Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Llwyd: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for her considered, useful and comprehensive reply. Bearing in mind that several non-departmental public bodies lay their reports before Parliament annually, what is the objection, if any, to that pattern in this case? Government and Opposition Members all want the same result.

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is hurrying me along to his amendment, but I am trying to set out the background and answer his earlier questions. I shall address the issue of the annual report but first wish to provide further assurances.

In addition to accountability through the board to the Lord Chancellor's Department, the magistrates courts service inspectorate carries out an independent inspection of CAFCASS. The hon. Gentleman may have heard about that on Second Reading, but I repeat it here for the record. The inspection includes visits to all parts of CAFCASS; this week, the inspectorate is visiting the headquarters. I hope that some of its findings will reassure the hon. Gentleman that services are generally being delivered. The preliminary report of the inspectorate has said that, in visits made so far, CAFCASS has generally continued to deliver at least the same quantity and quality of services to children, families and courts as were provided by the previous services before CAFCASS was established in April 2001.

I will not pretend that the report did not draw attention to the difficulties that occurred as a result of the judicial review. We all recognise that the review caused problems, but it is important for us to have the reassurance that, due to the professionalism and dedication of those who work in CAFCASS, service delivery has generally been of at least the same standard as previously.

5.45 pm

Mr. Llwyd: When did MCSI first become involved?

Ms Winterton: MCSI was involved from the very beginning as part of its duties under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000.

Mr. Llwyd: But how can MSCI say that the service is as good as it used to be if it did not exist then?

Ms Winterton: Because of the way the inspectorate carries out its duties, it will have regard to the relationship CAFCASS has with local authorities. Any complaints that the service was of a lesser standard would be drawn to the inspectorate's attention. One of the difficulties in monitoring some cases—unallocated work, for example—is that previously there was no check, and no figures on the previous position are available centrally, because some 114 different services were brought together.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by the fact that, as well as the annual report, there is an independent inspection. Those inspectors have right of entry to CAFCASS premises, and the right to inspect any CAFCASS documents. The Lord Chancellor can also direct the MCSI to inspect specific issues or functions of CAFCASS. It may provide the hon. Gentleman with even more reassurance to know that statute requires the chief inspector to make an annual report to the Lord Chancellor, which must be laid before Parliament, so in a sense an independent inspectorate has already laid a report before Parliament.

On the amendment and the idea of submitting a separate annual report to Parliament on the exercise of the functions of adoptions, I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. His amendment is not necessary because paragraph (12) of schedule 2 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 states:

    ''The Service must make a report to the Lord Chancellor in respect of each financial year on the performance of its functions.''

The Lord Chancellor may give directions on

    ''the information to be given in the report and the form in which it is to be given, and . . . the time by which the report is to be given.''

He must

    ''lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament''

and

    ''arrange for the report to be published in a manner he considers appropriate.''

That provides the opportunity for Parliament to consider how CAFCASS has exercised all of its functions.

Tim Loughton: The Minister is stating material evidence in response to an amendment that was moved about 40 minutes ago. She said that the report would be laid in a manner that the Lord Chancellor deemed appropriate, which opens up different avenues of what it will look like. Will she reassure the Committee about the report's contents and thoroughness on the adoption procedures in the Bill, which is the point of the amendment?

Ms Winterton: Yes.

Tim Loughton: Good.

Ms Winterton: I thought that the hon. Gentleman might ask that.

I should finish my previous point. The report will provide an opportunity for Parliament to consider how CAFCASS exercised all of its functions in supporting children, and not only those functions relating to adoption. The report will cover not only CAFCASS's activities, but those of any corporate bodies under its control, and will be submitted by 30 June, following the end of the financial year. Specifically, it will review CAFCASS's performance in the preceding financial year and provide appropriate comparable outturns for previous years. It will report on how CAFCASS has exercised its functions and met its duties and objectives as set out in statute, the report and the corporate plan. It will cover also any other matter specified by the Lord Chancellor. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, and I refer hon. Members to the framework document, which contains all the details. If they find it useful, I am happy to let them have a copy.

Section 17 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 provides, as I said earlier, for an independent inspection by the magistrates court service. As a result, the Government believe that proper legislative measures have been taken to ensure that CAFCASS is accountable to Parliament and the Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my argument that the amendment is superfluous because an annual report is already laid before Parliament. I hope that with those reassurances, he will feel able to withdraw the amendments.

Mr. Llwyd: That is the longest time that I have heard a Minister take to say the word ''otiose''. I am grateful for the care with which the Parliamentary Secretary has considered the subject. It is important, and she has considered it as such. I am greatly reassured, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: Before we turn to the clause stand part debate, I repeat my request; no repetition, please.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton: I shall try not to be repetitious.

I seek to raise a couple of outstanding queries. In particular, I wish to ask about amendment No. 151, which was not selected, on a technicality. With regard to that, I want to put a question to the Minister, rather than re-table the amendment. In the final part of subsection (2)(b), the omission of a reference to subsection (1)(c) alongside the references to subsections (1)(a) and (1)(b), suggests that it is thought that a single person could not fulfil all three of the functions that are set out in those paragraphs. The missing paragraph—subsection (1)(c)—refers to the performance of ''other prescribed duties.'' I fail to understand why someone should not be able to carry out that function, as well as the other two. I am sure that that is not intended, because circumstances might arise in which the court will want the same person to carry out all three of those functions.

Leaving it to delegated legislation to spell out of the assistance that the court may require the officer of the service to give, as set out in subsection (4), also does nothing to update the role of such a person; nor does it guarantee any tie-in between the type of reports that need to be written in cases relating to the Children's Act 1989, and those required for adoption. That merely perpetuates the existing system, without the benefit of a proper title for the person concerned.

Those two queries, which relate to the latter part of the clause, do not repeat in any way what we have already heard from the Minister, and I wish her to respond to them.

Ms Winterton: The debate on the clause has been extremely useful. It has enabled many Committee members to put on record their support for the principle of CAFCASS. It has also given encouragement to the people who work in the service that hon. Members are trying not to undermine but to support what they are doing.

The hon. Gentleman asked who is to be responsible for what, and I might be able to give him some encouragement, were he to listen to me. We agree that there might be room for clarification with regard to the questions that he raised. We will address the questions to find out whether it is necessary to come back with any further clarification, or even with further amendments, should that be required.

Tim Loughton: I have now scored my hat-trick without having to table my questions in the form of amendments, which is particularly gratifying, and without the Minister feeling compelled to use the terms ''diaried'' or ''anonymised'', as she has done in previous responses. I am grateful to her. My questions referred to genuine points raised by lawyers, and I look forward to her response as to whether the clause needs to be changed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 97 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 98

Right of officers of the service to have

access to adoption agency records

6 pm

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 135, in page 52, line 15, at end insert

    'or any other records held by that agency relating to the child which he may regard as relevant to the case.'.

We are trying to ascertain a specific point with this probing amendment, which would give officers of the service full access to the records that they require. The clause could be interpreted as giving those officers the right to look only at records concerning the child after the moment when twin-track planning for adoption had started and not the right to look at all the records concerning the child when care proceedings were being contemplated or had been launched. If an officer of the service were not involved in the earlier care proceedings, there may be a real difficulty in obtaining all the records necessary to compile a full report. That is the basis of the amendment, to which the Minister can no doubt respond swiftly.

 
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