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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, we have a great deal of sympathy with the principle underlying the amendment. As the noble Lord said, it would be quite difficult to guarantee that no profit will be made on a service over a year. It may be that the Minister can tell us that regulations will deal with that situation should it occur. At this stage, I wonder whether the wording is

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sufficient to carry out the intention of the amendment. However, we support it in principle. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, I began to feel that probably there was not so much difference between us. However, I shall go through the issue carefully. It was interesting that the noble Lord addressed some of the points we made at earlier stages of the Bill. I am grateful to him for that.

Amendment No. 12 appears to allow authorities to invest in their discretionary services with the aim of increasing both the take-up and the quality of the service concerned. We have no problem with that. Under the power, as currently drafted, any such reinvestment would count as a cost of the service and would reduce any surplus, thus helping the authority to achieve the duty in the clause. In other words, standard accounting practice already achieves one of the objectives which perhaps lies behind the amendment. If it is the case that it is seeking to allow only such investment, the amendment would be unnecessary.

However, the amendment goes further than that. It would absolve authorities of the need to comply with the duty in Clause 92(3). It would allow all best value authorities to engage in a restricted form of trading, irrespective of performance—not something that I think we, across the Chamber, would agree with—and without the necessary checks and balances envisaged in the trading powers set out in Clauses 94 and 95. It would permit something without those checks and balances which I think we are agreed should be in place. It would permit a form of trading by the back door.

The provision on charging at Clause 92 is not about allowing authorities to enter into commercial activity in their discretionary service provision. The purpose of providing a new general power to enable best value authorities to charge for discretionary services is to encourage them to enhance their existing services and to develop new ones that will help to improve the service provided to their community. That is probably a shared objective. It is not our intention, through this new power, to provide a new source of income for authorities, but it should allow them only to cover their costs.

I appreciate that in Committee some concerns were expressed about whether an authority would be acting ultra vires—a point, I believe, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock—if its income exceeded its costs by only a very small amount. Clause 92 gives local authorities flexibility in terms of costs and charges. The concept of,


    "taking one . . . year with another",

is well precedented—for example, with NHS trusts and in the Audit Commission Act 1998—as a way of establishing the idea of balancing the books without having detailed prescription either in the Bill or in secondary legislation. Any over or under recovery, resulting in a surplus or deficit of income in relation to costs, would be addressed by an authority when setting its charges for future years, so that, over time, income equated to costs.

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We do not want this clause to operate in a heavy-handed way at all. I made that point at an earlier stage. We understand the spirit behind this amendment, but it does not address the issue properly—again, a point on which I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, was uncertain. I can give an assurance that we do not want the clause to operate in a heavy-handed form. The heart of the proposed amendment is defective, despite the noble Lord's efforts to ensure that it would work properly. We cannot permit a form of trading to be established by a back-door route. We permit that in other parts of the Bill.

Having heard that explanation, I hope that on this occasion the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment because we are not a million miles apart on this.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for that reply. I agree that we are not many miles apart. At an earlier stage I quoted—I shall not quote again—the situation regarding archaeologists, who are being withdrawn from local authorities because they are unaffordable. If costs can be recovered through commercial activity when houses are being built and so forth, that service could continue. That is the type of instance to which I referred.

I have noted carefully what the Minister said today and on previous occasions. Obviously, it is all on the record. It is important and I believe that the Government acknowledge the problem. I was interested to hear the Minister say that reinvestment in the service is obviously a cost and that it can therefore go down as a cost in the way in which it is presented. With those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 13:


    After Clause 111, insert the following new clause—


"ADOPTION: CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTIONS
(1) No person employed by, working for or acting as an adviser to a local authority shall be under any duty whether by contract or by any statutory or other legal requirement to participate in—
(a) any placement under section 18 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (c. 38) (placement for adoption by agencies); or
(b) any application under section 49 of that Act (applications for adoption), to which he has a conscientious objection on either of the grounds specified in subsection (2).
(2) The grounds referred to in subsection (1) are that the placement is with, or the application is made by—
(a) a couple who are not a married couple;
(b) one person who is in fact part of a couple within the meaning of section 144(4)(b) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (general interpretation etc.).
(3) In any legal proceedings, the burden of proof of conscientious objection shall rest upon the person claiming to rely on it.
(4) A local authority shall not treat less favourably any person who relies on subsection (1) above."

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in speaking to Amendment No. 13, I shall clarify what has been a serious misunderstanding at previous stages of what it is that I am trying to achieve. The amendment simply extends the right of social workers to exercise their conscience in a situation which seriously compromises their profound belief that children should be adopted by a mother and a father.

I implore those who oppose my amendment—who may speak against me today—to give reasons why some professionals are protected by a conscience clause and why this particular group of professionals cannot enjoy the same freedom. Dawn Jackson and Norah Ellis are the cases that I cited in previous debates. Of course, there are others; I heard of another only today. They worked for Sefton Borough Council Social Services Department. Between them they have 46 years experience of childcare. They are specialists in adoption; they have dealt with the most complex and difficult cases over all those years, and they have exemplary records.

As mothers, as very practised social workers specialising in adoption and as committed Christians, based on practical evidence they believe profoundly that a child fares better and is more secure when placed with a mother and a father, who, preferably, are married. There has been considerable misunderstanding during earlier stages, but absolutely nothing proposed in my amendment invalidates gay adoption. Parliament has decided that issue: gay and lesbian people may adopt children. Although I oppose that proposal, I nevertheless accept the will of Parliament. I repeat, my amendment does not invalidate that change in the law.

However, just as teachers can refuse to teach religious education or take a religious assembly, just as medical professionals can refuse to carry out or assist with abortions, why cannot a social worker enjoy the same right? Nor will my amendment result in stigmatising anyone. Doctors exercising their conscience about not performing abortions does not stigmatise those who have abortions. Teachers exercising their conscience do not stigmatise children. Social workers exercising their conscience who in every other respect are doing an excellent job, would not stigmatise others. At a time when there is a serious lack of good experienced social workers, those two ladies—and we know of others—have been hounded out of their jobs in a specialist area of adoption. The Green Paper presented to Parliament yesterday referred to the need to do more to attract good, experienced social workers. Norah Ellis and Dawn Jackson had exemplary careers in adoption services. My amendment is too late for them—they were hounded out of their jobs—but it would prevent others from experiencing the same cruel fate. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on her tenacity in relation to this question. However, I am sorry that she has brought this matter to the House at this late stage and I hope that the House will reject her amendment. I know that the noble Baroness disagreed with the

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decision of Parliament in relation to the Adoption and Children Act passed last Session although she has said she accepts the decision. The issue is expressly about the issue of a clause of conscience for social workers rather than whether unmarried couples—whether of the same or the opposite sex—may adopt. One must consider the issue she has raised in the overall context of why Parliament passed the Adoption and Children Act in the previous Session. We had a very serious consideration of these issues.

The outcome for many children in care has been very poor. The statistics seem to show that half of young people in prison under the age of 18 and 26 per cent of all prisoners have been in care at some stage. Up to 20 per cent of all care leavers experience some form of homelessness within two years of leaving care. More than half of young people leaving care at the age of 16 and over are unemployed. Some estimates put that proportion as high as 80 per cent. We know that for many of those young people adoption would have been a much better option. The outcome for adopted children is so much better than for those children left in care despite the enormous work of those in the care setting. We also know that there have been long problems with the adoption process. Thankfully, the Act passed last year together with associated changes has improved the system of adoption no end. In 1996, the total time spent in care before final adoption was three years and four months. That is a long time in anyone's mind but in the experience of a young person, it is often an eternity.

The question of unmarried couples was a very crucial issue in the debate on improving adoption procedures. The fact was that before the passage of the previous Act, single people could and did adopt. In such circumstances, if a single person was in a relationship with another person, whether of the same or opposite sex, that person was also assessed by social workers. Before the Act of last year was passed, that partner could not adopt. As a Minister responsible for that Bill at the time, I was impressed with the views of young people who had been adopted in such circumstances. They argued that they would feel more secure if both partners could adopt jointly. This House agreed and passed the necessary legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, may shake her head but it is important to set the context in which to make a judgment as to whether her amendment ought to be accepted. One cannot consider the question of a conscience clause in isolation from decisions that this House made after intense and passionate debate less than 12 months ago.

No one has the right to adopt. The paramount interest must be the child. I am convinced that the changes we made were in the interests of the child. Frankly, this amendment is retrograde and against the interests of the child in adoption procedures. Whether one considers an issue of conscience by social workers in this regard to be on the same level as that of doctors in relation to abortion or teachers in relation to the teaching of religious education is a matter of individual judgment that each noble Lord must make. If we look at the history of adoption, for many years

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single people have been able to adopt. Whatever the sexual orientation of their partner, if that person applied to adopt a child, their partner would also be assessed. I do not believe that the issue of conscience in relation to social workers is of the same order as the two examples she gave on doctors and abortion and teachers and the teaching of religious education. The amendment of the noble Baroness would set a worrying precedent and make administration of the law on adoption very difficult for the relevant public authorities. I have no doubt that if it were passed, it risks reducing the pool of prospective adopters. For the sake of children for many years to come, this House should reaffirm the decision made in the previous Session and reject this amendment.


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