Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: I was trying to make the point that the recourse—the lever—should be focused on the interests of the child. The national adoption standards and clause 1 ensure that the sort of delay that the hon. Gentleman suggests has occurred in a specific child's adoption will be considered unacceptable and avoided. I will go so far as to say that the appropriateness of individual parents having recourse to review in respect of an individual match might be the subject of consideration when we consider the regulations. It is important to focus the independent review mechanism where it is most likely to have an effect.

Mr. Dawson: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that the mechanism for reviewing the needs, best interests and future of the child remains the statutory review process, but should it not be reinforced?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Opposition Members seem to want the independent review mechanism to be a panacea for all their perceived difficulties with the care system. The Government are taking a range of other actions to overcome some of those difficulties, so it is not appropriate to use the independent review mechanism in that respect.

Mr. Djanogly: The Bill contains clause after clause based on the paramountcy of the rights of the child, which I support whole-heartedly. Conservative Members are saying that it is important that, within the context of such a Bill, other parties to the adoption process should have some redress. The more we slant the Bill towards the rights of the child—I do not argue with that—the more important it is to give other parties some means of redress. The Minister spoke about a recipe for delays, but in most instances, the people going to the panel would be those who felt that they had been subject to delays and they would regard the panel as a means of resolving such problems.

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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) pointed out that giving the independent review mechanism a wide range of responsibilities was not the way to reduce delays. As the hon. Member for Canterbury said, it may become a way to siphon people and attention away from the important issue of getting children adopted as quickly as possible by the most appropriate families and towards a review process that should not focus on those issues.

The amendment proposes a new paragraph (c) to clause 12(2), which reads:

    ''the supply of information concerning the child to any person including the child''.

As I said, we intend to use the independent review mechanism to review adoption agency determinations similar to those mentioned in that provision. We shall discuss that in more detail in later sittings, perhaps this afternoon. To respond to the question about whether the child could appeal under the access to information provisions, our view is that there is no reason why a child who has been refused access to information and who is of a sufficient age and understanding should not appeal to the review panel on the limited basis that we shall discuss later.

12.30 pm

On proposed paragraph (e), the hon. Member for Canterbury suggested that we should somehow use the review process to deal with what I agree is an unacceptable situation—that of a child having no stability in his placement. I would argue both that that is not an adoption agency determination and that the measures that the Government are taking in monitoring placement stability and in prioritising it in the quality protects grant are more effective in achieving our shared objective than the independent review process would be.

The hon. Members for Huntingdon and for Canterbury made much of the importance of proposed paragraph (i),

    ''assessing whether the child's views have been adequately considered'',

but it is unclear. The adoption agency will not make a single determination as to whether the child's views have been adequately considered. The matter is covered by clause 1(4)(a), which requires the adoption agency and the court to have regard to the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings throughout the process of a decision being reached on his adoption.

My other problem with the amendments is that they seem to seek to sidetrack the complaints procedure that is already in place. Adoption is a mainstream social services function and the majority of complaints about local authority adoption services will be most appropriately dealt with through the existing social services complaints procedure. As I have told the Committee, we are improving the procedure. We shall discuss the underpinning of that improvement through clause 111. Voluntary adoption agencies also have a complaints procedure as part of the inspection and approval process, and that will continue.

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As I have explained, the powers in the Bill enable the appropriate Minister to establish an independent review mechanism, and they are flexible enough to allow development of the procedure in future. The Government are right to focus the independent review mechanism on the areas that have attracted the most concern and where it can make the greatest difference. For that reason, I ask Committee members not to support the amendments.

Mr. Brazier: I am not entirely happy with parts of the Minister's answer. Her opening suggestion that we had cast the debate too wide was unfair. The appeals mechanism is often the only way for people in the system, including parents trying to adopt and sometimes the children themselves, to see that they are getting out of it—in the interests of the child—what the Minister and all Committee members want them to.

The Minister offered half a concession: she said that individual matching is something that the Government could consider. I hope that she will consider it, not in all cases but in such narrowly drawn instances as I have tried to suggest—and which my hon. Friends and I support—particularly where foster parents are trying to adopt and no other parents are concerned. She also stressed that a category would be included under the demanding of information, about which Conservative Members feel strongly. Therefore, on the basis that we approve of the clause overall—I was the first person to trumpet in public the welcome fact that there could be an independent appeal for some matters —and in the hope that the Minister really will consider individual matching, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Djanogly: Amendment No. 82 is relatively straightforward. There must be some sort of provision to deal with the formation of the panel and with the relevant procedures. As I have said, the panel should be established in the Bill, and if the panel is brought into being, the regulations made under clause 12 must be put into practice—hence the reasoning behind the amendment.

On amendment No. 83, we have already discussed what should count as a qualifying determination, and whether qualifying determinations should be created pursuant to regulations or established in the Bill. The Committee decided that it should be a matter for regulation, but subsection (3), which relates to the panel procedure, does not include any provision for time limits that should apply when a person wants to refer an issue to the panel. Furthermore, without the amendment, nothing in the stated procedure requires that regulations—regulations that we have not yet seen—should specify any time limits.

Given the need for fairness and transparency to encourage adoption and speed up the process, it would be appropriate to all parties to include a provision on time limits: for example, potential adoptive parents who want to complain to the panel will want to know that their appeal will be heard within a set period; conversely, we must also appreciate that the adoption

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agency will want to know that its decisions are final and binding and that it will not have the threat of an appeal hanging over it for all time. For those reasons, it would be appropriate to include time limits as the amendment proposes.

Jacqui Smith: Clause 12(3), as the hon. Gentleman says, will enable the appropriate Minister to make regulations covering the duties and powers of the review panel, its administration and procedures, the appointment of panel members, the payment of expenses to panel members, the duty of adoption agencies in connection with reviews, and the monitoring of reviews. The wording of amendment No. 82 is unsatisfactory because it would oblige the appropriate Minister in establishing the independent review mechanism to make regulations in respect of all the matters that I have just described.

We have promised to consult stakeholders in the field of adoption on the detail of how the independent review mechanism will operate, and following that consultation to make regulations to establish the review mechanism. We will introduce appropriate regulations if we decide, as a result of consultation, that they are necessary in relation to any of the areas covered by subsection 3(a) to (f). However, we may conclude as a result of consultation that regulations in all those areas are unnecessary or not in the interests of the users of the independent review mechanism. I regard that as unlikely, but the problem with the amendment is that it would require the Government to make regulations even doing so was inappropriate. For that reason, we cannot accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 83 would amend clause 12(3) to require that the regulations may establish maximum time limits for convening a review panel, according to the type of determination being reviewed. I am not unsympathetic to the amendment, but it is unnecessary because subsection (3)(a) enables the appropriate Minister to make regulations relating to the duties and powers of a review panel, and subsection (3)(b) enables the making of regulations to provide for administration and procedures. Those powers may be used to establish maximum time limits for convening a review panel.

 
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