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Mr. David Davis: I apologise for intervening twice in the Minister's speech. However, a requirement to match the religious background of a child with that of would-be adoptive parents has previously made it difficult to find adoptive parents. Would there be such a requirement for children who are less than two years old, for example, who may not yet know their own religious background?
Mr. Hutton: The short answer is that I do not know. However, I think that that is an issue on which we shall have to take advice. We have always made it very clear that we want the system to operate as efficiently and speedily as possible, and that we shall not allow issues to do with political correctness to get in the way of a child's best welfare interests. That is why we have made the position on inter-racial adoptions as clear as we have, both in circulars to local government and, now, in the national adoption standards.
Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. Just now, he was absolutely clear about the need to eliminate unacceptable delay in the process. However, clause 1(4) omits anything about that need. Instead, that subsection includes the words "due consideration", which, legally, are not absolutely clear cut. Could not those words make it possible for courts to return to the very political correctness against which he has rightly and repeatedly spoken?
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman--for whom I have the greatest respect, and who speaks very strongly in the House on these issues--has a very good point. However, I would draw his attention to the parts of the Bill that deal with the obligation on the courts to consider the effect of any delay on the child's welfare. I think that the issue is already addressed properly in the Bill--which, of course, should be considered with the guidance and circulars on the issue that we have issued to local authorities.
I am also sure that we shall be able to explore that issue in Committee and elsewhere, and that it will be up to the House to decide how to proceed on it. However, I think that the Government have made our position on the matter pretty clear. It is a difficult issue on which many people
The next set of clauses deal with the adoption service and particularly with support for adoptive families. The Bill requires each local authority to provide an adoption service designed to meet the needs of children who may be adopted, as well as adopted children and adults, and their adoptive and natural parents and former guardians. As now, facilities provided by local authorities as part of their adoption service must include making arrangements for the adoption of children, including assessing prospective adopters and placing children for adoption.
Local authorities may provide services by arranging for them to be provided by voluntary adoption agencies or other parties prescribed in regulations. That will enable them to draw on the voluntary sector, which has a huge groundswell of expertise and resource.
Adoption is of course a challenging process. Adoptive families must be supported at all stages and helped to meet the challenges. It is unacceptable that, at present, provision of adoption support services across the country is patchy and inconsistent. Lack of support can put people off coming forward, when they otherwise would, to adopt looked-after children, some of whom have special needs and challenging backgrounds. As many as one in five adoptive placements break down before the child is legally adopted. That is simply not good enough. It is a further trauma for the children themselves. This is a crucial area in which we need to secure real improvements. The Bill will help to tackle the inconsistency.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Is it the Minister's intention that under the Bill prospective adoptive parents will be given far more information than at present about the background of the child whom they are considering adopting? Many placements break down because, for reasons of confidentiality, parents are not fully informed about often very traumatised children whom they are expected to bring up.
Mr. Hutton: There are certainly such measures in the Bill. I will set out later the provisions on access to information. The issue that my hon. Friend raises is a matter of good social work practice. We have many things to say about that, to encourage the greater success of adoption placements.
The Bill places, for the first time, a clear duty on local social services authorities to put in place arrangements for the provision of adoption support services, including financial support. That requirement will provide a basis for our new framework for post-adoption support services, in line with our key White Paper commitment.
The Bill also gives adopted children and their new parents a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. Too often, adoptive families tell us that they feel they have to fight against the system to get access to help. That cannot be
Adoption support will be planned jointly with the national health service and local education authorities. If at any time during the assessment it appears to the local social services authority that the person being assessed may need NHS services or services provided by the local education authority, the authority will be obliged to notify the relevant health authority, primary care trust or LEA. The aim is to identify, where it is needed, a co-ordinated and joined-up package of support across all the public agencies.
Local authorities will have a duty to co-operate in the provision of their functions in relation to assessment for adoption support. We will encourage them to work with each other and with voluntary adoption agencies to provide adoption support services through local consortiums. Financial support may be made available to adoptive families as a result of the assessment. The form of support and criteria will all be set out in the new framework for financial support that we will develop as we promised in the White Paper. The Bill also enables voluntary adoption agencies to make financial support available to those affected by adoption, as under the existing arrangements.
The Government are backing up these new measures with new investment, to help put in place the adoption support service that we all want. That is why we expect that a substantial amount of the extra £66 million for adoption announced in the adoption White Paper, to be made available over three years, will be used by councils to improve their adoption support services. The additional resources for adoption should be seen against the background of substantial and continuing increases in social services spending planned for the next three years.
The new provisions for adoption support are among the most important in the Bill. They will play a key role in supporting greater use of adoption for looked-after children, and I am glad to say that they have already been widely welcomed. In response to the publication of the Bill last week, the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering said:
We are committed to ensuring that prospective adopters are treated fairly at all stages of the assessment process. Clause 9, to which the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) referred, provides for the introduction of a new independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who feel that they have been turned down unfairly--we made that clear promise in the White Paper.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): Can my hon. Friend clarify what will happen under the independent review system when advice of a confidential medical nature leads to the prospective adopters, or one partner, being turned down?
Mr. Hutton: I am not sure what would happen in such a case. The independent review mechanism is there to reassure prospective adopters that they have been considered fairly and properly by the local adoption agency. There is a sense--which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) has detected--that prospective adopters do not always get that impression. There will be an opportunity, perhaps in the Select Committee and elsewhere, to discuss in greater detail how the review mechanism will work.