§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Roger Freeman)
I beg to move,That the draft Adoption Allowance Schemes Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 22nd December, be approved.I hope that it will be convenient for the House to take both orders together.
§ Mr. Freeman
The orders, the Adoption Allowance Schemes Order 1989 and the Adoption Allowance Schemes (Scotland) Order 1989, have the effect of repealing section 57(7) of the Adoption Act 1976 and section 51(8) of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978. Without the repeal of these sections there will be no provision for further approval of allowance schemes to adopters after 14 February.
The provision we are considering has its origin in a recommendation in 1972 of the departmental committee on the adoption of children—the Houghton committee. In its report the committee addressed the case for paying allowances to adopters in certain circumstances: circumstances in which adoption had been identified as the best future for a child, and a suitable family had been found, but in which there was a financial obstacle to the adoption. The aim would be to secure adoption for children who could not otherwise readily be adopted and who could face a childhood spent in care without a family of their own. The committee recommended that a small number of pilot schemes should be authorised as a trial of this new idea.
The proposal was taken up in section 32 of the Children Act 1975, now consolidated as section 57 of the Adoption Act 1976 and section 51 of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978. During the passage of the Bill a number of reservations and cautions were voiced about the wisdom of the measure—natural and thoughtful reservations, to which I shall turn briefly in a moment. Accordingly, the Houghton committee's recommendation of an experimental period was adopted by Parliament. Adoption agencies were given the opportunity to seek the approval of the Secretaries of State to schemes for payment of allowances for a period of seven years from implementation of the provision. The provision would come to an end automatically after seven years unless both Houses agreed to its continuation, and the Secretaries of State were required to publish before that date a report on the operation of the schemes.
The provision duly came into force, in England and Wales and in Scotland, in February 1982. Adoption agencies began to put together and submit for approval schemes drawn up according to guidelines issued by the Department. These agencies were for the most part local authorities, although two voluntary approved adoption societies in England now have schemes. It became clear over the following few years that the experiment was taking a somewhat different turn from—
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
My hon. Friend mentioned that a few local authorities did not have such schemes. It is shameful that they should not. Can he identify them?
§ Mr. Freeman
Only four authorities in England do not have such schemes. That means that about 104 do, which shows that there is broad acceptance of the scheme.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
Would the Minister be prepared to name the four authorities that do not have such a scheme?
§ Mr. Freeman
I shall draw the point to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will answer it later.
It became clear over the next few years that the experiment was taking a somewhat different turn from that expected. The interest and enthusiasm of local authorities far exceeded expectations, and many more schemes were submitted than the few envisaged by the Houghton committee. In England, indeed, the rapid flow of applications caused some strain on the resources of the Department of Health. However, we decided that this high level of interest was to be welcomed, with its potential benefit to children in need of adoptive families. Now, after seven years, there is universal coverage in Scotland and in Wales, where all local authorities have a scheme, and, as I have already indicated, in England 98 authorities and two voluntary societies have approved schemes, with a further six local authority schemes going through the approval process. That makes a total of 104 authorities either with schemes or going through the approval process.
Research projects were put in hand to investigate and report on the operation of these schemes—in Scotland by the social administration department of Edinburgh university, and in England and Wales by the National Children's Bureau. The Secretaries of State have published the reports, as they were required to do. Copies are in the Library, and I commend these excellent and valuable reports to hon. Members.
We have naturally been influenced by the reports in deciding to seek the House's agreement to the orders before us, and I shall touch briefly on one or two of the findings. We were, of course, particularly looking to the reports, first, to find out whether allowances had succeeded in their objective of enabling agencies to secure adoption for children who could not otherwise be adopted, however much they might need an adoptive family, and, secondly, to shed light on the concerns which were in the minds of some in the House when the experiment was originally agreed.
There is no doubt about the answer to the first question. The hope was that adoption allowances would benefit two groups of children in particular: children who were happily placed, in long-term placements in foster families, but whose foster parents could not afford to forgo the whole of the boarding-out allowance; and children with special needs involving a level of expenditure beyond the power of adopters to meet—children with mental and physical and emotional handicaps, older children needing help with behavioural difficulties, and groups of brothers and sisters who must remain together as a family. The two groups do, of course, overlap.
We now know from the research reports that in Scotland, up to the end of 1986, more than 500 children were placed with allowances. In England and Wales there were nearly 1,000 such placements by the end of 1986. At this point the researchers from the National Children's Bureau thought that numbers would slow down after 764 clearance of the backlog of cases which were awaiting introduction of schemes. However, this has not proved to be the case. With more schemes in England continuing to come into operation, the arrangements have rather gathered momentum, so that the bureau now estimates that the number of agreed allowances in England and Wales has doubled in the past two years and has now passed the 2,000 mark. This is a trend which we can hope to see continue as more authorities begin to operate and appreciate the advantages of schemes.
In all the countries, the majority of adopters were foster parents. Up to the end of 1986, in Scotland nearly one half, and in England nearly one third, of children were adopted with one or more brothers and sisters. In Scotland, nearly one quarter, and in England and Wales nearly one half, of the children had special needs, in the sense of physical, mental or emotional handicaps or behavioural difficulties. Some were severely handicapped, with multiple handicaps.
The reports demonstrate that people adopting with allowances were people in modest circumstances, with many on low incomes. The allowances themselves were not extravagant. In England the average allowance is about £30 a week. Nor has adoption with allowances become the norm. The majority of adopters are still able to adopt without an allowance. All schemes have criteria for allowances, so that allowances are restricted to circumstances of special need.
§ Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
The Minister says that the majority of people do not have an allowance. Does he have an exact figure?
§ Mr. Freeman
I shall certainly seek advice on that point, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will answer the hon. and learned Gentleman's question.
I believe we can now be satisfied that where children cannot be cared for by their own families, adoption allowances have their place, and a place of proven value, in the range of options open to agencies seeking to provide the happiest, most secure and best future for such children. I must stress that there is no intention to remove children from natural parents where there is economic difficulty or hardship and to subsidise them elsewhere. Children are placed for adoption using non-financial criteria, as I know that many hon. Members who take an interest in this subject realise.
§ Mr. Thurnham
My hon. Friend mentioned the figure of £30 a week as the average adoption allowance. Would he like to compare that with the cost of keeping a child in residential care?
§ Mr. Freeman
My hon. Friend will know that the average costs of keeping children in residential care are greater, but I find that comparison invidious. We are concerned here with the welfare of children. Although I take the sense of my hon. Friend's question, I would not like to place too great an emphasis on the financial benefits. What really counts is what is best for the children. If the opportunity of adoption with this modest financial inducement means that they can come out of residential care, or if they are with foster parents and that can be made permanent through adoption, that is the main criterion.
I should like to add a final point in relation to the framework within which agencies pay allowances. In Scotland, I understand from my hon. Friend the Minister 765 that adoption allowance schemes have been introduced without particular difficulty and have worked smoothly. It is not intended, therefore, that there should be any change in the arrangements for schemes set out in section 51 of the Adoption (Scotland) Act.
In England and Wales, the position is different. The diversity of schemes led to much discussion between the Department and local authorities and at times there have been long intervals between application and approval. Many authorities are now finding, with the benefit of experience, that they wish to make changes in their schemes, and such changes require further approval by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The number and variety of schemes have provided rich feedback during the experimental period, but we see a need now to look for a less cumbersome and potentially frustrating system which requires less intervention from the central Departments.
Accordingly, we shall introduce as an amendment to the Children Bill, which is now proceeding through another place, a regulation making power so that agencies will be able to determine and pay allowances within the framework of regulations instead of within the framework of an approved scheme. It is our intention that regulations should draw on the experience of schemes and, like schemes, give agencies sufficient flexibility to respond to a diversity of circumstances. Until a regulation-making power is available and regulations made, the order will ensure that schemes continue in operation. I am talking about a prospective amendment so that, in future, the operation of these schemes becomes a little easier to adminster. Those few authorities that are still considering whether to put in a scheme can still do so. I ask the House to approve the orders.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
I thank the Minister for the lucid way in which he introduced the orders. We welcome the orders and the opportunity to discuss them.
The House, local authorities and the various agencies to which the Minister referred will feel that the experiment has been successful. It is right to renew the orders. As the Minister said, the allowance to adopt owes its origins to the Houghton report. Much of the controversy to which the report gave rise has dissolved in the light of experience. There can be no greater tribute or compliment to the Houghton committee's recommendations than the success of these schemes.
Allowances are made when adoption is the right course for the child, when a suitable adoptive family has been found, but there is some financial obstacle. In other words, the idea is to secure suitable adoption for children who would not readily be adopted if allowances could not be made.
The Minister has made it clear that the Government have performed their statutory duty by referring the National Childrens Bureau Lambert-Seglow report to the Department of Health and the Welsh Office, which enthusiastically endorsed it, and the Hill-Triseliotis report for the Scottish Office, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) would like to refer. They certainly said that the scheme should be retained. As the Minister said, the order was influenced by section 32 of the Children Act 1975. That had a controversial baptism. I understand that in 766 Committee the Chairman had to use his casting vote. I doubt whether the same circumstances would arise were the same proposition put today.
According to the NCB report:Children with 'special needs' are being adopted and some who, hitherto, might have spent all their lives in institutional care now experience family life.That can only be profoundly welcomed by all right hon. and hon. Members. I should like to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland whether the Government consider that specific aspect of the orders as being consistent with a strategy for community care. Certainly Sir Roy Griffiths felt that community care embraces the rights of children with learning difficulties and their carers and adopters.
The point has been made that £30 a week in modern times does not offer all that much, given the expenses that parents have, so if the orders are considered as part of a strategy to embrace community care in the widest possible sense, we certainly welcome them.
The Minister mentioned the Children Bill. We are paying a great deal of attention to its progress in another place and we look forward to debating it in the House. The Minister said that an amendment will be tabled. When we debate the Children Bill, obviously we shall give the matter the utmost consideration and consult extremely closely with the voluntary bodies and the individuals mostly concerned with that amendment and with those sections of the Bill.
According to the NCB report, unemployment affected almost one in every five allowance families, and many others were subject to job or wage insecurity. Clearly, in the past, low income has been a stumbling block to adoption and the experiment challenged what amounted to an obstruction in earlier days.
The report to the Department of Health and the Welsh Office says on page 94 that provision is "under-used". Is that the case, and in view of the excellence of the reports and the welcome that they have received, what action do the Government intend to take to ensure that the provisions are fully used? The success of the scheme invites that suggestion.
Do payments continue when families move to other areas or to other local authorities? Are the Minister and the Government satisfied with existing arrangements?
I have mentioned, as has the Minister and as will my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the two reports before the House. I should like briefly to refer to the major points that emerge from those reports. The report to the Department of Health and the Welsh Office states:Our comparative study of adoptions with and without allowances showed that a significantly higher proportion of `special needs' children were adopted with the assistance of an allowance, especially those with multiple difficulties. Other children, who did not have these specific needs, were school-age or were placed with siblings and they, too, were likely to be costly for the families to look after.Elsewhere in the same report we read:Even though the adoption allowances received by these families were often paid at lower rates than the amounts calculated by NFCA relating to average family expenditure for children, they enabled these families to proceed with adoption. Our interviews with several families in this position indicated the sense of relief and gratitude generated by this additional security, and also pleasure at the recognition of their suitability to parent these children.That is an impressive comment.
The report to the Scottish Office states: 767Let us briefly recap the main characteristics of those granted an adoption allowance. The majority of the children were aged over 5—indeed about half were aged over 10. Those who were younger mostly had some kind of handicap, of which Down's Syndrome was by far the most common. About 4 in 5 of all the children were to be adopted by their foster parents. Many had in fact, lived with the same family for several years, often since infancy.The same report observed:Only a few of the families had above average incomes. The foster parent adopters included higher than usual proportions who were aged over 40, already had children of their own (some already grown up) and were working class. By and large they were stable, caring people who life-style was home-centred.That is a tremendous tribute to the experiment but, more than that, it is a tremendous tribute to the adopters who have taken on a difficult role which calls for great dedication.
On behalf of my hon. Friends, I welcome the orders in a spirit of recognising that there is a need for care, concern and commitment towards those who do so much for children who started out with a considerable disadvantage. However, as a society, we recognise that the adopters are doing their best to assist those with that disadvantage.
§ 12.3 am
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing these welcome measures which take the place of the original measures introduced seven years ago as an experiment following the casting vote of the Chairman of the Standing Committee on the Children Bill in 1975. It is an experiment that has resulted in great benefit to over 2,000 children. As my hon. Friend said, it is the needs of the children that we must keep in the front of our minds.
The orders provide excellent news for thousands of children currently in care. I am uncertain of the number of children who are eligible for adoption, but I have seen figures suggesting that up to 3,000 severely handicapped children in residential care are eligible for adoption. These measures are a green light for families who have been thinking of adopting but have been uncertain about the arrangements. They can now go ahead with full security.
The old measures run out on St. Valentine's day and I ask the Government to put their heart on their sleeve and introduce such measures throughout the country. I hope that the four authorities that do not yet have schemes in place will introduce them and that the regulations to be introduced in the Children Bill will be sufficiently standardised for the Government to be able to advertise and promote the schemes widely. Next week ITV is running a series of programmes on families for children. I hope that the Government will support that and run advertisements.
The debate is about love. That is not a word we hear much in other debates in the Chamber. Financially, the measures will benefit the Government but it is the love for the children which causes parents to adopt children who, in the majority of cases, they have been fostering for some years. I am a parent who has been through that experience. We fostered our child for three years before we were able to complete all the legal formalities for adoption. I am sure that parents who have been wanting to adopt and who have been hesitating because of lack of certainty about the financial arrangements will welcome all the new measures.
768 There is a history of difficulty with some councils, and I hope that we can overcome any remaining objections there. The excellent book by Catherine Macaskil, published by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, entitled "Against the Odds" summed up some of the difficulties that parents can have when they wish to adopt severely handicapped children. However, I hope and believe that that is becoming a thing of the past. I commend the work done by Bolton council, which has been prominent in helping families in deciding to adopt children from the Elizabeth Ashmore home for severely handicapped children. There have been wonderful examples of children adopted in that way.
Of course, my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that parents who adopt children will be thinking not only of their childhood, but of what happens to them when they are older. I believe that the parents of natural children and those of adopted children will be asking what the provisions are for children when they reach the age of 19. I am not sure whether any of the existing adoption schemes allow for payments to continue up to the age of 19 or beyond, but, obviously, that is when parents have the greatest anxieties and when respite care schemes are of the greatest help in keeping children with their families. I hope that there will be an opportunity for us to debate care in the community on another occasion, because that will be an additional factor in helping families to take the benefits from these proposed measures.
I am not sure whether I will have the opportunity of being a Member of the Committee discussing the Children Bill—I would certainly like to be considered if I am not tied up on another Bill—when, no doubt, we shall be able to see more of the proposed regulations.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for bringing forward these measures. We look forward to their being implemented. We look forward to seeing St. Valentine's day pass by as the end of the experiment, with, as I have said, the Government wearing their heart on their sleeve in the future.
§ 12.6 am
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
I, too, am happy to support the orders. I have read the relevant sections of the reports that the respective Secretaries of State were required by statute to commission. If I draw a little more on the report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Scotland, I mean no disrespect to the authors of the report commissioned for England and Wales. I do so merely for the sake of convenience and, at this hour of the night, brevity. One understands, as the Minister has confirmed, that both reports reach broadly similar conclusions.
No discussion of adoption should ever begin without a generous recognition of those who are willing to take into their homes the children of others—children who, by cruel chance, are unable to experience the warmth and care of being brought up in their own families by their natural parents. In my professional life as a practising advocate, I have seen many cases where ordinary people, with no particular pretension to sainthood, with open hearts and much practical common sense, have given a warm and loving home to children who would otherwise have lived in institutions all their lives. Those were ordinary people giving ordinary children ordinary lives, and they would not have had it described in any other way.
769 It is perhaps easy now to understand why the Houghton committee's recommendations were received without universal approval, not only, I suppose, because of the existence of a general principle of law that banned the making of such payments—in Scotland at least—but because an uncritical response to those proposals could lead one to a kind of visceral reaction that such payments were intrinsically repugnant. I believe that the wisdom lay in the legislation allowing for a trial period and even further in the fact that, before the legislation could be reconsidered—as it is, in effect, being reconsidered—there was required to be a report, relying not upon instinct, but upon evidence.
I have no wish to detain the House unnecessarily with extensive quotation from the report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Scotland, but it contains a number of passages that repay careful reading. The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) made certain references to it, but I want to draw the attention of the House to paragraph 3.5 which states:What is more satisfying is that many families who start as temporary carers become attached to their respective children and eventually prefer to adopt them rather than see them experiencing continued moves and disruptions in their lives. The allowance is vital to many of these families if they arc to continue providing the children with an accustomed and acceptable standard of living.Paragraph 3.8 is most revealing as the authors write:As an example, the media who tried to sensationalise the introduction of allowances as an opportunity to profit gave a reasoned response following the publication of our first report showing the benefits of allowances to children.That betokens a substantial sea change in public attitude. Paragraph 4.3 states:Some adopters were adding two, three or even more children to their families, which is a major undertaking from any point of view. Some children were enabled by allowances to move out of residential care and join a family on a permanent basis, including some children with extremely limited mental and physical capacities who were leaving hospital to receive individual care and attention.It is probably impossible for us to calculate the improvement in the quality of the lives of such children who had the good fortune to find themselves treated in that way.
Paragraph 4.6 states:Special needs children make the kind of demands which stretch families' coping abilities requiring a range of resources to manage with the need for extra clothes and footwear, holidays, respite care"—that important element is recognised much more now than it has been for a long time—visits to specialist services etc. In this respect the allowance was vital for the maintenance and stability of the placement, which was corroborated by the research.The report does not contain instinctive reactions, but conclusions based upon observation and evidence. The report gives the most eloquent justification for the decision to set up the experiment, especially as we have been told that certain parts of its progress were furthered only by the casting vote of the Committee Chairman. Tonight we should give thanks for the foresight of the Chairman who was prepared to exercise his casting vote when the media reaction was far from universally favourable.
The orders are plainly necessary to continue and maintain a system that has served well the children—not the House—who are their subject. The essence of the law of adoption, north and south of the border, is that the interests of the child should be paramount.
770 The orders are necessary to ensure that the interests of many children who are either already or may become the subject of adoption will remain paramount and that such children will be given the opportunity that otherwise they might find denied to them. If that happened they would he put in a different position from others and, through no fault of their own, that would necessarily attend their lives. For that reason I and, I have no doubt, the entire House will be happy to support the orders.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
In common with other hon. Members who have spoken, I give a warm welcome to the orders. It is particularly important that the legislation has not only been successful, but has been seen to be so, and seen to be fair. That is important when one considers the public attitude to the laws passed by this establishment.
On behalf of the Nationalists in the House, I accept and welcome the orders and the philosophy behind them, that the care and love of the child is at the heart of the matter. We cannot buy love and care for the children in our society, but through the orders we can certainly allow love and care to flourish in homes where not too much financial strain is placed on the people who adopt children.
Hon. Members have spoken about children with special needs. I have a social work background and am conscious of the great efforts that have been made by Scottish local authorities to ensure that such children are fostered and adopted. We tend to think of children with physical and mental handicaps, but there is a new area of concern in Scotland and I hope that the Minister will comment on it. I am speaking about the additional problem of youngsters with AIDS, or who are affected by the HIV syndrome. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the legislation could include positive discrimination in favour of families who are prepared to take on what is seen as a major risk to all other children in the family and to neighbours and others? We must address that problem because Scotland is facing an AIDS crisis.
I should like an assurance from the Minister that adoption allowances will net in any way affect the payment of child benefits. Many hon. Members, including the few who have remained to participate in the debate, are worried about the Government's decision to freeze child benefits. We need an assurance that the payment of adoption allowances will not be set against child benefit. It is important for families to know that they will not be penalised as a result of the continuation of the orders.
I have already had correspondence with the Minister on my final matter, which is about the definition of adoptive and natural parents. I had a case in my constituency of a natural mother, a widow, who remarried. Her new husband decided to adopt the children of her previous marriage but in the process of registration the natural mother was recorded as being the adoptive mother. She had great difficulty in ensuring that she continued to be recognised as the natural parent of her children. The: original birth certificates were withheld from her, although photocopies can be made available.
In the process of adoption, I should like to see a recognition of the natural parent. I hope that the Minister will look at that. Perhaps it is not directly relevant to the orders, but in our society divorce is a regular occurrence and it is necessary to define natural and adoptive parents.
771 Would the natural mother that I have mentioned be eligible for an adoption allowance or would that be denied to her because she is the natural parent?
§ Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
I trust that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have noticed our co-operation in merging the two orders. I hope that no hon. Member takes that as a weakening of our commitment to devolution. Judging from the speeches in the debate, one would think that Scottish Members had taken over. We have had contributions from the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), from the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), from my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), and the Minister, who is the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), is to reply. We are grateful for, and much appreciative of, the contribution made by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), who speaks with such experience and feeling on this matter.
As every hon. Member has said, we welcome these orders. The scheme has worked smoothly, particularly in Scotland. It was started as an experiment, for good and sound reasons. There were fears that paying for adoption would lead to problems, but those fears have proved to be without foundation. I pay tribute to the Chairman whose casting vote ensured that the Committee recommended this scheme. It has worked well, and has been to the benefit of children, which is what it is all about.
I have certain questions for the Minister, which I make not in a carping, but in an open and constructive manner because this matter should not divide the House. These questions will relate to Scotland, where my responsibility lies, but will, I trust, be relevant to the rest of the United Kingdom. Can we introduce a single national scheme? As the Minister knows, there are variations within Scotland, and a national scheme would be more simple, and would avoid competition. Some children would qualify for an adoption allowance in one area, but not in another. Will the Minister examine this point in detail?
Another problem with the variations is that the allowance is different in different areas. In Grampian, the value of the allowance is twice the value of that in Dumfries and Galloway, which is an anomaly that we should at least be examining, to avoid what can be construed as competition, and to make the whole scheme more simple.
Will the Minister also look at the criteria for inclusion in the scheme? As we know, there are many reasons for inclusion—mostly physical and mental handicap. One that is not included, although it can be on top of a physical and mental handicap, is simple emotional and behavioural difficulties. Some children have these alone, and it is doubtful whether they are included in the scheme. These children can be quite difficult to manage and to foster. Will the Minister consider widening the scheme to include these children, and will he also consider the actual, rather than the potential, difficulty in placing? The two do not necessarily go together.
Will the Minister also look at the matter of lump sum payments, referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East? These are an important part of respite 772 care, as they are an important part of any care, but they cost money, so it is important that lump sums are available. I understand the argument against such payments, but in respite care or when initial finance is needed to set up an adoption, they are particularly important. Other areas such as tuition are also important, and I reiterate the questions raised by the hon. and learned Member.
Will the Minister abolish the limit on the number of allowances? I understand why that was instituted—so that there would not be too many allowances. They were curtailed, not because of finance but to ensure that the scheme was not abused. With one exception, the limit of allowances has not been reached, so it would be appropriate to abolish them.
It would be helpful also if the Minister were to clarify the way in which different regions take into account the mobility and attendance allowances when considering the value of the adoption allowance. That could be done by the issuing of guidelines. A national scheme would avoid discrepancies between the various adopting authorities.
I trust that the Minister will accept that the issues which I have raised are constructive. The Opposition are seeking to improve the scheme, and we have no wish to be carping. We welcome unreservedly the orders that the Government have placed before us and we shall give them our wholehearted support.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)
This has been a useful debate and I welcome the support from both sides of the House that has been forthcoming this evening. The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) was especially interesting. His direct personal knowledge and experience was valuable. I am glad that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Members for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and for Bearsden and Strathkelvin (Mr. Galbraith) gave such a positive welcome to the purpose that lies behind the orders.
The hon. Member for Moray asked which four authorities in England were without schemes. The answer is Staffordshire county council, Barking and Dagenham, Southwark and the City of London. I understand that the first three authorities are considering submitting a scheme. The City of London has an agreement with Westminster for the provision of child care and adoption services where needed.
The hon. Member for Bearsden and Strathkelvin was interested to know about take-up. Between 1983 and 1986 in England and Wales, about 6 per cent. of children adopted, excluding those adopted by step-parents who were not eligible for the adoption allowance, were adopted with an allowance. The signs are that the percentage has risen over the past two years. In Scotland, less than 25 per cent. of all adoptions by non-relatives that took place during 1983–87 attracted adoption allowances. That is covered by paragraph 3.1 of the report.
The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) asked about the Griffiths report. I can do little more than repeat what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health said in reply to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on 24 January. He said: 773The Government are…engaged…in working up our own proposals for the future of community care.The Government are mindful of concern that we should reach a conclusion as soon as possible.I hope to be in a position to bring forward our plans in the near future."—[Official Report, 24 January 1989; Vol. 145, c. 527.]I note what my right hon. and learned Friend said about consistency.
The hon. Member for Monklands, West asked whether allowances continue to be paid if adopters move out of the local authority's area. I am glad to say that all schemes provide for allowances to continue to be paid if the family moves elsewhere within the United Kingdom. Many authorities include provision for allowances to be paid if the family temporarily moves overseas.
I have been asked whether the provision is under-used. As the hon. Member for Monklands, West will appreciate, page 103 of the report, which deals with adoption allowances in England and Wales and updates the 1986 report, makes it clear that adoption allowances are now well used.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East showed the House his extensive legal knowledge. He is correct in suggesting that, as a theme, it is important that the interests of the child should be paramount. I believe that the Scots courts have adopted that principle for many years. I agreed with everything that the hon. and learned Gentleman said and—[interruption.] Perhaps I should not have said that. I must be careful in my further comments.
The hon. Member for Moray raised the question of the rights of an adoptive mother. If the hon. Lady raises the circumstances of the case to which she referred, I shall ensure that she receives a full reply.
The hon. Member for Bearsden and Strathkelvin talked about a national scheme. This is a simple, straightforward proposal, but it suffers from the fatal flaw of inflexibility. We believe that local authorities should be left to assess the needs and circumstances of individual children.
Uniform amounts of payments cannot be laid down because of the diversity of circumstances of the children and families concerned. The system of approval of schemes was intended to ensure consistency in basic principles while allowing for variations in the experimental period. In England and Wales regulations will draw on experience—
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask a question, I will happily give way to him.
In England and Wales regulations will draw on experience of schemes and research to provide a universal framework with scope for flexibility in response to the differing needs of children and families. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will study the particular points raised by the hon. Member for Monklands, West and, if necessary, will write to him.
Hon. Members have not raised any fundamental objections to the orders. It is particularly appropriate that the hon. Member for Monklands, West participated in the debate in view of his long-standing interest in the disabled and the Bill that he piloted through the House. For my part, I was pleased to see the passage of the Law Reform 774 (Parent and Child) (Scotland) Act 1986, removing the stigma of illegitimacy, which has now been removed throughout Britain.
The basic principle in the order is that adoption allowance schemes should facilitate adoption of children who would not otherwise be readily adopted. Such children include those with mental and physical handicap and emotional and behavioural difficulties. Permanent placement for such children is difficult and problems may be compounded by the age of the children concerned who may have passed the young age that usually appeals to most adopters.
Adopters must be assessed for their ability to cope with special demands. In those circumstances, the availability—
§ Mr. Tom Clarke
As the Minister mentioned local authorities, can he tell us whether the Government have consulted the local authority associations such as the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities? If he cannot tell us now, perhaps he could write to me.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
I will have to check that. I am certain that the views of the local authorities have been made known to the Government. I will have to check up on the dates. I am constantly in touch with COSLA and I addressed a conference on Friday about the Widdecombe report. That meeting was chaired by the president of COSLA. I will have to check on the exact time scale and the number of representations and advise the hon. Member for Monklands, West.
Despite the full range of central benefits and local services, family breakdowns occur and local authorities have a duty to secure the welfare of children involved through the implementation of relevant care programmes. Adoption and allowance schemes, by complementing those programmes, serve as a small but enabling measure to assist children with special needs where adoption is in their best interests.
The hon. Member for Moray asked about young persons infected by HIV. Local authorities already counsel foster parents who care for HIV sufferers. They might well regard such children, if they are adopted, as children with special needs. I would expect that that would would be the case. The order would help children in the special needs category.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East suggested that children in the special needs category require a range of resources including extra clothes and footwear, holidays, respite care and visits to special services. Our position tonight is strengthened by research which corroborates the view that adoption allowances are necessary in some cases, even in situations where the family was initially hesitant about accepting an allowance. There is clear evidence from the research of families who came to appreciate the continued extra financial demands which children were making on them and were glad that the allowances were awarded, despite their initial hesitation.
As to the cost to local authorities, the current adoption allowance rates, which are in line with rates recommended by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, range from £25 to £46 per week, depending on the child's age. Child benefit is available to persons who adopt children, so those who may be eligible for adoption allowances will 775 generally receive allowances lower than boarding out allowances—whose recipients are not eligible for child benefit. In other words, child benefit is available to adopters but not to foster parents. However, foster parents are eligible for the boarding out allowance, which is not available to those who adopt on a permanent basis.
It is true that child benefit is taken into account, except where a family is in receipt of income support since in those cases the child benefit element is deducted at source by the Department of Social Security. In other words, families receiving income support will not sustain a double deduction—which I believe is the point that particularly concerned the hon. Member for Moray.
At present, more than 100 adoption allowance schemes operate in England and Wales. Individual approvals for such numbers create understandable processing problems for the Department of Health. A regulation-making power is therefore to be introduced for England and Wales, as an amendment to the Children Bill now before Parliament, to produce a less cumbersome system. In future, agencies will be able to operate schemes within specific regulations, rather than as a result of individual approvals. However, the scale of operation in Scotland is considerably smaller, with only 12 schemes, and allows for individual approval by the Secretary of State without regulations. Twelve local authority schemes have been introduced without particular difficulty and are working smoothly. It is not intended to make any change to the schemes as set out in section 51 of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978. In those circumstances, I strongly recommend the order to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Adoption Allowance Schemes Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 22nd December, be approved.
That the draft Adoption Allowance Schemes (Scotland) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 16th January, be approved.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]