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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Special Standing Committee Debates

Adoption and Children Bill

Special Standing Committee

Thursday 13 December 2001


[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]

Adoption and Children Bill

Clause 4

Assessments etc. for adoption support services

Amendment proposed [11 December]: 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.'.—[Tim Loughton.]

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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'.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): The clause in some ways baffles me. I cannot begin to fathom—nor could many of those who made submissions on the Bill—why it will not be mandatory to provide services necessary to cater for an identified need. As the Bill stands, the following scenario is likely. First, a child is assessed for need; secondly, the assessment identifies the need; thirdly, the local authority ignores the assessment.

The local authority might have a variety of reasons for ignoring the assessment, but I suspect that the most likely would be pressure on funding. Indeed, the Minister alluded to budget problems on Tuesday. We all know that strict budgets mean that other social services functions will suffer. For instance, they can fund only a fixed number of nursing home beds, which is one of the factors that contributes to bed-blocking.

Another trend, which I have noted particularly in my constituency, is that budgetary pressures on local authorities make them take a ''this will do for this child'' attitude when dealing with children with special educational needs instead of doing the best that they can. I fear that the same attitude will pervade the adoption services. Given that the Government rightly want to increase the number of adopted children, I can foresee adoption services budgets coming under huge pressure. The clause will provide local authorities with an easy get-out; the Bill makes it far too easy for them to say no. Prospective adoptive parents might also face the scenario of support services being provided for a year and then withdrawn because other cases are thought to be more worthy. It seems unfair that they should be promised support but with no guarantee that it will continue to be forthcoming in the long term.

I firmly believe that the Bill will be counter-productive—especially if the Government are genuine in trying to boost the number of adoptive parents. If complex needs require a certain amount of financial support, prospective adoptive parents will need to be reassured that the support will be forthcoming for as long as is necessary. If the amendments were accepted, the situation would be much clearer. The local authority could provide support, and the adoptive parents would be secure in the knowledge that that support would be on-going.

As I said, the Minister came clean when we were discussing clause 3 by saying that decisions would have to be made in the light of available resources. In what other instances might local authorities decide not to support an identified need?

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I thought that hon. Members were going to make rather more of a meal of the amendment.

Clause 4, which we began debating on Tuesday, gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their need for adoption support services from the local authority. As such, it provides an extremely important step forward in enabling families and adopted children to access the necessary adoption support. The assessment will ensure that adoptive families and others must no longer fight against the system to get the support that they need. It will also ensure that public services are properly joined up and co-ordinate the provision of adoption support services. Where the assessment identifies that a person needs adoption support services, the local authority must decide whether to provide them.

Opposition Members have feigned incredulity that such a system could pertain to local authorities or public services. The system is, however, appropriate because local authorities are best placed to decide—on the basis of need and the resources available locally—which services to provide and whether to provide them. That form of decision making is appropriate given the range of services that local authorities and other public services provide.

Sandra Gidley: I find this very hard to understand. What is the point of making it compulsory for a local authority to assess a need if it need do nothing about it? That is an artificial exercise.

Jacqui Smith: The fact that the hon. Lady finds something hard to understand does not mean that it is not the sensible and appropriate way in which to organise public services.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): The Minister obviously got out of bed on the wrong side this morning after a very late night that was of her party's making. She referred ungraciously to our feigned incredulity, but our concerns reflect statements that many witnesses made before the Committee and in representations. The Bill talks not about which services to provide, but about ''whether to'' provide them—that is the point.

Jacqui Smith: If the Opposition's argument is that providing adoption support services is crucial to increasing the number of adoptive parents, I agree. However, I disagree with their proposal that assessments should be automatically translated into action. That would be quite unusual for public services.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Jacqui Smith: In a moment.

Clause 3 spells out, for the first time, the duty on local authorities to provide adoptive families with services—to increase the number of adoptions, as we all want.

Tim Loughton: Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No, not at the moment. I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) in a minute.

By giving local authorities extra resources for adoption support services, the Government will ensure that they are provided to individuals, and we shall discuss the details of provision later.

Ms Munn: Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is similar to that in many other services? Only the other day, I sought an assessment for my parents from the Liberal-Democrat run council in Sheffield. It struggled to offer one and made it clear to my mother on the telephone that it would not provide certain services even if she was assessed as having a need.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I cannot comment on the failures of the Liberal Democrat council in Sheffield, but my hon. Friend is right. The Conservative Government introduced the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, which also established a relationship between assessment and the right of local authorities to decide how and whether to provide services. Therefore, determining the provision of services in such a way is not unprecedented.

Sandra Gidley: If we are sharing out blame, I could throw equal light on Labour-controlled Southampton city council, under which we have problems accessing special educational needs provision, and, to be even-handed, Conservative-controlled Hampshire county council—

The Chairman: Order. It is right and proper for hon. Members to emphasise a point by identifying specific experiences, but we do not want to start a political debate about local authorities throughout the country.

Sandra Gidley: Just because there is already a problem does not mean that we should perpetuate it by passing a similarly flawed Bill.

Jacqui Smith: The logic of the hon. Lady's argument is that, contrary to the Government, she does not believe that local authorities are best placed to make such decisions.

Sandra Gidley indicated dissent.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is the logic of her position. Although it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that there is a duty to provide services, which the Bill provides, and that local authorities have the wherewithal to make decisions about how resources are allocated—which will undoubtedly be easier under a Labour Government who make the resources available in the first place—the local authorities themselves should be able to make the decisions.

Tim Loughton: Before we sky-rocket off into more party political nonsense, I remind the hon. Lady that she has just repeated that clause 3 puts a duty on local authorities to provide services. Can she point out in which phrase or part of clause 3 there is a duty on local authorities to provide adoption support services?

Jacqui Smith: The responsibility is clearly laid out in clause 3.

Tim Loughton: Where; which line?

Jacqui Smith: At the beginning—''to maintain an adoption service'', and as we discussed. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. We are doing very well. You are being very kind to me, and my life is easy. I should like, with your co-operation, to keep it that way, so please let us have no interjections from sedentary positions.

Jacqui Smith: In fact, subsection (2)(b) provides a duty to maintain an adoption support service. The duty to provide resources is there, as is the responsibility, which the Government take seriously. Nevertheless, local authorities have discretion in their decisions.


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Prepared 13 December 2001