Adoption and Children Bill

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Sandra Gidley: I accept that the Government are committed, but will the Minister tell me where in the Bill it would be appropriate to discuss who has overall responsibility, or is that another matter that will be dealt with through regulations?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Lady is being a little impatient—I was about to refer to that subject.

The Government are committed to ensuring the joined-up planning and provision of adoption support services. In our White Paper, ''Adoption: A New Approach'', we promise that adoption support services will be planned jointly with local education authorities and the national health service. Clause 4(9) helps to provide for that and I note that there are amendments on the amendment paper that address the issue of co-ordination with health and education services.

Clause 4 gives people who are affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption from their local authority. When it appears to the local authority as a result of an assessment that there is a need for health or education services, clause 4(9) places the local authority under a duty to notify the appropriate health authority, primary care trust or local education authority of that need. Following that notification, the health authority, the PCT or the LEA will decide whether to provide services in accordance with its statutory obligations. In addition, the Government intend to issue guidance and directions for health authorities, PCTs and LEAs to ensure the joined-up provision of adoption support services across the various public services. The national adoption standards state that councils will plan and deliver adoption services with local health and education bodies, and the use of guidance and directions will help to deliver that standard.

The hon. Lady made another important point. Clause 3 refers to provision of the service, whereas clause 4 relates to the rights of the individual. She asked who would co-ordinate the needs of the child. On page 39 of the White Paper, we say:

''Looked after children who are adopted and their new families will have a keyworker, identified by the agency, to help them access services.''

If they want, the adoptive family can use the key worker as a route through what we accept can be a maze of various agencies involved in adoption support, and to help with the co-ordination of services. The key worker will not be imposed on adoptive families, and to that extent it is not appropriate that that service should be included in the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) raised the important issue of the choice that adoptive families might want in how they access adoption support. Key workers will be available and adoptive families of looked-after children will be able to choose whether to use them to help to provide that co-ordinating role to which the hon. Member for Romsey referred in her intervention. Given my assurances, I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

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Sandra Gidley: I would feel happier about withdrawing my amendment if I did not have foreknowledge of clause 4, but I accept that that battle will have to be fought another day. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 64, in page 3, line 37, leave out subsection 3(b) and insert—

    '(b) must extend to the provision of those services to other persons if so requested by said other persons.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 66, in page 3, line 37, at end insert—

    '(c) Should commence and give provision of services to persons described in (a) and (b) above when requested and continue until these persons decline any further support services.'.

Tim Loughton: The maintenance of adoption services is an important part of the Bill, which will count for nothing unless it is properly resourced. That goes to the heart of the problem. All the witnesses welcomed the clause, and we especially welcome the extension of adoption services to a much wider family of persons connected to a prospective adopted child—ranging from siblings and grandparents to the immediate birth parents and the adoptive parents, and including, at the centre, the child to be adopted.

The history of adoption legislation does not give one enormous faith in adequate resources following the subject and being provided when they are needed. Amendment No. 64 would replace subsection (3)(b) with a slightly beefier version. Amendment No. 66 would add a paragraph (c), which would apply whether or not paragraph (b) was amended by amendment No. 64.

If any members of the extended family connected with the adoption say that they need help, they usually do, as they are the people at the sharp end who may suffer because of domestic pressures. A child may be vulnerable, a couple intending to adopt may need to be better prepared, or a couple may have adopted a child and the placement may not be going as smoothly as it might. If those people run up the flag and say that things are not going to plan, they should be believed as the experts. Some may cry wolf or exaggerate their case, but by and large they know that they need help. It is not as if people will be running to social services departments to form a long queue to say that they need help because, in many cases, doing so is quite humiliating.

Mr. Dawson: When did that damascene revelation come upon the hon. Gentleman? My distinct recollection of working in social services departments between 1979 and 1987 was that large numbers of people were asking for help, and that the inadequately resourced social services departments were unable to provide it.

Tim Loughton: It was no road to Damascus for me. If the hon. Gentleman had looked at the history of social services over the past 25 years since the Adoption Act 1976, he would have seen that many additional requirements have been placed on local

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authority social services departments during that time, some of which relate to care of the elderly or of children at various levels. He will know that those departments have been increasingly under-resourced by central Government. Increasingly, it has been a case of Peter robbing Paul between care of the elderly and of children. High profile child abuse headlines have led to the use of emergency sticking plasters to try to protect children who, it was argued, were more immediately vulnerable than the elderly who may not have been receiving the most appropriate care but who were less likely to be abused than children in a threatening domestic position.

The position has gradually deteriorated, but it has deteriorated even more rapidly over the past five years. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the figures, he will see that the gap between the amount of money that comes from central Government in the form of standard spending assessment and the money that local authorities spend on their social service activities is now the widest ever. It is estimated by the Local Government Association to be little short of £1 billion. Local authorities are budgeting to spend £1 billion more than the Government think that they should be spending—and £1 billion more than the Government are prepared to provide in the form of SSA grant. The hon. Gentleman must admit that the gap has never been that wide—and it is widening. Not only is the gap wide now, but its accumulative effect over so many years has run down the service, and that makes the pressures so much more stark now.

Mr. Brazier rose—

Tim Loughton: I know that my hon. Friend wants to intervene. Added to that are the pressures on child care workers. We have heard so many times from hon. Members that looking after children and working in the adoption service—

Jacqui Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I will give way in a moment, first to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and then to the Minister.

However attractive looking after children and being part of the adoption service is for social workers, it must be admitted that there are still large gaps in the service. In parts of the country, particularly in London, the vacancy rates are estimated to be 30 per cent. A survey published in September by the LGA identified at least 2,000 child care vacancies in social services departments.

The upshot of that has been more emergency and short-term cover by agency placements, which are that much more expensive and do not allow the continuity of care that should enable staff to work with the same families month in, month out, and year in, year out. That is why the situation has deteriorated to such an extent. It is little to do with the years between 1979 and 1987 that the hon. Gentleman selectively chose to mention. If he thinks that things have somehow magically improved over the past four and a half or five years, he is sorely out of touch with reality. He will have only to speak fairly and dispassionately to some

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of his former colleagues and go to conferences held by the LGA social services, as I and the Secretary of State did a couple of months ago, to find that out.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I shall give way to everyone in a moment.

Mr. Shaw: What did the hon. Gentleman tell the LGA?

Tim Loughton: I shall be happy to repeat the speech that I made at the LGA, which I have to say went down considerably better than that made by the Secretary of State. A couple of days later, he was howled down.

It is entirely disingenuous of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre to try to claim that, in some way, the problems that we are trying to address on a cross-party basis resulted from those 18 years, during which an awful lot happened in social services.

5.30 pm

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre is much respected and experienced on the subject, but my hon. Friend made a point about specific pressures on adoption services. The general pressure on social services is now so extreme that the statistics are without precedent. A 10th of all the beds in our local hospital system are currently blocked by people who should be funded by social services. The clause deals with resources for social services, and we must accept that we are in unprecedented territory.

 
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Prepared 11 December 2001