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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I am listening very carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying about the allowances. If an adoption were to break down and could not continue, what would be the financial position? Would the original authority continue to pay for the support of the child and take over the care role again, or would the resources go to the new authority in which the child had been placed?
Mrs. Spelman: It would entirely depend on where the child went next. If the child returned to its original local authority, the resources would return with the child. The concept entirely involves the money following the child. Another family may be found in the same receiving local authority, in which case the money would go to them. The tragedy is that that involves the child being uprooted again, which is why it is so important to do all we can to make the match work. Continuous uprooting is disruptive to the child's education and, ultimately, for its well-being.
Examples of needs that might be met by the adoption allowances could include one-off payments to cover the extra resources needed if a couple agreed to take several siblings. The couple might find that their car will not accommodate four children. Although people movers are a wonderful invention, we must recognise that there can be a capital impact on a family who are willing to prevent a group of siblings being split up because they have to cope with a sudden expansion. A traditional saloon car will not take six people legally. That is the kind of difficulty that a family can suddenly face.
Time-limited payments to cover the cost of counselling should be considered, especially if the national health service is unable to meet that cost locally. Counselling for post-adoption support has not been especially strong. Women in birth families who have been parted from their children, and those who have received children, have told me that, in some cases, the counselling makes matters worse, so specialist counselling must be got right. I was struck by the fact that it can be very difficult if the counselling is provided by those who are too directly involved in the matching process, because such counselling is not objective.
I hope that hon. Members will understand what I mean when I say that if the local authority is keen to place to children from care in a particular family, it has a vested interested in that process working. However, if the problems are too great, the family is not coping with the placement of the children, and the counsellor comes from the local authority, the counselling can be insufficiently objective. I hope that I have explained what I am driving at.
If arrangements have been made to allow contact to continue with the birth family, financial support must be given to cover the costs of travelling to visit them, especially as that can sometimes entail large distances. At the moment, lower income families are very poorly represented among foster and adoptive parents, and we must face up to that fact when considering the problem of adoption allowances. The ideal would be a range of adoptive parents representing the full spectrum of society. Finance can be a real reason why families on lower
Post-adoption support services are essential for parents who have adopted older children with emotional problems. About 20 per cent. of adoptive placements of older children break down, whereas, unsurprisingly, the failure rate for babies is only 5 per cent. We should not be surprised by that. The older child has usually had more problems along the way that need addressing.
Clause 1 is a complement to the existing legislation designed to help make the national adoption register work better. It assumes that the register will be law, even though it does not exist in the Adoption Act 1976. We hope that the clause will command support.
The definition of a determination of an adoption case is unclear in the explanatory notes to the Government's Bill. It simply says that the term will be defined in regulations, so we are no clearer about it. For the benefit of hon. Members, I should say that I am talking about clause 9 of the Bill. It provides for the establishment of a review procedure. It says:
(3) The regulations may include provision as to--
(a) the duties and powers of a panel
(b) the administration and procedures of a panel".
Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. If determinations are confined to, for example, obtaining a place on the national register, the prospective parents who are being turned away now would be no further forward. It is essential that the procedure apply to at least some matchings and allow parents to appeal where a child is not to be allocated to anyone else and the outcome would be that the child would remain in care. It is important that the appeals procedure should cover such cases, as my hon. Friend's clause does.
Mrs. Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has a great deal of experience of dealing with adoption--far more than me. He describes one of the failings of the present system, which we must address urgently. I want to go even further in my clause on appeals, to an appeals system that deals with what I call the eternal triangle. The three sides of the triangle are the birth family, the child and the adopters. The Government Bill would not deal with all three sides of the triangle. We all know from talking to adoptees, adopters and birth
At present, each local authority is required to offer its own complaints system, which usually consists of three or four levels, all of which are run by the local authority against which the complaint is made. At level 2, the procedure must include an independent person, but that person is interviewed, recruited and appointed by the local authority. How independent is that person? It is not hard to see that all too often the local authority is found not guilty of the misconduct of which the complainant accuses it. Those who complain feel that the system is insufficiently independent. Adoptive parents are forced to complain to the director of social services whose department they are complaining about.
A lack of independence is a common feature of complaints procedures for public services that do not work well. All too often, individuals who have a complaint feel that professionals close ranks and that they cannot have their case heard objectively and independently. That is reflected in the social services inspectorate survey, which found that 52 per cent. of complainants were dissatisfied with the outcome of the complaints procedure. That is a poor result. Many complained that they had no one to turn to after the procedure was complete.
It is necessary for each establishment to have a few people with unrestricted access to children in care whose purpose is to find out at the point of delivery whether proper care is being provided. I am trying to establish that independent element. I have suggested in clause 2 that we should have a proper ombudsystem for adoption. We have such a system for health, although it could be made to work better. There is a local government ombudsman, but as Members of Parliament know, since we often refer cases to him, only cases that meet the narrow criteria of maladministration can be referred to him. One often sits in one's surgery feeling that people have been dealt with badly and unjustly, but knowing that technically their case cannot be defined as maladministration. We know that they have little chance of justice or even an apology or recognition that something has gone wrong.
We are not yet a heavily litigious society like America, and I hope that we do not go that way. Often, people would be happy with a timely and sincere apology, but they rarely get one in respect of adoption. I would like to see a proper ombudsystem for all three sides of the triangle. I have suggested that at the top should be the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the equivalent children's rights director in England. I am sure that the House is aware that there is pressure from all sides for a children's commissioner for England, so that we have like for like. We are concerned as to whether a children's rights director has the same power and scope as a commissioner. To be at the top of the ombudsprocess would provide the independence that is so important.
I would like to create the opportunity for the child in the triangle to voice a complaint about the way in which they have been treated. At present, the child has no right to appeal against any decision made in the adoption process. My clause would enable the child to appeal through the guardian ad litem, who would have the discretion to filter out frivolous complaints. It is possible that a child, perhaps a truculent teenager, will make a complaint that it would not be a good use of time and
I am concerned that the role of the guardian ad litem is restricted in terms of their window of opportunity in the court process. I should like to see their role expanded so that they see the child through the system to a successful placement and permanence, and look out for the child's interests.