Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—I will try that again—[Laughter.]

The Chairman: Order. I will not try to beat the hon. Gentleman's pronunciation, but may we please return to the amendments?

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman referred to the independent evidence that was presented to us. In her memorandum, at column 380, Monica Bradbury, a very experienced professional working in social services, clearly makes the point that, as the Bill stands, individuals do not have the right to receive the services that they might have been assessed as needing. That could not be clearer.

I also refer to the evidence that was cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) a second ago. Professor Sonia Jackson sums up the situation very well. She says that it is very unfortunate that the Bill does not place a duty on local authorities to provide support services, but only a duty to assess need. She concludes, at column 428, that there should be a right to adoption support, not simply to assessments.

I wholly endorse the words of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury in urging the Minister to look carefully at what the professionals and a number of experts working in the field have advised us to do. Surely the point of our Special Standing Committee exercise was to collect evidence from such experts, to listen to what they had to say and to learn from it—to be flexible and, above all, to listen.

Tim Loughton: This has been quite a debate. What a contrast there has been between what I can only describe as the curmudgeonly attitude of the Minister, who has been so ungracious in the way in which she has received the amendments, and the munificence of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and my hon. Friends in supporting the amendments. The Minister has become confused about the underlying intention of the amendments—they are genuinely intended to improve the Bill and to ensure that what the Government have led us to believe they intend is carried out. The Minister said that it was crucial to provide adoption support services; we all agree with that. That is why we are debating the clause and why the additions to the Bill have been universally welcomed. Then the Minister said that the Government did not want to place unnecessary burdens on local authorities. Then she started to say that local authorities must act reasonably. She seems to be continually changing her emphasis.

Jacqui Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in each case my remarks related to different amendments? For example, the second quotation about not placing undue burdens related specifically to an amendment concerning a written plan following every single assessment.

Tim Loughton: I could have cited many more quotations. My point is that the treatment of the amendments and the Minister's expectations of local authorities seemed to shift the more we debated the amendments. Whatever she says, she failed singularly to show where, in clause 3 or clause 4, a duty is placed on local authorities to deliver those support services that we all agree are necessary. We are not the only ones who are saying that—nor are the organisations whose names the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy recited the only such organisations to share our view of the matter. We have all received such representations, and I could add one more. The Children's Society said:

    ''There is nothing in the bill requiring the said authorities to comply with the request and to provide support services, which fall within their respective functions. Our experience across a range of health and education authorities is that if there is no requirement to provide services these services will not commonly be provided.''

Mr. Shaw: Opposition Members, including the hon. Gentleman, have quoted the expert witnesses who testified before us. We accepted some of the representations as individual Members and some of them along party lines. It was a matter of choice. I am referring to the issue of unmarried couples, on which the hon. Member for Canterbury did not accept 29 of the expert witnesses' recommendations. Just because we receive representations does not mean that we should automatically accept them. The child care agencies are not local authorities; they have a responsibility to campaign for children. They would never say, ''There is enough money.''

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point and he is right. The fact that we receive many representations on a subject, be it this subject or others in the Bill, does not necessarily mean that they are right. However, if those making the representations had no evidence to support them that we should take note of, I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to challenge the premises on which they made those representations during the witness stage. I cannot recall, having re-read Hansard, any examples of Labour Members challenging representations that said that the provision of support services after an assessment should be a duty. I am not entirely sure why the hon. Gentleman makes that point now.

No one on the Committee is suggesting that an enormous band of local authority social services departments is actively looking for loopholes to get out of providing services to adoptive children. The vast majority of those in local authority social services departments take their responsibilities highly seriously. That is what they are there for, and that is why they do their job. They do their best to translate their responsibilities into hard-line, sharp-end services. However, in the Bill, we are trying to ensure continuity in the provision of support services, a higher general standard and a higher benchmark. Unless there is a duty on social services departments to provide those support services, the provision will still be patchy.

10.30 am

Mr. Dawson: The hon. Gentleman is coming to an important point of clarification. Opposition Members seem to have said that they want the local authority to be under a duty to meet an adoptive family's needs in every case. That is absurd.

Tim Loughton: It would be absurd for the amendments to suggest that. Labour Members have used phrases such as ''blank cheques'' and ''flowing taps''. We all know that there are still severe restrictions, despite what the Minister would have us believe about the Government's enormous munificence in providing almost unlimited extra resources to social services departments. If we are to promote adoption as much as we all want, those resources will have to be more widely spread.

It would make a mockery of the intentions behind clauses 3 and 4 if there were effectively a blank cheque and flowing tap for the provision of assessments of need, but no accompanying duty of care to provide those services. That would be more than nonsense, as it would be a cruel hoax on people who desperately need assessments to be made of the support that they require. We are concerned about the length of time that an assessment might take, and the resources that would go into the provision of the assessment. The time of sharp-end people in short supply might be better spent providing services as swiftly, effectively and comprehensively as possible. That is the premise that underlies the amendment.

Mr. Dawson: I still do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point. He tells us that he does not want to write a blank cheque to support adoption services, but does not make it at all clear where he would draw any distinction.

Tim Loughton: We are going round in circles. We have made it clear that the wording of the clause, which allows an authority to decide ''whether to'' provide—not whether to provide the extent or timing of provision, but whether to provide at all—is completely out of sync with the provisions that say that an assessment must be made. Our amendments would get rid of any mentions of ''whether to''.

Even more extraordinarily, the Minister will not give me any examples, as I challenged her to at the start of the debate, of circumstances in which she thinks it appropriate for a social services department not to provide support after it has undertaken an assessment of and identified a family's needs. She did not reassure us that there was not a good case for a written review in primary legislation. Such reviews may be part of good practice, and I hope that many local authorities undertake or will undertake them anyway, but we are again expected to wait for guidance that will go to consultation in the spring. Given the undertakings that we have had from the Government so far, I am not confident that they will extensively address the shortfalls that we have identified. On that basis, my colleagues and I are as determined as when we started the debate to press the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 8.

Division No. 4]

AYES
Bellingham, Mr. Henry Brazier, Mr. Julian Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn Loughton, Tim Walter, Mr. Robert

NOES
Brennan, Kevin Dawson, Mr. Hilton Love, Mr. Andrew Moran, Margaret
Munn, Ms Meg Shaw, Mr. Jonathan R. Smith, Angela Smith, Jacqui

Question accordingly negatived.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 90, in page 4, line 29, at end insert

    ', which regulations must at all times bear in mind, that, in general, any delay in provision of adoption support services is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 72, in page 4, line 42, after 'conditions', insert

    'as long as the well-being of any person with regard to adoption support services is not affected and there is no avoidable delay.'.

Tim Loughton: This is familiar territory that relates to the previous debate. We are concerned about the length and complexity of the assessment procedure that leads to the provision of services. We all agree that it is always in the best interests of the child to intervene as early as possible, be it to remove a child from a dangerous situation or to settle a child with new prospective adopters and give as much support as possible to ensure that a placement works. It therefore seemed sensible to amend the provisions that allude to regulations about the assessments and the reviewing of plans that will be drawn up after the provision of adoption services. Those regulations will be drawn up eventually; we hope to see them in the spring.

No provisions in clause 4 correspond to the essential considerations that we discussed under clause 1 on the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and the fact that delay in acting should generally be seen as not in the child's best interests. The intention of amendment No. 90 is that the regulations, when they are drawn up, must

    ''bear in mind, that, in general, any delay in provision of adoption support services is likely to prejudice the child's welfare''.

I hope that the Minister and her colleagues would not seek to disagree with that self-evident fact. The question that needs answering is whether the Bill takes sufficient account of those considerations, as I do not see an obvious link between clause 4 and clause 1. Similarly, amendment No. 72 details certain provisions of the regulations along the same lines.

The amendments are probing, and I should be delighted if the Minister would reassure me that the considerations will automatically be taken into account through interpretation of the clause as it stands.

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001