Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: Although I do not accept his point about resources, I have the highest respect for the hon. Gentleman, whose argument is entirely consistent. The Minister recognises, although the hon. Gentleman does not, that it is impossible to regulate private fostering. How is it consistent to confine people who want to offer a permanent home to people from overseas by using such a heavy-handed approach? We have a completely open approach in respect of a range of other families who have foreign children in their homes, whether through fostering or hosting the thousands of visits every year by schoolchildren.

Mr. Shaw: The hon. Gentleman is losing the argument. He lost the argument on recruitment and on the quality of security of assessment and now he says that private fostering is impossible to regulate. I do not believe that it is, and neither do the Association of Directors of Social Services, Sir William Utting and Lord Laming. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we can take risks in one case so we can do so in another, my response is that two wrongs do not make a right.

Ms Munn: Does my hon. Friend agree that being part of the local authority or adoption agency system rather than being assessed by an independent social worker means that applicants are automatically hooked into a range of services and support, from initial training to adoption support and post-adoption services?

Mr. Shaw: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Bringing prospective adopters into the system is good because of the support that they receive; they are able to discuss their experiences with other prospective adopters. Furthermore, it creates another check and balance on the social worker.

Mr. Brazier: We have moved into the field of fiction. We will discuss those points in the debate on new clause 3.

People who adopt from abroad do not usually get any post-adoption services at all—that is the most frequent complaint that we hear from them. I hope that we will have the hon. Gentleman's support for our new clause 3, whereby we propose to introduce some plans in that respect.

Mr. Shaw: The hon. Gentleman has introduced another factor to try to justify the amendments, but they are all toppling over, one by one. He uses an emotive and horrific example about children and pigs, but such cases are not the majority, nor does it follow that independent social workers will provide solutions for all children in such dreadful circumstances.

We need to ensure a safe, secure system. It is important for both prospective adopters and social workers that they have support and supervision. In that way we ensure quality and further the child's best interests, which underpin the Bill.

Jacqui Smith: The debate has been greatly assisted by the expertise of my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Heeley and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). They have enabled us to extract from the debate the key issues and the confusion in the Opposition's approach to the amendment. The Opposition have oversimplified the problems that arise when completely independent social workers are able to carry out what are, in effect, private home studies. I will come to the legislative position on that shortly.

My hon. Friends' eloquent arguments caused the Opposition to retreat from the position that I thought the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk took at the beginning—that there should be a return to the ability to offer a private home study, although there should be some notion of approval, the details of which were not clear. However, under pressure, Opposition Members suggested instead that they were talking about the ability for social services departments or other adoption agencies to be able to call on the resource—well approved—that might be provided by an independent social worker.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister heard me refer to the ideological divide between whether the social services department or the individual potential adopters make the choice, subject to the social worker being properly qualified.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman highlights the other important division that has emerged in the debate, which is whether the assessment of prospective adopters should be for the convenience and the use of the prospective adopters, or for the child. Talking about prospective adopters choosing who is appropriate to assess them is to depart from the notion that, in assisting prospective adopters, we are trying to ensure that the best interests of the child are safeguarded in that potential placement.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggested that the Bill changes the law in respect of independent social workers ability to conduct home studies. He is wrong. The provision was in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, so it has already been debated and agreed by this House. Private social workers have not been able to carry out private home studies since 31 January 2000, when section 13 of the 1999 Act was brought into effect. It is worth reminding ourselves why the House decided that that was right.

Private home studies have been criticised for several reasons, not only because of a few highly publicised cases, as some Opposition Members have suggested. There were tragic cases that should not have been allowed to occur, but they are not the sole reason why private home studies were wrong. Other reasons include the fact that individuals carrying them out were not required to have qualifications or experience. They could not obtain police checks on prospective adopters or other adult members of the household. They did not receive information from the local authority on previous contact with social services, and they could not obtain impartial medical advice.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, no peer review or management arrangements oversaw the work of the assessors, and cases could not be considered on their merits by an adoption panel or separate decision-making body. In one instance, a person who was in the direct employ of the adopters acted as judge and jury. Those overwhelming disadvantages of private home studies rightly determined the decision made in the 1999 Act.

It has been suggested that we should allow independent activity because local authorities are not properly supporting those undertaking intercountry adoptions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley said, that has changed. A local authority circular issued by my Department in 1998 encouraged local authorities to establish an intercountry adoption service. That became a statutory duty with the implementation of section 9 of the 1990 Act on 30 April. The Department of Health provides help and assistance to people carrying out intercountry adoptions by contacting and sending papers to overseas authorities, and informing prospective adopters of progress.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk suggested that the justification for the clause was based on the recruitment and morale of social workers. The Committee shares the concern that we should recruit sufficient social workers and maintain their morale. In the vast majority of cases, social workers do an excellent job in transforming children's lives. Extra resources must go into social services departments—since 1996-96, we have increased resources to social services by 20 per cent. in real terms, and we must maintain that investment. At the risk of bringing party political discord into the Committee, I contrast that figure with the less than 0.5 per cent. increase a year under the previous Government and the fact that the Conservative party has been unwilling to say whether it would match the Government's investment in social services.

We have already addressed recruitment by launching a campaign, which I hope that hon. Members have seen in magazines and newspapers. We have received more than 12,000 responses and we are investing in training to ensure that we recruit vital people into social work.

Mr. Bellingham: In the aftermath of the Victoria Climbie and Lauren Wright cases, which produced much ignorant reporting from the tabloid press, how would the Minister and her Department refute their claims and rebuild the esteem of social workers?

Jacqui Smith: I am not sure that that is in the amendment's remit, but I agree that it is an important task. On the Lauren Wright case, I said that, although the system had failed, social workers carried out an important function. I stated what I said earlier: the vast majority do a fantastic job and turn around the lives of some of the most vulnerable in society. That is why we are investing in the recruitment campaign and increased levels of training. We will continue to support and build morale in social work and the social care work force, both by the injection of extra resources and other initiatives. There is no disagreement about the need to recruit and retain more social workers, although we might disagree about whether to invest money in doing that.

Tim Loughton: There has been much talk about quality protects money and ring-fencing for adoption services. Will the Minister confirm that adoption funding will no longer be ring-fenced from 2002-03 and that other parts of social services departments will therefore be able to use it for other reasons?

Jacqui Smith: No. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley rightly pointed out, the money for adoption has been through the quality protects grant route and, although it is not in the quality protects grant ring fence for adoption, it is nevertheless covered by the provision that it must be spent on children's services. More importantly, the Department's monitoring of the quality protects expenditure requires evidence of the outcomes, improvements and use to which the extra Government investment in adoption has been put.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Does my hon. Friend agree that that is why we are setting ambitious targets for local authorities to get more looked-after children into good, caring adoptive families, and that that will drive the process and resources in the right direction?

 
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Prepared 6 December 2001