Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Dawson: I am very pleased to see that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is back.

The sentiments behind the amendments, and many of the arguments deployed, are very sensible. I raised the issue on Second Reading in an intervention on the Secretary of State, who showed a willingness to examine and further consider the operation of local authority complaints procedures. When we have a much improved adoption support system with statutory duties on local authorities, with much improved financial resources, of course local authorities will have to pay due heed to assessments and the level of their resources. It is important, and entirely in line with everything else that the Government are trying to do, to support carers and young people in placements. It is consistent with the operation of openness, clarity and honesty in decision making in these profoundly important areas that we have a clear and efficient system of appeal, where decisions can be challenged and, we hope, improved upon.

The amendments are in line with the Government's other good intentions on advocacy for young people in care. It is very important that the views of young people who are being looked after and of those who were adopted are heard loudly and clearly, and that their rights and interests are respected. If the Minister cannot accept the exact wording of the amendments, I hope that further consideration will be given to an appeals process. Amendments could be tabled later, but if the Bill cannot be changed, perhaps the regulations could be strengthened in respect of this important area of policy.

Mr. Llwyd: The amendments are a sensible step forward. They introduce a procedure whereby it is hoped that best practice will be instilled in each local authority. They also provide for an arm's length inquiry into any decision, which will give some comfort to those adoptive parents who feel aggrieved that they have not been provided with certain services. That could be a means of explaining a decision, and would be of some comfort to the parents. It is a useful addition to the Bill, which it improves. I do not think that it necessarily has huge resource implications, but I hope that in due course the Minister will respond on the matter, because this part of the Bill is important and the amendments represent a useful addition to the provisions on service delivery.

Jacqui Smith: I have some sympathy with the idea that it is important to provide an appropriate route for people to express their concern about decisions that are taken surrounding adoption support provision. Where a local authority decides not to provide adoption support services following an assessment of needs, a complaint may be made to the local authority in the usual way. Given that adoption is a mainstream social services function, it is right that the majority of complaints about local authority adoption services should be dealt with through the existing social services complaints procedure. However, I have considerable sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre, which is why the Government are currently improving the local authority social services complaints procedure and speeding it up, especially for children.

The Department undertook a review of social services complaints procedures in 1999–2000. Following that review, we issued a consultation document, ''Listening to People'', in June 2000. The document proposed a range of improvements to the procedure and sought views on them. We shall have the opportunity under clause 111 to amend the complaints procedure established under the Children Act 1989 in response to that consultation. The Bill implements those changes that require primary legislation, and new regulations, directions and guidance will be developed to deal with the need for independence—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Romsey. The guidance will clarify the role of the independent person, stressing the responsibility of councils to take account of what independent persons say during the complaints process.

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The amendments are not needed in light of the action that we are already taking to improve the local authority social services complaints procedure. However, I recognise what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said about clause 12. We have promised to consult on the determinations to be made under the new independent review mechanism to be established under clause 12. The Bill's provisions are sufficiently flexible to allow the independent review mechanism to be extended to determinations made by adoption agencies. I undertake to consider the results of consultation carried out under the independent review mechanism, along with the other issues raised by hon. Members today.

I have spoken about the improvements that we intend to make to the local authority complaints service system. This is not an appropriate time to make those changes, but the Bill will enable us to consider the matter further—if, for example, we thought that the complaints procedure changes were not adequate.

Sandra Gidley: I am almost reassured. I accept what the Minister said about independence. However, I am still a little concerned that as changes to the complaints procedure can be made, they could easily be changed again in two or three years' time, perhaps under a different Government, perhaps not, and there will be no overall consistency. It seems to me that a provision in the Bill would be more reassuring for people going through that process. Nevertheless, I accept that we may revisit the issue later in our deliberations, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 95, in page 5, line 3, after 'area', insert

    ', which should include the respective duties placed on either or both of those authorities and the identification of a lead person in the authority to provide support services to that person.'.

This is another probing amendment. We have spoken at various times about adoptions out of local authority area, and I hope that that practice will increase. Finding appropriate adoptive parents outside the local authority area is better than not finding them at all. The legislative teeth that will be given to the register and the additional resources that we hope will be given to the national register will make long-distance adoptions much more likely. I realise that there must be checks and balances and that there are downsides as well as upsides. One of the questions that has been posed—

Mr. Bellingham: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. Is it my imagination, or is it dark and gloomy in the Room? Is it possible to turn up the lighting a little? It is a bit grim at the moment.

The Chairman: I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns—it may also be a little chilly. However, the enlightenment provided by hon. Members' contributions is helping the situation. I shall ask the clerk and the badge messengers to consider your points and, if improvements can be made, I am sure that they will be.

Tim Loughton: That was a very good point of order and an even better response, Mr. Stevenson. Perhaps we should issue scarves, given the temperature in the Room.

When speaking to people involved in adoption, I notice a general confusion over who continues to provide services when a child is adopted out of the area from which he or she comes. My understanding is that the placing authority will continue to bear the duty of care for the child, through adoption allowances, grants to make adaptations for children with disabilities or a dowry, in effect, to someone who lives locally to take responsibility for the child. There are various ways of achieving the same effect.

The problem is that it remains unclear where the buck stops, and it may be less clear to the new adoptive family exactly where the buck stops for services that may be provided. I refer especially to adopted children with complex requirements, such as a speech therapist or an educational psychologist. That theme emerged during the evidence sittings. The child may need counselling for previous experiences of domestic violence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury vividly described. [Interruption.] Ah, the lights have come on—the enlightenment has indeed occurred.

Mr. Shaw: New Labour—new lights.

Tim Loughton: I am so tempted to reply to that remark made from a sedentary position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury gave an example. A London authority placed a child in his constituency and then divested itself of all responsibilities to that child even to the extent of providing bus fares or giving counselling to help that child recover from the problems that led to the adoption. That seems patently absurd, and I wonder whether the parents of that child were fully aware of where the buck lay and that they were duty bound to receive various support services after the adoption.

Support would include multidisciplinary approaches, including educational and health support, which might come from a primary care trust or specialist health providers in a health authority. We must make it as easy as possible for the adoptive family to access that support and to know their entitlements and whom to approach for those services.

The amendment specifies that a

    ''lead person in the authority to provide support services''

should be identified. That would make it as clear as possible where adoptive families could go for help.

There have been cases in all our constituencies of children with special educational needs that have involved a process of repeated buck passing between the education authority, an authority care trust and social services. I have been involved in cases in which we have been so frustrated that we have brokered a deal, for example, for the placement of a child at a special school, and each of those three bodies has paid a third of the costs. However, it takes a hell of a lot of effort and wastes a lot of time merely to reach that stage. If a lead person were identified for children with complex requirements, we would hopefully have a champion who could cut through such red tape and ensure that the child received the support that he or she needed as soon and as effectively as possible, without all the bureaucracy that I fear so often goes with it.

I hope that my probing amendment is helpful. It is certainly in the best interests of the child and gives as much support as possible to adoptive parents in difficult circumstances, especially those who have taken on the big challenge of children with complex educational or medical needs. [Interruption.] If the Minister could dry herself off, perhaps she would like to respond.

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