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Mr. Brazier: My understanding is that the review process will still focus on the two matters. Crucially, that does not seem to apply to other parts of the adoption process. In particular, it is not likely to apply to decisions on individual matchings. That is a come-down from the Secretary of State's apparent pledge on Second Reading, when he said:
Given the short time available, I shall not restate points made in Committee about how expensive judicial review is or the fact that the ombudsman is powerless and that there is little point in appealing to the local authority.
Our amendment No. 22 seeks, first, to extend the scope of reviews from qualifying determinations to all determinations. That does not automatically make all determinations subject to review. It merely allows the Secretary of State to set out such wider categories as he sees fit. Secondly, the amendment seeks to set up an independent framework for the hearing of such appeals. Amendment No. 23 is largely consequential. Under amendment No. 22, the Minister will be able to allow an independent appeal process across the entire range of activities, so it seems reasonable to limit the Minister's powers to the outcome of such appeals.
Mr. Dawson: By moving the amendments, is not the hon. Gentleman in danger of putting the interests of adults before those of children? Does he not run the risk that placement decisions and the efficient and proper implementation of placements will be subject to the activities of vexatious litigants?
The current appeals procedure would not cover approved adopters who are denied a match with the child whom they wish to adopt, even if there is no other applicant for the child and has not been one for a long period. Surely there could be no clearer example of the vital interests of the child. As another example, if a care plan is not being heeded or a bad decision has been made, how will the child or the child's representativeperhaps a foster carer or an independent visitorget justice?
Further examples include a child being moved on unwillingly to yet another set of foster carers, foster carers being refused permission to adopt a child whom they have fostered for yearsthe hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) will know that the Government- commissioned research produced in Cardiff two years ago showed that some local authorities never allowed foster parents to adoptand approved couples who are again and again refused matchings. I could go on. I shall give two other examples, before returning to a more detailed case. What will happen when information has been retained on a child's background? All those who served on the Committee heard strong testimony about the importance of getting that information released. There is currently no recourse if the local authority refuses to give the parents information about the child's history, which is so vital if the child has been abused. Above all, what recourse will there be for whistleblowers in the social services system? Such people are brave professionals who often write off their entire careers by putting principle before their own interest for the sake of children.
It might be helpful if I describe in detail an actual example at the end of that list of hypotheticals. Mr. and Mrs. J, who live in central London, would have liked to appeal on several grounds. No avenue of appeal was available to them, and the Bill, as currently worded, would not provide one. They said to the Adoption Forum:
The clause also establishes an appeal structure. There is a concern that, under the clause as currently worded, the appeal might not be truly independent. For example, it might be considered by people from the local authority involved, and the adoption agency might be made to pay for it. In the case of voluntary agencies, that could be disastrous and would be a burden on local authorities, too.
The Government have a mass of tribunals stretching across many different Departments, covering everything from employment to parking fines. Surely our most vulnerable childrenthose in the care system whom we in Parliament have failed in all too many casesare worth an independent appeal heard by a properly constituted independent panel.
Mr. Djanogly: I rise to support amendments Nos. 22 and 23, which relate to the new procedures to be put in place for what the Bill refers to as an "independent review of determinations". As it turns out, that title is rather ambitious. Two issues seem to be involved in reviewing what counts as a qualifying determination, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) suggested.
We know little about the purpose of the proposed review panels. We do not know who will sit on them, how and when they will be convened, what their procedures will be, or the time limits for convening them. Indeed, in Committee, the Government did not even know when the system would be introduced.
We need to consider why review panels are important. Gradually over the past 30 years, people have lost confidence in the adoption system. Many potential adopters feel that they have received unfair treatment at the hands of agencies and social workers, that their wishes have been sidelined, that delays in the system are unacceptable, or that a decision made in the adoption process was wrong. Currently, complaints go through councils, where one can go through three stages of complaint procedure. Of course, one is taking one's complaint to the very same council that one has the complaint against, which is hardly an independent process. Alternatively, in some cases, one may be able to go to judicial review, but that is a very expensive process, open only to a very few.
The main thrust behind the Bill is to emphasise the importance of the child who, under clause 1, is to receive paramount status. That being the case, it becomes more important that other parties to the adoption process should receive an independent right to redress. I would certainly accept that a properly convened, easy-access, low-cost and informal panel system would work well. That would allow for any person, including natural parents and adoptive parents, to apply in relation to any adoption agency determination. That is proposed by the amendment, and I fully support it.
It is important to appreciate that, as things stand, even if the panels are formed, they will be available only to one partythe prospective adoptive parentsand then only in relation to their being refused permission to adopt, and then only to those who make it to the formal stage of the adoption process. However, only 10 per cent. of those who apply get to the formal stage of the adoption process in the first place, which means that the measure would apply to 4 per cent. of prospective adoptive parents.
This is being called an independent review system but I would hardly call it a full and comprehensive system. It is turning out to be little more than a sham. It does nothing to demand a review of a child who is moved between foster carers, or to allow for a review of the suitability of a child for adoption with particular prospective parents. It gives no recourse to a review of delays in the process, or to the giving of parental consent to adoption, or to assessing whether the child's views have been taken into account in the process. There is no provision for a review of the parents' assessment for supportif they are to get any at allor issues relating to the content of or access to the three adoption registers; or, indeed, inter-country adoptions.