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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


[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Adoption and Children Bill

2.30 pm

The Chairman: I understand that there were complaints this morning about the heating. Action was taken during the lunch break, and the heating is now pumping out hot air—just as hon. Members probably will this afternoon. I hope that the problem has been rectified, but we shall take it up with the authorities to make sure that the Room is warmer in the mornings.

Clause 4

Assessments etc. for adoption support services

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I beg to move amendment No. 73, in page 5, line 18, after 'authority', insert

    'and they will have a parallel duty along with the local authority to provide the necessary service.'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 172, in page 5, line 18, after 'authority', insert

    'and they will have a parallel duty along with the local authority to provide any relevant support services'.

No. 145, in page 5, line 18, after 'authority', insert

    'and the latter bodies and authorities will have a duty to make provision of all relevant services.'.

No. 144, in page 5, line 23, leave out from 'requested' to end of line 24 and insert

    'has a duty to comply with the request and make provision of all relevant services'.

No. 183, in page 5, line 23, leave out from 'request' to end of line 24.

Mr. Djanogly: After lunch, it is better to have cold air; we want the hot air in the morning.

We welcome the general idea behind subsection (9) and the proposals for joined-up thinking, which are intended to get the various agencies to work and, I hope, think together. However, practice tells many members of the Committee—whether, like me, they worked on social services committees, or whether they were social workers—that some authorities are better than others at working with other agencies. Some are better at providing services, some are better at providing particular services and some work better among their own than with others. One often finds that agencies tend to provide an excellent service for their own people—some agencies are more parochial than others. One cannot assume that the various health, education or social services across the country will be of the same standard.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): My hon. Friend talks about agencies, but is he using the term in the wider sense? In discussing the Bill, we have normally referred to public sector organisations as authorities and to charitable or semi-voluntary organisations as agencies. I would be grateful if he could clarify that point.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend. I have been using the word in the wider sense, and ''bodies'' would perhaps be more appropriate.

The different bodies will provide different levels of services. To that extent, subsections (9) and (11) need strengthening if we are to get people to work together and to deliver the same sort of service at the same time.

The way in which the various bodies provide their services is governed by many different items of legislation, and there is a lot of room for conflict and interpretation when it comes to getting them to deliver a unified service. That is not a new problem, but it certainly is a problem. At the same time, the Bill puts the local authority in the lead role. The authority will have the best picture of the overall adoption service, so it is right that it should take the lead role.

We feel that the Bill does not give enough strength to the new system. Given the various pieces of legislation, confusion could reign. Unfortunately, there could be another field day for lawyers in determining what legislation takes priority. The amendments are probing. They would add some flesh to the provisions and show how they would work in practice.

The explanatory notes suggest that the Government will issue guidance to the various bodies, with the intention that the local authority will receive an overview of the package of services. It will then be able to decide how best to proceed. Neither the Bill nor the explanatory notes provide any details, however. It would help if the Minister explained how she intends the procedures to work. The circumstances are not entirely new. To a degree, all the bodies currently have to work together, but many examples could be given of how they have not done so.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): There is an interesting parallel with services children. Children of members of the armed forces are another group of people who use local authorities in a similar way. For four and a half years, the Government have had an excellent initiative to try better to co-ordinate provision, but it has borne almost no fruit as there is a lack of a statutory duty such as that for which my hon. Friend rightly calls.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely valid example. I ask the Minister to flesh out how the procedure is likely to work. How will it be varied from what we now have, which everyone agrees needs improvement?

When a request has been made, what mechanisms would come into operation? Nothing that we have received to date has told us how long, for instance, the various bodies would need to respond. The Bill might suggest that they should work in a concerted fashion, but it would be unfortunate if one body took that to mean a week and another took it to mean six months. It would be important for timing to be tied in.

What if one body does not respond? We assume that they will all play ball, but many hon. Members will know that that does not always happen. What if the assessment of one body conflicted with that of another? We are not talking about distinct scientific practice, but the difference between descriptions of the work of social workers, education people and health workers. They will often work together with similar disciplines, but who is to decide whose assessment will take priority in the event of conflicting views? How would those different views be sorted out? What would the timing implications be?

Should not the applicant have some form of redress within the system? An oft-repeated complaints by children or prospective adoptive parents involved in the adoption system is that they feel that they are not given an adequate hearing. Would they have rights to go to the panel to be created under clause 12? Such rights are not mentioned in the explanatory notes or the Bill, but surely it would be appropriate for people to have some say? If they did not feel that they were adequately listened to, they could seek some form of redress through an independent review. Outside parties could come in and take a decision.

I come to the core question behind the amendment. What is the point of such valid new provisions if the bodies concerned are not under a duty to provide services? Even if they believe that they should provide services, they may decide not to. They may decide not to provide them at the same time as one another or in a concerted fashion.

The importance of the clause will lie in the detail, and the same is true of many others. The subject has not been satisfactorily dealt with, and there are problems, so I would be grateful for the Minister's further explanation.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): There is much sense in what the hon. Gentleman has said, and in the amendment. A Government who are noted for their commitment to what works and to joined-up government should take such issues on board. In my experience, to some extent, the ability of public, voluntary and private sector bodies to work together can make a policy work to the great benefit of children and their families, or, it is sad to say, work actively against that.

We have a great reforming Government who are making tremendous improvements to public services, of which the Bill is only one aspect. However, we have to get to grips with organisational inertia, boundaries and bureaucratic structures. The way in which organisations put themselves together, see themselves and operate works against the best interests not only of well thought out policy, but of children, young people and their families. I would like a major shake-„up. There should be children's departments at local level, and a range of organisations charged with meeting children's needs should be brought together in a framework that stresses the importance of corporate parenting and the participation of young people. I will not stray into such crucial aspects of citizenship in my short speech.

If the Bill is to work well—if all the Government's good intentions to improve adoption services and the support of adopted young people and children and adoptive families are to work—we must ensure that all the organisations involved work clearly together on a positive agenda that puts children's needs first, and way ahead of organisational imperatives or bureaucratic structures.

I do not know whether the amendments will prove acceptable to the Minister but I support the spirit in which they were tabled. The Government need to get a grip on this important issue.

2.45 pm

Mr. Bellingham: I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) said, because he has a great deal of experience and he hit the nail bang on the head. The amendments are designed to ensure that the different bodies and authorities act in a co-ordinated manner in the interests of the child, which are paramount.

When he moved the amendments, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) made it clear that one sees different standards of service up and down the country. All too often, there is what is now described as a postcode lottery. A person living in one part of the country may receive a very good service from a branch of the public service, while in another part of the country they would not. It is vital that one branch of the local public services knows what the other is doing.

When it comes to ensuring that everything possible is done for children, particularly in the case of adoption, it is vital that the different bodies know what the others are up to. We had an important example of that in Norfolk recently with the Lauren Wright case. I do not want to digress, but the matter is relevant to what we are trying to achieve with the amendments. The main body involved in that case was the local education authority of the school concerned. The health service was involved as well, because Lauren was referred to a consultant paediatrician. The police were also involved, because the case was referred to them, and social services were involved.

The bottom line is that none of those services killed poor Lauren—it was her stepmother. Blame has been attached to various people who worked on Lauren's case in an unfair and unjust manner. A whole day of the Victoria Climbie inquiry will be devoted to the case, and I hope that it will result in a determined effort by the Government to ensure that there is proper co-ordination between services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon was right. He examined the explanatory notes, which state that there should be

    ''an overview of the package of services being provided''.{**W4**}

The package of services means those provided not only by social services, but by the education service and other bodies such as the health authority. He was right to point out that if we do not get this right, there will be a lot of confusion. Failure to do so could result in a field day for lawyers in interpreting exactly what the two subsections mean.

Furthermore, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre pointed out, it is important to ask what will happen when the different bodies do not provide the services that they are meant to. What recourse will parents or children have if those services that have been promised or offered are not provided? That may happen for a variety of reasons, such as some confusion caused by the clause.

I would like the Minister carefully to examine that point. The Opposition are very concerned and we are minded to push the amendments to a vote if the Minister is not able to give us a satisfactory answer. The issue is fundamental—there is no point in having a clause that refers to a package of services, an overview of those services and provision of those services unless we know that they will be delivered on the ground.

Why do the notes on the clause, rather than the Bill itself, mention the issuing of guidance and directions? Time and again in this Bill we come across mention of regulations, of guidance and of directions, yet we do not know what they—in this case, the guidance—will be.

I understand that the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) is going to talk about amendment No. 172 in a moment, but I should like to mention amendment No. 183, which, along with amendment No. 144, refers to refer to subsection (11), which says:

    ''A local authority whose help is so requested must comply with the request''.{**W4**}

That is fine. I am happy with it so far, but the subsection goes on to add:

    ''if it is consistent with the exercise of their functions.''

''If'' is not good enough. There are too many ''ifs'' in this Bill and too many ''maybes'', ''perhapses'', ''coulds'' and ''mights''. If we are keen for the local authority to provide the services and the help that might be requested, we should not qualify it. That turns a positive subsection into a very airy-fairy one, which might be regarded by some as entirely negative. I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy us or we shall feel obliged to press the amendment to a vote.


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Prepared 13 December 2001