Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: I am glad that time is ameliorating the Minister's attitude and I am grateful for her comments. She is placing the matter on a higher level than I have tried to do. I am not talking about an advocacy situation, and certainly not about children's commissioners. I am talking about a simple relative, step-relative or adoptive relative—who may not be blood-related—pointing out to the local authority that it needs to do something for the adopted person. As the Minister graciously admitted, it is not clear how to access assessment. I am reassured by her statement that the Government's intention is that as many people as possible should have the right to access it. I entirely agree with that. I am now trying to identify the mechanics whereby that right can be exercised. I am

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sure that she will go away and get a little post-flight refuelling—[Interruption.] Ah, she has had some in-flight refuelling.

Jacqui Smith: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman using the following example. If somebody were incompetent and unable to make a request for assessment, a carer may make it on their behalf; alternatively, somebody could draw the attention of the local authority to the situation, and the fact that no formal request had been made would not preclude the local authority from assessing the person's needs.

Tim Loughton: Now I am confused. Does that piece of advice constitute an excuse for the Minister not to consider the issue in more detail, or is it a stop-gap? The Minister has clearly identified a potential gap, to which she will undoubtedly want to give further thought. If that thought manifests itself in rewriting part of the clause before Report, we will be manifestly happy to have instigated that—even if the Minister does not give credit where it is due.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 69, in page 4, line 18, leave out from ''services'' to end of line 19 and insert

    ''the local authority has the duty to provide suitable services to that person.''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 170, in page 4, line 18, leave out ''decide whether to''.

No. 70, in page 4, line 19, after ''person'', insert

    ''and provide a written explanation of their reasons if those support services will not be forthcoming.''.

No. 71, in page 4, line 20, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

    ''(5) If a local authority decides that a person has need for adoption support services, the local authority must prepare a plan in accordance with which adoption support services are being provided to the person and keep the plan under regular review.''.

No. 171, in page 4, line 21, leave out ''decide'' and ''has assessed a need''.

Tim Loughton: This is quite an extensive group of amendments; our amendments have been grouped with two tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

The lead amendment is absolutely essential and would be a test of the Government's genuineness to turn into reality the bold and well-guided intentions of clause 4. Earlier, I made the point that there is much detail about the duty on local authorities to carry out assessments—that is right for support services. However, there is no matching duty thereafter, if a need is identified, to provide support services to deal with the problem. If the latter does not follow the former, it makes a nonsense of the intentions of the clause.

Subsection (4) begins:

    ''Where, as a result of an assessment, a local authority decide that a person has needs for adoption support services'',

but it continues:

    ''they must then decide whether to provide any such services to that person''.

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We want to firm that up substantially by replacing it with the words,

    ''the local authority has the duty to provide suitable services to that person''.

Without that, providing an assessment could be seen as a handy way to escape the provision in the clause. That point was raised by a number of witnesses, in more detail, in many of the submissions. All the submissions welcomed support services being much more universally available, but most raised a concern that the assessments should be matched by support services that are forthcoming.

Mr. Brazier: Perhaps I am anticipating my hon. Friend's comments, but it seems absolutely bizarre to compel local authorities to carry out resource-intensive assessments without making them go on to do something about it. Already restricted numbers of social workers will be involved in ever-increasing numbers with assessments, and they will be less able to deliver services.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is right; that is a fear that we have raised. I raised it because I wanted to concentrate on this part of the Bill during the witness sittings. As we have discussed at length, social workers involved in child support are in short supply. We certainly need more of them if we are to increase the number of children adopted, as we want to do.

Mr. Dawson: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's intentions. Does he agree that if the amendments were accepted, local authority social workers would be encouraged to skew their assessments in terms of the available resources, rather than making a fair assessment, and if necessary pointing out unmet need?

Tim Loughton: The logical extrapolation from that is that they can promise the earth in their assessments if they know that they do not have to provide it. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is entirely irrelevant. We need to make it clear that there must be a fair assessment, and that those assessments need to be properly monitored. No doubt the Minister can assure us on the quality of the assessments. It is a fair point that much of the paperwork on which social workers involved in adoption now rely is cumbersome, lengthy and, in many cases, out of date. One has only to look at subject form F1, with which many Government Members will be very familiar. It was faxed to me and caused the expending of no little amount of ink and fax paper. No doubt the Minister could have provided me with a hard copy if I had requested it.

The point is that, as many professionals in the field have said, such forms were designed about 25 years go. They ask questions that are not as relevant—often, largely irrelevant—today, 25 years since the Adoption Act was introduced. That is part of the problem with the assessments. Are they asking the right questions? We need to make sure that the assessment process is fair and valid.

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Saying that social workers should not be obliged to provide services, and that that would in some way encourage them to make a fairer assessment in the first place, rather misses the point. We have required local authorities to do certain things and placed duties on social workers elsewhere in the Bill, and we are not asking an awful lot in this context.

Section 27(2) of the Children Act 1989 does not deal specifically with the business of local authorities providing adoption support services, but it does deal with an equivalent. It states:

    ''An authority whose help is so requested shall comply with the request''.

That is a clear duty to comply, and not to decide whether or not it will provide support services. I should like to see the same terminology applied to appropriate support services.

Mr. Brazier: To reply to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, surely there are parallels across the public services. The hon. Gentleman is right, but he has drawn the wrong conclusion. What about special needs in schools? Are we to say that we should restrict local authorities to assessing special needs in schools and not also require them to provide for those needs? We all know that the assessment process is inevitably resource-biased.

7 pm

Tim Loughton: That is right, and my hon. Friend has raised another appropriate point. If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment, it is incumbent on her to give us examples of a social services department carrying out an assessment clearly identifying adoption support services required by the adopted child or connected persons that have not been provided. Under what circumstances would that be acceptable practice? That is the question that she must answer if she is not prepared to accept the amendment. We are not prepared to accept anything that contains the words ''decide whether''. If a need has been clearly identified, everything should be directed at satisfying that need by formulating solutions that deliver services that can solve the particular problem. That is a key point, and Opposition Members will need to be well convinced that that is the Government's intention. The way in which this part of the clause has been fashioned does not suggest that it is.

Amendment No. 70 is contingent on the Government being prepared to accept that that duty rests on the local authority, or at the least that the local authority should have a duty to say why those support services will not be provided. That should be clearly laid out in a formula available to the persons who have requested adoption support services that would decide the form of the review or appeal mechanism that should be available. When we reach clause 12, we shall examine the review mechanism for adoption decisions. There are many other stages in the adoption process where a review of a decision made by a local authority could be appropriate. At the very least, we would call for a written account of why those services are not forthcoming, which could form the basis of an appeal or a claim to another body which may be able to

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reverse that decision or provide the support services that a local authority was either not in position to supply or had refused to supply.

Amendment No. 71 deals with the subject of preparing a plan for adoption support services and keeping that plan under review. As we all agree, adoption support is not only provided in an episode; it is required for the lifetime of that child, and in more concentrated amounts up to the time that that child reaches the age of 18. It is right, especially with children who have complex needs, that the plan of support should be regularly reviewed, because their situation may change. Earlier problems may have required a support service that is no longer appropriate, but there may be other effects such as

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behavioural problems at school or a whole host of situations for which support is necessary. It would be sensible for the plans drawn up for that child to be reviewed regularly until support services are no longer required.

The three amendments would be useful and I am glad to say that they are supported by my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). The clause as drafted would not achieve what we want to achieve and what the Government have led us to believe they want to achieve.

Debate adjourned.--[Angela Smith.]

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Seven o'clock till Thursday 13 December at half-past Nine o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Roe, Mrs. Marion (Chairman)
Bellingham, Mr.
Blackman, Liz
Brazier, Mr.
Brennan, Kevin
Dawson, Mr.
Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr.
Loughton, Tim

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Love, Mr.
Moran, Margaret
Munn, Ms
Shaw, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Walter, Mr.
Winterton, Ms Rosie

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Prepared 11 December 2001