Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: I shall not stray into the territory of cunning plans, to which my hon. Friends alluded, although I entirely concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon about the excessive amount of prescription and bureaucracy being placed on local authorities. Only yesterday, I attended a social services conference where a senior director of social services of a shire county revealed that, during the past year, he had received no less than 12 inspections. To cap it all, he has now been approached by a senior official from the Department of Health asking him to co-operate in a study of the number of inspections being carried out by departmental inspectors. It seems to have gone out of control.

4.15 pm

Mr. Djanogly: It is also important to mention that the Government have now put in place a plan of plans. Through amendment No. 185, we were discussing whether a plan could be put into another plan. In practice, however, the various council departments settle their plans, and then they have to plan to encompass all the other plans.

Tim Loughton: It is mind-boggling, and I am sure that it does not achieve anything. It certainly does not lead to the better services that we want to be provided for children involved in adoption, which is the point of our deliberations.

I was surprised that in her recent references to clause 5 and earlier clauses, the Minister did not mention the influence that public service agreements have on adoption services; nor did she tell us of the progress of beacon status. Of the 20 pilot authorities involved in PSAs, eight are involved in setting more stretching adoption targets. How will the terms of clause 5 interact with that? How many of the other 130 local authorities will include adoption targets in their PSAs when the pilot scheme is extended to all local authorities? Can we have more details on the progress of beacon status? I gather that, by September, 12 councils had applied for beacon status for adoption schemes. However, in April 2002, along with everything else that will happening next spring, including all the regulations that will be pouring out of the Department, the Minister anticipates announcing the likely qualifiers.

How many more authorities will apply for beacon status under the adoption scheme? Only a relatively small number seem to include adoption services as part of a PSA or beacon status. That means either that they think they are greatly under-resourced and not in a position to achieve such high standards or that they are not as well advanced as they need to be to cope with the extra duties and responsibilities that will be imposed under the Bill. The Government seem keen to push PSAs and beacon status. Will the Minister update the Committee on the progress on those two schemes as regards adoption services?

Jacqui Smith: Although we have already covered the major issues raised by clause 5, hon. Members asked some specific questions about plans. First, the clause ensures that there will be a statutory duty to prepare a plan for adoption services, which will ensure accountability in that service. However, recognising that the planning needs to be coherent, it would be most appropriate for that provision to be included in the overall planning of children's services. In this case, too, the Government are making progress on reducing the number of plans. All current planning requirements have a clear policy intention behind them, often associated with grant regimes. However, we are actively seeking ways of reducing the burden on local authorities. Part of the remit of the children and young people's unit is to simplify the planning requirements affecting children.

On the subject of local PSAs, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right. Many local authorities have chosen to push adoption targets into their local public service agreements, which enable local authorities to free themselves from restrictions and requirements by stretching their adoption targets. On the subject of beacon status, I shall write to him and to other members of the Committee with the details of the Government's beacon council programme and the extent to which that supports us in the work to share best practice between local authorities, to improve adoption services and increase the number of children adopted from care.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Arrangements on cancellation of registration

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 188, in page 6, line 19, at end add

    'and the relevant body will be under an obligation to at all times retain full records.'.

The clause points out that, by virtue of the cancellation of its registration under part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000,

    ''a body has ceased to be a registered adoption society'',

and that

    ''the appropriate Minister may direct the body to make such arrangements as to the transfer of its functions relating to children and other transitional matters as seem to him expedient.''

That makes sense, but I am concerned about the retention of records. The relevant body may be wound up or may disappear and the records may be lost, when they should be retained and passed on to the successor body.

The amendment would make it crystal clear that records must be retained. If they are not, it could cause problems for the successor body. The amendment is simple and straightforward and I hope that the Minister will accept it.

Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman said, the clause enables the appropriate Minister to issue directions to the voluntary adoption agency that require it to make appropriate arrangements for the transfer of its functions relating to children. Those directions will ensure that the voluntary adoption agency's records are transferred to another adoption agency and that an appropriate continuity of service provision is preserved for those receiving services from the agency before it ceases to be registered.

This clause is linked to clause 7, under whose provisions the appropriate Minister may direct the relevant local authority to take action when a voluntary adoption agency is inactive, defunct or has ceased to be registered. Directions may be used to require the local authority to take over the voluntary adoption agency's records.

The amendment is unnecessary, therefore, and problematic in that it would place an obligation on

    ''the relevant body . . . to . . . retain full records.''

It does not make it clear what the relevant body may be. On the basis that it is flawed and that the points made by the hon. Gentleman are covered, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister give more detail? She says that the question of records is covered, but will it be covered in the regulations, as it does not seem to be covered in the Bill? The records will obviously be kept by the successor body, but will she make clear the mechanism for ensuring that those records are maintained and kept intact?

Jacqui Smith: I think that it is clear in the Bill. I outlined that directions would make explicit the responsibilities in relation to clauses 6 and 7, and gave the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he sought.

Mr. Bellingham: With that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Inactive or defunct adoption societies etc

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

Tim Loughton: There are no amendments to the clause but the clause does contain some vague passages. Subsection (1) says:

    ''This section applies where it appears to the appropriate Minister that—

    (a) a body which is or has been a registered adoption society is inactive or defunct''.

It goes on, in paragraph (b), to refer to a body that has had its registration cancelled under part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000, which is a positive act that one can determine. However, I am not clear how it would appear to a Minister—to use the terminology of the Bill—that a body was ''inactive or defunct''. Will the Minister give some examples of when that might appear to be the case, if she were the appropriate Minister?

Jacqui Smith: It is important that we have the safeguard that ensures that the records and activities of an adoption agency that goes out of business can, if necessary, be transferred to a local authority.

I think that it would be fairly obvious if an adoption agency ceased to operate, and therefore came under subsection (1)(a). It would be drawn to the attention of local authorities, which could draw it to the Minister's attention, or it might be drawn directly to the attention of the Department. It might come to the Department's attention through its responsibilities for registering adoption agencies. There are a range of ways in which that might happen.

Mr. Djanogly: Although I appreciate what the Minister says, something that has gone wrong in the past when agencies have closed down is that records have been lost. Has she considered how that will be put right in future?

Jacqui Smith: We have not only considered it but ensured that it does not happen, by placing clauses 6 and 7 in the Bill and appropriate regulation-making powers later. The hon. Gentleman is right in his concerns, which is why it is important that clause 7 ensures, if necessary, that those responsibilities can be passed to a local authority.

I shall conclude my list of the various ways in which the body's state might come to the Minister's attention. It could be brought to the Department's attention through inspections, which would cover voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities.

Tim Loughton: I take the Minister's point, but she has not sealed all the hatches. A wide range of adoption agencies exists: some of them are big, some are small and some are specialist, dealing with a small number of children for overseas adoptions for some communities in this country. She said that the local authority or another adoption agency might notify the Department, but she should take into account the friction that exists between some people in the adoption world. It might suit some people's book that a particular adoption agency no longer continued in practice. We need a keener definition of ''inactive or defunct''.

The Minister failed to tell us what would happen if a Minister decided that it appeared to him or her that an agency was ''inactive or defunct'' and that agency reared its head and said, ''No, we are not inactive or defunct.'' If the Minister had taken measures determining that it was inactive or defunct, what recourse to appeal would there be and how would it work? Again, we are not dealing with mainstream cases. However, owing to the nature of the subject, I can envisage cases in which specialist adoption agencies in particular found shutters being closed on them as they went about their normal business. It does not mean that they are defunct or inactive merely because they have not fulfilled such a high quota of adoptions in a certain period.

The Minister may not be able to give me a full response, but the problem needs consideration. There should be a clear right of appeal for an agency when Ministers deem it appropriate that it be subject to such an order.

4.30 pm

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