Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: I did.

Mr. Djanogly: I disagree, because we have been discussing frameworks rather than detail. We must improve the current system, not accept it as a given. I would like cross-provisions to be written into the Bill.

The Minister backed up her argument by referring to future guidance, but she did not say what that guidance would be or when it would be put in place.

Jacqui Smith: Previously, the hon. Gentleman said, rightly, that much work had to be done and many people consulted to get the details right. He now criticises me for saying that we need to consult many people to get the details right. Is that not a contradiction?

Mr. Djanogly: I do not think so. I recognised the Minister's example of consultation, but noted that that was not adequate in the circumstances. Much more consultation should be done to put some meat on the bones of the provisions.

The Minister referred to the role of the lead social worker. That is fine and a good idea, but we felt that that had been said rather on the hoof and that not much thought had gone into the practicalities of how to authorise that in practice.

For all those reasons, the clause seems to be losing sight of where we want to go, so I do not want to withdraw the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 5]

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

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

Question accordingly negatived.

3.30 pm

Amendment proposed: No. 183, in page 5, line 23, leave out from 'request' to end of line 24.—[Mr. Bellingham.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 6]

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

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

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I crave your indulgence a little, Mrs. Roe, as I want to raise an odd technical point on the clause. We have considered the clause extensively through the large number of amendments that we have debated, mostly this morning. There are many provisions, however, especially in subsection (7), that will be covered by regulations, and sight of those regulations is a long way off.

Under subsection (7)(f) and (g), local authorities can charge for various support services provided to other bodies. Paragraph (g) refers to

    ''the recovery of any financial support provided by a local authority''.

So far as I can recall, we have not talked about charging fees. My understanding of the references to the regulations is that local authorities will have the power to charge fees for support services provided. That raises questions about what will be provided free to adoptive families that require support, and about the relationship between local authorities that send adopted children outside their jurisdiction and may pay fees to bodies in the other area, such as the new local authority and other support service organisations. It is not clear how that arrangement will work. Will the Minister touch on the basis of fee charging by a local authority, within its area or outside it?

Mr. Brazier: Before the Minister responds, I would like to make a query. In terms of the local authority's bureaucratic mismanagement, the worst constituency case that I have ever handled resulted in a court action that was eventually settled out of court. None the less, it seems to fit in with the sort of question asked by my hon. Friend. I would be grateful for the Minister's response on fees in relation to it.

A couple wanted to adopt from care a young girl who had been severely abused. The adoption was a success, but an older sibling threatened to commit suicide if she was not adopted too, which is not an untypical reaction. Eventually, the parents reluctantly agreed, although they suspected that the poor girl was beyond their help. After a couple of brave years struggling, the sibling was taken back into care again because the adoption had failed. The younger sister continued to thrive in the adoption placement.

As the result of the then law, the local authority sued my constituents and billed them for taking the child back into care, because the adoption had gone through by that stage. I see the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre nodding—it is clear how the law works. The child was their child, the family were not wealthy, but both parents were in work so they had a reasonable income, and they were sued for an enormous weekly bill for taking their adopted child back into care. It is beyond my ability to find a way of tabling an amendment to any part of the Bill to deal with that, but I thought that this might be an appropriate time to raise the case.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that, under the Children Act 1989, local authorities do indeed have the power to recover costs when children are taken into care?

Mr. Brazier: Yes, I do, and I believe that it is fair and reasonable that they should be able to do so. I am not opposing the state of the law in general. I am just saying that it seems completely unreasonable that that path should be extended to a child who has been in care and whom my constituents, again from a London authority, had taken the risk of adopting. I was making a narrow point. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the law is appropriate in most cases.

Jacqui Smith: We have covered the major points, but I shall respond to the questions raised by Opposition Members.

The point raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury has been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford. On the point about charging for adoption support services, the intention behind the clause has been misinterpreted. Local authorities will not charge fees for adoption support services. There was some debate last week about fees for intercountry assessment, which is a different issue. There is a power to make regulations in clause 4(7)(i) regarding expenses to be paid between local authorities or agencies, but it does not include the power to charge individuals. Local authorities cannot charge in respect of the provision of services unless a statutory power enables them to do so, and the Bill provides for no such statutory power.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister has been in such command of her brief that I wonder whether she misheard my point while she was looking at her papers, because far from answering my point, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford raised something with which I agree.

The Children Act 1989 reiterated an existing power—a power that may go back further than that Act—which the hon. Gentleman and I support, for parents to be billed for the cost or part of the cost of their children being taken into care, if they have the funds to pay. I am sure that all hon. Members would support that. My narrow point focused on the misapplication of that legal power, which is possible in existing law, to a case where the child had been in care for many years, had been adopted and the adoption had then failed.

Jacqui Smith: That certainly sounds like an unsatisfactory situation, although I believe that the hon. Gentleman understands the legislative process under which that happened. One of the reasons why families find themselves in that situation is that they have been given inadequate adoption support, and our debates on improvements to adoption support services are important in that respect. However, we are currently discussing whether a local authority should be able to charge for adoption support services, and I made my case clear in response to a question asked by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

If the hon. Member for Canterbury wants me to pursue the particular case that he raised, I shall be happy to write to him.

Mr. Brazier: I would be most grateful for that. I had intended to try to get assistance in drafting a new clause for us to tackle at the end of our consideration of the Bill. However, if the Minister felt able to do something in that area before we reach that stage, drawing on her much greater resources, I would be intensely grateful.

Tim Loughton: The Minister did not answer my second point. I entirely take her point about its not being the intention to charge fees to individuals. I am querying the charging of fees by other local authorities providing services. Where such services do not come up to scratch, the adoptive child has to be taken back into care by the original placing authority. Where the placing authority has paid out a grant to an adoptive family in another local authority area to make alterations to a house or provide a vehicle, and the adoption fails, what happens to the money expended? It is not made clear how that would work.

If a local authority provides services to an adopted child placed in its area at the expense of another authority, such as a London placement in a Kent authority, what is the form for those services being provided at more than cost? Are such local authorities able to provide those services on a commercial basis, particularly in view of the Secretary of State's recent announcement about commercial activities being provided by local authorities?

A local authority in Kent might play host to a child with complex difficulties who has been placed by an authority in London. The London authority pays money to the Kent authority for the provision of speech therapy services, special educational needs services and additional counselling. I understand that that authority, under the changes in the law, can now provide those services at a profit. The relationship becomes commercial.

However, what happens if the services provided are found to be wanting and not up to scratch and the placing authority in London has to repatriate that child, having spent a lot of money? Under the existing arrangement, it is simply a question of how the London authority might reclaim its outlay, which is deemed a failed investment. However, under the new arrangements there is a commercial liability as well, is there not?

3.42 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.57 pm

On resuming—

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001