Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Walter: I am slightly reassured by the Minister's comments, but remain unhappy with the word ''prescribe''. I accept that regulations must do something, but a better term might be that they give ''statutory guidance'' to adoption agencies and local authorities.

I tabled the amendments and rehearsed the arguments in Committee because of the evidence of the wide divergence in fees charged by local authorities for services relating to intercountry adoption, especially home studies. I am pleased to hear that wide consultation will take place and that when regulations are drafted account will be taken of some of my arguments. The Minister suggested that if others made

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the same points about the level and transparency of fees, the regulations would take account of them. In view of those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Welcome back to the Chair, Mrs. Roe.

It would be useful if, before we let the clause go, the Committee were to put on record some of the comments of adoption agencies and other interested organisations that are worried about fees. There is some confusion about the fees for different services, whether for cross-boundary adoptions in this country, or intercountry adoptions, and whether they are the fees of adoption agencies. The Minister was right about our discussion in Committee last week, in which I raised the disparities between local authority charges for home studies. They range from zero to more than £4,000, in the case of one authority, and of a London agency that is contracted by local authorities.

I have a good deal of sympathy with the amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) tabled. Transparency in fees is essential. It would have been better had the Government at least introduced a fee-capping system. We know about the discrepancies in the costs of services in different parts of the country, but questions remain. The Minister said rightly that local authorities and adoption agencies should not be able to profit from various services, but with such wide discrepancies between fees, a loss leader must be assumed. It is hard to take that on board.

The Children's Society and the Adoption Forum have raised the issue. The Adoption Forum has pointed out that the fees local authorities must pay each other in respect of approved adopters across boundaries average about £16,000 and can be as much as £25,000 per child. As we have discussed, much of the total is the result of buying services in kind, rather than handing over a blank cheque or a sort of dowry, but there are big discrepancies. The other day, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) recounted the horrendous case of a London borough that seems to have dumped a child on the local authority in his constituency, with apparently no compulsion on that London borough to stump up for on-going support services—only for the bus fare.

It has been suggested that the problem with the fees charged is that they can act as a brake on local authorities' sending children for adoption out of area. In the past—to a degree, it will be so in future—the first choice has always been to try to find a child an adoptive family in the locality. There are good reasons for doing that, which include keeping the child in a familiar environment, perhaps near to other siblings. However, in other cases, the need to take the child as far as possible from a violent household and abusive

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parents who are still on the scene makes it far preferable that a cross-boundary adoptive family be found.

The Children's Society has raised the concern that

    ''local authorities seem to believe that they can always make placements more cheaply''—

than adoption agencies—

    ''but are not able to calculate the actual unit cost, which must include premises, utilities, training, supervision and management costs.''

What grasp does the Department have of the actual cost of placements? Local authorities have not been forthcoming about figures, so it is difficult to judge whether there is an element of profit and to make comparisons with the costs of services provided by voluntary adoption agencies. It is worth noting that such agencies provide a valuable service and that, in effect, they subsidise adoption services to the tune of £3.5 million a year—a sum derived mainly from charitable donations and fundraising. We must retain those agencies if we are to maintain choice for prospective adopters and the ability of children and young people to choose the best placement for them.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's argument, but does he accept that his case is even stronger than he has suggested? For years, many of us have called for a larger role for voluntary organisations at the expense of some of the least effective local authorities; absurdly, however, voluntary organisations write to us saying, ''Please stop asking for that. We are overburdened already and are finances are tight.'' They struggle to do what they are already doing, although we all know that they do it far better than the bulk of—not all—local authorities.

Tim Loughton: That is absolutely right. We all agree that voluntary adoption agencies provide an essential service. The adoption system will be enhanced by the Bill, and although some the clauses are complicated, they are rightly so. However, we must ensure that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. Voluntary adoption agencies must be able to get on with their job and increase their capacities if they are to play a vital role in increasing capacity overall, which is what the Government and we are keen to achieve. My plea to the Minister is to be mindful of the fact that these are, by and large, charitable organisations that work with voluntary contributions and many volunteers. We must support their work, not hinder it. We must be aware of the financial implications of the provisions we make.

The Children's Society raises another interesting concern, stating:

    ''Anecdotally we have evidence that families are not being considered for children because the local authority does not have the budget for interagency fees. There are even instances of placements being abandoned during introductions because the local authority refused to find the interagency fee. This is hardly child centred practice. If the National Adoption Register is to work effectively the issue of interagency fees must be addressed before it is fully operational.''

My understanding of the new national adoption register is that a local authority that does not take a child who has been available for adoption for three weeks is obliged to put him on the register so that an

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adoptive family may be found outside the area. I hope that we shall debate the clauses that deal with setting up the register, although given the rigours of our timetable, we might not. However, I do want to know how monitoring will be carried out, given that we have no sophisticated device for tracking children through the adoption system.

Who will make sure that children are put on the register at the prescribed time to enhance their chance of adoption—especially if a local authority that is, among other things, financially strapped is reluctant to stump up as much as £25,000 to place a child with an adoptive family in another local authority area? Those worries are echoed by other organisations and in a briefing note from Barnardo's.

I raise those concerns, of which the Minister must be aware, because I hope that when drawing up regulations and prescribing fees she will be mindful of the absolute necessity of making sure that voluntary adoption agencies are given every aid to get on with their job. We need to be convinced about the disparity between the fees charged by the different authorities, and we need an assurance that the level of fees charged will not act as a brake on local authorities—many of which have strapped social services budgets—using all their resources at the earliest possible opportunity to secure an out-of-area placement if that is in the best interests of the child. Furthering the child's interests is essentially why we are here.

11 am

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I fully endorse my hon. Friend's arguments. The Government's intention is clearly to introduce fairness into the charging structure, and no one has spoken against that today. However, it is important to appreciate the differences between voluntary organisations and local authorities.

Many local authorities have a more solid base and constitution and better forward funding than voluntary organisations and charities. The latter often have more brittle leadership; unlike local authorities, they are not uniform among themselves, and they often have different overheads structures and operate with various degrees of efficiency. One of the impacts of the clause may well be that voluntary organisations will have to put their house in order and improve their internal efficiency to achieve uniform charging structures. However, we would not want the provisions to be the cause of the destruction of the charitable part of the system.

Will the Minister consider carefully the charging structures, as my hon. Friend suggests? Will she consider other associated matters, such as the notification period for the new charges? If a new structure is to be put in place, voluntary organisations should have a long period in which to consider not only how to apply the charges, but what internal changes may be needed, before the changes come into effect.

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Jacqui Smith: Opposition Members have made some interesting but slightly contradictory points. They seemed to be arguing both for capping the fees and for ensuring that inter-agency fees are sufficient to support the important work done by the adoption agencies. I shall go through the points raised.

The Adoption Forum might have suggested in its evidence that the Government should consider capping the cost of home studies for people from abroad who are looking to adopt. When we debated the intercountry provisions a week or two ago, I spelled out what regulations the Government intend to make on the types of cost that it would be appropriate to recoup in relation to intercountry adoption. I also made clear that a nationally set fee would not be appropriate, given that agencies' costs for making assessments for intercountry adoption will vary from case to case. It is important that individuals should know what can and cannot be charged for, and that they should know in advance what the costs are likely to be. It should be transparent that no profit is being made, and there should be a clear understanding about fees.

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