 : Column 648

That suggestion moves into an area of very skilled social worker practice. We believe that it is most appropriate to ensure that such judgments are handled as sensitively as possible and that full reasons are given to the applicants. The reasons given to applicants would need to be explained in the context of the "menu of issues" to be considered by agencies in adopter preparation and assessment, which is currently subject to consultation in the document, Adopter Assessment.

The third suggestion relates to,

    "the supply of information concerning the child to any person including the child".

Again, we have made a commitment during the passage of the Bill to provide for the independent review mechanism to review determinations relating to access to protected information. Adoption agencies will be under a new obligation to take account of the views of the person who is the subject of the protected information, the welfare of the adopted person and all the other circumstances of the case and matters that may be prescribed in regulations and which determine whether to release the information.

The independent review mechanism will be made available to people affected by such determinations. That will provide an added safeguard to ensure that the views and best interests of all those affected are taken into account in deciding whether to release such information.

Of course, I understand that the amendment focuses on information about the child. But ensuring that protected information about adults, such as birth parents, is handled fairly and sensitively is an equally important part of the provision on access to information. We shall set out in regulations the detail of which determinations about supply of information will be capable of review by the independent review panel.

The fourth suggestion in the amendment is that the independent review mechanism should consider determinations about the matching process. Again, I have some sympathy with that suggestion, but I also have concerns that it could lead to delays in the placement of a child with suitable adoptive parents. I am very anxious that we cut out delays as far as possible. After all, that was one of the prime motivations in bringing this Bill before your Lordships' House. I suggest to the noble Earl that experiencing the mechanism in operation might enable us to assess whether it would be appropriate for it to be involved in reviewing decisions of this type.

In her amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, seeks to ensure that decisions not to provide adoption support services come within the purview of the independent review mechanism. We have already had a good debate on the wider issue of support services and, indeed, have discussed the wider range of potential support services which would come under the independent review if the noble Baroness's amendment were adopted. However, I believe that the issues of adoption support services are best dealt with through the mechanisms that I have already described, including the complaints system of the local authority,

14 Oct 2002 : Column 649

and through the performance management approach that the Government will take to ensure that local authorities do the right job.

However, the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, brings us back to the core issue. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, always chides me about using the word "balance". Perhaps, to put it more accurately, he inferred that I use the word rather often. I do, and never is a word more appropriately used than in the construct of this Bill.

One of the key issues is that, in relation to the general principle of the extent to which decisions and actions of adoption agencies should be subject to independent review, I suggest a degree of caution. The principle of the independent review is very important. But I should be very wary of building in so many potential independent reviews that the agencies risked being ensnared in a heavy dose of bureaucracy, which could lead to staff being distracted from their core function. The end result of that would be delays in adoption proceedings—the very obverse of what we seek to achieve. Nor should we overlook the regulatory framework in which agencies will operate and the complaints system that will provide a further route for complaints to be pursued.

I believe that the most appropriate way to deal with determinations is to set them out in regulations. That will enable us to keep the list under review and provide the flexibility to add or remove determinations should it prove appropriate to do so.

In conclusion, I want to stress that I am by no means inflexible on this important issue. Last week, we issued the consultation document, to which I have already referred. It includes questions about the scope and operation of the independent review mechanism. We shall look at the responses to the consultation and shall consult on the regulations to implement the independent review mechanism. Of course, the matters raised by noble Lords in today's debate will be fed into that consultation process.

Having listened very carefully to the debate, I shall go further and say that we shall review the operation of the independent review mechanism after it has been fully operational for two or three years. In that review, we shall consider specifically whether the list of determinations should be extended from that initially set out in regulation. I cannot be fairer than that.

This is a new procedure. Surely it is best to reassess the scope of the review in the light of experience. We shall use the time to consider whether the mechanism could make a useful and effective contribution to other decision-making processes by adoption agencies. However, I believe that, by offering a review after two or three years of operation, I have indicated how the Government can respond flexibly in the light of experience.

6.45 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, once again, this has been a very helpful debate. I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. It was pleasing to hear that paragraph (a) of

14 Oct 2002 : Column 650

the amendment was one with which he had a good deal of sympathy. He indicated that the suitability of prospective adopters at the adoption panel stage was one matter that the Government intended to include within the scope of the review mechanism.

However, I was not convinced by the objections that he voiced to paragraph (b) of the amendment. Where a couple withdraw from the adoption process for their own reasons and of their own accord, I should not have thought that that in any case would be a matter for review. I appreciate that social workers have their reasons for rejecting candidates, and that is the type of situation at which that part of the amendment is directed. Of course, such matters need to be handled sensitively. However, I have heard of too many cases where seemingly suitable parents have been rejected before they have even got off the ground in the process, and I find that very troubling.

I note what the Minister said about paragraph (c) being too restrictive. I shall go away and think about that. Nevertheless, I am grateful that he said that the supply of certain kinds of information is one of the matters under consideration as regards the appropriate regulations.

Paragraph (d) of the amendment did not find favour with the Minister either. He said that, if it were accepted, it could lead to delay in the adoption process. I note that point and shall give it further thought.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page