Adoption and Children Bill

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Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I apologise for having been absent at the start of the sitting, Mrs. Roe.

The Liberal Democrats have so far failed in our bid to amend clause 4 in a way with which we are happy. I entered politics in a spirit of optimism and I shall go on hoping. The amendments highlight another area that a number of the people who made submissions have seen as problematic. It is highly likely that we shall have to address how to deal with a proportion of the children who will require support services from the health authority, the primary care trust or the local education authority. Social services assessment might begin to identify those, but all that the social services department would have to do would be to notify the relevant authority. That does not go far enough, because there is no onus on that authority to provide further assessments, let alone to provide further support services. One could argue, to an extent as devil's advocate, that the local authority might be well equipped to provide the social services assessment. A joined-up council—although that is a buzz word, I have yet to see any form of joined-up government—could provide an assessment of educational needs. However, the Bill does not make it clear whether there is an onus on the council to provide an LEA assessment, even though the same council has to provide the social services assessment. Perhaps the Minister will clarify whether that makes matters easier or more difficult.

A local council is not in a position to assess health needs fully. That can be done only under the guidance of the relevant primary care trust. The Bill is therefore lacking, in that it deals only with assessment of part of what can be a very complex picture. Many agencies have highlighted that problem. We should listen to them, because they deal with the adoption system every day; they are much better placed than most of us to identify problems, and they have identified this as a problem in the Bill.

We have already lost the opportunity to guarantee that identified social service support will be provided. However, in a perverse way, that makes it a less onerous task to change clause 4 so that proper assessments will be provided for the children. The amendments, unfortunately, do not make the provision of support services compulsory. However, an adoption has a far greater chance of success if all needs are fully identified and supported at the beginning of the process. Then everybody can enter into an adoption with their eyes wide open, knowing exactly what the problems are and what support they will receive.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Amendment No. 73 has been tabled by a number of hon. Members. The Committee must forgive me because I have trouble with the pronunciation of some of these English constituencies, but they include the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Huntingdon, and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Oh, and it was also tabled by the rather more pronouncable hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). As I considered it and the other amendments, it occurred to me that they refer to primary care trusts and local health authorities.

I apologise to the Minister for not having raised this matter earlier. I should have done so, and perhaps there is a simple answer, but I have only just noticed it in the amendment. In Wales there are no PCTs. There are local health groups, which are to be changed into local health boards. Health authorities are soon to be abolished and their responsibilities transferred to the National Assembly. The Minister might not have an immediate answer, but I wonder whether she can reassure me that that discrepancy is covered by a catch-all clause somewhere in the Bill.

Mr. Brazier: It is worth trekking back to what the clause, which we strongly support, is trying to do. We want to put some teeth into it so that it is meaningful, rather than just expressing a wish. I am risking arousing the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), the statistics show that children who have been in care are disproportionately likely to become clients of the bodies listed in the clause. They are more likely to have special needs in schooling, to be consumers of mental health services and to have many other needs. We are dealing with a grave area, which was touched on repeatedly during the first phase of our deliberations.

I should like to elaborate on the parallel example that I gave, to show why good intentions supported by a lot of effort by Ministers are likely to fail without statutory backing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon made clear, without either the amendment or something in the same ballpark, the clause will not give proper statutory backing.

The parallel group that I mentioned were children of members of the armed forces. Because, typically, they move very frequently, they tend to find themselves at the bottom of every waiting list. I moved 14 times during my 18 years of childhood—that is not untypical for an Army child. The child of a member of the armed forces may who want to go to the dentist, or his wife may want to see a gynaecologist for whom there is a nine-month waiting list, but the husband may be moved six months before they reaches the top of the list. Whatever happens, they are a disadvantaged group.

I do not want to try your patience too far on this, Mrs. Roe. The crucial point is that it is a problem. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who, when he was Minister for the Armed Forces, picked up and ran with this issue within weeks of taking over four and a half years ago. In doing so, he brought all the various agencies together; a taskforce is dealing with the issue and has repeatedly identified the problems. I am sorry to report that there has been almost no progress. At least that was the case the last time that I spoke to the army family federations and other bodies. That is why we tabled the amendments.

3 pm

Unless we put some statutory teeth into the clause for the benefit of what is, by any standards, an even more disadvantaged group than the children and members of the armed forces, it will remain a piece of well-directed and well-intentioned wishful thinking, but little else.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): The clause and the amendments deal with the important issue of how we ensure that when children and families have a need for a range of services provided from different authorities or agencies, they are appropriately joined-up and those support services are provided. That is an aspiration with which I totally concur.

For some of the reasons that we debated this morning, the amendments are misguided and miss the point, but there is no disagreement between members of the Committee about the importance of ensuring that agencies work together properly for the benefit of those children and families who need adoption support.

The clause underpins the commitment that children and others who request an assessment have a right to one. Subsection (9) says that when it appears to the local authority as a result of an assessment that there is a need for health or education services, the local authority is placed under a duty to notify the appropriate ''Health authority, Primary Care Trust or local education authority'' of that need.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), I can say that the coverage of health authorities deals with the issue that he raised in relation to Wales. In consequence of changes made by the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill, we shall make any consequential changes in subordinate legislation to the Bill that we are discussing. I assure him that his constituents and those of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will have that coverage.

Kevin Brennan: I am reassured by what the Minister says, but will she clarify whether the current position should be reflected in the Bill in relation to subsection (9), in that there are no primary care trusts in Wales? There are local health groups, which are similar but not identical to primary care trusts in England.

Jacqui Smith: I shall certainly reflect on that. The intention is clearly that the local authority's duty is to notify the appropriate health body to ensure that it can provide the necessary support in relation to post-adoption support.

The requirement to notify the appropriate health authority, primary care trust or local education authority of the need is new in the Bill, and represents an important improvement. I hope that that partly responds to the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon about the difference between the current and the new situation. What should happen once that notification is made? The health authority, the primary care trust and the local education authority will have to determine whether to provide services in accordance with their statutory obligations. That means that they must provide services to anyone affected by adoption who is entitled to them under the statutory framework under which they operate.

The alternative is that the Bill would cut across the statutory frameworks for all the other bodies that might provide adoption support. I am not sure that that would be appropriate given the statutory frameworks for health and education provision, which I shall discuss in more detail later.

Mr. Brazier: As usual, the Minister is courteous in giving way. Surely, she has touched on the issue. We are talking about a group that disproportionately needs particular services but is disproportionately disadvantaged in obtaining them for the reasons that were so eloquently described during our hearings. That is exactly why we must cut across the statutory frameworks. I gave the parallel example of the service families working group, which does just that. However, it has no legislative teeth and has failed to achieve much. That is why we are arguing for legislative teeth.

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