Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: The new clause is certainly intended to cover resulting costs where there might be an order from the court. It is simply intended to cover the expenses of the legal action. I would have thought that was made clear.

4.45pm

Jacqui Smith: I am not sure that it does make that completely clear. Nor does it make clear whether the adoption agency should provide the insurance cover or whether it is something that the foster carers or adopters should have to arrange themselves. The concern may be about those cases in which foster carers or adopters have not been given sufficient information by relevant agencies, and have therefore not been able to meet the child's needs, or the adoptive or foster family have suffered harm.

As the Committee knows, we tabled new clause 6, which through clause 9 provides the power to ensure through regulations that adoption agencies provide all

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the key information that prospective adopters need, and we will consult the stakeholders on that. Under the Children Act 1989 regulations, local authority or voluntary adoption agencies that place the children are already required to assess the needs of a looked-after child and ensure that they are met in a way that promotes the child's welfare. Under the regulations, the relevant local authority or voluntary adoption agency should ensure that foster parents have all the information that is necessary to enable them to care for a child who is placed with them. Furthermore, under the Fostering Services Regulations 2001, the responsible authority must continue to be satisfied that the child's welfare continues to be supported by the placement. The national minimum standards provide that under standard 9, matches between children and carers are secured by information sharing between all parties.

To that extent, provision is made to ensure that the situations described by the hon. Gentleman do not occur. If a court decides that an agency has failed in its duty of care towards prospective adopters or foster carers, and that the family has suffered harm as a result, it may award compensation to the claimants and the agency may also be obliged to meet all the legal costs. If the new clause's intention is for the adoption agency to provide the insurance cover for legal proceedings, the insurer would be obliged to cover the legal costs on any complaint of negligence, even for vexatious legal claims. That would inevitably lead to high insurance premiums for agencies, drawing away the resources that they need to provide their services. It would place a burden on voluntary adoption agencies, too. Given that that is not what the hon. Gentleman probably wants to achieve, I hope that he will withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Bellingham: The Minister has been fluent, and we know that she is competent and able. I will take her word on the matter, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New clause 15

Powers of the Secretary of State

    'Any persons involved in the adoption or fostering process has the right to be informed of the power of the Secretary of State regarding lack of compliance on the part of local authorities and voluntary agencies.'.[Mr. Bellingham.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I will be quick because I gather that we want to wind things up by ten minutes to five o'clock. That gives me about two minutes.

I remind the Committee of a key provision of the Bill, which was in clause 14 and concerned the default power of the appropriate Minister. How will the Minister discover any lack of compliance on the part of local authorities? He will have performance reports from the social services inspectorate, but how will he discover lesser degrees of failure in duty or individual cases? I am sure that the Minister will agree that local authorities are unlikely to point out problems or examples of poor performance, so there is a strong

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argument for inserting the new clause. It makes it clear that anyone involved in the process has the right to be informed of the Secretary of State's powers. It would be a simple and straightforward addition. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and I have put a lot of effort into drafting it, and we feel strongly that the Committee should accept it.

Jacqui Smith: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that his new clause is not necessary. The objective appears to be to ensure high standards in voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities. From April 2003, voluntary adoption agencies will be inspected and registered by the National Care Standards Commission and by the National Assembly in Wales under part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000. Local authority adoption services will also be inspected by the NCSC from April 2003. The hon. Gentleman was right; they are currently inspected by the social services inspectorate.

Adoption is a mainstream social services function, and people have recourse to the complaints procedure, as amended under clause 111. Clause 14 provides default powers for the appropriate Minister if a local authority fails, without reasonable excuse, to comply with its duties. We have a comprehensive performance assessment system for social services.

The Care Standards Act 2000 also set up an independent children's rights director, who will have a national overview of the rights of children receiving services regulated by that commission. In the event of a serious failure by a local authority to comply with its duties, the Secretary of State may consider whether to use the default powers. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman considers the proposals put forward by the new clause to be unnecessary, and that we can all share the view that provisions are in place to ensure high standards.

Mr. Bellingham: I am glad that we have had the assurance that the new clause is otiose. The Minister was impressive: I shall write a letter to her Chief Whip to tell him that she has done well on the Committee, although she has not accepted enough of our amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Tim Loughton: On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. I would like to interrupt the love-in. We are approaching the end of the Bill, and I would like to initiate the credits, which are traditional at this stage.

On behalf of the Committee, I thank you, and your co-Chairmen, Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Hood, for their good services in guiding through a technical Bill without anyone falling asleep during the proceedings. I pay tribute to the Clerk, Tom Goldsmith, who went beyond the call of duty helping Committee members to table amendments: that was not easy at times, given the technicalities of the Bill. I thank the Hansard reporters for their understanding during the more

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technical debates. I thank all the outside bodies and adoption agencies, which contributed to our deliberations with their technical expertise at the earlier witness sessions, in the dim and distant past when we first embarked on this enterprise. That underlines the usefulness of that exercise.

I speak for the Opposition and the spokesman for Plaid Cymru, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who unfortunately cannot be here today but supported many of our amendments, in saying that our deliberations have been good humoured. We had two apologies from the Minister during this afternoon's sitting alone. This morning, true to form, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre did not disappoint us. In mirroring his Second Reading contribution, he offered excellent contributions throughout the proceedings, though he slightly ruined it by blaming all the ills in the history of mankind on the Conservative party.

The Committee was entertained by the radiance and expertise of the Parliamentary Secretary, and the expertise and ubiquitous flowcharts of the Minister. All Committee members have shown a great amount of expertise and practical experience. Government Members fell over themselves to outbid each other on how many years experience they had as social workers. In the case of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), that is measured not in blood, sweat and tears, but in the extent of his receding hairline through the years.

I am proud to say that we on the Conservative Benches have precisely zero hours of practical experience with social workers, which has done our speeches no harm. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, whose name we now know how to pronounce, who made some good contributions on his Committee debut.

The Committee was a classic example of where programming was unnecessary, because the Bill had cross-party support. In the programming that we have suffered, 43 clauses have been untouched, and 7 touched only partly. More than a third of the Bill, as well as two schedules, has not been debated in Committee. Nevertheless, we wave on its way a better Bill. The Minister has been amenable to many of our suggestions and she made a major U-turn on access to information, which we greatly welcome. The highlight of the Committee was probably the success of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset in amending clause 87 from ''British colonies'' to ''British overseas territories''. It may be too late for Gibraltar, if the Government sell it down the river, but that is a debate for another day.

We have covered many issues extensively. We have debated the sperm of members of the House of Lords; we have done a Cook's tour of other countries' adoption procedures; we have heard revelations about adopted people not knowing that they were adopted until their 70s or 80s; this morning we have heard the extraordinary paradox of accusations of right-wing political correctness; and we all now know how to pronounce the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, even if we do not know where it is. Unfortunately, he appears to

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have welshed on the bottle of wine deal that he promised earlier.

We wave on a better Bill, and we welcome the two days on he Report to which we shall all contribute some time in the future.

 
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Prepared 17 January 2002