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The noble Lord said: In speaking to this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 129 and 138. I am informed that the amendments ensure that the original policy intentions of the Bill are put fully into effect. Amendment No. 128 in Clause 10 provides that any intercountry adoption case can be treated as an exception to special restrictions applying to intercountry adoptions regardless of whether a particular child has been identified for adoption. Current drafting is inadvertently restrictive of this power by being conditioned on "the bringing in of a particular child".
This is one of the contexts in which an appeal for an exception to special restrictions can be made. Previously it had also applied to where the child has been adopted in the same way. The unamended Bill is inconsistent with the policy intention, because exceptions to special restrictions would not be offered retrospectively. If an adoption process contravened special restrictions, it would have been stopped before the child was formally adopted; if it was at a sufficiently advanced stage when restrictions were put into place, it would have been permitted and there would have been no need for an appeal.
Amendment No. 138 ensures that the amendment made by Clause 13 to the Children Act 1989 lifts the responsibility of local authorities to subject Hague convention adoptions to private fostering regulations in the same way that the Bill as it stands does for non-convention cases. The unamended Bill would lift this for non-convention cases only. The amendments simply bring the Bill into line with the original policy intentions.
The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 130, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 131 to 133, 135 to 137, 142 and 143. This group of amendments
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will allow the National Assembly for Wales to charge prospective adopters from Wales for the processing of intercountry adoption applications where those applications are made under the Hague convention on intercountry adoption. As your Lordships will be aware, this convention was ratified by the UK in 2003.
Under the convention, a central authority must be designated in each country both to act as a central contact for other countries and to perform certain functions in the intercountry adoption process. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 appoints the National Assembly for Wales as the central authority for Wales. The Assembly therefore deals with all aspects of intercountry adoption applications to convention countries, including the processing of applications before they are sent to the foreign country.
As Clause 12 stands, the Secretary of State would be able to charge a fee for processing applications from English prospective adopters to convention and non-convention countries, and from Welsh prospective adopters applying to non-convention countries. However, the Bill as drafted does not give any power to charge for adoptions made in Wales to a convention country. The proposed amendments in this group will allow the National Assembly for Wales to charge Welsh prospective adopters who are applying to a convention country. Given the status of the National Assembly as a separate central authority under the Hague convention, we believe that this is the correct way to establish the charging system. The amendments will ensure that the power to charge applies to all intercountry adoptions so that the system is equitable. They also recognise the devolution settlement.
Amendments Nos. 130, 131 and 137 are tidying amendments, intended to improve the clarity of the Bill as to when the references to adopters in Clause 12 include prospective adopters and when they do not. We have taken this opportunity to redraft so that all references to adoption and adopters in Clause 12 include prospective adoptions and adopters. In the last of these amendmentsAmendment No. 137we have also taken the opportunity to ensure that the definition of "central authority" is clear.
The final two amendments in this group will allow the National Assembly for Wales to commence its power to charge when it sees fit. These amendments are consequential: if the National Assembly for Wales is to have the authority to charge for intercountry adoptions, it seems appropriate that it should set the date on which such charging begins in Wales, rather than having to wait for the Secretary of State to commence the Bill's provisions in Westminster. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, Members of the Committee will agree to the amendments. I beg to move.
"( ) The Assembly may charge a fee to adopters for services provided or to be provided by it as the Central Authority in relation to adoptions to which this section applies by virtue of subsection (1)(b)."
Page 14, line 6, after "State" insert "and the Assembly"
Page 14, line 6, after "he" insert "or it"
Page 14, line 11, leave out "must" and insert "and the Assembly must each"
Page 14, line 13, after "him" insert "or, as the case may be, to it"
Page 14, line 15, after "section" insert
"references to adoptions and adopters include prospective adoptions and prospective adopters,
"Central Authority" is to be construed in accordance with section 2 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999,"
"( ) No fee shall be payable to the Secretary of State under this section in respect of services in so far as they consist only of the provision of information and advice.
( ) The Secretary of State shall, before providing a service to any person for which he proposes to charge a fee, give the person information about the fee, the basis on which it is payable, and the circumstances in which it may be reduced or waived.
( ) The Secretary of State shall publish standards for the delivery of services for which a fee is payable, and no fee shall be charged unless the service delivered complies with the standards."
The noble Baroness said: Noble Lords who had the privilege of listening to me and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, during the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 will appreciate that this is an area in which we have some form. I make no apology for returning to the subject of intercountry adoption and, in particular, to the service provided by the central authority to those who are going through the long and difficult process of undertaking intercountry adoption.
The thrust of the amendment is to require the Government to explain in some detail exactly what they are going to do to merit the fees which they are proposing to charge to most intercountry adopters. It is true that in times gone past the service to intercountry adopters has been woefully inadequate, although I should place on the record that it has, at times, got better. But I still think that it is worth Members of the Committee being aware that at present the average time for processing an intercountry adoption is between 18 and 23 weeks. Furthermore, I understand that shortly the service is to be relocated to Darlington, which suggests that there may be some disruption to it.
In the amendment, I propose, first, that the Secretary of State should charge fees only in respect of information and advice. The full service provided is used by many people other than adopters or prospective adoptersfor example, many local authorities use itand it seems unfair that those who are going through the costly process of adopting children should be the only ones who are required to pay for the service.
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Secondly, the amendment requires the Secretary of State to give information about fees which he proposes to levy and the basis on which they are payable. The Government already state in the clause that they themselves intend to have the power to reduce or waive a fee. That, in itself, is not a particularly helpful statement. Those who are likely to be in that position do not know the circumstances in which the power is likely to be exercised.
The third part of the amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish standards for the delivery of services for which a fee is payable. The reason for putting this forward is that the DfES has not imposed any quality standards either for its own service orthis is a crucial pointfor local authorities which are involved in the process of intercountry adoption. A considerable amount of the work carried out by this unit is the interpretation of lengthy reports from local authorities which are not standardisedthere is no standard reporting formand chasing up and evaluating the different reports. So this central authority has not even managed to provide guidance or a form to local authorities. That single action would cut down a great deal of work, and time, at a stroke.
Furthermore, much time is spent liaising with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office about entrance clearance status. That is a statutory service to the child and, again, we on these Benches wonder why it should be paid for by the prospective adopters of the children.
I am given to understandI believe that the Minister confirmed this in a meetingthat the budget for the unit is £240,000. There are approximately 300 intercountry adoptions per annum, and therefore the department has arrived at a fairly arbitrary figure of £800 as the fee that any person adopting a child would have to pay. If it were equivalent to an adoption certificate, a birth certificate or a marriage certificate in this country, the charge for a certificate of eligibility to adopt would be £11.50. There is a huge gap between £800 and £11.50, and at present I fail to see the basis on which the Government can justify that.
With regard to standards of delivery in particular, it is no secret that time and time again people seeking to adopt children from other countries of origin have expressed immense frustration at the amount of time that is taken to process their cases. I believe I am right in saying that the Department for Education and Skills and its predecessor, the Department of Health, have never met the 12-week target for processing files for more than one three-month period in the past five years. In July this year, the target period was reduced to 23 weeks.
BAAF, the Overseas Adoption Helpline and others have in the past recommended guidelines that would be helpful to the department in dealing with these issues, but so far they have never been taken up, as I understand it. So there are no formal standards for the service, which is unregulated and for which there is no competition. On that basis, it seems rather odd of the
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department to come up with a wholly arbitrary charge on top. That is the argument lying behind the amendment. I beg to move.
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