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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I agree with parts of the arguments made by Opposition Members. In particular, I agree that at present the provision of adoption support services across the country is patchy and inconsistent, in that in many areas very little support is available for adopters once a child has been placed for adoption. However, we part company over the suggestion that the Bill does not significantly address that issue, because its new provisions on adoption support will tackle that inconsistency.

The Bill places for the first time a clear duty on local authorities to make and participate in arrangements to provide adoption support services, which will include

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financial support, delivering on the commitment that we made in the White Paper quoted by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). That new duty is set out in clause 3 and it will ensure that local authorities make available adoption support, including that financial support.

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Clause 4 gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from their local authority. That is a new right introduced by the Bill that delivers a key commitment made in the White Paper. The Bill goes even further than the White Paper, in which we made a commitment to give families adopting children a new right to such an assessment. The Bill extends the right to an assessment to all the people listed in clause 3(1), namely children who may be adopted, their parents and guardians, prospective adopters and adopted people, their adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians.

Mr. Brazier: Does the Minister accept that she is talking about assessments, not about the services themselves? As every major stakeholder who has written to us pointed out, clause 4 covers assessments, not services.

Jacqui Smith: I shall deal with the importance of assessments in a moment.

I was talking about the important duty in clause 3 to provide the service, the important right in clause 4 to receive an assessment, and the extension of that right to people prescribed in regulations made under clause 4(1)(b)—namely, those listed in regulations made under clause 3(3)(a). The Government intend that they will include birth and adoptive siblings of adopted people and children who may be adopted.

The assessment will ensure that adoptive families and others no longer have to fight against the system to get the help and support that they need. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred to such fights, and many of us will have heard tell of them at constituency surgeries. They are the legacy of a system that has not properly prioritised the need for local authorities to provide adoption support.

Mr. Llwyd: The Minister said that clause 3 provides the services required, and she is now helpfully moving on to cover assessment. I ask her to look at clause 4(4), which reads:

I am afraid that that drives a coach and horses through the hon. Lady's argument.

Jacqui Smith: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that I am coming on to that point. The Bill will ensure that public services are properly joined up in the provision of support services on adoption.

Several hon. Members asked about the nature of the assessment and expressed concerns that it might contribute to delay. I assure them that assessment under clause 4 can cover a full range of assessments from a quick decision with a very rapid response to a full

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multi-disciplinary assessment where that is required to put together a support package. People who gave evidence in the Special Standing Committee told us that there may be occasions on which it will be important to have such a proper assessment in relation to a child with multiple needs. That was seen not as a barrier to the provision of adoption support services, but as an important gateway to the provision of those services and to ensuring that they were provided in a joined-up way. Of course, adoptive families will not need to wait until an adoption order has been made to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. They will be able to request an assessment at any time—for example, when they have been matched with a child or when the child has been placed with them.

Amendments Nos. 3 and 7—Conservative Members have not tried to hide this—seek to restrict the discretion of local authorities to make decisions about the way in which they provide adoption support services. Local authorities must, of course, act reasonably in deciding whether to provide adoption support services following an assessment, but clause 4(4) makes it clear that it is for the local authority to make a decision on whether to provide adoption support services in each individual case.

Sandra Gidley: It occurs to me that there are interesting parallels with education. Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have frequently been approached by parents who are unhappy with the provision for their children. The county council's attitude seems to be, "This will do," rather than, "This is what is best for the child." The Minister appears to be describing a similar set-up.

Jacqui Smith: I was actually talking about the need to ensure that local authorities had discretion in this context, as they do—my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made the point—in the context of many other public services.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) mentioned assessments of older people's needs, but did not go as far as suggesting that the proposals to limit authorities' discretion should also apply to them. I do not know whether that reflects his relative priorities when it comes to needy older people and needy adopted children. The hon. Member for Canterbury was very honest in expressing the view that adopted children's needs should have priority over those of others needing social services assessments, including children in care. He was honest; I am not so sure about the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy.

Mr. Brazier: I shall not repeat my reasons for considering these children to be a special case, in both personal and financial terms. I merely say that if we compare this provision with provision for special needs in schools where local authorities have statutory duties, we see that there are fewer children adopted from care in a single year in most local authority areas than there are special needs children in many individual schools.

Jacqui Smith: There is no argument about the importance of adoption support services. That is why, for the first time, we have a Bill that imposes a duty on local authorities to provide such services.

Mr. Llwyd: As the Minister accused me of dishonesty, let me point out that I thought she was dealing with the

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Adoption Act 1976, which deals with children. To say that I rank children below or above elderly people is to reach an unjustified conclusion which in fact does little justice to the Minister. May I declare an interest? My own mother is going through an assessment, and I am offended by what the Minister has said.

Jacqui Smith: I am sorry if I offended the hon. Gentleman. I was simply examining the logic of the argument that discretion for making decisions about the provision of adoption support services should be removed, while discretion relating to other services should not. Members must face up to the logic of their arguments in the context of amendments Nos. 3 and 7.

Mr. Djanogly: The Minister still has not dealt with the basic point. If councils are to have discretion not to provide services, how is it rational to require them to provide an assessment? Why should they have to waste money on an assessment if they are not going to spend money on support afterwards?

Jacqui Smith: As I have said, an assessment is important as a gateway to the provision of services. Given the extra investment and given the duty imposed by the Bill to provide adoption support services, it cannot be said that the vast majority of authorities will not supply massively better services for adopted children and their families than were supplied under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported until 1997.

My point is that amendments Nos. 3 and 7 remove local authorities' discretion. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear on Second Reading on 29 October last year, ultimately local authorities provide the adoption service, so they must decide who needs what level of support. I would like to provide two more quotes about the importance of the discretion given to local authorities. Quote No. 1 is:

Quote No. 2 is:

Those were the words of the Leader of the Opposition, who appears to disagree with hon. Members this evening. Discretion for local authorities is important. The effect of the amendments would be to remove that discretion from local authorities.

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