Clauses 9 and 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill. - Clause 11 - Fees

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 18 December 2001.

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Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset 10:30, 18 December 2001

I hope that I speak for all the Committee in saying that this is a much pleasanter Room in which to conduct our deliberations. It is lighter, warmer and, dare one say, a little more intimate, so that it is possible to hear what is happening on the other side of the Room.

Clause 11 relates to the fees that can be charged in relation to assessments made by adoption agencies and the provision of services under the Bill, most particularly with respect to

''the adoption of a child brought into the United Kingdom for the purpose of adoption''

''a Convention adoption, an overseas adoption or an adoption effected under the law of a country or territory outside the British Islands.''

My thoughts on the clause stem from a sympathy with some adopted parents about what they perceived to be high charges levied on them for such services. We heard evidence earlier in our proceedings of divergence in the charging regimes of various authorities and other bodies. It seemed to me that we needed to agree that there should be greater transparency.

Under the clause, regulations made under what will become section 9 ''may prescribe the fees'', which means that an all-embracing schedule of fees will be set centrally. I agree that people should know what fees they are to be charged, that those fees should be published, and that there should be no shocks for the users of the service. I agree that there should be no wide divergence between the fees charged by different providers of the relevant service. I am sure that all members of the Committee would agree that the fees charged for the services should not act as a barrier to

those who want to adopt children. However, I disagree with the concept in the Bill that somehow the Minister and his or her officials know best and will prescribe the level of the fees.

The Care Standards Act 2000 is quite a good guide for the type of procedure that we are considering. The explanatory notes to section 112 of that Act, which refers to charges for local authority welfare services, state that

''the powers of local authorities to charge for certain non-residential social services are to be treated as social services functions as defined in the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 (''LASS ACT''). This will allow statutory guidance to be issued under section 7 of the LASS Act for charges for non-residential services. The need to produce statutory guidance follows the publication of the White Paper ''Modernising Social Services''. This recognised that the scale of variation in local authorities' home care charges was unacceptable'' and that the Audit Commission had highlighted the full extent of the variations. It is right that guidance should be issued by the Minister in such circumstances, and that the Minister should be able to recommend fees, but I do not believe that it is necessary that the Minister should prescribe what those fees should be.

The final sentence of the explanatory note to clause 11 on page 15 states that the charges

''will not include any element of profit.''

That means that, for every body concerned in charging fees, the Minister will be able to make the fine-tuned decision as to what an element of profit would be, and to ensure that the figure prescribed does not include it. I suspect that there is not an official or a Minister who would know intimately the exact cost structure of every agency involved in the procedure, enabling them to ensure that there would be no element of profit in a prescribed national fee. Under a prescribed national scale, we might end up with agencies either making a loss, or setting fees so high to avoid making a loss but making a profit and seeking in some way to hide it in order to ensure that they meet the conditions about not making a profit.

We should work towards the Minister recommending levels or ranges of levels of fees, and requiring, as proposed in amendment No. 5, those fees or scales to be published. That way, there would be no element of surprise to anyone coming to the adoption procedure; they would know their likely costs from the outset.

I am looking for transparency and an indication that we want not to prescribe the fees but to recommend scales within which they should operate. This is not a matter of the Minister knowing best, but of the user of the service—the potential adopter—needing to know the potential costs and that they will not constitute a barrier. The whole process should be open and transparent.