Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Reports (Nos. 102 and 104)

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Mr. Wilshire: I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us which councils those were.

Jacqui Smith: In a minute I will give the hon. Gentleman a list. I am not sure whether I wrote to all hon. Members or just to those with a particular interest. We will review the work of the taskforce in

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the autumn to see whether it has the capacity to help further councils, either on an individual basis or as groups. I am now in a position to tell the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he will be pleased to hear it—that the 12 selected councils for phase 2 are Blackburn with Darwen, Cambridgeshire, Dorset, Halton, Hammersmith and Fulham, Manchester, Merton, Redcar and Cleveland, Sheffield, Southend on Sea, Stockport and Wigan.

I am very pleased with the work that the taskforce has completed to date. There have been tangible benefits. It shows the benefits that can be gained by putting leaders in adoption in touch with each other. I am anxious that we build on the success of the taskforce and I look forward to extending its work to a third wave of councils. Today's special grant report enables us to take that work forward, and I hope that it will be supported by the Committee.

6.4 pm

Tim Loughton: Of course the Minister knows that we welcome the Adoption and Children Bill, especially as some hon. Members spent some six months of their lives working on it over the last parliamentary year. We hope that it will now proceed through the upper House. Under the Bill, many extra responsibilities will be placed on social services departments along the lines of those mentioned by the Minister. Adoption support services are especially affected, given the whole business of promoting adoptions that have a greater likelihood of being permanent and that work for the children involved.

I welcome the Minister's almost glowing praise for Kensington and Chelsea—a typically well run Conservative authority whose social services department scored the highest rating, along with Wandsworth's. It received three stars, and was rated as serving adults and children excellently. Only those Conservative authorities received that 100 per cent. accolade. Half the eight authorities that received three stars were, of course, Conservative, which comes as no surprise.

I have several questions about the workings of the adoption and permanence taskforce. The Minister roughly sketched out its purpose, which is to support councils in: improving their performance in planning for, and delivering, permanence for looked-after children; maximising the use of adoption as an option to promote the needs of looked-after children; providing effective support to all parties affected by adoption; and providing a source of advice and expertise to inform policy development and implementation on adoption and permanence. Will the Minister say how much has been paid in total so far to reimburse local authorities for members involved in the taskforce?

The taskforce's annual report, which was published in October 2001, and subsequent Department of Health press releases, announced that an initial eight, and then another 12, councils were participating and receiving help. The 12 councils were selected from 40 that expressed an interest. Will the Minister give us

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more details about how the 12 councils in the second phase were selected for receiving help and best practice training from the taskforce? It might have been helpful to have the list of councils as additional research in advance of our consideration of the special grant report. Are the councils predominantly no star, one star or two star? The range of authorities in the list appears to be diverse. Why were the other 29 authorities that expressed an interest not selected? Answers to those questions would help the Committee and give a steer in the future to authorities with an interest in sharing in the work of the taskforce.

Will the Minister comment on how the work of the taskforce interacts with the Government's idea of sending hit squads in to councils with failing social services departments? If those councils coincide with authorities that receive help from the taskforce, does its work overlap with that of the hit squads? Does it work alongside them? Would not help be given to authorities that are the subject of hit squads? Must the councils who take the taskforce's help implement its recommendations? What happens if they do not take its help? The taskforce's annual report says that it is there not to criticise the working of social services departments, but merely to offer—and I quote—''best practice''. Who ultimately decides whether authorities should take any notice of it? Does the taskforce have any real teeth or it is purely an advisory body, whose advice councils would be foolish not to take? We have not heard much detail about the practicalities of how taskforce members will work with authorities.

The report does not say how much Kensington and Chelsea is being reimbursed for its involvement in the taskforce, or how many officers are involved, the time span of their work and in what capacity they will be used. Will the Minister elaborate on that? We are delighted that Kensington and Chelsea has been chosen to act as the host, which I am sure is the right decision. Reading the taskforce's annual report, I noticed that it will help local authorities improve their best practice plans for adoption. However, does the taskforce work solely on the management action plans for the adoption sections of quality protects or on all aspects of adoption policies? What was the working relationship between the taskforce members and quality protects regional development workers, whom we discussed earlier under the other grant report? Again, the annual report does not give any detail.

Finally, the members of the taskforce are experts in their field and work in voluntary and statutory bodies involved in adoption, but how is the taskforce's success measured? The Minister alluded to an assessment that will be carried out this autumn, so will Parliament have an opportunity to scrutinise whether its work has been successful? In our earlier debate, she said that it would be far more important to assess outcomes rather than the money put into the project. Will she give us a framework for how we can assess the taskforce's effectiveness and how much better the authorities that avail themselves of its advice become as a result?

6.11 pm

Mrs. Calton: I shall be slightly briefer this time.

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We welcome the fact that the taskforce was set up. It was established to produce a significant change in performance for adoption services and permanence otherwise, and I applaud the Government's motives in wanting to do that. From my knowledge of social services departments, I know that too many children have been denied the opportunity to live in a family because of the bureaucratic and counterproductive procedures in both fostering and adoption. I welcome the lead role of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which according to the Government's star rating system is serving children and young people well and has excellent prospects.

I have only a couple of questions, which have been partially covered already. How large is the taskforce and from where will its members be recruited? I hope that the permanence aspect is not ignored, and that fostering is recognised as an important part of adoption and permanence.

6.13 pm

Mr. Wilshire: I am conscious of the fact that most Committee members probably have an invitation to a barbecue later this evening, so I shall do my level best not to keep them from their supper.

As I said on the last occasion, I support the general principles wholeheartedly. I doubt that we would find a colleague in the House who would not say that we should support this good initiative. However, having said that, going back to my days in local government—[Interruption.] I have no intention of going back just yet—perhaps after 7.30 pm, but not before. If in my local government days I had ever got hold of such a document referring to my council, I would not have been able to believe my luck. It is a wondrous document. It should be retitled the bottomless bucket grant, because nowhere in it is there a limit on what Kensington and Chelsea can be given. It is a wonderful arrangement. Whatever happened to cash-limiting? This is the first piece of paper I have seen from any Government that says, ''We will make a grant of all relevant expenditure.'' If I were a local authority treasurer, or leader, as I used to be, I would have a field day if I was told that all relevant expenditure would be reimbursed.

Can the Minister tell the Committee what arrangements are in place to keep the lid on that? She said that only £250,000 is involved, but there is no way of stopping the figure being double or treble that amount. The children who are being helped would no doubt be delighted, but paragraph 3 on page 1 states:

    ''Before making these determinations and before specifying the conditions, the Secretary of State obtained the consent of the Treasury.''

That beggars belief. Are we really being told that Her Majesty's Treasury said to the Secretary of State for Health, ''Go on. You can put this before Parliament. You can let this lot spend as much as they like.''? Was the Treasury having a bad day? Was it not explained to it what this all about? As I said earlier, I am all for local freedom, but I am not in the business of signing blank cheques on behalf of my constituents, who are taxpayers. Will the Minister reassure me, and disappoint Kensington and Chelsea, by saying that

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the report is not suggesting a bottomless bucket approach?

Will the Minister also tell us where the money will come from? I suspect that that is at the heart of the question why the Treasury's permission is needed. Has someone in the Department of Health raided the piggy bank? If so, have there been appraisals of the competing bids? It is all very well to say that it is splendid if there is a little pot of money tucked away for things, but if it comes under a budget heading for money set aside for a range of such projects, we should ask if there was any appraisal of their value? I would hate to think that just because the Prime Minister thought it was a good idea, somebody found the money. I hope that nobody thinks that that is the way to run the Government. There must have been some appraisal that found that this proposition was more important than anything else.

Alternatively, was the Treasury consulted because the money came from its little pot, not one in the Department of Health? If the Treasury is the source of the money and can say, ''Here's a little bit more for you,'' I am deeply suspicious, because a system in which Chancellors of the Exchequer have money under the bed that they dole out to their friends contains enormous scope for political corruption. The Minister must tell us where the money will come from and why the Treasury had to be consulted. I doubt that she will be able to tell us why the Treasury agreed, because she is not a crystal ball reader, and the Treasury will have to answer for itself. There must be some means of controlling the expenditure, but I am blowed if I can see it in the document.

We were told that the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea was the best authority for the task. I can understand why the Minister did not want to be too effusive in praising a Conservative council, but it is significant that when she wanted help she turned to one of the best run Conservative authorities in the country, and I applaud her for doing so. I hope she will do that again, because if she wants the Government's money used well, she should let Conservatives do it, not the spendthrift, wasteful authorities run by her party.

Annex A mentions ''relevant expenditure'' but it does not say who determines what is relevant. A little later, it says that someone has to certify that expenditure is relevant, but nowhere does it say that a decision must be taken on who that person should be.

 
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Prepared 10 July 2002