Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: The Minister talks about transparency and not making a profit, but a local authority has the incentive in the case of adoptions from care of an extremely expensive child leaving its books. There is no such incentive on fees. She must know that a large proportion of the cost of social work is in overheads; profit is an intangible concept. There is no incentive, without Government regulation, for local authorities to keep their fees to a reasonable level. Indeed, they have every incentive to fill some of the gaps in their budgets by charging high fees for such work.

Jacqui Smith: That is why it is important, as I have said, that the regulations stipulate what can and cannot be charged for in relation to intercountry adoption. We must recognise that it is not unreasonable for local authorities to prioritise—by not charging people for domestic adoption—the important adoptions out of care. Intercountry adoption is important too; it plays a valuable role. However, the financial decisions made by local authorities in assessing those people involved in intercountry adoption are different from those that they make for domestic adopters of children out of care.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made the point about cross-boundary adoptive placements, and the concern raised by the case cited last week by the hon. Member for Canterbury. We made it clear last week that we shall make regulations under clause 4(7)(i) to prescribe the funding arrangements for the provision of adoption support services where a child is placed with an adoptive family living in a different local authority area. The requirement that all adoption agencies provide adoption support services will help to overcome the difficulties that have occurred when children have been placed under local authorities that do not have appropriate arrangements for adoption support.

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The hon. Gentleman's third point related to inter-agency fees. There was a slight contradiction—

Mr. Brazier: I am sorry to keep interrupting the Minister, but she cited a specific constituency example that I had given. Will she confirm that she is not suggesting that an authority such as Kent, which receives large numbers of children from London agencies, should end up picking up the bill when a child has been adopted from a London authority without some cash transfer?

Jacqui Smith: That was precisely what I said we needed to consider in making regulations on adoption and post-adoption support. In order to ensure that we achieve what we want to achieve, we must where necessary promote adoptions across local authorities.

That brings me to the important point about inter-agency fees. Part of the incentive to recruit adopters is in the level of inter-agency fees. A local authority that recruits adopters can benefit through the inter-agency fee system. Kent could do so. However, there is a difficulty with that, particularly in relation to voluntary adoption agencies—and I agree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) about their importance. The agency fee is an important source of income for voluntary adoption agencies. Despite the fact that some have argued that inter-agency fees should now be abolished, in the course of consultation on the performance and innovation unit report there was a strong response to the effect that the system of inter-agency fees should remain. I return to my previous point about the levels of inter-agency fees. Hon. Members might have noted that the inter-agency fee charged by local authorities is £10,539, but that charged by voluntary adoption agencies is £14,931. That reflects some of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members about the lack of ability to cover any overheads that adoption agencies may have.

We believe, for the reasons that I have suggested, that the inter-agency fee system operated by adoption agencies that recruit adoptive families should continue. However, we have promised to keep that system under review, and the powers in clause 11 will enable us to make any changes to the system that we consider necessary. The introduction and development of the register may well, at some point in future, cause us to consider whether there are other appropriate ways to deliver some of the incentives and objectives of the current inter-agency fee system.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a point about resources. The payment of an inter-agency fee secures for the local authority the adoption of a looked-after child. To that extent, it may well bring long-term savings for that local authority. That is important, and the Government intend to encourage local authorities to recognise the long-term financial benefits—apart from the very important benefits to the child—of quickly using whichever adoptive families may be available, regardless of inter-agency fees. The payment of an inter-agency fee in the short term may well bring long-term financial benefits. That should be reflected in authorities' accounting and financial systems.

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I think that I have answered the questions raised by hon. Gentlemen and explained the intentions behind the powers in the clause. On that basis, I ask the Committee to agree that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Independent review of determinations

Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 139, in page 9, line 25, leave out—

    'Regulations under section 9 may establish'

and insert 'There shall be established'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 58, in page 9, line 25, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Mr. Djanogly: The amendments are alternatives to each other. Amendment No. 58 is the more straightforward of the two, and I shall therefore deal with it first.

The clause is designed to establish

    ''a procedure under which any person in respect of whom a qualifying determination has been made by an adoption agency may apply to a panel''.

In later discussions on the clause, we will discuss what should constitute qualifying determinations, what form the panel should take, how appeals against its decisions are to be made and how much should be included in the Act rather than in regulations made under it. However, there can surely be no argument that the Bill should clearly provide for a panel rather than for the possibility of one. Will the Minister tell the Committee in what circumstances there might not be a panel? Will she also please confirm that the Government intend to bring the clause into force as soon as the Bill is enacted?

As with many other aspects of the Bill, it is of some concern that the proposed regulations have not been shown to the Committee. That is less important in some circumstances than in others. For example, in some areas, regulations made under the Adoption Act 1976 will clearly be adequate—or acceptable after a bit of tweaking. This provision is different, because it concerns a new regime—a new mechanism that is a core part of the Bill. It is designed to address one of the most serious complaints about the system: people do not have redress against the decisions of social workers. If the measure is to be taken seriously, the Government should agree to the amendment and ensure that the panel system is constituted by the time the Bill is enacted. The issues involved are complex, so I suggest that they should be considered now rather than after the new regime has been established. The amendment would deal with that by ensuring that the regulations are introduced under the Bill rather than leaving the Government to make that important decision at a later date.

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Amendment No. 139 is a slightly more complicated alternative although its primary purpose is the same: to ensure that the procedures and constitution of the panel are established in the Bill rather than when or, indeed, if the Government decide to do so. It goes further, however. Clause 12 relates only to regulations made under clause 9(1). Clause 9(1) provides that regulations may make provision for any purpose relating to

    ''the exercise by local authorities or voluntary adoption agencies of their functions in relation to adoption . . . or the exercise by adoption support agencies of their functions in relation to adoption support services.''

Clearly, that will cover local authorities exercising their powers wrongly, although I assume that appropriate regulations will be introduced on those activities—regulations that we have not yet seen. Will the panel's jurisdiction cover only regulations made under clause 9, so that if an issue is addressed in the Bill rather than in regulations, the panel would have no jurisdiction? Surely that cannot be the intention, so I seek clarification on that.

Even if the issue of accountability is addressed in regulations, what will happen if an issue is not covered by clause 9(1), such as a right to go to the panel in connection with the giving or withdrawal of parental consent or the cost of expenses relating to the adoption process? I appreciate that the Government do not intend to grant panel access for either of those issues. The explanatory notes say that the right will apply only to parents who are refused permission to adopt and to the release of protected information. However, whether or not the Government want to restrict access to the panel, would it not be wise to draft the clause so as to give maximum ability to expand the remit of the panel later, if that is thought appropriate? It seems unwise to restrict further changes to the panel's remit, which is why we should remove the reference to clause 9.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I support the amendments. This is an important part of the Bill. The whole idea of an independent review panel was one of the central themes of the Government's White Paper, which proposed that an independent body should convene the panel. However, I have a few questions for the Minister.

How many panels will be set up? Will voluntary organisations be represented on them? Will there be any legal representation? Will they include representatives from local authority social services departments? I know that it is difficult for the Minister to be precise but it would help if she could give the Committee a flavour of the constitution of such panels. It is important that there should be an independent review, but it must be truly independent. Otherwise, we will fail those people who have been refused the opportunity to adopt.

This is not meant to be a union speech on behalf of lawyers, but if a disappointed adopter was dissatisfied with the panel's findings, would he or she have a right of redress in the courts? Could they make an application, for example, to the High Court if the

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panel had misdirected itself or failed to consider some important evidence? I am not saying that that should be the case; I am just asking the Minister to assist the Committee.

There is also the important question of cost. There is no doubt that even members of a fairly informal panel who go through the evidence when convened and consider the paperwork beforehand will have to be reimbursed for their time, especially if they come from a professional background. How will costs be worked out? Will the local authority or the adoption agency be required to meet part of the costs? Will disappointed adopters be required to do so?

Such important questions should be investigated, and I am sure that the Minister will deal with them in her reply. I fully support the contention of the hon. Member for Huntingdon that the panels should be established as soon as the Bill becomes law. It is important that there be no lacuna between the introduction of the law and the right to an independent review via the panel. An independent panel is an exceedingly useful step forward, but such questions need to be answered.

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