Restriction on the Preparation of Adoption Reports Regulations 2005

– in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 8 June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 6:20, 8 June 2005

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2 March be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee, Session 2004–05].

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, in moving the draft Restriction on the Preparation of Adoption Reports Regulations 2005, I shall speak also to the draft Suitability of Adopters Regulations 2005, laid on 2 March.

As an education Minister, perhaps I may, first, add my tributes to those already paid to Emily Blatch in the House over the past two days. She was a formidable performer in the House and had a great passion for education. She will be greatly missed, not least by many in the education world.

Section 94 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 provides for regulations to impose restrictions on those who may prepare adoption reports, including reports about the suitability of a person to adopt a child or the suitability of a child for adoption. These reports form an essential part of decisions about adoptions. It is vital that they are impartial and accurate and produced by suitably qualified and experienced staff so that appropriate decisions are made for children, whose entire well-being, safety and future prospects are at stake in these decisions.

Section 94 of the 2002 Act, together with these regulations, will ensure that only qualified social workers employed by or on behalf of adoption agencies, or properly supervised social work students, may prepare the adoption reports prescribed in the regulations.

The regulations specify the requirements regarding the relevant experience of a person preparing reports or the experience of a person who supervises him or her. For example, social workers employed by an adoption agency will have to have at least three years' post-qualifying experience in childcare social work, including experience of adoption, or they must be supervised by a social worker with this experience. The regulations will apply to prescribed reports prepared both in domestic and inter-country adoption cases.

The Suitability of Adopters Regulations set out the specific factors an adoption agency must take into account when making any report assessing the suitability of a person to adopt a child. These regulations are intended to help achieve clarity, consistency and transparency in the adoption process, for the benefit of the children concerned and also of prospective adopters and the social work profession.

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 will, for the first time, allow unmarried couples—whether of the same sex or of different sexes—to apply to adopt jointly. Reflecting concerns rightly expressed during the passage of the legislation through Parliament and commitments made at the time, the suitability regulations require adoption agencies to pay particular attention to the stability and permanence of couple relationships when assessing the suitability to adopt. These regulations apply equally to same-sex and different-sex partnerships.

My department has consulted extensively on the draft regulations and they have been welcomed by all responsible parties in the adoption field. To further strengthen our support for adoption, later this Session we shall be issuing good practice guidance on assessing the suitability of adopters. I commend these two sets of regulations to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 2 March be approved [11th report from the Joint Committee, Session 2004–05].—(Lord Adonis.)

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe Spokespersons In the Lords, Health

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these two sets of regulations so clearly. They are certainly welcome because they put in place several key pieces of the jigsaw for implementing the Adoption and Children Act 2002, a measure which, as he will know, attracted a high degree of cross-party approval in both Houses.

I am aware that these regulations have been subject to wide consultation, and there is little in them which could be classed as controversial. However, I want to touch upon one or two issues on which the Minister's comments would be most welcome, either today or subsequently in writing, whichever is more convenient to him.

What is immediately noticeable about both of these statutory instruments is how brief they are. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I discern that there are two main reasons for that. Partly it is because they have to be read in conjunction with two other sets of regulations; but partly, too, it is because their implementation will depend in practice upon the guidance to be issued by the DfES, to which he referred.

I could have wished to see reference to that guidance in the text of the regulations. I say that particularly in the light of Regulation 4(2) of the suitability regulations, which covers an issue on which, as the Minister rightly observed, we spent quite considerable time when debating the 2002 Act; and that is the requirement for an adoption agency to have regard to the need for stability and permanence in the relationship of a couple seeking to adopt a child.

The way in which a judgment is made on that issue will be of absolutely critical importance to the success or otherwise of the adoptive placement. Since the Act was passed, Parliament has also passed into law the Civil Partnerships Act. I am personally pleased about that, not only because of what that Act does in itself but also because, in the current context, it will provide a benchmark against which an adoption agency will be able to measure the strength of the assurances about mutual commitment given by a same-sex couple seeking to adopt. It is not the only possible benchmark of such commitment, but it is a very good one.

My concern lies, if anywhere, with the case of the unmarried different-sex couple seeking to adopt. What are the benchmarks there? It is not appropriate to put the relevant criteria for such decision-making into regulations, but we ought to see something in guidance. That is why, while I may have been expecting too much, I had hoped that the regulations would refer directly to such guidance as a matter to which an agency would be obliged to pay due regard. If the Minister can reassure me on that issue in some way, it would be helpful. I hope that he can.

One of the main arguments for extending the right to adopt to unmarried and same-sex couples was that this would enlarge the available pool of potential adopters. I am the first to concede the power of that argument and I do not want to take issue with it. However, we need to be able to monitor the extent to which the pool has, in practice, been enlarged. Will statistics be kept centrally on the various categories of adopter—married couples, unmarried couples, same sex couples, single men, single women and so on—so that we actually know whether the good intentions underlying this legislation are being realised?

Perhaps I may say a few brief words about the Restriction on the Preparation of Adoption Reports Regulations. Regulation 3 sets out the description of a person who is empowered to draw up adoption reports. If it is a qualified social worker, the wording says that he or she must have at least three years' post-qualifying experience in childcare social work, including direct experience of adoption work. I am a little concerned that this might include someone who has actually had precious little experience of adoption and family placement work, because the regulations contain no qualification on what constitutes a sufficient amount of "direct experience".

That said, the key point surely is that the social worker who prepares the report should be the social worker who actually knows the child, knows the prospective adopter and so on. So, in principle, I welcome the fact that the regulations allow for this person to be a trainee social worker, provided that he or she is supervised by a qualified and suitably experienced social worker. That formula seems to get the balance right.

Perhaps I may touch on a couple of other issues tangential to these regulations. Some individuals closely involved in adoption work have said to me that the timetable seems to be slipping as regards the delivery of training for social workers. What is the situation here and how far forward is the department in commissioning appropriate training materials?

Another issue exercising practitioners in the field is the promulgation of guidance on those policy areas which straddle both the family courts and the DfES. When care proceedings and applications for placement orders are heard together, there would seem to be an unassailable case for a co-ordinated approach by the DfES and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Are there any plans to produce joint guidance, and can the Minister say when he expects the relevant court rules to be published?

Finally, I should like to touch upon the vexed issue of adoption support. It is self-evident that to deliver adoption support effectively there has to be proper co-operation between local authority children's services, health services and education. The Government have rightly placed emphasis on having adequate support for looked-after children and their carers across all services. Adopted children and their families need to be able to rely on comparable provision. During the passage of the Act, Ministers said that it was the intention to issue directions to health and education authorities requiring their co-operation in the planning and delivery of adoption support services.

I now understand that it is not the intention to issue directions. What is the reason for that? If the reason is that a duty of co-operation is contained in the new Children Act, I question whether that general duty will adequately cover the specific and very special issue of adoption support. I am never one for special pleading, but if we believe, as I think we all do, that the needs of adopted children, and the support that society gives to adoptive parents in particular, have a special status in the whole arena of children's safeguarding and welfare, there has to be a question mark over whether the Children Act duty can really do adequate honour to that conviction. If the Government's position is that the Children Act duty will suffice, I hope the Minister can tell us that this will be made explicit to all parties involved.

These are immensely important regulations and they are to be welcomed. Along with the Government, we look forward to seeing them put into practice at the end of the year.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Spokesperson in the Lords (Children), Education & Skills 6:30, 8 June 2005

My Lords, before I turn to the regulations, perhaps I may use the opportunity as her opposite number on these Benches to pay a brief tribute to the late Lady Blatch. Emily Blatch was a fighter. She fought for the good of children all her life and she showed that fighting spirit in the courage with which she faced her final illness. I had many disagreements with her from these Benches, but I always admired her tenacity and the conscientious way in which she addressed all the legislation that came before her. Her knowledge and experience were par excellence. She had an eye for detail which we all envied and we will miss her very much in your Lordships' House.

We on these Benches also welcome these regulations. In looking first at the Restriction on the Preparation of Adoption Reports Regulations, I have one concern. That relates to reports written about a child. It is right, as the regulations provide, that the person compiling the report should be a social worker with at least three years' post-qualification experience in social work with children or should be supervised by such a person. However, like the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I believe that these reports should always be done by a social worker who knows the child, and I regret that that is not in the regulations. It may well be in the guidance. Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

It would be counterproductive if the task of writing the report were passed over to a social worker within the family placement team in order to comply with the regulations, even though the worker concerned did not know the child well. That also applies to reports of visits to a child placed for adoption.

I might also say in passing that other reports written in connection with care planning for children also need to be completed by experienced social workers who know the child or supervised by such people. For example, a decision about a long-term fostering placement or the return of a child to his family is a very significant decision in the life of that child and may be subject to less scrutiny than an adoption report. It is all the more important that this is carried out by somebody who knows the child. Perhaps the noble Lord could keep that in mind.

I turn to the Suitability of Adopters Regulations. Again we welcome the clarity that the regulations bring but we deplore the fact that it has taken two and a half years to bring them forward since the Royal Assent for the Adoption and Children Act. There may be reasons for that, such as the transfer to the DfES and the incoming Children Act 2004, but the knock-on effect on training—a point mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Howe—for all concerned must be considerable. Perhaps the Minister could say whether the time has been used constructively on these matters.

Having said that, we welcome the regulations which we believe do what is necessary. We welcome paragraph 5 which gives a right to those not considered suitable to be adopters to go before a panel and thereby gain the right to an independent review of their application. The system has to be seen to be fair to all prospective adopters. Currently the guidance is only in draft but I wonder whether I could take this opportunity to flag up three omissions from it at this point in the hope that they will be taken into account in the final version.

The first is that there is virtually no reference in the guidance to the issues that arise when adoption is being considered for a child who is the subject of care proceedings. We know that the sooner a child can be properly placed in a permanent placement the better because a child's emotional development is very much affected by their ability to make a bond with a caring adult at an early stage. That is why speed is of the essence, albeit with due care, to get it right.

However, this parallel tracking can only be done if everyone concerned—the adoption agency, the local authority and the courts—act together in a co-ordinated way towards the same objectives. That might require further training for some members of the judiciary. A way forward proposed by a joint committee of five of the leading agencies with an interest in adoption is for joint guidance to be issued by the DfES, the President of the Family Division or the new family justice council when that is established. This should also clarify that reports to courts should be available to the panel.

The second point is about the disclosure of confidential information. The guidance leaves it to each individual agency to work out its own procedures. That is really not good enough. Examples abound of conflicting, confusing and even misleading advice from different agencies and a lead from the Government, with input from the relevant professional bodies, is urgently needed.

The third point is that there are several places in the regulations and the guidance where the rights and needs of birth parents and other relatives are not sufficiently acknowledged. Several points need to be addressed. They are, first, the availability of pre-birth counselling for parents considering adoption with information and advice about the implications of the various options with therapeutic counselling where necessary; secondly, the need for more guidance about the role of the independent support worker for parents—as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, mentioned—emphasising the value of support to birth parents through contact with other couples who have been through the same experience; and, thirdly, ensuring that parents have an opportunity to express their views directly—if necessary, in writing—and to comment on information about them given to the panel. That should be, but is not always, done now; it should not be optional.

Fourthly, there should be a contribution by the birth parents to the matching considerations and the drawing up of the placement plan. It is hard to see how a panel can fulfil its duty without that. Finally, there should be a role for parents in the reviews under regulation 31. It is not sufficient to include them under,

"any other persons the agency considers relevant".

That should be rephrased to indicate that their views should be sought unless it is inappropriate in the particular case.

If birth parents are treated with consideration, provided with full information and support throughout the whole process and their views given due weight, their former opposition to a placement plan may be reduced, or changes of heart from those parents considering placing a child for adoption will be avoided. I think that we would all like to avoid the heartache and waste of professionals' time that such last-minute withdrawals entail, so I hope that the Minister will take those constructive comments into consideration when preparing the final draft of the guidance.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness for their warm welcome for the regulations and for the many points that they raised. I will write to them on many of the detailed points, so that I can give full particulars, rather than attempting to address them now when, in some cases, I do not have the full details to hand.

The big issue that the noble Earl raised was the brevity of the regulations and the reference across to the guidance. We take the guidance extremely seriously—indeed, we are consulting on it at present—and it addresses several of the issues raised in the debate. To take only one example—the issue of stability of relationships and same-sex and different-sex couples who are seeking to adopt and how they are assessed—the guidance will set out clearly what factors should be taken account of by social workers. Indeed, the guidance on which we are consulting sets out nine factors in making those assessments.

Social workers will seek to discuss with prospective adopters all nine of the following issues: the history of their relationship including the length of time together; what makes their current relationship work; whether the relationship has been severely tested and survived; how the couple go about resolving difficulties; how the prospective adopters perceive commitment; where the couples see themselves in 20 years' time; how decisions are made within the partnership; how conflict is dealt with in the relationship in respect of monetary and domestic issues; whether the partners support each other and meet each other's needs; and other relevant considerations. Those and many of the other issues raised in the questions will be set out in the guidance that we will offer; I will ensure that full details are made available to the noble Earl and the noble Baroness.

One issue of great significance was raised by both the noble Earl and the noble Baroness. It concerns the experience and standing of the social worker who writes the report on a child; whether it is satisfactory that such a report could be written by someone who is not themselves a social worker of three years' standing and with the experience set out in the regulations; and the importance of ensuring that such reports are written by social workers who, wherever possible, have direct experience of the children in question.

I am told that the statutory guidance to the adoption agency mentions the importance of the reports about a child being written by the worker who knows them or, if the social worker is new, by the person who knows the child and will work with the social worker in question. I am told that that is set out clearly, so that gives satisfaction on that point.

It is best if I say that I will return to the other issues in correspondence, but of course we recognise the significance of the all the points raised, such as the importance of training and its upgrading. I am not aware of how we plan to gather and publish statistics, but I appreciate the importance of the point raised by the noble Earl of ensuring that the new category of adopters are closely monitored as the new regulations come into force.

The issue of the relationship between the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the courts is clearly important. We all recognise the rights and needs of birth parents and how they can be properly catered for in the process, as the noble Baroness said. On the issue of parallel tracking, which she raised, I must confess that, not having been engaged closely in these events for two and a half years, I cannot give her an honest answer as to why it has taken so long to produce the regulations but, again, I hope to give her a full account of what has been done in the intervening period and satisfy her that it has led to a commensurate improvement in the quality of the regulations and the training available.

However, I note one very welcome development during those two and a half years, which is a significant increase in the number of people coming forward to train for social work qualifications. As I know that one issue that has been raised about the impact of the regulations is whether they will depress the supply of available social workers working with agencies that undertake that work, that is a welcome development. For the future of the social work profession and all that it serves, including the needs of looked-after children and those going forward for adoption, having a better resourced, staffed and qualified social work profession is of the utmost importance.

I will come back to many of the points raised, but in conclusion, let me say that adoption can easily become an adult-focused activity, focused on meeting the needs of prospective adopters and birth relatives, but adoption is a service for children. More than 5,000 children are adopted in England and Wales each year; three out of five of those are looked-after children. Their voices should be heard. Their interests are always paramount. We believe that the regulations will help vulnerable children to move to loving homes much more easily. There is no more important task that we can promote here in Parliament.

I am glad that the orders have been so widely welcomed and I commend them to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.