Select Committee on Adoption and Children Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



Mrs Spelman

  160. Your position, as outlined in your submission, I think concerned a lot of us and you clarified a little of what is behind it. I am very sympathetic to the problem because the proposal about the independent review in the Bill is very sketchy at the moment, it is all to be fleshed out at later date. It is quite difficult for all of us, and what I would like to hear from you is that you have taken on board how heavily loaded we are with the bad experience of people at the present in complaints procedures and what you would describe as innovative in terms of transparencies, the two problems which still remain. You referred to bureaucracy. It is a fact people who go through all four levels of the present complaints procedure find whilst they have got 28 days to make a complaint very often those they complain to take three months to deal with that complaint, and in total four levels of complaints leads to losing a year in the adoption process, which can be very stressful for all those concerned. There is another problem to do with independence. Whilst I hear what you say about appointing an independent person to look into a complaint, they are not really independent because you as social services are appointing that person. That is why I, for one, feel very strongly about the need for independence. Social services play a key role and very often the complaint is to your service and the person making the complaint feels they are complaining to the person against whom they are complaining, and that is one problem with it. The other problem is you are a very strong gatekeeper in this process and if the gate is shut those who experience that feel there is nowhere else to turn.
  (Mr Hutchinson) I accept the validity of what you are saying. I think the Government has not quite thought out how the regulations would work, as has been said, as we certainly have not, but if the time factor is a factor, as it is, we need to work out some way of dealing with it. I cannot immediately say how it would happen. The major point I want to get over about this one is that it is about perception and even if it is fair, it does not seem fair, because it sounds as though everything is being allocated within the department and strings could be pulled, "Why don't you ask such-and-such a person". So I accept the point you are making about independence but actually the way it works, the way an independent person is selected, is by an arm totally separate from anything else—the operational arm—and those people have an interest in dealing with the matter independently. The greater strength I think is that there will be interviews and meetings rather than just scrutiny of paper, so maybe there is a middle way between both proposals.

  Chairman: Are there any more questions or points on the review mechanism? Can we turn to placement orders next.

Mr Shaw

  161. Perhaps I can direct a quick question to Ms Staples. In clause 25 where a child is placed with their prospective adopted family under a placement order, the child's surname cannot be changed until the adoption order has been made. There are some slight caveats within the Bill but we are waiting for clarification on that. I wonder what your view is as to whether there should be circumstances where either the panel or the court could agree to a name change when a placement order has been made. I am particularly thinking of older children. If those older children are moved to a new area, start a new school, as has been said before, they start off Jones and then two months later they are Bloggs, and I would not think that was in the child's best interests.
  (Ms Staples) I think it is a very important issue. For a number of children changing their name is very significant at the start of the placement because that is the name they will be known by and that is important to them. For a significant number of children there are also fears they will be found if they are registered in their old name, so the idea they could change their name, subject to approval, would be extremely advantageous.

  162. You think there should be that flexibility within the Bill?
  (Ms Staples) I do, yes. But obviously some children may wish to keep their first name for longer and they may not be ready to do it. So it is obviously something where with older children we would have to seek their views.

Mr Brazier

  163. You have almost answered the supplementary I was going to ask, but let me ask it anyway. The Bill does need a little strengthening on this point of secrecy in these interim arrangements, because there is the danger the birth family may discover the child. It is not only about the name change but also the register. There is this whole business of discussing the twin tracking. It does not seem to lay down clearly the importance of secrecy. Do you feel it could be strengthened?
  (Ms Staples) I think for some children it clearly is very important they are protected and their identity is not going to be revealed. It needs to be a confidential placement for some children, yes.

  164. Thank you. Could I move us on to the next item, information right for adopters and adoptees. I would like, if I might, Mr Hutchinson, to take you back to some interesting remarks you made four or five years ago—you may well remember them! Felicity Collier, who is still with us, made some similar remarks on this. It is this particular issue on information available—the duty of candour, one might almost say—to people who have adopted and this complication which you raised in the past with a Select Committee on the way in which insurance companies operate. Felicity raised this point too, I know. It does seem extraordinary that an insurance company can effectively be allowed legally to say to a social services department, "If you tell the truth on this, we are not going to cover you." Do you think we need a change in the law in this area or not?
  (Mr Hutchinson) I did hear that was said. It is not my experience, that is all I can say. I would be appalled if there was any inference by any of my staff they should not tell a prospective adoptive parent about anything relevant about the child's behaviour or background because there was some insurance instruction not to. That is the position I will take as a director. I have not have had any experience, as far as I can remember on this, although if you say I appeared at a Select Committee five years ago—

  Mr Brazier: Can I just read you a few words to refresh your memory? "We are concerned that local authorities and their insurers should jointly review available guidance on insurance matters. This will provide the framework recognising the responsibility of an authority as an insured body while at the same time avoiding the placement of unnecessarily tight strictures on social services authorities' ability to engage with young people who may feel they have suffered whilst in the authorities' care." You were talking about wider issues here but—

  Chairman: Where was this, for Mr Hutchinson's information?

  Mr Brazier: It was submitted by the Association of County Councils jointly with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

  Chairman: To which inquiry?

  Mr Brazier: This was a memo given in evidence to the Health Select Committee on 6 February 1997.

  Chairman: The Looked-After Children Inquiry.

Mr Brazier

  165. Right.
  (Mr Hutchinson) You mentioned the AMA and someone else but you did not mention the ADSS.

  166. No, but it specifically says Bob Lewis and yourself.
  (Mr Hutchinson) Right. Oh dear! I am sorry, I cannot remember!
  (Ms Blatcher) Can I help?


  167. You wrote it, did you not?
  (Ms Blatcher) I wrote that, yes, because I was formerly at the ACC. It was in the context of child abuse and help for children while waiting for court cases. In fact we are currently discussing that with insurers and the Law Commission and others. It is also a question of children's evidence while you are trying to work with them therapeutically.

Mr Brazier

  168. I have had this raised by the police with me on several occasions.
  (Ms Blatcher) This is something on which there is on-going work at the moment.

  169. Across a whole string of children's issues, this problems seems to be rearing its head. The problem that being candid and open and indeed helping children very often seems to have legal consequences which make the position of social services extremely difficult on this. In one direction we are dealing with the courts, in another direction we are dealing with insurance companies. Do you think this is an area where we need legislation?
  (Ms Blatcher) The Law Commission will be bringing forward recommendations on this and there are extensive discussions which are beginning and everyone is concerned about it. We have been speaking to the Department of Health as well.

  170. But the Law Commission's findings are a long way overdue. I understand even Sir Ronald Waterhouse has commented in a letter to a private individual, which I quoted at the last hearing, that this is well overdue.
  (Ms Blatcher) The LGA has arranged a meeting, I believe, for June, a round-table discussion on this.

  171. Good.

Ann Coffey

  172. On the information to be handed over to prospective adopters about a child, are you saying that the Bill is not framed in a way which is strong enough about handing over information?
  (Mr Hutchinson) I was simply responding to Mr Brazier's question about what I thought should be the best practice about passing information over.
  (Ms Staples) I think the timing of it is wrong. It needs to be a time when the adopters are making the decision about whether they can take that child.

  Mr Brazier: I am sorry, I am feeling slightly uncomfortable. I was not trying to bowl a googly by quoting something out of the past. What it boils down to is, could you do with some legal support here because it does seem to me you are in a very difficult position in this area.


  173. He is trying to be helpful!
  (Mr Hutchinson) I think it is a hat-trick for me! I think the answer is yes.

  Chairman: Thank you for that point. Can we turn to court timetables next.

Mr Shaw

  174. Everyone is concerned about the issue of delays. Part of that has been attributed to the court process where cases which are deemed to be five days or more are transferred to the county courts, whereas magistrates feel they would be in a better position to deal with the cases much more speedily. We heard from the Lord Chancellor's Department who acknowledge it is very rare for cases to be referred back to the magistrates courts and quite often cases do not last for five days in the county courts, so further delay is built into the system. From your local authorities' perspective, could you tell the Committee what your experiences are, where you know of good practice and good co-operation between the county courts, magistrates and those people making application, and perhaps give us examples of where that is not happening so well?
  (Mr Christie) I do not think I would be able to give you an answer on that.

  175. How is it in Nottingham?
  (Ms Staples) Nottinghamshire.

  176. Yes, I know there is a big difference.
  (Ms Staples) There are extensive delays for some children, even though we have tried to work out a protocol with the court in order to move those on. The thing you were identifying about the movement of cases between magistrates and county courts is also significant in determining some of those delays. The idea that timetables will be set, that it will be very clear, will be a distinct advantage.
  (Mr Christie) If it would help, I could make further enquiries and provide you with something.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Any other points on court timetables? If not, can we look at the national adoption register.

Caroline Flint

  177. I just wanted to clarify something in the LGA submission. Putting aside—and I am not saying is not important—the costs that can occur through trying to find placements out of area, which was touched on earlier, the LGA said there should be an opportunity for local adoption before placement out of area and they made some points about the advantages of offering children local placements. Is the inference that should be a standard situation, that local placement should be looked at in the first instance before out of area? I am not very happy about something being too prescriptive or based on evidence which may in itself not stand up. There is evidence which suggests that actually placement out of area might be beneficial to a child. Points about safety were raised earlier and also just finding the right family. In my own constituency less than 1 per cent of people are from an ethnic minority in the way they define themselves and therefore to find families for black children or Asian children would be quite difficult within the South Yorkshire or Doncaster area. I wanted you to clarify this. Is this a sticking point which I am worried might end up being another delay in the whole situation?
  (Cllr Rutter) The reason why we feel if you can do something locally it is best is because this may mean the child is not torn completely up from its roots and may still be able to keep in touch with friends and the wider family. It is not a sticking point for us, it would not be a sticking point for us. The reason why we said we would like, first of all, to go to local or regional consortia is just for that reason, because we felt it would help the stability of the adoption. But there is no way in which we would say, "If we cannot find a local place the child cannot go." Clearly it is the most suitable place we would be after at the end of the day. As you say, some children might very well be better placed right away from their local environment. I can imagine that being the case in a few instances. I do not think it is hard and fast.

Mr Shaw

  178. One of the things which will pre-occupy particularly directors of social services is the inter-placement fees if it gets to the point Councillor Rutter has referred to. I think £21,000 is the average to place two children. Dorothy Blatcher is nodding. That is correct, is it?
  (Ms Blatcher) Possibly more.

  179. So it is very expensive. We have seen the development of consortia to meet the concerns and also recognising the need for economies of scale, particularly for an authority such as yours, Mr Hutchinson, which is a small authority for which it can be very expensive. If you have the regulations and requirements of the national adoption register, after a certain period you will have to go to the register to try and identify a suitable family for the children. Do you think because of the cost of inter-placement fees, you will see an expansion of consortia? The consortia in my constituency is Medway, Kent, Sussex, Brighton and Hove, which is a very big area in terms of population, so why could not those people ask you, Mr Hutchinson, to join them as well with your consortia, and then they will be able to reach all the way down to Cornwall. I wonder whether that is a discussion within the LGA because, as you know, costs will concentrate minds, and there may well be effectively two adoption registers and the one that is proposed in this Bill will become a white elephant.
  (Mr Hutchinson) I do not think it will become a white elephant but the relationship between the national register and the consortia does need to be sorted out. We cannot join with Kent unfortunately because we are on our own and different consortia have different rules about the costs. Some have been standing for a very long time—the Manchester one has been in existence since 1973—some charge between authorities, others do not charge at all and some charge above a certain threshold of placements which are exchanged, so they all have different arrangements. The Department of Health certainly has been trying to encourage the development of consortia, as have we, as a way of sharing resources, and it is the sharing of the resources which is the key thing we want everybody to do. So the regulations and the guidance are going to have to be very clear to make sure that individual authorities do not sit on their resources for a rainy day, because that might mean for several months or even longer they are not being used. The point is that consortia have advantages because they are local, as Councillor Rutter has said it enables children who do have links to maintain them. We ask for placement in the early days to be local and that keeps costs down. You tend to get on better with a small group of people you work with on a regular basis, so there are those advantages as well. The clarity needs to be worked out—do you go there first, what is the timescale for staying with that particular arrangement, at what point do you have to put your approved adopter on to the register.

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