I want briefly to put these changes into a historical perspective. I hesitate slightly to do so because again I know that there are noble Lords here who have helped to construct these systems over many years. Adoption

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panels have been part of the decision-making process for the best part of 30 years now. They were originally introduced in 1984 because of the changing face of adoption. The majority of children being adopted were no longer babies; rather they were older or disabled children with more complex needs. The panels certainly provided independent scrutiny of adoption agencies’ plans. Before the Adoption and Children Act 2002, an adoption agency could place a child with the prospective adopters without any intervention by the court. The court’s role was limited to making the adoption order which the prospective adopters, then as now, would apply for after the child had lived with them for at least 10 weeks. However, the 2002 Act changed how local authorities could place children for adoption. A major change was that they could no longer place a child for adoption unless they had the authority to place either as a result of parental consent or under a placement order made by the court. The courts are therefore involved much earlier in the process if the birth parents will not consent to placement for adoption or there are pending care proceedings. Having the court’s early agreement to the adoption plan and sorting out consent before the adoption order stage is better for children and their adoptive families. It reduces the risk that a court would not make an adoption order.

It is arguable that the function of the adoption panel covered by the amendment regulations could or should have been removed in December 2005 when placement orders came into force. It was at that point, when the change was made, that the element of duplication came into the system. A decision was not taken then, but we think that now is a sensible time to address it.

We have also touched on the issue of independent scrutiny. Noble Lords are rightly concerned that we should retain sufficient independent scrutiny of what is a momentous decision about a child’s life. We are confident that this will remain the case. There will be independent scrutiny in all cases, whether from the adoption panel or from the court. In all cases, the local authority decision-maker will hear the views of those with specialist expertise, for example, on medical or mental health issues, before reaching their decision.

We have also heard evidence today from some noble Lords who believe that the courts do not necessarily have the time, the expertise or the opportunity to reflect on children’s cases in the way that panels do. We think it is the case that the courts have the expertise they need. In making decisions on complex issues, they consider the information provided by experts. They do not simply rubber-stamp the local authority’s adoption plan or recommendation of the children’s guardian. Before the court can make a placement order, it must be satisfied either that the parents have consented or that the child’s welfare requires that parental consent should be dispensed with. The court must also be satisfied that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. In making its decision, under the 2002 Act, the court must give paramount consideration to the child’s welfare throughout its life and must apply a list of criteria concerning the child’s welfare.

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Therefore, the court will continue to play its vital role. The work of the social worker and the adoption team in drawing together and assessing the evidence will not change, nor will their work be added to because they no longer have to seek a recommendation by the adoption panel before decisions are made. We would argue that a simple system with no duplication where the local authority decision-maker is fully accountable for the recommendation that he or she puts forward to the court will function better. Good decisions will be taken quickly in the best interests of children.

I was asked a number of detailed questions. I shall do my best to respond to the main points, but if I fail to answer some of the more specific points, I will follow them up. There was a recurring theme of what the impact would be for local authorities and the burden on the decision-maker. I was asked by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, what advice and support the department would give to local authorities. Alongside the regulations, we have published amended statutory guidance to help local authorities and other professionals understand how we expect the change to work in practice.

3.30 pm

On pulling the information together and whether that will be too burdensome for the decision-maker, the agency adviser should maintain an overview of the quality of the agency’s reports to both the panel and the decision-maker. The social worker who currently prepares the reports for the panel will provide them directly to the decision-maker instead. That should not be more burdensome but the change is about making the decision-maker more directly and clearly accountable.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, asked about the role of the IRO. Some strengthened regulations came into force in April last year to address concerns about the effectiveness of the IRO’s role. Those provisions included setting out the name of the IRO in the care plan, a named IRO being appointed for each child and requiring the IRO to meet the child before review meetings to discuss matters to be considered. Therefore, consideration has been given to that matter but we will continue to reflect on it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, rightly asked me whether we could make sure that when information is sent to the court, it does not add to any delay. It will be the responsibility of the decision-maker to ensure that that does not happen.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee raised her important concerns about the lack of experience of adoption work among social workers. She makes a good point about that but I am glad to say that we are picking up feedback during the visits that are being made to local authorities as part of the adoption scorecard process that says that the current higher profile of adoption as an issue at national level is raising its profile among managers at a local level. I hope that we shall see that working through.

My noble friend Lord Eccles made an important point about organisations working together and raised concerns about mistrust between various players, including

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local authorities and the courts. Back in March, my honourable friend Mr Loughton wrote to all local authorities, asking the DCSs to convene meetings with family justice professionals to agree on how they can work together better. He is following that up and we think that it is starting to happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked about monitoring. How will we monitor these changes to make sure that there is no harmful effect? That is a recurring theme from all noble Lords. We will monitor it partly through Ofsted inspections. A new inspection framework was published for consultation—another consultation—earlier this month. That will allow inspection to focus more clearly than it presently does on the child’s journey through care and adoption services. We will also monitor delay in the system through the new adoption scorecards that we are introducing. They will give us feedback. They are designed to look at the speed of the adoption process and to take contextual data into account, so it will not be a crude measurement.

It is clear from this afternoon’s debate that we share a desire to simplify the adoption process where that is in the best interests of the child. The Government do not contend that speed is the be-all and end-all. A balance must be struck between speed and the interests of the child. However, we believe that these regulations will increase the accountability of the people in the system, remove duplication and, in some cases, help to reduce delay.

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for providing us with the opportunity for this important debate and for me to set out the Government’s position and put on record the views of my honourable friend Mr Loughton, who is driving this whole programme forward. I hope that the noble and learned Baroness will have felt his commitment from looking at the chart on his wall about the complicated adoption process and how he is trying to work through it. She knows of his commitment to making progress. He certainly wants to benefit from the deliberations of

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the Committee, so I am grateful that they have been aired. I hope that I have addressed some of the Committee’s concerns this afternoon.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I thank all the speakers. I am particularly grateful to my fellow members of the adoption committee for having come this afternoon on the last day of term, and to all those who have spoken. I am also very grateful to the Minister for his thoughtful response. I do not at all doubt the commitment of the Minister in the other place to adoption. I very much admire his commitment. I am just not entirely sure that he and the noble Lord the Minister have totally taken on board my major concern, which is about independent scrutiny of the work of the decision-maker. I am not certain that the decision-maker will, pulling everything in together, have quite the same opportunities as somebody else who can advise, assess and monitor. Will the team behind the Minister look at whether they accept that there is a potential gap, and how they might give advice to the local authority on that potential gap, which may not be entirely met by the decision-maker, who will end up with a greater burden?

The points made by Coram, in particular, about the task of the decision-maker—the Minister will see this when he gets the Coram written evidence—are very interesting. I would be grateful if he would reflect, with those behind him, on whether the removal of this particular work of the panel will leave something that will need to be filled at some stage. The inspection by Ofsted will be absolutely crucial. I hope any inspection by Ofsted will move into that area and not simply look at issues of delay, but look more keenly. If not Ofsted, somebody will have to look at it because something is being lost, although I understand the reasons why the Government are doing it. Having thanked everybody very much, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Committee adjourned at 3.37 pm.