Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: I am afraid that the Minister is not convincing. The clause makes provision for the maintenance of adoption services and for the arrangements for the provision of adoption services, but makes no provision placing a duty on a local authority actually to provide those services. That is the point. The wording of the clause contains no duty on local authorities to provide a support service. That is not what the Minister said.

Jacqui Smith: I am afraid that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Clause 3 clearly states:

    ''Each local authority must continue to maintain within their area a service designed to meet the needs, in relation to adoption, of—''

and lists the people for whom the service should be available. Subsection (2) says:

    ''Those facilities must include making, and participating in, arrangements . . .

    (b) for the provision of adoption support services.''

There is a clear duty to put in place an adoption support service. That has been introduced in legislation for the first time. Later, we shall talk about the responsibilities in terms of planning and, therefore, accountability for ensuring that those adoption support services are in place.

Tim Loughton: Under that very wording, a local authority could maintain a fleet of dustcarts and a fleet of rubbish collection men and have no duty to collect any rubbish. The same principle applies to the clause.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is stretching credulity a little.

I turn to the argument of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) that local authorities are very likely just to ignore assessments. That is not my experience of local authorities. In the past, local authorities may not have provided adequate adoption support services when they did not have a duty or the resources to do so. The Bill attempts to set that problem right.

9.45 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I have one brief point. I followed what the Minister said about clauses 3 and 4, but she gave the game away when she said that local authorities would provide services according to the resources that they had. That is a let-out for local authorities not to provide services, but their doing so is the point of the Bill.

Jacqui Smith: I am at a loss to work out how local authorities could provide services without taking their resources into consideration. Resources are important and local authorities need to make decisions on the basis of those that they receive. However, in law they now have not only the responsibility and duty to maintain adoption support services, but increased resources with which to do so. Opposition Members may say that this debate is deteriorating into party political points, but that is the distinction between this Government and the Conservative Government. We are supplying and are pledged to continue to supply the resources to enable the services to be provided.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Does my hon. Friend agree that the implications for other services provided by local authorities could be devastating if we accepted the amendments? Parameters need to be determined by local authority members when they consider their budget, their priorities and the level of council tax that they want to set. We in the House should not be so prescriptive as to hamstring local authorities. Many people might be put at a disadvantage and find that one group that requires services is given preference over another, but it cannot be right for us to decide such matters; they are for local authorities.

Jacqui Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes an important point about the responsibilities of local authorities. The Committee is rightly concerned to ensure that adoption support services are in place to support the objectives that we all have to increase the number of adopters. We are also dealing with local authorities, which rightly have a range of responsibilities. They are locally accountable to their electorate in deciding how money is spent.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): May I take the Minister back to the argument that I put at the end of our previous sitting? Local authorities have a statutory duty to look after children in care, and we all support that. It is an extremely expensive statutory duty, but it is right. The anomaly on adoption—it will remain after the Bill is enacted and was borne out by the academic testimony that we heard—is that the only non-compulsory part of the equation is the procedure that provides the best outcome for children who have been in care for a while, which is almost always the cheapest outcome for the local authority even if it provides all the adoption services.

The Chairman: Order. Interventions should be as short as possible. I think that the Minister got the point.

Jacqui Smith: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. However, there has been another misunderstanding about the extent to which it is the responsibility or duty of the local authority to provide a service, and the extent to which that local authority has discretion about how it provides support for any individual. There is a distinction. I do not agree that the Children Act 1989 has the effect that Conservative Members and the hon. Member for Romsey are trying to create through the amendment.

I would like the Committee to consider some details of the amendments, some of which came up on Tuesday afternoon. Amendments Nos. 71 and 171 are about the necessity to provide a plan following an assessment. Subsection (5) proposed in amendment No. 71 would require local authorities, where they decide to provide adoption support services following an assessment and the circumstances fall within a description prescribed by regulations, to prepare a plan for the provision of those services and to keep that plan under review. Regulations that we will make under clause 4(7)(d) will set out requirements as to the manner and frequency of reviewing plans.

The previous version of the Bill, introduced in the spring, required local authorities, in every case in which they decide to provide support services following an assessment, to prepare a plan for the provision of those services and keep that plan under review. We have given the issue of plans careful consideration since then, and we have decided to make a change so as not to place unnecessary burdens on local authorities, particularly in light of the much wider responsibilities to provide an assessment in this Bill compared with the previous one.

In many cases in which a local authority provides adoption support services following an assessment, it will be appropriate for it to draw up a plan to co-ordinate the provision of those services. For example, where an adoptive family is provided with a number of different services following an assessment, the details of those services will need to be recorded in a plan to ensure that the family receives the services at the appropriate times.

However, in some cases a plan will not be needed. For example, where services are provided on a one-off basis, such as an individual session of counselling for an adopted adult preparing to receive information about their birth family, a plan will not be necessary to co-ordinate their provision. We do not want to place unnecessary burdens on local authorities, so the regulations will be used to make it clear where a plan is required. That is an important proviso, given the extended right to assessment in the Bill.

We have already had some discussion of amendments Nos. 69 and 170, which would require local authorities to provide the adoption support services that a person is assessed as needing, following an assessment under clause 4. We have heard a few of the arguments already, but I hope that I can reassure hon. Members and contradict the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Romsey that somehow local authorities are looking for a way out of providing such services.

A local authority must act reasonably when deciding whether to provide an adoption support service following an assessment, but it is for the local authority to make that decision. In doing so, it will take the resources available to it into account. That follows the approach taken to service provision in the vast majority of public services, including other social services and the health service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear on Second Reading on 29 October that, ultimately, local authorities provide the adoption service, so they must decide who needs what level of support. The substantial extra funding that the Government have made available will help to ensure that many more people get the support that they need, and we will continue to consider the need for resources in light of the forthcoming spending review process.

Amendment No. 70 would require local authorities, where they decide not to provide adoption support services, to give a written explanation of their reasons for not doing so. That is not a matter for primary legislation. It will be good practice for local authorities to do so following an assessment, but it is more appropriate for the issue to be covered by guidance to local authorities. In some cases, depending on the needs of the person who has been assessed, it may be more appropriate or necessary to provide a verbal explanation of that decision.

We are developing a new national framework for adoption support services in consultation with experts in the adoption field. We will publish that framework for consultation in the spring. If we decide after consultation that it would be appropriate to require local authorities to give a written explanation of their reasons for not providing adoption support services, we shall issue guidance to local authorities to that effect.

We have had a lively start today in debating the amendments. Under other amendments, we shall go on to consider in more detail how the right to assessment and extra resources provided by the Government and the other provisions in the Bill will lead to much improved adoption support services for families. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) feels able to withdraw the amendment.

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