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The Earl of Listowel: I was very concerned to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that there are no clear guidelines with regard to the time of the administration of these issues. Young children and babies are, as we know, very vulnerable; they need to be attached to an adult who cares for them principally as soon as possible. If there are avoidable delays in the process, they should be vigorously tackled. I look forward to receiving an assurance on that point from the Minister.
Lord Adonis: The noble Baroness raised several different points, and I shall cover those that I can, although I may need to give her some further details later. My noble friend Lady Ashton said at Second Reading that we would not introduce the charges until we were confident that the process of re-engineering the casework function was completed. The noble Baroness asked for more information about the improvements that would be made before we introduced those charges. As she knows, the introduction of charging will in itself not produce a better casework service. A whole set of changes are in place to improve the service independently of the provisions of Clause 12. Over the coming months, the teams doing casework will be brought together in one location in Darlington so that we can pool resources and ensure that, if there is a sudden surge in intercountry adoptions, the shared capacity of the joint casework team will be used to meet extra demand, and vice versa, by bringing together casework professionals who will enable flexibility and good practice to be shared.
The current delays in the intercountry adoption processing times are often caused by factors outside the control of the casework team, who are dependent on adoption agencies, notaries and foreign embassies and the requirements of foreign authorities. We are working with UK adoption agencies to increase the number of applications received with full and complete documentation, including the provision of a specific tool to assist them in that. That should allow cases to be processed more efficiently. Given that much of the process is carried out by other agencies outside the control of the department, we could not set a single specific target for the overall time taken for cases to be processed.
However, we anticipate that when the other country's requirements are straightforward and when other agencies do not further delay the process, a reasonable time from receipt of full and complete documentation to an application being sent to the foreign authorities should be within the region of 12 to 14 weeks. That is significantly less than the 23 weeks that the noble Baroness mentioned as sometimes applying now. We are considering specific internal performance measures for the parts of the process that are within the department's direct control and we would seek to make that period of 12 to 14 weeks operational before we introduced charges.
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On the basis on which we would waive fees, which was a matter that the noble Baroness raised with respect to lower income for adopters, I assure the noble Baroness that we shall set clear and objective criteria, linked to income, to assess whether prospective adopters should pay a fee. That will be linked to another system or model in use by the governments. In order not to increase the overall cost of the process, we intend that by using another system or model in use by the governments, the assessments will involve minimal administrative work required by the adopter, adoption agencies or the DfES. I do not yet have details of how that system will work, but we shall publish them as soon as we have them available. But I believe that it will give sufficient assurance to lower income adopters that they will not be out of pocket thereby.
On the standards for local authorities for intercountry adoption, we have just provided a tool to enable local authorities to ensure that they provide all relevant papers. We have also specified for the first time the relevant documents in regulations, which will be in force from 30 December this year. As for what the £800 or whatever figure thereabouts to be charged will be paying for, that is our estimated cost of providing the service. Given that it is a personal service that requires quite some administrative work, it does not seem unreasonable to us. It is a personal service provided on behalf of the adopter, so it is a different service from the sort mentioned by the noble Baroness. I believe that that meets many of the points that she has raised, although not all of them. I will study what she said with care and return with further particulars about the points that I have not been able to cover.
Earl Howe: I should like to make several points in fairly strong terms in connection with the clause. We have here a power to impose a charge for work done by departments in connection with intercountry adoption cases. On Second Reading, I accused the Government of meanness in proposing that provision and I must say that I have had no cause to revise my opinion since. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) has pointed out to me that that was not raised for consultation when the Bill was published before the general election. I suppose that it would have been extraordinary if it had, but, frankly, it did not enter anyone's head that the Government would regard a charge such as this as reasonable.
All the procedures that have been put in place since the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 right up to the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and all the associated regulations, have been designed with a view
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to one thing and one thing only, which is to protect children from the risk of harm. That is precisely as it should be and I am certainly not arguing for those procedures to be done away with or diluted. The question is: who should pay for it? There must be due process. When an agency has approved an applicant as suitable to adopt a child, the papers must be processed and the relevant information passed from the child's country of origin to the approving agency in this country. Why should the prospective adopters have to pay for the cost of that processing? The answer appears to be that it is a service provided for their benefittherefore they should pay for it. But is it really? The procedures in place are not there to smooth the wheels for prospective adopters; they are there to protect children. As I said, that is the purpose of all the regulation that gives rise to the administration undertaken by government when acting as the central authority.
Safeguarding the welfare of children in all other circumstances is funded from public money. Why are children who are not indigenous to the UK being singled out in this way? The Government say that the charge will not be imposed on people who cannot afford it, but they know full well that almost everyone who sets their sights on adopting a child from abroad must reckon on many thousands of pounds worth of expense. It is not a cheap undertaking. The likelihood of anyone who has budgeted several thousand pounds being regarded as too poor to afford the fee from the Government strikes me as implausible in the extreme. In any case, the cost of means-testing will itself generate administrative costs. One must question whether the game will be worth the candle.
Will the Minister confirm the amount that the Government believe will be saved if the charging provisions are put in place? Is it correct that it amounts to no more than about £240,000 per year? Is that really the sort of sum that merits the imposition of another hefty fee on prospective adopters, when they are already subject of considerable fees from other quarters? What about the cases where the child is known to the prospective adopters? What happens when someone wants to adopt a relative from overseas? It seems that under the clause they will have to pay the charge and I ask whether that is fair.
What if the charge in that type of case acted as barrier to such an adoption taking place? Would it be right for the charge to be responsible for denying a child the opportunity to have a family life in this country? I find it hard to think that the Minister really feels that this clause is ethically justified, but if he does, it would be helpful if he explained why.
Baroness Barker: Because this clause was not in the draft Bill and was not subject to consultation, I shall briefly take the time of the Committee to add one or two more points to what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has said.
In his answer to me on my previous amendment, the Minister described this as a personal service provided by the Government to the adopter. Like the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I take exception to that. Is it not the
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fact that this is a central authority charging for carrying out its statutory duties and obligations under international conventions? Is it not also the case that the most comparable service, which is that provided by the UK central authority, on the Hague convention on child abduction, is free? I return to a question that I perhaps did not put sufficiently clearly and I apologise for that. Are the Government charging £800compared to the £11.50 it would be if it was a domestic issuejust for the processing of applications, or are they charging for the information service that is used by a lot of other people, including local authorities and prospective adopters who are never international adopters of children from other countries?
As the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said, there is an increasing trend for children to be adopted by relatives. Some of those relatives are not wealthy people; they are people from some of the poorest communities in this country and abroad. They do not have £1,000. I am not sure that what the Minister said in his response to my earlier amendment deals with that adequately. Something feels profoundly wrong about this proposal. It is not always wrong for the Government to charge, but there is something not right about it. Unless the Minister can come up with some really good answers, which he has not done so far, we will need to probe this much further.
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