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Special Standing Committee
Tuesday 11 December 2001
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 3, line 7, leave out subsection (4).
There is a degree of frivolity in our proceedings, Mrs. Roe, but it would be entirely out of order for me to explain why. The gist of it is that several Opposition Members are serving on more than one Standing Committee, which makes life interesting.
Amendment No. 20 is probing. We want to know why subsection (4) is necessary. The fact that we are debating clause 2 more than half way through the Committee's proceedings reflects the rather odd order of considerationthe most unusual that I have come across. We are in our fourth week of deliberation, but only now are we debating definitions.
Why is an adoption society that is an unincorporated body not allowed to apply for registration? I note that the clause does not say merely that it cannot register; it says that it cannot even apply to register. It seems odd that such a body should not be allowed to apply to be considered for registration. I look forward to the Minister's reply.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): Welcome back, Mrs. Roe. We are now on the 10th of 20 sittings, so we are well set.
We come to the part of the Bill that deals with adoption support, particularly the improved provision that the Government will be making under the Bill for the right to an assessment for adoption support for a range of people involved in the adoption process. Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have expressed an interest in ensuring that we increase the number of children who can be adopted. One way of ensuring that those adoptions are high quality placements and that a sufficient number of people are attracted into adoption is to support them during the adoption and post-adoption process, to give those children the secure lives that we hope adoption will provide.
Clause 2 provides several basic definitions for the adoption service provided by local authorities and approved voluntary adoption agencies. Those definitions are used throughout the Bill. At present, voluntary adoption agencies in England and Wales are
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inspected and approved by the social services inspectorate. From April 2003, they will be inspected and listed by the National Care Standards Commission in England, and by the National Assembly in Wales, under part II of the Care Standards Act 2000. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, the amendment proposes the removal of subsection (4), which provides that an adoption society that is an unincorporated body may not apply for registration under part II of the Care Standards Act.
First, it is worth explaining the current position. Under the existing legal framework, registered adoption societies must be incorporated bodies. To that extent, the Bill does not propose a change. That requirement is currently contained in regulation 2(2) of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983; it has therefore been included in regulations for some time, and we have decided to provide for it expressly in the Bill.
Why is it important that a registered adoption society be an incorporated body? An incorporated body is a separate legal entity. It is something of a legal person, which is separate and distinct from individual members of the body. An unincorporated body has no such separate legal existence and is not in law distinguishable from its members. As we discussed at length in previous sittings, adoption agencies may have parental responsibility for a child as well as many other important functions. That is a significant responsibility that must be clearly defined in law. It is therefore vital that all adoption societies registered under the 2000 Act are incorporated bodies.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises both that the amendment would restate the current position in the Bill, and that the significance of the activities and responsibility vested in adoption societies is such that it is important to ensure that they have the legal status of incorporated bodies. That is the logic of the Government's approach, so I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Brazier: On the basis of that clear explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I beg to move amendment No. 65, in page 3, line 18, leave out 'may' and insert 'will'.
Welcome back, Mrs. Roe. We are discussing adoption services, one of the most important subjects in the Bill. It is fair to say that all the representatives of the groups that we saw during our evidence-taking sittings, as well as the vast majority of representations that we have received, welcomed the improvements the Bill makes. The changes provide for a greater range of adoption support services before, during and after the act of adoption, and for those whose problems may or may not be solved by adoption. We echo the welcome that they have received.
On more substantial provisions, we will want to probe the Government's intentions more closely, but I thought it suitable to table the probing amendment to
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the clause, which is about basic definitions and starts chapter 2. Clause 2(6) loosely defines adoption support services as
''counselling, advice and information in connection with adoption''
we will discuss that in more detail later
''and...such other services as are specified in regulations (which may include financial support).''
The final sentence of the explanatory notes on clause 2 states:
''The Government's intention is that the services set out in the regulations will include financial support.''
To probe the Government's real intentions, we have tabled an amendment that would substitute ''will'' for ''may''.
At this stage, it is appropriate to raise the subject of adoption allowances. Certain groups that have made representations to us have said how necessary it is to clarify that subject, which was touched on in the White Paper. We largely agree with the range of measures that the Government are introducing to promote the adoption as soon as possible of more children and to ensure that all adoptions, including those extra ones, are as stable, lasting and effective as possible. This part of the Bill relates to that second aim. The provision of the right support, which in no small way includes financial support, is crucial to that aim. In a fairly detailed survey by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, financial support is identified as a key consideration, although it is not the most important, when people put their names forward to become adopters.
A problem arises because of the wide variation in adoption allowances, let alone the support services available. That makes it difficult for adoption agencies to advise prospective adoptive parents on the level of financial support that they might receive. That has material implications for decisions to adopt, how many children to adopt and whether to adopt what might be described as complex children. When I considered the subject in more detail with local child care workers, I was struck by the differential between allowances for adoption and allowances for fostering.
That goes a long way to explain why more foster parents do not become adoptive parents. Less than a quarter of foster parents in my county consider going on to be adoptive parents because in many cases the financial reward for doing so is prohibitively small: for example, in West Sussex an adoption allowance available for a child aged between four and seven works out at £54.89 a week, which is means-tested and less child benefit, whereas for a child of equivalent age who is fostered, the care allowance is £153.58almost treble the sum. That is a big difference, even though taking on an adoptive child is obviously a far larger and longer-term commitment.
There is also an anomaly in the system whereby an adoption allowance is considered in the means-testing for income support, whereas foster care payments are not. That is another disincentive for parents to become
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adopters. The Government need to consider that big financial gap, which is wider or narrower depending on which local authority one deals with.
Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The distinction between adoption and foster allowances does not apply only in means-testing. In an unfortunate case, the former wife of an extremely worthy constituent had taken his own children away; he and his current wife adopted a child, but their adoption allowance was taken into account by the Child Support Agency when it assessed him.
Tim Loughton: That is yet another complication. I am sure that we all know of cases in which such sums are taken into account in calculations that are already extremely complicated. There seems to be an anomaly in the system that militates against the Bill's aim, which is to promote adoption, make it more attractive, and make more people able to undertake the commitment that it involves. All the good intentions in the Bill will count for nothing unless the whole system of adoption is properly resourced. That means resourcing allowances for parents who have taken on that commitment.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Like other Committee members, the hon. Gentleman will have a copy of the memorandum of evidence from Barnardo's, which states:
''As an agency placing children whom local authorities consider hard to place, we have been dismayed by how few of those children actually qualify for an adoption allowance15 out of 52 in 1998/99 and 16 out of 68 in 1999/00. We are unable to advise families what level of financial support they might receive as this varies so much from one local authority to another. If the Government is serious about significantly increasing the number of families coming forward to adopt, this will mean attracting a wider range of families.'' [Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 352.]
That issue must be addressed.