Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: As the Minister knows, we are all in favour of the new measures, but will she reassure the Committee that where younger children, who have no views of their own, are concerned, the prejudices or customs—whatever term one wants to use—of birth parents from whom, for whatever reason, the child has been taken away, would not be a bar to full adoption?

Jacqui Smith: Obviously, the decision about adoption would be based on the best interests of the child, as is appropriate. We have spoken throughout about the Government's wish and intention to increase the number of children adopted out of care, and to ensure that that happens more quickly. However, the White Paper and the PIU concluded that some groups understandably still have difficulty with some of the legal aspects of adoption. We are not necessarily offering such people a choice between adoption and special guardianship, because it is unlikely that they would have opted for adoption. We are providing an opportunity for special guardianship orders to be made, with the permanence and other conditions that they create, as opposed to nothing. It is an important step forward.

12.30 pm

Mr. Brazier: This is an important point. The Minister has outlined a number of other cases, and one can think of other examples. For instance, the father may be dead and the mother permanently incapacitated in such a way that prevents her looking after the child but the child still regards her as mum. However, if a minority group is specifically opposed to adoption—we are dealing with younger children, who will have no views on the matter—the pre-eminence of the child's interests must surely dictate that it should not be allowed to block the adoption of children who might otherwise be satisfactorily adopted by people who do not share that view.

Jacqui Smith: As I suggested in my previous answer, it is important that the processes and the safeguards that we talked about in relation to clause 1 and the placement provisions are considered in such circumstances.

The new order is also intended to offer more security and a better support package than a residence order. It is designed to be flexible enough to work in a range of situations—including in cases where there is extensive and regular contact with the birth family and in instances where that would not be appropriate but when it would nevertheless be desirable to retain the basic legal link between the child and the parent. The Government want the new order to be used successfully, and the Bill therefore places a duty on local authorities to make arrangements to provide support services for special guardianship placements. We shall discuss that in more detail under later amendments. We anticipate that those support services will operate in a similar manner to adoption

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support services, and we intend to consult widely on the rules, regulations and guidance that will accompany the implementation of the provisions.

I shall go into more detail on the new sections to be added by clause 110. Proposed new sections 14A to 14G of the Children Act 1989 will provide for the new special guardianship order. They state who may apply for an order, the circumstances in which orders may be made and the nature and effect of the orders; and they allow local authorities to provide support services for special guardians.

Proposed new section 14A sets out who may apply for special guardianship and the process for making an application. People may apply jointly—they need not be married—and they must be aged 18 or over. Local authority foster parents may also apply with the leave of the court if the child in their care has lived with them for a year. When considering making a special guardianship order, the child's welfare is the court's paramount consideration and the welfare checklist in section 1(3) of the Children Act applies.

Those who want to apply to become special guardians must give three months' written notice to the local authority, which must investigate and prepare a report to the court on the suitability of the applicants to be special guardians and any other relevant matters. Regulations will prescribe the matters to be covered in the report. We intend to use those arrangements to ensure a proper assessment process. The court cannot make an order unless it has received a report covering the suitability of the applicants. The Government intend to set out, in court rules, that an officer of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is to be appointed in appropriate special guardianship proceedings to represent the interests of the child. I shall refer to that in more detail when I address the amendment.

Proposed new section 14B provides that, before making a special guardianship order, the court must consider whether a contact order should be made at the same time. The court may also allow the child to be known by a new surname and to be taken out of the United Kingdom for longer than three months.

Proposed new section 14C sets out the effect of the special guardianship orders, giving the special guardian parental responsibility for the child, as I described. Furthermore, while a special guardianship order is in force, the child may be known by a different surname or be removed from the United Kingdom for longer than three months only with the consent of all those who have parental responsibility or with the leave of the court. Although those decisions can be made at the time of the making of the special guardianship order, there are restrictions on that after a certain time. Special guardians must also take reasonable steps to inform the child's parents if the child dies.

Proposed new section 14D sets out the circumstances when special guardianship orders may be varied or discharged. Proposed new section 14E makes supplementary provisions, including allowing the court to set time scales for special guardianship proceedings to avoid unnecessary delay.

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Proposed new section 14F makes provision for local authority support services for special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders. Each local authority must arrange to provide support, including counselling, advice and information and such other services as prescribed in the regulations. The Government intend to consult on the regulations prescribing the circumstances when local authorities must, at the request of special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders, carry out an assessment of needs for special guardianship services. We shall use the regulations to ensure that local authorities put in place a range of support services, including financial support, which will be available when appropriate for special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders.

Mr. Brazier: I have a general question. Everything that the Minister has said is right, but will she reassure the Committee that the guidelines will be the same as those for adoptions? We do not want to set up a huge new body of expertise, with which our already overstretched social services departments will have to deal, for a niche in the market that may turn out to be worthwhile but, none the less, small. Will the special guardianship provisions follow the same guidelines as those for adopted children, except when there are obvious variations?

Jacqui Smith: There may be some areas of obvious difference in the two circumstances, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is likely that the adoption support services established for adoptive families and adopted children will be similar to those for special guardians and children subject to special guardianship orders. The hon. Gentleman is right in his view of the way in which local authorities should respond to the provisions. The Government will consult on the overall framework. It makes sense for links to be made between the support services.

Subsections (4) to (9) of proposed new section 14F govern the assessment process and, when support services are to be provided, the arrangements for their provision. As with adoption support services, the needs assessment may be carried out at the same time as an assessment of a person's needs for any other purpose.

Proposed new section 14G obliges every local authority to establish a procedure for considering representations, including complaints made to them, in respect of special guardianship support services by special guardians or children subject to special guardianship orders.

Mr. Dawson: It is clear that the measure is important, but it is also clear that difficulties and disputes could occur when parental responsibility is shared. The parental responsibility of special guardians will outweigh that of birth parents, so should birth parents not be included in the category of people who can have their complaints considered under the provision?

Jacqui Smith: Matters concerning birth parents are best dealt with in relation to the making of the special guardianship order, rather than in relation to proposed new section 14G, which is about

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representations and complaints with respect to special guardianship support. We intend to use the powers to require authorities to establish complaints procedures for special guardianship support, modelled on the revised Children Act complaints procedure, to be established under section 26 of the Children Act 1989 as amended by clause 111.

Clause 110 represents a substantial new set of provisions, delivering on the Government's commitment to create a new permanent order to meet the needs of children who cannot live with their birth parents, but for whom adoption is not appropriate. These complex provisions are designed for use in a wide range of circumstances and we intend to consult carefully on the details of their implementation, in order to ensure that we get that right. Although, as the hon. Member for Canterbury says, the provisions in the Bill are very detailed, it is not necessarily appropriate to include certain others.

That brings me smoothly to the amendment.

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