Clause 92 - Excepted payments

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 15th January 2002.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

Again, I wish to probe the Minister a little. The clause suggests that other payments can be made to a registered adoption society by a parent, guardian or person who proposes to adopt a child. I remind the Minister of clause 11, which relates to fees and about which we had extensive discussions. I even proposed a couple of amendments to it. It states that

''Regulations under section 9 may prescribe . . . the fees which may be charged by adoption agencies in respect of the''

various provisions.

I wonder whether, under clause 92, the Secretary of State would also prescribe the excepted payments and some scale for them. If there is not some national scale or prescription, we leave the door open for adoption agencies to skirt around the law and tell prospective adoptive parents that a payment is excepted, and that they must write out the cheque as the matter is not covered elsewhere in legislation. Will the Minister state specifically what the excepted payments are, and whether a published scale will be available to those who are likely to be charged them?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

Once again, we repeat arguments about charges. I shall outline the point of clause 92 in excepting—making exceptions of—certain payments. The clause is necessary because of the strong restrictions that clause 91 rightly places on the taking of any steps involved in arranging adoption.

First, I shall respond to the point specifically made by the hon. Member for North Dorset. Under section 57 of the 1976 Act, adoption agencies can recover from adopters and prospective adopters expenses that they have reasonably incurred in connection with the adoption of a child. That applies to domestic and intercountry adoption but, in practice, adoption agencies do not recover expenses in cases of domestic adoption.

Under the Bill, as we discussed on clause 11, it is intended that local authorities will not be able to recover expenses arising from domestic adoptions. However, under clause 11(2) and (3), they will be able to charge for specific services in respect of intercountry

adoption. We talked at some length about the justification for that and—I quoted the Department's guidance on intercountry adoptions—for the fact that such charges can be made only to recover expenses, so there can be no element of profit. We mentioned the disadvantages of setting a national rate, which would mean that some agencies might be given more in fees than their expenses. In some areas, agencies might not cover their expenses, which would make them even more averse to dealing with the problems of intercountry adoptions. It could lead to longer queues. That covers the hon. Gentleman's point.

Clause 92 provides that payments may be allowed, and so excepted from clause 91, in certain circumstances. Subsection (1) allows any payment made under the Bill when it is enacted, or under the equivalent provisions in Scotland and Northern Ireland—the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 and the Adoption (Northern Ireland) Order 1987. That therefore allows the payment of adoption support allowances to an adoptive family—unless such a family was excepted under the clause, it might be prohibited by clause 91—and for the agency to use its discretion to charge for tracing individuals.

The other intention in clause 92 is to allow payments to be made for reasonable expenses. That includes legal and medical expenses in relation to an adoption, such as when expenses are incurred for applications and proposed applications to the court for adoption orders, applications for placement orders and applications for contact under clause 25. Clause 92 allows for payments to a local authority or registered adoption society for expenses incurred for arranging the adoption of a child whose country of origin is outside the UK. Such payments could be for preparation classes, medical reports, legal expenses, home study reports, schedule 2 reports and post-„adoption reports.

The clause also covers reasonably incurred travel and accommodation expenses when a child is taken out of the UK for adoption, as is permitted by clause 82(2). For example, a child's travel and accommodation costs would be excepted, as well as those of a person escorting the child. As I suggested, we are aware of some intra-family adoptions from the UK to the Indian sub-continent. When those comply with conditions set out under clause 82—hon. Members will remember that it is about the transfer of parental responsibility before a child leaves the country—we do not wish to penalise families for making such payments.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset 11:30 am, 15th January 2002

I am grateful to the Minister for running through the possible exceptions. She described them several times as reasonable payments. I referred to clause 11. Fees would be reasonable payments, but surely there should be a requirement for transparency. Adoptive parents should not feel in danger of being hit with a bill for what some official or adoption agency thinks is a reasonable payment, but which is totally unexpected and which they might find difficult to pay. Within the context of the clause, I suggest that the

Secretary of State or the adoption societies should be required to give potential adoptive parents some idea of the likely costs under the clause.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

There are two problems, which I addressed previously. First, there is no power for the Secretary of State to prescribe the level of excepted fees under clause 92. The hon. Gentleman has not proposed an amendment to alter that, so it remains the position. More significantly, to return to a point that we discussed at length in relation to earlier clauses, councils and voluntary adoption agencies are and will continue to be able to charge prospective overseas adopters a fee to cover expenses reasonably incurred.

For the reasons that I have spelled out, it is not appropriate for the fee to be set nationally; it is more appropriate for it to be set locally, because each agency's costs will be different and its fees should be able to reflect them. A nationally set fee would lead to some agencies receiving more than their costs while others did not cover their costs, which might discourage them from making the assessments.

I explained when we discussed transparency that it is important that fees are made clear to prospective adopters. In addition, we went through the redress that would be available to prospective adopters through the complaints procedure if they felt that an agency had breached the condition that it should not recover more than its costs. We have covered those points. The hon. Gentleman is trying to reopen a previous debate, rather than focusing on the clause, which does not include the power to do what he proposes, even if—in policy terms—it were considered to be appropriate. I do not think that it is, for the reasons that I have given.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 92 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 93 ordered to stand part of the Bill.