Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: Under subsection (4)(a), local authorities may meet their obligation to provide services by ensuring that services are provided by a registered adoption society on their behalf. Local authorities may, for example, enter into contract arrangements with a registered adoption society for it to assess prospective adopters on their behalf. That would enable local authorities to draw on the expertise of registered adoption societies in their area.

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A list of other persons who may provide services on behalf of local authorities will be drawn up, as the hon. Gentleman says, in regulations under subsection (4)(b). It is intended that those persons will include registered adoption support agencies in respect of the provision of adoption support services. Adoption support agencies are introduced in clause 8, so we will discuss them in more detail.

The persons listed in the regulations will include national health service providers and independent social workers when such social workers are working on contract to the local authority. Local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies can already—and many do—contract with independent social workers to provide services on their behalf and under their supervision. As the hon. Gentleman says, that allows additional capacity to be brought into the agency, ensures that all the necessary information can be obtained and that all checks and balances are built into the system.

The hon. Gentleman's amendment would bring social workers working on contract for the local authority within the group of people able to provide adoption services on behalf of local authorities. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will include such social workers in the regulations made under clause 3(4)(b). On the basis of that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for giving that crystal clear assurance, in the light of which I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 67, in page 3, line 43, leave out from 'must' to end of line 2, on page 4, and insert—

    '(a) be provided in conjunction with the local authority's other social services and with registered adoption agencies in their area,

    (b) be provided in conjunction with any other local authority's social services and with registered adoption agencies in other areas,

    (c) be given in a co-ordinated manner without duplication, omission or avoidable delay.'.

The last of the amendments tabled to clause 3 refers to subsection (5). It is a probing amendment designed to include more detail in the Bill, unless the Minister can assure us that the current wording is sufficient. The amendment would introduce a more joined-up approach. It goes for a three-pronged attack, whereby the support services are not defined merely by what the social services department can or cannot provide. The amendment would require the child care department to liaise with other social services departments in the local authority, as well as with various other adoption agencies that may offer support services.

We also believe that a social services department should be able to call on the resources of other departments. With the greater use of the register that is envisaged, because the Bill gives legislative teeth to the register, it is likely that more distant adoptions will take place. Certainly, the facilities are being put in place to enable that to happen. It is also likely that

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more adoptions will take place because there will be a larger pool of prospective adopters. Therefore, it seems wholly appropriate that social services departments should liaise with each other, not only on extended placements beyond their boundaries, but in cases where another authority can offer specialities and expertise, perhaps relating to behavioural difficulties or children who have been badly abused—we heard about many such cases during our witness sittings.

We know that the various adoption departments in social services departments operate in consortiums, whereby the departments in several local authorities link up. I believe that, in my constituency, West Sussex links up with the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and, perhaps, Southampton. I believe that a similar arrangement operates in Kent. One would expect there to be more interaction between the social services departments in a consortium, and paragraph (b) of the amendment would provide for greater co-operation.

Paragraph (c) repeats the provision already included in clause 3(5). [Interruption.] I am sorry if I am boring the Minister but, harking back to one our overriding concerns, it is important that all the services should be provided without delay. That is a meaty point to which we shall return when we discuss the next clause, if the Minister can keep her eyes open for that long. That is the basis of the amendment. It is helpful and is designed to tease out more explicitly a more holistic approach to the provision of support services.

I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to rethink the comments that she made the other day when replacing her hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, who presided so skilfully, professionally and amenably over the amendments that she steered through the Committee. The Parliamentary Secretary graciously and quite rightly offered to take on board some of the sensible comments made by Opposition members of the Committee, only to be replaced by the Minister, whose phrase, I believe, was ''No more Mr. Nice Guy''.

This is an opportunity for the Minister to reassert her credentials as a human being who might have something to learn from the great expertise and thought that went into the amendments. This is a constructive, helpful and common-sense amendment, which I have no doubt the Minister will now be delighted to adopt.

Jacqui Smith: I was going to start by apologising for my yawning. If my eight-year-old done that, he would have been in trouble.

Mr. Shaw: Slapped.

Jacqui Smith: He would most certainly not be. However, the hon. Gentleman has been rather unkind, so I will not apologise. He has, though, woken the Committee up.

Subsection (5) of the clause obliges local authorities to provide their adoption service in conjunction with their other social services and with registered adoption societies in their own area. That will ensure that services are provided in a co-ordinated manner and

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without delay. Adopting the amendment would mean that the facilities of the local authority adoption service would have to be provided in conjunction with any other local authority's social services and with registered adoption societies in other areas, as well as in the local authority's own area.

The Government believe that that is unnecessary—not because we believe that the hon. Gentleman's points are without foundation. In many circumstances, local authorities will need to work with other ones and with voluntary adoption agencies that operate outside the local authority's area. That will be particularly important where a child is placed with a family living in another local authority area in respect of the provision of adoption support services.

For that reason, subsections (10) and (11) of clause 4 place local authorities under a duty to co-operate with each other in the provision of adoption support services. That will ensure that local authorities work together to support people receiving those services while they are settling into a new area. Subsection (7)(h) of clause 4 enables regulations to be made setting out the arrangements for the assessment of needs and the provision of adoption support services, when a child is placed with an adoptive family in a different local authority area.

At the moment, adoptive families tell us that when they adopt children from another local authority area, they do not necessarily receive a satisfactory adoption support service. That is why we intend to use regulations to make local authorities' duties in such circumstances clear. We will consult stakeholders while developing the regulations, to get the detail right.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of consortiums. The Government are committed to encouraging local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to work together in consortiums. Joint working between councils and voluntary adoption agencies can be a way of achieving more cost-effective organisation and service provision, and of sharing best practice. That may help local authorities to find families more quickly for children who need them.

Mr. Shaw: Does my hon. Friend accept that most local authorities already work in consortiums, because they wish to pursue policies that promote adoption? There is surely no need to put into legislation conditions that already apply. I would have thought the Conservatives would support that.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was going to say that we expect most local authorities to become members of consortiums in time, but that the appropriate way forward is to encourage rather than require them to do so, as he pointed out. Consortium arrangements work most effectively when the organisations involved are committed to the successful operation of the consortium.

I am unable to accept the hon. Gentleman's amendment, for the reasons that I have outlined. On the basis of the assurances that I have given, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw them.

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6.15 pm

Tim Loughton: The Minister is obviously confused. She gave two contradictory statements in her retort to my perfectly reasonable amendment. First, she said that the wording of the amendment would mean that support services ''must'' be provided in conjunction with the local authority's other social services. That is not my wording, but the wording of the clause. The word ''must''—it is unusual, as ''may'' would normally be used—is used in line 43, which is in subsection (5). One of her arguments for not accepting my amendment was that it would be too restrictive. If it would be restrictive, so would the clause.

The Minister's second contradiction was taken up from what the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford said. He mentioned that the arrangements were already occurring in consortiums, as we had admitted, so we should not need to prescribe them. We prescribe only a little more detail than the Government already do in the one sentence of subsection (5). On the basis of the Minister agreeing with her hon. Friend, she should scrap subsection (5) altogether. There seems to be some conflict as to what subsection (5) is meant to achieve. That vindicates my original intention, which was to try to make more explicit what the Government are prepared to entertain and are trying to achieve, whether it is now happening in certain consortiums or not.

I was confused by the fact that tiredness had obviously punctured the Minister's usual sagacity and conciseness in her response to my amendments, as she was entirely unconvincing in this instance. However, we have some more fun ahead on clause 4(7)(h), although that is of course entirely subject to the long-lamented and long-awaited regulations which may appear with the coming of next spring. On the basis that there will be a further opportunity to tease out explanations from the Government on the next clause, it would not serve the purpose of the Committee any further to persist with the amendment, so, regrettably, and with a view to returning to it on a later stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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