Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
TUESDAY 1 MAY 2001
160. Your position, as outlined in your submission,
I think concerned a lot of us and you clarified a little of what
is behind it. I am very sympathetic to the problem because the
proposal about the independent review in the Bill is very sketchy
at the moment, it is all to be fleshed out at later date. It is
quite difficult for all of us, and what I would like to hear from
you is that you have taken on board how heavily loaded we are
with the bad experience of people at the present in complaints
procedures and what you would describe as innovative in terms
of transparencies, the two problems which still remain. You referred
to bureaucracy. It is a fact people who go through all four levels
of the present complaints procedure find whilst they have got
28 days to make a complaint very often those they complain to
take three months to deal with that complaint, and in total four
levels of complaints leads to losing a year in the adoption process,
which can be very stressful for all those concerned. There is
another problem to do with independence. Whilst I hear what you
say about appointing an independent person to look into a complaint,
they are not really independent because you as social services
are appointing that person. That is why I, for one, feel very
strongly about the need for independence. Social services play
a key role and very often the complaint is to your service and
the person making the complaint feels they are complaining to
the person against whom they are complaining, and that is one
problem with it. The other problem is you are a very strong gatekeeper
in this process and if the gate is shut those who experience that
feel there is nowhere else to turn.
(Mr Hutchinson) I accept the validity of what you
are saying. I think the Government has not quite thought out how
the regulations would work, as has been said, as we certainly
have not, but if the time factor is a factor, as it is, we need
to work out some way of dealing with it. I cannot immediately
say how it would happen. The major point I want to get over about
this one is that it is about perception and even if it is fair,
it does not seem fair, because it sounds as though everything
is being allocated within the department and strings could be
pulled, "Why don't you ask such-and-such a person".
So I accept the point you are making about independence but actually
the way it works, the way an independent person is selected, is
by an arm totally separate from anything elsethe operational
armand those people have an interest in dealing with the
matter independently. The greater strength I think is that there
will be interviews and meetings rather than just scrutiny of paper,
so maybe there is a middle way between both proposals.
Chairman: Are there any more questions or points
on the review mechanism? Can we turn to placement orders next.
161. Perhaps I can direct a quick question to
Ms Staples. In clause 25 where a child is placed with their prospective
adopted family under a placement order, the child's surname cannot
be changed until the adoption order has been made. There are some
slight caveats within the Bill but we are waiting for clarification
on that. I wonder what your view is as to whether there should
be circumstances where either the panel or the court could agree
to a name change when a placement order has been made. I am particularly
thinking of older children. If those older children are moved
to a new area, start a new school, as has been said before, they
start off Jones and then two months later they are Bloggs, and
I would not think that was in the child's best interests.
(Ms Staples) I think it is a very important issue.
For a number of children changing their name is very significant
at the start of the placement because that is the name they will
be known by and that is important to them. For a significant number
of children there are also fears they will be found if they are
registered in their old name, so the idea they could change their
name, subject to approval, would be extremely advantageous.
162. You think there should be that flexibility
within the Bill?
(Ms Staples) I do, yes. But obviously some children
may wish to keep their first name for longer and they may not
be ready to do it. So it is obviously something where with older
children we would have to seek their views.
163. You have almost answered the supplementary
I was going to ask, but let me ask it anyway. The Bill does need
a little strengthening on this point of secrecy in these interim
arrangements, because there is the danger the birth family may
discover the child. It is not only about the name change but also
the register. There is this whole business of discussing the twin
tracking. It does not seem to lay down clearly the importance
of secrecy. Do you feel it could be strengthened?
(Ms Staples) I think for some children it clearly
is very important they are protected and their identity is not
going to be revealed. It needs to be a confidential placement
for some children, yes.
164. Thank you. Could I move us on to the next
item, information right for adopters and adoptees. I would like,
if I might, Mr Hutchinson, to take you back to some interesting
remarks you made four or five years agoyou may well remember
them! Felicity Collier, who is still with us, made some similar
remarks on this. It is this particular issue on information availablethe
duty of candour, one might almost sayto people who have
adopted and this complication which you raised in the past with
a Select Committee on the way in which insurance companies operate.
Felicity raised this point too, I know. It does seem extraordinary
that an insurance company can effectively be allowed legally to
say to a social services department, "If you tell the truth
on this, we are not going to cover you." Do you think we
need a change in the law in this area or not?
(Mr Hutchinson) I did hear that was said. It is not
my experience, that is all I can say. I would be appalled if there
was any inference by any of my staff they should not tell a prospective
adoptive parent about anything relevant about the child's behaviour
or background because there was some insurance instruction not
to. That is the position I will take as a director. I have not
have had any experience, as far as I can remember on this, although
if you say I appeared at a Select Committee five years ago
Mr Brazier: Can I just read you a few words
to refresh your memory? "We are concerned that local authorities
and their insurers should jointly review available guidance on
insurance matters. This will provide the framework recognising
the responsibility of an authority as an insured body while at
the same time avoiding the placement of unnecessarily tight strictures
on social services authorities' ability to engage with young people
who may feel they have suffered whilst in the authorities' care."
You were talking about wider issues here but
Chairman: Where was this, for Mr Hutchinson's
Mr Brazier: It was submitted by the Association
of County Councils jointly with the Association of Metropolitan
Chairman: To which inquiry?
Mr Brazier: This was a memo given in evidence
to the Health Select Committee on 6 February 1997.
Chairman: The Looked-After Children Inquiry.
(Mr Hutchinson) You mentioned the AMA and someone
else but you did not mention the ADSS.
166. No, but it specifically says Bob Lewis
(Mr Hutchinson) Right. Oh dear! I am sorry, I cannot
(Ms Blatcher) Can I help?
167. You wrote it, did you not?
(Ms Blatcher) I wrote that, yes, because I was formerly
at the ACC. It was in the context of child abuse and help for
children while waiting for court cases. In fact we are currently
discussing that with insurers and the Law Commission and others.
It is also a question of children's evidence while you are trying
to work with them therapeutically.
168. I have had this raised by the police with
me on several occasions.
(Ms Blatcher) This is something on which there is
on-going work at the moment.
169. Across a whole string of children's issues,
this problems seems to be rearing its head. The problem that being
candid and open and indeed helping children very often seems to
have legal consequences which make the position of social services
extremely difficult on this. In one direction we are dealing with
the courts, in another direction we are dealing with insurance
companies. Do you think this is an area where we need legislation?
(Ms Blatcher) The Law Commission will be bringing
forward recommendations on this and there are extensive discussions
which are beginning and everyone is concerned about it. We have
been speaking to the Department of Health as well.
170. But the Law Commission's findings are a
long way overdue. I understand even Sir Ronald Waterhouse has
commented in a letter to a private individual, which I quoted
at the last hearing, that this is well overdue.
(Ms Blatcher) The LGA has arranged a meeting, I believe,
for June, a round-table discussion on this.
172. On the information to be handed over to
prospective adopters about a child, are you saying that the Bill
is not framed in a way which is strong enough about handing over
(Mr Hutchinson) I was simply responding to Mr Brazier's
question about what I thought should be the best practice about
passing information over.
(Ms Staples) I think the timing of it is wrong. It
needs to be a time when the adopters are making the decision about
whether they can take that child.
Mr Brazier: I am sorry, I am feeling slightly
uncomfortable. I was not trying to bowl a googly by quoting something
out of the past. What it boils down to is, could you do with some
legal support here because it does seem to me you are in a very
difficult position in this area.
173. He is trying to be helpful!
(Mr Hutchinson) I think it is a hat-trick for me!
I think the answer is yes.
Chairman: Thank you for that point. Can we turn
to court timetables next.
174. Everyone is concerned about the issue of
delays. Part of that has been attributed to the court process
where cases which are deemed to be five days or more are transferred
to the county courts, whereas magistrates feel they would be in
a better position to deal with the cases much more speedily. We
heard from the Lord Chancellor's Department who acknowledge it
is very rare for cases to be referred back to the magistrates
courts and quite often cases do not last for five days in the
county courts, so further delay is built into the system. From
your local authorities' perspective, could you tell the Committee
what your experiences are, where you know of good practice and
good co-operation between the county courts, magistrates and those
people making application, and perhaps give us examples of where
that is not happening so well?
(Mr Christie) I do not think I would be able to give
you an answer on that.
175. How is it in Nottingham?
(Ms Staples) Nottinghamshire.
176. Yes, I know there is a big difference.
(Ms Staples) There are extensive delays for some children,
even though we have tried to work out a protocol with the court
in order to move those on. The thing you were identifying about
the movement of cases between magistrates and county courts is
also significant in determining some of those delays. The idea
that timetables will be set, that it will be very clear, will
be a distinct advantage.
(Mr Christie) If it would help, I could make further
enquiries and provide you with something.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Any other points
on court timetables? If not, can we look at the national adoption
177. I just wanted to clarify something in the
LGA submission. Putting asideand I am not saying is not
importantthe costs that can occur through trying to find
placements out of area, which was touched on earlier, the LGA
said there should be an opportunity for local adoption before
placement out of area and they made some points about the advantages
of offering children local placements. Is the inference that should
be a standard situation, that local placement should be looked
at in the first instance before out of area? I am not very happy
about something being too prescriptive or based on evidence which
may in itself not stand up. There is evidence which suggests that
actually placement out of area might be beneficial to a child.
Points about safety were raised earlier and also just finding
the right family. In my own constituency less than 1 per cent
of people are from an ethnic minority in the way they define themselves
and therefore to find families for black children or Asian children
would be quite difficult within the South Yorkshire or Doncaster
area. I wanted you to clarify this. Is this a sticking point which
I am worried might end up being another delay in the whole situation?
(Cllr Rutter) The reason why we feel if you can do
something locally it is best is because this may mean the child
is not torn completely up from its roots and may still be able
to keep in touch with friends and the wider family. It is not
a sticking point for us, it would not be a sticking point for
us. The reason why we said we would like, first of all, to go
to local or regional consortia is just for that reason, because
we felt it would help the stability of the adoption. But there
is no way in which we would say, "If we cannot find a local
place the child cannot go." Clearly it is the most suitable
place we would be after at the end of the day. As you say, some
children might very well be better placed right away from their
local environment. I can imagine that being the case in a few
instances. I do not think it is hard and fast.
178. One of the things which will pre-occupy
particularly directors of social services is the inter-placement
fees if it gets to the point Councillor Rutter has referred to.
I think £21,000 is the average to place two children. Dorothy
Blatcher is nodding. That is correct, is it?
(Ms Blatcher) Possibly more.
179. So it is very expensive. We have seen the
development of consortia to meet the concerns and also recognising
the need for economies of scale, particularly for an authority
such as yours, Mr Hutchinson, which is a small authority for which
it can be very expensive. If you have the regulations and requirements
of the national adoption register, after a certain period you
will have to go to the register to try and identify a suitable
family for the children. Do you think because of the cost of inter-placement
fees, you will see an expansion of consortia? The consortia in
my constituency is Medway, Kent, Sussex, Brighton and Hove, which
is a very big area in terms of population, so why could not those
people ask you, Mr Hutchinson, to join them as well with your
consortia, and then they will be able to reach all the way down
to Cornwall. I wonder whether that is a discussion within the
LGA because, as you know, costs will concentrate minds, and there
may well be effectively two adoption registers and the one that
is proposed in this Bill will become a white elephant.
(Mr Hutchinson) I do not think it will become a white
elephant but the relationship between the national register and
the consortia does need to be sorted out. We cannot join with
Kent unfortunately because we are on our own and different consortia
have different rules about the costs. Some have been standing
for a very long timethe Manchester one has been in existence
since 1973some charge between authorities, others do not
charge at all and some charge above a certain threshold of placements
which are exchanged, so they all have different arrangements.
The Department of Health certainly has been trying to encourage
the development of consortia, as have we, as a way of sharing
resources, and it is the sharing of the resources which is the
key thing we want everybody to do. So the regulations and the
guidance are going to have to be very clear to make sure that
individual authorities do not sit on their resources for a rainy
day, because that might mean for several months or even longer
they are not being used. The point is that consortia have advantages
because they are local, as Councillor Rutter has said it enables
children who do have links to maintain them. We ask for placement
in the early days to be local and that keeps costs down. You tend
to get on better with a small group of people you work with on
a regular basis, so there are those advantages as well. The clarity
needs to be worked outdo you go there first, what is the
timescale for staying with that particular arrangement, at what
point do you have to put your approved adopter on to the register.