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Mr. Dawson: I cannot resist the invitation. The hon. Gentleman makes a point, but no one is talking about writing blank cheques. Surely his remarks about a lack of support services entirely underestimate the effects that the Bill will have. It will provide a remarkable improvement in adoption and post-adoption support services to children and families. I question why he is so concerned to give unlimited resources to particular people in certain circumstances when he is not arguing the same for children in all other parts of the care system. He is certainly not arguing the same for families with children living in poverty.

8.45 pm

Mr. Llwyd: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and those arguments will doubtless be made in another debate, but today we are dealing with adoption law.

The hon. Gentleman asks why there should be a carte blanche in terms of resources, but we are dealing with the most needy and vulnerable people in society. The point is that these young kids have probably already been through turmoil in reaching the point of being placed for adoption. We should make the resources available, so that a need can be met whenever an assessment identifies one. Otherwise, there is no point in any of this, and we will be letting children down. Although we all sign up to the principle of the paramountcy of the child, the risk is that the Bill will let children down.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is much in the Bill to commend it. It contains several mechanisms that are most welcome and extremely useful, but a weakness has been identified, and in the light of the circumstances, the Special Standing Committee procedure and so on, it is right and proper that we debate it.

Mr. Djanogly: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a form of postcode lottery operates, whereby people are in effect dependent on living in an area that happens to have a good agency? If the agency can provide the necessary support, they are in luck; if not, that could be to the detriment of the child and others.

Mr. Llwyd: That is right, and to be fair to the Government, they have identified that problem. Much of

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the thinking behind the Bill is very clear, but the laudable aim is to introduce uniform quality of service throughout local authorities in England and Wales. However, the hon. Gentleman is right: as things stand, there is a postcode lottery. The system is haphazard and the outcome depends on where one lives. Those of us who are members of the all-party adoption group—including the hon. Member for Canterbury—have heard that said year after year. We are therefore delighted that the Government are introducing the Bill, but I am afraid that it is flawed, and it behoves us all to make plain our dissatisfaction with this particular aspect of it.

Of course, there are degrees of adoption services—some major and others relatively minor—and the Adoption Forum has expressed concern in that regard. It asked what will happen if a local authority agrees that support is needed, but says that it does not have the staff to provide it. Such a situation is not acceptable, but under the Bill as drafted, a local authority could say as much. That is totally unfair.

I support amendment No. 4, which would require a written explanation of reasons why support services were not forthcoming, and amendment No. 5, which would require a review. As other Members have made plain, many local authorities are failing, and often because of nothing more than a lack of resources. Although it has been said that some local authorities are prejudiced against adoption, I doubt whether any are, and I shall not pursue that red herring now. If the problem is a lack of resources, we must look to Government to provide them. As I have said, in any event we are dealing with only a percentage of youngsters. The problem could be worked out, and the Government could examine the budgeting situation.

Given that we have gone through the Standing Committee process, heard evidence from the experts in Special Standing Committee, and heard extremely useful and constructive contributions from Members on both sides of the House, it would be a terrible shame if we fell short of our intention to bring in a ground-breaking Bill that will provide an excellent service for those most in need of support.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I am following the hon. Gentleman's comments with interest and great support, but the problem may be even worse than he suggests. Because of the crisis in many social services departments, whether in the care of children or of the elderly, departments are increasingly having to limit their activities to their statutory responsibilities. Therefore, the responsibilities that are not statutory requirements are taking a lower priority, whether the departments wish that to happen or not. That is exactly what would happen to adoption support services if they do not take on the statutory obligation.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. That is precisely the position as I see it. Adoption UK told us that it welcomes some of the changes to clause 4 and is delighted that adoption support services will include all those affected by adoption. However, it continues to make the point:

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I have made the case as strongly as I can, but I wish to refer briefly—in due deference to the fact that several Labour Members have previously been involved in social work—to the British Association of Social Workers, which said:

That goes even further than what we are arguing.

I hope that the Minister will reconsider the Government's position on clause 4. She rightly referred several times to stakeholders as she opened the debate. If stakeholders mean anything, they should be listened to.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I feel as if I am entering a private party among the members of the Committee. I contributed on Second Reading, but I was not a member of the Committee so I am returning to some of the issues. In this instance, it is a surprise and a disappointment that the issue was not resolved in Committee in the direction that my hon. Friends and other Opposition Members have urged the Government to take.

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). He rightly referred to the group of amendments and their various aspects. If it were my choice, I would ask the Minister to fix on amendment No. 7 as most deserving of acceptance by the Government. One slight difficulty that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has advanced is that inevitably there will be limited circumstances in which the Government will legislate that a local authority has a duty not only to provide services but to provide all such services as are required by a person regardless—effectively—of the resources available to it. As hon. Members have rightly pointed out, the Exchequer and individual local authorities would receive obvious positive benefits from a successful placement for adoption, but resource constraints may still make provision of the services in question difficult for local authorities. Amendment No. 7 would at least recognise that local authorities would exercise a judgment, having interpreted the need for adoption support services, and then be able to follow that through. Rather than support all the amendments willy-nilly, I express my support for amendment No. 7.

In Cambridgeshire, the annual report on adoption and permanence for the local social services illustrates my point well. Some 26 children were placed for adoption in 2000-01 and adoption allowances were agreed for 16 children, six of which were in-principle agreements that focused on the possible need for treatment or extra provision in the future. The report drew attention to the high proportion of adopted children who require such financial or other support. It states that it

That passage points to the importance of providing a countrywide system of support on which those adoptive families can rely, if we are to sustain—as is one of the

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Bill's principal intentions—the number of those adopting and prevent the disruption of those adoptions once they have taken place.

My hon. Friends have referred to the difficulties associated with the current inconsistency in the levels of support that are being provided. I understand that the legislation is intended to deliver greater consistency, but there is a question as to the level at which consistency will be delivered. In Cambridgeshire at the moment, a more stringent means test is being applied to adoption allowances. Cambridgeshire now falls mid-band among local authorities in the level of the means test but, as the report also shows, difficulties have emerged when families who adopted in the past, under a more generous scheme, have sought an allowance for a further adoption. If we are going to introduce a degree of consistency we must expect it to be consistency at a level of provision that is relatively high when compared with the present level; otherwise, there will be substantial disincentive effects.

I am keen that, in the course of amending clause 4, we should push not only for consistency but for a fairly high level of provision, and a degree of certainty on the part of adoptive parents that that provision will be made available to them if they are assessed as having need of adoption support services.

When I approached the legislation afresh I was seriously concerned that the Government, having understood what was required, had failed to legislate precisely for that to happen. It was the Government, in their White Paper "Adoption: A New Approach", who presaged this legislation. In paragraph 6.27, they said that they would introduce new legislation

That was not a commitment on the part of Government to introduce legislation providing that local authorities had a duty to decide whether to provide post-adoption support. It was a clear commitment to introduce legislation placing on social services authorities

In the absence of amendment No. 7, the Government will have moved away from the commitment in the White Paper to something watered down. The loophole that will have been created is one through which it would be possible to drive a coach and horses in subsequent years, if local authorities were not properly resourced and the Government did not give them the necessary support. I therefore urge the Government to adopt amendment No. 7.

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