Clause 13 - Power to charge

Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 14 March 2006.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 12:15, 14 March 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 16, line 19, after ‘applies’, insert

‘and in doing so must have regard to the financial circumstances of the prospective adopter’.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 44, in page 16, line 22, after ‘(1)(b)’, insert

‘and in doing must have regard to the financial circumstances of the prospective adopter’.

No. 6, in page 16, line 27, at end insert—

‘(c)provide a detailed breakdown of what costs have been borne to give rise to the fee.’.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Clause 13 is a bit more contentious. We have tabled three amendments to tease out what the Government are trying to charge for. Amendment No. 5 would add the requirement that any fee charged by the authorities must be proportionate and not completely block the prospective adopter from going ahead with the process. Amendment No. 44 repeats that requirement in subsection (3). Amendment No. 6 is on the same theme and would add a paragraph (c) to subsection (4), under which the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly may, if they decide to set a fee,   decide whether to charge a flat fee or differential rates, or waive a fee in certain cases; they need to say why. We should like a proper breakdown of the costs that have been borne and that give rise to the fee. We cannot see exactly where the costs will come from and what value-added work will have been done.

I have already mentioned that it costs up to £10,000, typically, for a prospective adopter privately to complete an overseas adoption. That usually involves employing a private social worker to make an assessment overseas, and it is a long and cumbersome process, which can take well over a year. In some cases it can take years. All that the Secretary of State must do is rubber-stamp that application. Not much value-added work will be done.

We asked the Minister about this and one of her officials came up with a ballpark figure of £800 as the charge to facilitate clause 13. It is only reasonable that a prospective adopter who is asked to pay a fee should have a proper tariff and bill showing the work that has been done to give rise to it. I hope—and the Government have suggested—that the fee is intended only to cover costs, and not to make a profit out of international adoption.

We should like amendment No. 6 to result in an undertaking that full details will be provided of how the charges arise. We hope that amendments Nos. 5 and 44 will gain us an indication that the Government will take into account the financial circumstances of the prospective adopter. I can think of cases involving, for example, members of certain Church groups linked to communities in the third world, who want to adopt a child from one of those developing countries. They are people without recourse to large amounts of money. We are not talking about cosy middle-class families making a lifestyle decision to spend some of their money to adopt for whatever reason.

It has been indicated that the Secretary of State could waive the fee if the adoption had a family connection, but we should like some elaboration on other circumstances in which the fee would be waived altogether. We want greater articulation from the Minister on how means-tested the fees are likely to be, although they will not be strictly means-tested, and what the charges will be for.

BAAF has drawn attention to problems with the clause. One of its briefings says:

“It is hard to see why one group of UK residents—prospective intercountry adopters—should be singled out for payment of a fee for the provision of a service such as this. It is disingenuous to argue that this is a service for adults rather than a service to children. The procedures are in place principally to protect children, not to ‘smooth the wheels’ for adopters. Any suggestion that public money should only be spent on safeguarding the welfare of children indigenous to this country is surely repugnant both morally and in the light of international obligations.”

BAAF believes that

“any additional financial burden on intercountry adopters may run the risk of a minority seeking to circumvent procedures, thereby putting some children at risk. It must be borne in mind that the procedures apply equally to those who wish to adopt a relative from overseas, and it could be a grave disservice to some children if the opportunity for family life with members of their extended family were denied them for financial reasons ... Given   this government’s commitment to address poverty issues worldwide, the imposition of this particular charging mechanism seems quite inappropriate.”

We are not talking about a large amount of money, in the greater scheme of things. Some 300 inter-country adoptions are taking place, and we are talking about charging hundreds, hopefully, rather than thousands. On that basis, there seems to be a big disconnect between the cost of domestic adoption procedures and the additional costs that the Government are now trying to impose on international adopters.

These are probing amendments to tease out exactly what charges will be involved and why the Government think that they are justified in charging them, and to get further detail on how people who are not in a position to pay the additional fees will be helped out rather than completely deterred from going ahead with international adoptions that could strongly favour the welfare of the child.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I appreciate that the matter was debated at great length in the other place, but questions remain. In particular, does the money not relate to child protection? I find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the money is, or appears to be, loaded on particular individuals. The service is not available only to individuals; it must be part of the service to local authorities, for example. How will it be separated out?

I understand that the average time for processing such applications is 18 to 23 weeks. Obviously it needs to be a careful process, but with such high charges, people have a right to know exactly what they are paying for and what quality of service they can expect. I hope that the Minister will answer during debate on the present amendments.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

I do not think that there is anything between us on the spirit of the amendments and what we intend to achieve and the way in which we seek to implement charges. As hon. Members have identified, clause 13 provides a power for the Secretary of State to charge to meet the costs of the administration of inter-country adoption casework. As we have heard, that proposal was the subject of some debate in another place. It was finally acknowledged that it is a matter of prioritising. With limited funds available there is an argument about where those funds should be spent as a priority, and making a proportionately small charge is in my view reasonable in terms of that context of wider priorities.

I have no difficulty at all with the intention behind amendments Nos. 5 and 44, which seek to clarify the Bill’s provision on charging for casework provided by the Department for Education and Skills to inter-country adopters. As we have heard, under amendment No. 5 the Secretary of State would have to have regard to the financial circumstances of potential adopters when imposing a fee. It has already been made clear in the other place that we fully agree with that principle, but we are satisfied that we can and will achieve that goal without the need for the amendment.   Therefore, we do not accept it. However, I will set out the way in which we are going about the matter and what we intend to do.

As hon. Members will see, the clause prevents the Secretary of State and the Assembly from making any profit in charging for those services. That is important because it provides the framework. During the Bill’s passage we have made it clear that only those able to pay should be expected to do so. We have no intention of penalising the less well-off, some of whom may be attempting to adopt relatives from abroad. Although we will not specifically propose to waive for that category of relative, they tend to be less affluent than many inter-country adopters and so would qualify for the waiving scheme that we are proposing.

In the other place, my noble Friend Lord Adonis gave a clear assurance that we intend to set out objective criteria linked to income. We have been consulting on that matter with relatives’ groups and we think that household income is the right benchmark in determining which adopters should be asked to pay a fee. In order for that to occur in practice, the Secretary of State must need to have regard to the financial circumstances of each prospective adopter before a fee is imposed. That means that the amendment is not technically necessary, although I understand that Members want to hear more about the scheme.

Amendment No. 44 simply seeks to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales will also have regard to the circumstances when imposing a fee. We are talking about a regime under which we will take into account household income. We cannot make a profit; nor can we have any cross-subsidy in terms of those who pay the full fee offsetting the cost for others. We will come to a system in which there will be groups of adopters based on their levels of income. The fee will rise proportionately from nothing for incomes under a certain level up to the full fee for those adopters whose household income is over a specific level. That will mean that people on low incomes, where they apply for inter-country adoptions, will probably—I would not want to be held to these figures, because we are still considering the detail—

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

If I could just finish the point it might be helpful to the hon. Lady. Where a household income, for example, is under about £20,800, adopters would pay no fee at all. Under the scheme we envisage, incomes would rise in quintiles—groups of five—until above a certain level the prospective adopter would pay the full fee. We are still working on the details because, as Opposition Members know, the caseworking function has been transferred from London to Darlington. We are still considering the Darlington cost, as opposed to the London cost; we expect the fee to be in the order of that cited by my noble Friend—up to about £1,000—but it has still to be refined.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education) 12:30, 14 March 2006

I want to press the Minister further on this complex matter, which was debated at length in another place, when Lord Adonis stated that he would publish details as soon as possible. We are grateful to the Minister for expanding on some of the criteria that may be used, but a few matters remain undecided.

Lord Adonis made his statement about publishing the criteria in October, and it is now March. Does the Minister feel that it would be appropriate to proceed with more urgency? She rightly said that in the great scheme of things £1,000 is not a huge amount for the Government to think about, but for the people involved in the procedures who want to adopt, it is a considerable sum. We owe it them to clarify very important issues before the Bill goes any further. I thank the Minister for taking the time to flesh out what is in her mind.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

We will publish the details and further consult those groups we have already consulted. We had discussions with the relevant groups before deciding on a broad framework. As I said, we have to revisit some of the initial costings that we used, as they were based on staff in London, not Darlington. The case-working function has moved to another part of the country and we have to ensure that we charge on the basis of full cost recovery—the actual cost, not the notional cost—so we must get the figures right. When we have done so, we will publish them and ask for people’s views on what we propose, and I shall try to ensure that that is done as soon as possible. The scheme is due to start in April 2007, so we have a little time before it is imminent.

Amendment No. 6 raised issues such as the breakdown of the costs that will give rise to the fee on a cost-recovery basis, and I want to reassure hon. Members on that point. It is right that we should provide clear and easily accessible information about charges before they are incurred, which should include information about the method of calculation of the fee, when it may be waived or reduced and what elements it is paying for.

I did not wholly agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. that the process does not add much value. It is a service not just to the adopter, but to the other country concerned because it provides a validation showing that adopters have gone through a proper process to assure their suitability to take a child. The Government are endorsing that process, having reviewed it and certified that the applicant is someone who is suitable to adopt. It is not just a tick-box exercise; the Government are saying, “Yes, the local authority or the adoption agency that has undertaken the assessment has done so properly. We are assured of its validity and can therefore assure you, the third country, that this person is suitable to take a child.” When it is expressed in that way, Opposition Members might appreciate that the case workers who do such work take it seriously. Other elements are involved, such as, notarisation,   legalisation, translation, and the management of applications through to completion, and couriering to the country concerned, and so on.

The process is not simply a straightforward, administrative, filing one; subjective judgments are involved, and it gives this country’s validation. We must take that very seriously. Having explained that, and given the spirit of the amendment, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw the amendment because we will provide to adopters what it seeks to do, which is to set out the purpose of the fees.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister has done a good job of expressing the importance of the service and the added value that she feels is given. I should like to press her a little more on the standard of service. I understand from the notes that I have read that it takes between 18 and 23 weeks to process files that are ongoing, and there was a target to undertake that duty in around 12 weeks, although that changed recently. Will she give us her thoughts on what is a reasonable period in which to expect the organisation to process files in order to reach a good standard of quality, particularly when such a fee is payable. The people who participate may require more detail on the matter.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

I perfectly agree with the hon. Lady. As I was stressing, the quality of decision making in the validation process is important, but so is the quality and standard of service that we offer. I am aware that some cases took an unacceptable time last year—about 26 weeks I think. I agree that that is unacceptable, but the service is in the process of being re-engineered; the move to Darlington is part of that process. We have committed ourselves to setting a benchmark of between 10 and 12 weeks for cases in which the documentation is in good order and no serious omissions or issues must be pursued that will take some time.

I understand that in recent weeks the times have fallen to between 10 and 12 weeks, so we are delivering the standard of service that we set. That has been part of the improvement in the whole service, and we want to see that as a norm for relatively straightforward cases in which, as I said, there are no serious omissions or problems with the documentation.

I hope that my comments have reassured Opposition Members. We are with them on the spirit of the amendments and intend to ensure that that is delivered through the way in which the charging scheme is implemented. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am grateful for the Minister’s elaboration, which was certainly useful. I am also grateful for her comments on the quality of service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke rightly mentioned there have been lapses in the past, and if people are expected to pay for a service, it should be a decent one.

I am slightly in the dark about some matters; it is my fault if I missed this in the Minister’s explanation, but is she indicating that, subject to final guidelines being published, which has taken rather a long time, prospective adopting families on an income of less than £20,800 would not be expected to pay the fee, but that the service would be subject to full cost recovery? Let us say that about 300 such international adoptions take place each year, and that the service will cost £800, although that figure has probably gone up since I was given it. If we multiply £800 by 300, we get £240,000. If 299 prospective adopters are all on salaries of £20,800 or less, will it fall to the one lucky person who earns £21,000 to pay the complete bill of £240,000 in order for the Department to recover its costs?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families)

Full-cost recovery relates only to the maximum that can be charged to any individual. It is not full-cost recovery across the whole service, so those who receive a degree of waiver on the fee will be subsidised by the Department.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That will come as a great comfort to prospective adopters who find themselves just above the threshold. Effectively, the Minister is saying that the Department may subsidise on the basis that some lower-income families or Church groups may seek to adopt. It is helpful to know that.

The Minister said that the Department is prevented from making a profit, but the staff running the Department have all been shipped off to Darlington, which is apparently much cheaper. However, I am grateful for her answers. The amendments were probing, and the Minister has given us much of the detail that we required. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

I understand that the charge is an administrative fee. In fact, the major cost of applying for intercountry adoption is the cost of the home study report, which I gather is about £5,000 a year, and it is paid to the local authority. I am not clear whether local authorities apply some test of affordability when they ask for that fee. When applying the affordability principle, will the Minister consider extending it to home study costs, particularly for families applying to adopt a family member living in another country, which is a cross between domestic adoption and foreign adoption. I think that we have traditionally seen that as a cost to the adult. It would be helpful if the Minister considered how the home study report fits in.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Before the hon. Lady sits down, and to give the Minister time for in-flight refuelling, I can say that I made inquiries of my local authority when we were considering the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and found that it charged about £1,750 for the home study pack. Surrey, next door, charged nothing, and other authorities charged £5,000 or more. There is   a postcode lottery, with local authorities having the autonomy to decide whether to waive the fee. Nothing in the Bill levels that out, which may be a weakness.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

Obviously, the clause is not directly concerned with the cost of home study reports, but when I started working in this area in 1988, it was left to the local authority to decide what to charge. At that time, it depended on the priority that the local authority gave such matters. Some authorities simply did not like intercountry adoption and imposed a high charge—not to recover the costs but to discourage people from applying. If we are to introduce a new charge, this might be an opportune moment to consider what has been happening with charging for home study reports in general.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families), Department for Education and Skills, Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children, Young People and Families) 12:45, 14 March 2006

My hon. Friend is very experienced in these matters, and I am sure that she knows the answer to her own question, which is that the situation is extremely variable: some local authorities charge nothing and others up to about £5,000. This is part of the whole package of fees an adopter has to pay. Indeed, there are often considerable charges from the country concerned. With an adoption from China, for example, the fees add up to another £3,000. It is a considerable undertaking.

I do not have any plans to put constraints on local authorities or to decree some central yardstick or benchmark for charging. Local authorities have decided matters for themselves for a long time, and it is right for local charges to be determined locally. With those clarifications, I hope that hon. Members will be satisfied that clause 13 should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.