HL Deb 24 June 2002 vol 636 cc1-60GC

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill)

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly the same as in a normal Committee of Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard. The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. This Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells ring and then resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 1 [Considerations applying to the exercise of powers]:

Earl Howe

moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 8, after "agency" insert "or local authority The noble Earl said: I am sure I am not alone among Members of the Committee in looking forward to the Committee proceedings on this Bill with a sense of eager anticipation. Although I am aware that there are important issues that we shall be debating over the coming few weeks, these are for the most part matters that lend themselves to amicable discussion rather than adversarial argument. I entertain the hope, particularly in the knowledge of the Minister's well known receptiveness to rational persuasion, that we may be able to change the Government's mind on at least some of them.

I begin by moving Amendment No. 1, which is closely associated with Amendments Nos. 2 and 3. These amendments take us straight into the heart of this all-important opening clause, Clause 1, which represents an overarching provision that will apply to all decision making in relation to the adoption of a child. Its various elements closely reflect the provisions of the Children Act 1989 but have been tailored to suit the particular circumstances of adoption. The feature of the clause with which I hope we can all identify without reservation is subsection (2), which provides that the paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare throughout his life. That explicit emphasis banishes, at a stroke, any misplaced idea that adoption is a device that exists to gratify the wishes of adults or to address the supposed right of adults to become adoptive parents. No adult has any such right. We are dealing here with the duty society has to do its best for those children who, through no fault of their own, have been profoundly disadvantaged and for whom separation from their birth family is seen, for whatever reason, as a necessity. That separation is not something society should sanction lightly; but when it does occur the child has a right to look to the state as the guardian of his future well-being. All public agencies, therefore, who are involved in looking after the child have a part to play in fulfilling this duty of trust.

Clause 1 sets out the duties to be placed upon the courts and upon adoption agencies, both of whom can be seen as the key decision makers in the adoption process. The amendments that I have tabled propose that local authorities should be explicitly included under the same umbrella in relation to subsections (2), (3) and (4). I am well aware from the Explanatory Notes that the term "adoption agency" is designed to embrace both a local authority and a registered adoption society. These clearly are the bodies that are immediately involved in the decision-making process. On the face of things, my amendments might appear to be unnecessary. The question that I pose is whether that interpretation is correct and whether it would not be better to acknowledge the wider responsibilities of local authorities by naming them explicitly.

While a part of a local authority cart function as an adoption agency, that is not the totality of functions it exercises in relation to children who may be eligible for adoption. Local authorities are, for example, responsible for assessments and support services. They are responsible for social services and education. They are key players in facilitating the adoption process for looked-after children. It seems to me that unless local authorities as such are bound by the duties in this clause, we are not, so to speak, covering the waterfront.

It is absolutely essential that a person running a local authority children's home is seized of the necessity not to delay the adoption process. It is important that the social worker, who may be the means of liaison between a birth family and a foster family, bears in mind the considerations set out in subsection (4) in the context of a possible future adoption. The headmaster of a school needs to be aware that a child who may be heading for adoption may have special needs and that these ought to be taken account of when an assessment for support services is being carried out.

Those are only some examples. I realise that local authorities have analogous duties in relation to looked-after children. However, as far as I can see those duties do not relate specifically to the adoption process. I hope the Minister will be able to shed some light on these matters. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I rise to support the amendment. It is relevant not only for the reasons given by my noble friend but also, in particular, to monitoring services after adoption by the social services, as proposed in a letter of 20th June that I received from the Minister—which I hope was available in the Library of the House. I made that email request on Sunday, but perhaps time has not sorted it out. It is also relevant to the matters referred to after "adoption" in subsection (6) of Amendment No. 7, to which I shall not speak at the moment. However, it has a relevance. It is not unnecessary. It is important not only for the reasons given by my noble friend, but if I may respectfully say so, for the two reasons that I have given myself.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, The Department of Health)

First, I very much welcome the constructive approach of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to the Bill. I very much share his general sentiments about the way in which we shall debate the important clauses in the Bill. I was not sure whether I should welcome his description of my rational flexibility, but I shall attempt to be as constructive as possible.

The noble Earl is absolutely right to stress the importance of Clause 1 of this Bill as it does set the parameters in which all our discussions will be based. Of course, in setting out in Clause 1(2), The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare, throughout his life", we are setting out the cardinal principle under which adoption must be considered in the future. I certainly agree with him when he says that no adult has the right to adopt. That is absolutely right.

Clause 2(1) states that, a local authority or a registered adoption society may be referred to as an adoption agency". The noble Earl, Lord Howe, accepted that, in terms of the Bill, that definition makes it quite clear that the responsibilities placed on adoption agencies apply as much to local authorities as they do to registered adoption societies. However, I accept that he also seeks a wider reassurance that, in their functions other than adoption, local authorities—and, I suspect, other statutory agencies—are as committed as the local authority adoption service to ensuring the maximum possible effectiveness of the processes and procedures and the support given to those who wish to adopt, those who are adopted and those who do adopt.

Clause 3 places on local authorities the care duty to maintain an adoption service, and Clause 4 establishes the responsibility of local authorities to provide assessments for those who request one according to criteria laid down in the Bill. Clause 4(5) deals with the requirement that local authorities prepare plans for adoption services. We should bear in mind that the local authority—whether it be a local education authority, or in its more general duties in relation to personal social services—will continue to have statutory responsibilities to provide services for children whether they be adopted or not.

We must not confuse the various provisions. We must be clear that, whereas a specific responsibility is placed on local authorities in relation to adoption services, many local authority services will be available to people who are adopting or have been adopted. We should expect those services to be provided according to the current legislation. I accept that, in providing adoption services and adoption support, local authorities have a role to play in helping to ensure that, when other services need to be provided, other providers should have not only an opportunity to obtain information on those requiring support services, but confidence that the relevant information will be passed to them. As we shall debate later, Clause 4(9) explicitly states: If at any time during the assessment of the needs of any person under this section, it appears to a local authority that— (a) there may be a need for provision of services to that person", by the NHS or the local education authority, the local authority must notify that health or education authority. That example is explicitly stated in the Bill, and it is a very important consideration.

The implication of the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, is to focus our attention on the overall performance of local authorities in the whole area of adoption services. The lesson from the PIU report and from the analysis that has been made of local authority performance would point to what can best be described as a "patchy" performance. There is no doubt that if we are to succeed in raising the game of all those involved in adoption we must ensure that local authorities are prepared to meet the additional responsibilities that they are being given.

That is why we have set out for the first time clear national adoption standards, which all councils will have to deliver by 1st April 2003. That is why we have established the Adoption and Permanence Taskforce, chaired by the Chief Inspector of Social Services, to work with councils to help them improve their performance and spread best practice across the country. That is why we have provided an additional £66 million to support our agenda to improve the adoption service.

Council performance is regularly assessed by the Social Services Inspectorate and this year, for the first time, all councils were given clear star ratings covering performance of their social services functions. From April 2003, council adoption services will be inspected by the National Care Standards Commission and this performance management system, taken as a whole, will ensure a robust process for assessing the performance of local authorities in the round, including their ability to liaise with other statutory providers of services. It will give confidence to all of those who wish to see a very much enhanced performance.

In conclusion, I believe that the legislation as set out quite clearly indicates the responsibilities that local authorities will have in relation to adoption services. It would be right to adopt that approach, rather than confusing matters by referring to other legislation where local authority responsibilities are already clearly laid out. At heart, however, this depends on local authorities improving their performance. With the additional resources and the very strong performance management regime we are putting in place, I am confident that we can ensure that that happens.

3.45 p.m.

Earl Howe

I am very grateful to the Minister for that reply and I agree with much of what he said—particularly his comments about performance management which seem to be very pertinent.

The essence of the point I was trying to make—and I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell for backing me up—was that the duties of a local authority in its capacity as an adoption agency, and the duties by which it is bound in other capacities, are not identical under the law. There are separate spheres of activity which will, in part at least, be governed by different legislation. I question whether that is adequate for the purposes of the adoption process. Many of the local authority's functions impact upon that process and we need to be sure that all local authority employees are quite clear that they should be bound by the kinds of injunctions and requirements that Clause l sets out.

However, I take the point made by the Minister and I shall read his remarks carefully in Hansard. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Lord Astor of Hever

moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 14, at end insert "which shall have been ascertained by means of direct consultation with the child The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 4, which is similar to Amendment No. 5 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Thomas.

The Opposition have consistently welcomed the Government's placing of the welfare of the child as the cornerstone of adoption policy. I was pleased when the Minister confirmed that in his opening remarks.

Building on the work that we undertook in office, the Bill moves us more effectively in the direction of ensuring that the child's interests are always paramount, both when legislating and when making those critical individual decisions. The amendment seeks to ensure that a child will be consulted as part of the formal process of adoption proceedings. Clearly a child will be aware of the circumstances of his adoption, and the specific emotions and problems that he is likely to face.

Our concern is that Clause 1 of the Bill is too loose and open to interpretation as to ensure that a consultation takes place. In fact, there is no intrinsic obligation upon the court or the adoption agency, which includes local authority social services departments, to consult with the child. We believe that however well-intentioned this is a potential weakness in the Bill that fails to meet the criterion on the paramountcy of the child's interests.

The amendment will place a full legal obligation to undertake a direct consultation with the child. This will enable the agencies more effectively to balance the needs of a child with their circumstances and to act as a catch-all where an individual system might be deficient.

The Minister's response in the Special Standing Committee in the other place was disappointing. She accepted that the Government need to set out the framework and expectations more clearly in the regulations and guidance. However, we cannot take on face value an assurance that some improvement might be made later. We have no indication of when regulations and guidance might be available and, no idea of the input. Lawyers could have a field day if it turned out that a child had not been seen in person. We feel that direct consultation with the child should be written into the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I rise to speak to the amendment which stands in the name of my noble friend and myself, and which goes rather further than that tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. We require the representation of the child's wishes and feelings as well as listening to the child's wishes and feelings.

Before I go any further, I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, will speak now, but one must acknowledge that there is also a reference to this matter in his Amendment No. 7, probably more skilfully expressed than we have managed in our amendment.

We put the amendment forward for three reasons. First, that the Law Society has expressed concern that the Act does not seem to comply with Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which, as the Minister knows, provides for the views of the child to be expressed, given due weight and heard in a court of law, either directly or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law". It seems curious that that requirement to allow for the putting forward of a child's view via an advocate—which I understand is in the Children Act 1989—is not on the face of this Bill.

We have also put forward the amendment to test how the Government see their commitment in Clause 1 of the Bill to putting the child's long-term interests first and how that commitment is put into effect. I anticipate that the Minister will respond by saying that CAFCASS will fill the role of representing the child's wishes and feelings to the court if required. I also understand that in very complicated cases, especially where consent has been with held, CAFCASS can recommend that a solicitor should be appointed.

The procedures may be thought to cover the Article 12 requirement for direct representation of a child, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law". I hope that I am not putting words into the Minister's mouth. However, the problem with this approach is that, particularly in London, CAFCASS is so under strength that delays in court proceedings can derive from that understaffing and, of course, the Bill is also designed to do away with delay as much as possible.

I understand that practitioners can find themselves appointed to represent the child only to find that they are ready to go to court before CAFCASS can provide an officer to do the same thing. This suggests that, in the interest of cutting delays, as well as in response to the UN convention, the courts should be under an obligation to appoint a solicitor to represent the child at least in some circumstances.

Our third reason for tabling the amendment is that there are some very difficult procedural parts of the Bill where the representation by a lawyer would be of great benefit to the child. In reading through the Bill I was struck, for example, by Clauses 25 and 26 relating to contact. Here, the court may make an order granting contact under special provisions quite separate from those in the Children Act, after a child is placed for adoption. The child is one of those who may apply for such an order. Presumably he might also wish to oppose it.

Is the Minister satisfied that the wishes and feelings of a child will be satisfactorily heard under both scenarios? Is this not the kind of potentially complicated and emotionally difficult situation in which the role of a legal practitioner might be essential to protect the child's interests against the conflicting interests of two sets of parents, for example?

Will the Minister consider in particular making specific reference to the needs of such representation in the Bill? The way that we have chosen to do so may not be entirely satisfactory, but the issue is of importance, given the objective of the Bill to put the child's welfare at the heart of the adoption process.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I support in principle the spirit of both amendments but, for reasons given by the Minister today and on Report, and by myself on Report, I would prefer not to break the mould of Clause I. I would also prefer, naturally, the question of representation raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, under subsection (2) of my Amendment No. 7 and the question of the child under subsection (3) of my Amendment No. 7, because these amendments as they stand require qualification.

My amendment is inevitably imperfect and in due course it is with the help of this Committee that we shall achieve a composite amendment to be re-tabled that makes total sense. In that spirit, I hope, as I hope to have a meeting with my noble friend Lord Howe and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, to try to achieve an acceptable draft in the light of your Lordships' contributions. I hope that this amendment will not be pressed.

4 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Those of us who debate health and social care Bills will know that the voice of the children has been to the fore of our thinking and that is absolutely right. The question is whether the structure of the Bill, as it presently stands, is sufficient to ensure, as Clause 1(4) reads: the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings". There can be no question about that on the part of the Government. We strongly believe that the child's wishes and feelings should be actively sought and fully taken into account at all stages of the Adoption and Children Bill. This is a key value which underpins our National Adoption Standards, published last year, which make abundantly clear that the voice of the child has a critical role to play in the deliberations and decisions in relation to adoption.

I would draw the attention of Members of the Committee to the children's standards in the National Adoption Standards for England, which make clear that every child will have his or her wishes and feelings listened to, recorded and taken into account. Where they are not acted upon, the reasons for not doing so will be explained to the child and properly recorded. They make clear that all children will have a named social worker who will be responsible for them throughout the adoption process. They make clear that children will be given clear explanation and information about adoption, covering what happens at each stage, including at court, and how long each stage is likely to take in their own individual case.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Could the Minister identify the document?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

It is the National Adoption Standards for England; I will make this available to Members of the Committee to consider. They also make clear that children placed for adoption and adopted children will be informed of their right to make representations and complaints and will be helped to do so if this is required. I will, of course, make sure that these documents are available to Members of the Committee because they very much underpin much of our discussion about how we are going to make sure this system works effectively.

These adoption standards will inform the National Care Standards Commission, which in itself will be producing national minimum standards. From 1st April 2003, these standards will become Section 7 guidance to local authorities which means, in effect, that local authorities must comply with these standards unless there are exceptional reasons for not so doing.

As regards the Bill, I believe that this very much underpins what we all seek to do. Under Clause 1(4)(a), courts and adoption agencies will be under a positive legal obligation to ascertain the child's wishes and feelings about all decisions relating to adoption and to take them into account when considering the child's age and understanding. There is no question that they must do this; it is a legal obligation. They will need to do it through direct consultation with the child, where the child is old enough. I have strong sympathy, however, for the principle that has prompted the amendments. The assumption must be that even relatively young children will have a view that must be taken into account and agencies will be expected to ascertain this directly.

The precise procedure will be set out for adoption agencies in regulations and guidance, and for courts in court rules and guidance. In respect of adoption agencies, the new adoption agencies' regulations and guidance we will make to accompany the implementation of this Bill will place explicit obligations on agencies to consult the children, to record their views, to ensure that their views are considered in the decision-making process—for example, by adoption panels—and, where they are not acted upon, record the reasons why not.

I assure Members of the Committee that the details of these regulations will be subject to consultation but we would expect that, before any match between a child and a set of prospective adopters is considered by an adoption agency adoption panel and before any decision is made, the views of the child on a suggested match will be sought and taken into account—in the light of the child's age and understanding, of course, and bearing in mind the number of babies that are involved in the adoption process. As far as the courts are concerned, court rules will provide in certain circumstances that the children's guardian must be appointed to represent the child. Their duties will include ascertaining the child's views through direct contact and reporting them to the court. But even where there is no guardian, the child's views will need to be conveyed to the court through the report to the court that every adoption agency must produce under Clause 42 of the Bill, and also potentially through any general CAFCASS officer report the court may commission under the powers in Clause 99.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, as to when regulations will be available. We have made it clear that we intend the Bill to be implemented in 2004. Regulations and guidance will accompany that implementation and our aim is to consult on the draft regulations and guidance over 2003 and 2004, but we wish that consultation to be as inclusive as possible.

As regards the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, she very clearly anticipated my response. My understanding is that Article 12 provides that a child should be heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting him or her and should do so either directly or through a representative or an appropriate body in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law. Our system, both under the existing 1976 Act and under the new Bill when implemented, provides for both scenarios. CAFCASS officers will report to court on matters relating to the welfare of the child. This is in Clause 99(3)(b). In addition, we will allow in rules for a child to be made a party to proceedings where it is appropriate to do so, acting either through a CAFCASS officer or, as the noble Baroness suggested, if the child is of sufficient maturity, instructing a solicitor directly.

The noble Baroness raised concerns about CAFCASS and its ability to meet the responsibilities being placed upon it. We will be consulting on court rules associated with the Bill. Some of the key issues we will consult on will be the role of CAFCASS prior to and in proceedings, on reports to court in the best interests of the child, on party status and notification of proceedings for those involved in adoption and placement cases, whether any classes of proceedings should be made specified proceedings within the meaning conferred by the Children Act 1989, questions about public legal funding and the appropriate financial test for funding and aligning the issues with children proceedings where appropriate. This is not an exhaustive list and there may well be other issues which arise, and we will listen very carefully to the points raised in Committee.

As regards the general point, I am confident that the Bill as presently constructed sets out the broad principle of needing to ascertain the views of children. I give the commitment that we will consult very clearly indeed on the draft regulations and draft court rules so that we can have the widest input into future deliberations in that particular area.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Perhaps I may ask a brief question. Is the Minister giving an assurance that guidance under Section 7 shall have legal efficacy?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I must be very careful when I talk about Section 7 guidance. Essentially, Section 7 guidance that is given to local authorities has to be followed unless the local authority has very good reasons not to follow it. The local authority is., of course, challengeable under those circumstances.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

May I respectfully ask the Minister to take advice on that reply because it either has legal efficacy or it has not; there is no halfway.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I will be happy to write to the noble Lord, but I believe that I paraphrased the wording I have used on many occasions in your Lordships' House when asked what we mean by Section 7 guidance. I will of course follow the matter up with the noble Lord.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

I am rather distressed to hear the Minister say that it is not anticipated that the Bill, when enacted, will come into force until 2004. Is such a long delay necessary? Would it not be possible to bring it into force a little sooner?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I can well understand the noble Lady's impatience for the Bill to be implemented as soon as possible. On the other hand, we have to get this right. There is very good reason for ensuring that there is sufficient time after the Bill is enacted to prepare all those involved in new responsibilities, ranging from local authorities to the courts, to the registered adoption agencies. In addition, it is clear from the construction of the Bill that there are a series of regulations and court rules which need to be consulted upon. For that reason, it is important that we prepare the ground sufficiently.

It is also worth making the point that there is some evidence that even under the current legislation local authorities have begun to improve their performance. Obviously, we hope that that will continue in the period prior to implementation.

Baroness Blatch

Perhaps I may slightly rephrase the question posed by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. Am I right in thinking that the Minister said that local authorities will have a legal obligation to have regard to the guidance? If that is the case, it should appear on the face of the Bill. It can therefore be challenged if it is thought that in coming to a decision they did not have proper regard to the guidance.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I do not accept that it needs to be on the face of the Bill because Section 7 guidance is a well-known process in relation to local authority personal social services, which has been used on a number of occasions. Section 7(1) of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 states: Local authorities shall, in the exercise of their social services functions, including the exercise of any discretion conferred by relevant enactment, act upon the general guidance of the Secretary of State". That is the first element.

The National Adoption Standards for England will, from 1st April 2003, be the subject of Section 7 guidance. I will look very carefully at the wording and write to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. In essence, as I have said, local authorities are under an obligation to comply with those standards unless there are exceptional reasons. If there were exceptional reasons, the local authority would in any case be open to challenge for not carrying out that guidance.

Baroness Barker

In making my first intervention, I want echo the sentiments of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about the general acceptance of the Bill. The Bill contains many principles on which I am sure we will all agree. However, we have not gone past Clause 1 and we have come up against the reality that as regards the detail there might be great differences among all sides of the Committee.

I return to the point which I raised on Second Reading. Although there is general consensus that Clause 1(2) is a good basis upon which to frame the whole of the Bill, it none the less is a fairly subjective and open basis upon which to frame all the reference to the legislation. That is the reason for the amendment proposed by my noble friend. I listened very carefully to what the Minister had to say, as I always do when he speaks on the subject of advocacy. We talk about advocacy a lot in relation to other client groups; it is a subject close to my heart.

I heard the word "information" and the word "consult" and I believe that once I heard the word "representation" but there is something about advocacy that was not covered by what he said; that is, enabling somebody to initiate actions that they want to happen, that they would not otherwise be able to do. Particularly when the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, raised his point about Section 7, the thought occurred to me: how does a child take on a local authority which has not fulfilled its duty? What the Minister seems to be saying here is almost there but not quite there in terms of a child being enabled to say what he or she wants. Let us bear in mind some of the children who are going to be in this position. They will be children who sometimes have great difficulty expressing themselves and presumably any child would have difficulty doing so in a court of law.

There seems to be something slightly deficient about there not being on the face of the Bill an explicit duty to provide advocacy for a child. There is a strong case, notwithstanding Clause 1(2), to have that facility available to children. It is a different matter from having even a CAFCASS officer who cannot be immune to all the other considerations going on in adoption. We know that in adoption there will be at least two other considerations going on: those of the adoption agency and those of at least one set of parents, be they birth parents or adoptive parents.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Is that not why Clause 1(2) is so important and why everything that we debate and talk about in connection with the involvement of the child and the need to listen to the child rests on ensuring that the paramount consideration is the child's welfare, no matter what different views are coming through? That is what this whole Bill rests upon.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Perhaps I may deal with the question of guidance? It is as used in many other statutes; it has no legal efficacy at all. The Minister twice used the term "assurance". An assurance imports a legal efficacy and there is absolutely no reason why in this statute, as in some others concerning the interests of children, there should not be guidance which has a legal efficacy. That is, with respect, what I am trying to ask for.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No doubt we shall return to this question and I am very happy to go away and look at the issues being debated here. I very much accept that the child's right to be heard is important. Section 7 guidance means a great deal to local authorities. In fact, they know that they are required to implement it. Any local authority asked about the importance of Section 7 would quite understand what it was required to do. We have had debates about Section 7 guidance in the past because noble Lords, who often ask me to issue Section 7 guidance in relation to a number of areas of performance by local authorities' social services, know that it bites in a way which other guidance does not.

I return to the point that the construction of the Bill is to set the broad principle. The broad principle seems to be clearly set out. Regulations, court rules and performance management then follow to ensure that we can indeed make sure that the principle is seen in practice when it comes to listening to children.

Lord Astor of Hever

Before I conclude my remarks, I have one question for the Minister, who ended his response by saying that he would be happy to take the matter away and think about the proposal. Would the Government consider bringing forward their own differently-worded amendment at the Report stage to take us all out of our agony?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

The noble Lord is very tempting, but I am not persuaded that that is required. However, I accept that noble Lords are at one in wishing to ensure that the child's voice is heard as effectively as possible. I shall be happy to see whether I can bring further assurances to noble Lords as to how this will work out in practice when we return to the matter on Report.

Baroness Barker

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever. When my colleagues and I were preparing for the Bill, we approached it in a perhaps slightly unusual way. One of us read it from the standpoint of being an adopted child, while the other read it from the point of view of a local authority, or an adoption agency. It is a very revealing exercise; indeed, I commend it to noble Lords. That is why we arrived at this amendment. It is not clear how a child would be enabled in an adoption, independently of every other player, to initiate some action. The Minister is far more familiar with the legislative history than I am; I accept that fact. However, between now and the Report stage, I should like the Minister to come back and explain, perhaps with a worked-through example, how a child will be able to initiate or stop action in one way or another, irrespective of what anyone else is doing in the process of adoption. That is why I remain convinced on the point about the necessity of having an advocate.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I am happy to take the matter away and see what we can do. I should stress that much of this has to be the subject of extensive consultation following the enactment of the Bill. However, I shall certainly see what I can do.

Lord Astor of Hever

Will the Minister confirm that other noble Lords taking part in this debate will get a copy of the letter to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, and of any correspondence with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath


Lord Astor of Hever

This has been a most useful and helpful debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said, the devil is in the detail. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, that the child's welfare must be at the heart of the adoption process, and that consultation should be on the face of the Bill. I agree with what my noble friend Lady Blatch said about avoiding a lawyers' field day.

We shall read Hansard carefully. My noble friends and I will consult with the two noble Baronesses, and my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, to see whether we can come up with a better phrased amendment at the next stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Earl Howe

moved Amendment No. 6: Page 2, line 16, at end insert "subject to the proviso that such consideration shall be secondary to the matters to be considered in subsections (2) and (3) The noble Earl said: Clause 1 of the Bill begins, as has already been said, by setting out the over-arching provisions that must govern any decision relating to the adoption of a child. Subject to what I am about to say, it is to my mind a well-drafted clause. However, one of the concerns debated at some length in another place was whether the clause ought to be clearer about what one might call the "hierarchy of factors" to be taken into account when a decision on a child's adoption is in prospect.

Subsection (2) is quite specific: The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare, throughout his life". That is the over-riding factor that must govern decision making. No one takes issue with that. However, after subsection (2), there are a number of further subsections: the presumption against delay in subsection (3); the welfare checklist in subsection (4); and then, in subsection (5), the duty on the part of an adoption agency to give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.

There are several points to be emphasised about subsection (5). First, what it says is very important. I think back particularly to the Second Reading speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, Who spoke with considerable authority on the issue. However, if we look at what is wrong with the adoption system at the moment, there is one failing that stands out above all others; and that is delay. The delays in the adoption process happen for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that social workers often feel compelled to keep looking for the "perfect fit" when searching for adoptive parents. There might, for example, be a child who is three-quarters black and a quarter white. It is not uncommon for a social worker to reject potential adopters who do not fit that racial profile exactly. That is obviously a nonsense. The clear intention of the Government is for agencies to move away from that kind of blinkered approach.

Although we have a clear warning in subsection (3) about the harm that can be done by delay, if a delay occurs it is always possible for an adoption agency to claim that there is a perfectly serious and valid reason for it, and that it is in the interests of the child. The welfare of the child demands that very careful thought must be given to all factors set out in subsections (4), (5) and (6) before a final decision is reached, but, in my opinion, careful thought should never be an excuse for delay. If we consider the way in which Clause 1 is constructed, there is nothing there that gives any indication of the ranking that an agency or a court should give to any of the individual subsections—other than subsection (2), which relates to the paramountcy of the child's own welfare.

I have no doubt that the Government are seeking to strike a very careful balance in the clause to ensure that all relevant factors are carefully weighed. However, without some additional pointers in the clause, it seems to me that there could be an excuse for someone to tilt that balance to suit his own preconceived ends. My amendment seeks to make the considerations in subsection (5) subsidiary to those set out in subsections (2) and (3); in other words, it in no way tries to belittle the need to have regard to race, religion, culture and language, but says that the latter are not to be equated with the child's long-term welfare, and are explicitly less important than the need to avoid delay.

The Government have said that this sort of issue can be encapsulated in guidance and does not have to be on the face of the Bill. I have some grave doubts, particularly in the light of the last debate, about the adequacy of guidance, however binding it may purport to be, in comparison with primary legislation about which there can be no argument. My fear is that left as it is, the clause runs the risk of creating another lawyer's field day. In relation to subsection (5), one witness stated in written evidence to the Special Standing Committee held in November 2001 in another place (col. 280): It repeats the mistake of the Children Act in giving sanction to the ideological agenda of those child care professionals who are obsessed with ethnicity". That witness was Dr Peter Hayes, of the University of Sunderland. The main fear that he expressed was that the subsection will have several adverse effects, albeit unintentional: to begin with, it will delay the placement of all children by needlessly subdividing and restricting the parent pool.

For similar reasons, Dr Hayes believed it would be used to justify the unnecessary rejection of potential adoptive parents. It could be used as well to bolster the informal policies followed in some local authorities of deterring parents who wish to undertake an inter-country adoption—something that I will be talking about in a later group of amendments. He also forecast that the subsection would be used to justify ignoring the wishes of some children. For these reasons, and others besides, Dr Hayes counselled a huge measure of caution in accepting this part of Clause 1 without any qualification attached to it. I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about this issue because I do not believe the debate in another place resolved it adequately. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I oppose this amendment. With respect, it is wholly unnecessary as a matter of construction. The order of the hierarchy is totally plain. Subsection (2) relates to the paramountcy of child's welfare throughout its life; subsection (3) relates to delay; and so forth. This so-called addition will do nothing other than produce what my noble friend quite rightly abhors; a lawyer's paradise. There is a perfectly sound structure and I am against breaking a sound structure as a matter of convenience if it is not absolutely crucial to do so, and it is not. The governing clause of the Bill is Clause 1 and it should stand unamended unless there is an overriding case—and here there is no overriding case—to change it.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

I have some sympathy with the comments of the noble Earl. Lord Howe. The reason is not because I think it is not important to think about race, religion and culture. The noble Baroness made a very good speech and outlined that very clearly at Second Reading. It is because paramountcy and these issues become very confused and are subject to interpretation in the particular ethos of a local authority.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of discussion about professionals. Professionals pick up only the issues that are put on the cultural atmosphere in a local authority by their councillors. I say that as someone who has worked in Brent and Lambeth at the height of political correctness, and during those times struggled to give the best kind of placements to children at times of extraordinary difficulty.

Some way must be found to ensure that in regulation guidance, or in a provision on the face of the Bill, it is quite clear what we mean by paramountcy and speed. As I said previously, speed must be balanced by the quality of intervention. Some situations are extraordinarily complex, but race, religion and culture, are open to all kinds of debate and in those respects there could be serious difficulty in implementation if the guidance and the standards are not clear.

Baroness Barker

I, too, was mindful of the very thoughtful speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, at Second Reading. It seemed to raise the key question; that is, the importance of these factors in any individual determining his or her individual identity. She talked very movingly about people being adopted and discovering in later life that some of those issues were of tremendous importance to them in establishing who they are.

I want to ask the Minister why the clause has come to be in the Bill in this way. I want to know whether it has been informed by practice or not. My suspicion is that it has. I think back to an adoption I know of that took place over 30 years ago where the issue of cultural and racial matching was of importance. The adoption agency did indeed come up with some children who were half Scottish and half Italian, as were their parents. They had decided a long time ago that they wanted to have that reflected because they felt they had parenting skills in dealing with that particular combination.

I want to ask the Minister another question, to which I hope he will respond. The clause provides that due consideration must be given to the child's religious persuasion and racial origin. I want to be absolutely clear that that does mean the child and not the parents, because that would give the Bill a very different complexion. It says "the child" and that is an important part of the interpretation when the Bill is put into practice. I return to my question: why is the provision here now? Is it based on good practice, or is it based on ideology?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

The provision is in the Bill because it has been informed both by experience and also by the kind of concerns that Members of the Committee have raised today. When we think about some of the great debates of the 1980s and some of the concerns— and I suspect that it was the outcome of the PIU report which paved the way for much of the Bill—we may say that some of these allegations were urban myths, but undoubtedly there were indeed pressures and tensions around what have been described in shorthand as "politically correct adoption processes".

I well recall our debate at Second Reading when I was asked about matters to do not so much with ethnic issues but with issues around blanket bans on smokers, on people who were obese, or even on age. I made it clear then that such blanket bans are not to be supported under any consideration, and that a judgment has to be made in each individual case.

However, in the light of the debate that we have had over 20 years on these issues, I believe that the Bill is the right place to try and set out what is, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said at the beginning, the right balance, bearing in mind at all times the welfare of the child as the paramount consideration.

I thought the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, clearly expressed the point that the Bill is currently constructed to provide just that right kind of balance. It sets out the general principles that apply across the adoption provisions of the Bill, including making it clear that the child's welfare must be the paramount consideration for courts and adoption agencies in coming to any decision relating to the adoption of a child.

Subsection (3) of Clause 1 places a duty on courts and adoption agencies to bear in mind at all times that any delay in coming to a decision is in general likely to prejudice the welfare of the child. Subsection (5) of Clause 1 places an obligation on the adoption agency when placing a child for adoption to, give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background". Clearly the interaction of those two subsections take us to the heart of the matter. The starting point in considering that is that subsections (3) and (5) need to be read together.

The obligation in subsection (3) on adoption agencies to have regard to the potentially harmful effects of delay is an over-arching provision that applies across all decisions relating to the adoption of a child, including the placement decision.

Subsection (5) cannot override that obligation. It does not allow adoption agencies to wait for ages to find a perfect match. I very much agree with the concerns expressed by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, on the issue of delay. Subsection (5) imposes a duty on the agency when making the placement decision to consider the factors listed—as I said, the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. This is equivalent to the duty placed on local authorities by Section 22 of the Children Act, which applies to children in care.

During debate on this issue on Second Reading my noble friend Lady Howells of St Davids argued persuasively from her professional and personal experience of the importance of giving due weight during the adoption process to the factors set out in subsection (5), which could have a potentially significant impact on lifelong issues of identity—for example, the child's racial and cultural background.

That is what Clause (1) does. The factors must be considered, but not at the expense of harmful delay to the child. That is why subsection (5) refers to "due consideration". The important point is to strike the right balance in the interests of the child.

It is useful here also to look back to subsection (2) of Clause 1, which states: The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare, throughout his life". That is the pre-eminent subsection of the clause. It overrides all others, so that the child's welfare is paramount and other considerations should be outweighed, if the welfare of the child is at stake.

I hope that Members of the Committee will recognise that the Bill, as presently constructed, gets the balance right. I, of course, accept the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about the challenges facing social workers and others involved in the field. That is one reason why we shall implement this legislation in 2004. We have to accept that there is a great deal of groundwork, training and support that need to be given. However, so far as the principle is concerned, I believe that the clause gets it right.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I ask the noble Earl, Lord Howe, a question related to the use of the word "secondary" in his amendment. The use of the word "secondary" could almost diminish the duty under subsection (5). I wonder whether the noble Earl has thought of the amendment in those terms. If I had to reach a decision and it was a question of not causing any delay that might prejudice a child's welfare or having regard to the provisions in subsection (5), and I was told that that subsection was a secondary consideration, it might well go out of my thinking. That is what concerns me about the amendment.

Earl Howe

This has been a very helpful debate. I am most grateful to all Members of the Committee who have spoken. I am particularly grateful for the Minister's reply. I was very reassured to receive some support from the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, with her immense experience of these matters. I fear that, simple as these provisions appear on the face of the Bill, they will give rise to some very difficult situations when interpreted on the ground. The guidance is crucial here.

I note very carefully what the Minister said about the strict legal position and what my noble friend Lord Campbell said in his very trenchant way. I always sit up when I find that he disagrees with an amendment tabled by a Member of his party's Front Bench because his wisdom is so apparent. I rely very much on what he is able to tell us with his immense professional experience. I am clear from what has been said that I shall have to rethink this.

To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I can quite see that the word "secondary" has a pejorative ring to it which could be unfortunate. It is certainly not intentional on my part to belittle the importance of the matters contained in subsection (5). My concern, to recap slightly, is that subsection (3) does not amount to a prohibition on delay but is merely a warning about delay. It allows for the possibility of what one might call "purposeful delay". Purposeful delay could be taken to be in the child's interests in certain circumstances by those with a particular agenda.

The Minister mentioned the words "due consideration" in subsection (5). I looked at those words and they seemed to me very measured, but I then thought that they could be interpreted in a manner which is not intended by those with a private agenda to pursue a racial match to the nth degree. They could be taken as giving a green light to what such individuals might wish to do. They could even be taken to justify the argument that considerations of race and culture are of paramount importance. That would be very unfortunate. While the legal position is one thing—and here I defer once again to my noble friend Lord Campbell—what happens on the ground is another. It may be too late before anybody challenges what is going on.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. Does he accept that if, following the advice of his noble friend, the Bill is acceptable as it is written, the key is the guidance that is given to local authorities and, indeed, to registered adoption agencies—I refer to training, development and performance management—which is then incorporated in the system to make sure that the circumstances that he describes do not arise? I have today attempted to indicate that we clearly understand that the success of the Bill will lie in its successful implementation. We shall be very careful to make sure that guidance is available to social workers and others which indicates as clearly as possible the points that they have to bear in mind.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Could I ask my noble friend a question? I am much obliged to him. I refer to the question of delay. I had another look at the measure. The Bill refers to "any delay"; that is, delay whether purposive, whether by inadvertence or howsoever caused. The words "any delay" constitute the widest drafting concept of delay.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I hope that I may add to that. I refer to the circumstances that have been mentioned to me where it is possible that some delay might be in the best interests of the child. For example, in the case of a group of siblings it might be beneficial to wait a little longer in order to find adopters who are willing to take them all rather than place them with different adopters. However, delay might be beneficial only in rather exceptional circumstances such as those.

Earl Howe

Again, I am most grateful to my noble friend and to the Minister. I readily accept that he has shed a lot of light on this clause and it has been a useful exchange. I shall read carefully what has been said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

moved Amendment No. 7: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause— "IMPLEMENTATION OF THE EXERCISE OF POWERS (1) In implementation of the exercise of powers under section I, the following considerations apply. (2) At all stages of the process of adoption, the child shall have such qualified independent representation as may be arranged or approved by the Official Solicitor. (3) If the child is of sufficient understanding—

  1. (a) the adoption agency shall arrange a meeting with the prospective adopters having informed the child of the prospect of adoption, and
  2. (b) the views of the child shall be heard before any further decision is made by the adoption agency or by the court of first instance in connection with the adoption of the child.
(4) No adoption order may be made unless and until a legal commitment by the prospective adopter or adopters, enforceable by the court, has been approved by the court, taking into account an entitlement to support services to be established on adoption. (5) A new scheme of rigorous assessment shall be instituted to assess the ability of prospective adopters to care for the child safely and effectively which does not discriminate against homosexual couples as such. (6) The basic services to be provided by adoption services to parents and relatives of the child who seek assurances as to the welfare of the child may be designated by regulations with a view to establishing some uniformity. The noble Lord said: I beg to move this amendment, to which a marker was put down at Second Reading at columns 54 to 56 of the Official Report of 10th June. I only mention that because nobody will have read them and they are readable there if anybody wishes to do so.

This amendment—as appears from subsection (1), which is wholly declaratory—is concerned with implementation of the exercise of powers of the court and adoption agencies under Clause 1. The Committee may wish to take note in this context of matters relevant to the implementation of Clause 1, which are for subsequent debate and in due course for resolution.

Amendments Nos. 71 to 79 are designed to break the structure of the Bill so as to exclude as prospective adopters unmarried heterosexual couples or singles and homosexuals whether joint or single. Amendments Nos. 76 to 78 assert the dominance of the blood tie. They dispense with parental consent, contrary to the unanimous decision of your Lordships' Appellate Committee as referred to on Second Reading.

When this amendment was tabled on 12th June I sent it to the Minister with a letter which drew his attention only to the proposed subsection (5) of my amendment and suggested that the Government by amendment should table a new scheme of rigorous assessment as a schedule to the Bill. In the light of the reply received on 22nd June by e-mail, subsection (5) of the amendment may now be treated as otiose and Amendment No. 10 to Clause 3 will not be moved. Incidentally, the e-mail stated that I would receive two letters, one at the House of Lords and one at my home address. The one at the House of Lords must have gone to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, and the one sent to my home address was not brought by the postman, so all I received was the e-mail, but I am grateful for that. I ask whether noble Lords have copies of these letters because they are of crucial import. They indicate that subsection (5) of the amendment to which I speak is otiose and that there is no object in moving the amendment to Clause 3.

The e-mail was a long document and I shall shorten it into about 10 lines. It is proposed to establish by regulation under Clause 44—with statutory guidance which is assumed to have legal efficacy—a new regime which is wholly satisfactory. I refer to a regime under which prospective adopters, whether married or not, whether single or joint, will have to demonstrate the ability to provide loving care for the child in a family relationship and to provide a stable upbringing. Couples must demonstrate that they have a lasting relationship. Unless you have seen and read that document—and I congratulate the Government and those in the department who worked on it as they have done a first rate job—it is very difficult to appreciate in true perspective exactly where we are on this matter.

On 20th June I received another letter from the Minister which gave detailed proposals for monitoring by social services—that is, the local authority—after the adoption order had been made. In this context the proposal set out in subsection (4) of my amendment as regards a legal commitment, which could be recommended on assessment and be implemented in such form as advised by the court on making an adoption order, is a matter on which the Committee's opinions are sought today. Again, it is difficult to put the matter into perspective without the Minister's letter. I am not given to saying that ministerial documents are any good, but the ones I am discussing are first rate. You have to give credit where it is due.

If I may say so, here is an example where delay—I refer to delay in reply—was justified by the result. The Minister's letter set out the evidence in support of the assertion that adoption by a homosexual has no adverse effect on the well-being of the child, as was promised on Second Reading. That document is well worth reading. I have asked that copies should be placed in the Library.

As I said, subsection (1) of my Amendment No. 7 is declaratory. As regards the representation point, the matters I would respectfully ask the Committee to consider are the competence of the person who represents the child and the expertise that is required. We should remember that a child is involved, perhaps a very young child.

I refer to legal aid and the selected panel, at whatever level, of those who are going to represent the child. I am not suggesting that lawyers are necessarily the best people to represent a child. That is a matter that I would like the Committee to consider. I suggest that someone like the Official Solicitor or the Lord Chancellor, or somebody in an objective position, would be in a position to establish a panel of competent lawyers. Not all lawyers are competent. Everybody knows that. It is very important not to pick one who knows nothing about children. If a lawyer spends his life in the criminal courts dealing with robbery cases, for example, he will not know anything about the matter we are discussing. That is an important point. I do not have the necessary expertise to draft subsection (2) of the amendment and I seek the Committee's assistance on that.

As to subsection (3) of the amendment, we have the problem of the meeting of the child with the adopters. I am told that what happens so often now is that the wretched child is told by a social worker, "You are going to have new parents tomorrow", or something like that. There is no way in which the shock or the trauma is cushioned. That is what I am told. I am not saying that it is the usual practice, but I am told that it happens. Subsection (3) of my amendment is designed to ensure that at least the child should meet the adopters and that the child's views should he canvassed. At the moment there is no such process. It may be in the document referred to by the Minister, which I have not seen and have now forgotten what it was called—the National Adoption Standards. It may be there, and I may be raising an unnecessary point. This is a probing amendment, and on that I also ask for the Committee's assistance.

The other aspect of subsection (3) is that one has to ensure, I would suggest, that the child should be heard in the court of first instance if the child is sufficient of understanding. This is a mandatory provision there, but it is not mandatory in the appellate courts. If the appellate court wishes, it has a discretion to see the child, but that would not be mandatory. These aspects which I have asked your Lordships to consider in subsections (2) and (3) support my suggestion that my noble friend Lord Howe, the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and I, as well as anyone else who would wish to come, would be welcome to try and devise a better, composite form for raising these issues of representation and the voice of the child.

As to subsection (5), for the reasons I have given, it is now otiose. As for subsection (6), I am told that these basic services are—I heard the Minister use the word and I wrote it down—"patchy". That is exactly what I had been told in the context of subsection (6). I have therefore suggested that there should be some regulation to establish uniformity. Of course in some cases the service is good, in others it is bad, and in others, according to my information, it is virtually non-existent.

To conclude, the amendment is concerned with safeguards for the interests of children in desperate need of loving care in a stable family relationship who have to remain in care because they cannot return home or have no home. A family relationship is afforded by adoption. Is not the risk of adoption as proposed by this Bill, perhaps with this amendment in some form, far less of a risk than the risk of care where there is no prospect of a loving family relationship and, at times, the unwelcome exposure to unacceptable treatment such as was identified in the Waterhouse report? So, my Lords, if we may muse on understanding, I beg to move.

5 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

The noble Lord alluded to subsection (4) early in his speech, but he did not specifically mention it when taking us through the subsections. There is quite a debate, if he chooses to have one, about the application of subsection (4).

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I am much obliged. In fact I forgot. However, I did mention it as it related to an amendment that was being moved. I shall be very brief.

Your Lordships may take the view that there should be some legal commitment by adopters. The form that it should take should not be too stereotyped, but it should be open to the assessment to say, "The legal commitment is in this form or that form", be it financial or not, which inevitably takes account of adoption, social entitlement and so forth, and to make a recommendation having regard to the means of the proposed adopters. That recommendation does not bind the judge or the court. The court can accept it or not accept it. However, it does stand as an earnest, and it stands for the protection of the children. I am not sure in what form it should be drafted. I have done the best that I can with it. With respect, however, I should like your Lordships to deal with the matter.

Baroness David

I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, a question which relates to subsection (4). I wonder whether the provision would cover a situation which I outlined in my speech on Second Reading. I should also like to know what the Minister has to say about this. On Second Reading, I said: I turn to another aspect—information and transparency. The situation is much better than it used to be, but surely a child's history should be available at the time of matching and should not be left until he moves in with the adoptive family when a placement order is made".—[Official Report, 10/06/02; col. 62.] I should like to know about this matching, whether this is made clear at that time, and whether this is done. I asked the question on Second Reading but did not receive an answer from the Minister, which was not altogether surprising. Nevertheless, I should like to know. There are many admirable aspects to the new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. I do not know, but I suspect that the Minister may ultimately say that the new clause is unnecessary. However, I should like an answer on whether this matter has any relevance to subsection (4) of the new clause.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Quite clearly it has. However, it must have had a subliminal effect. I remember the noble Baroness's speech; I was there. To be totally frank, however, now that the noble Baroness points it out, it very much marries, in a way, with the concept which she has raised. It is part of it. I take no pride of authorship. The only pride I have is to put a proposition to your Lordships for your Lordships' consideration.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

I find myself in something of a quandary on which I shall no doubt need to take the Committee's advice. I was intending to make some comments on the last nine words of subsection (5) of the new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. In his speech just now, however, he has suggested not only that the subsection will be withdrawn, but that it will be withdrawn on the strength of a government paper that none of us has seen. It seems to me that that paper requires just the same type of questioning as that required by the proposal itself.

I am therefore quite puzzled as to how to proceed. I do now know whether I should offer that questioning, or whether I should simply make a note that, should anything of this sort continue in the Bill—in Amendments Nos. 71, 72, 73 and 122—I, with others, shall wish to make the types of points that I want to make now. As the proposal will be withdrawn, and the government document in its place is not before us, I am not very clear about the procedure. Perhaps I should sit down and ask for advice before going on.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

As far as subsection (5) is concerned, I have said that it is otiose. I did not say that I will withdraw it. It is otiose, as any of your Lordships would think if you had read the letter.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

As we have not read the letter, and therefore do not know whether the subsection is otiose, and as the letter as reported by the noble Lord seems to raise just the same issues as those raised by the last nine words, we are surely in something of a quandary as to how to proceed.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My advice to the right reverend Prelate is to plough on. This is a relevant and interesting debate which will inform our later discussion on future amendments. It is also right that noble Lords should speak to the current amendment, Amendment No. 7.

As for practice, whenever we receive a letter during the passage of a Bill from a noble Lord who is taking part in our deliberations, our normal practice is to respond to that noble Lord and to send copies to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and to the noble Earl, Lord Howe. The problem here is probably that I agreed the letter at the end of Friday. Inevitably, with the best will in the world, it takes time to get through to noble Lords. The noble Lord has kindly said that we can now copy that letter into the Library of the House, and I will circulate it to all Members who have been present at Second Reading and in Committee.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

I should then take the Minister's advice and, as he puts it, plough on. I crave the indulgence of the Committee in so doing.

First, it is important to note the words in Clause 1(2), which in my experience of reading both the Commons discussion and the discussion on 10th June, at which I was not able to be present, have not been quoted anything like as often as those that immediately proceed them. Clause 1(2), correctly quoted as it has always been, speaks of the paramount consideration being the child's welfare. Already today the words "throughout his life" have been quoted, but very often they are not. It seems to me that that puts a strong premium on the greatest possible assurance of the permanence of adoptive parental relationships.

Those of us who have had the privilege to grow up through a substantial part of our lives with our parents alive, and those of us who have had the privilege to be parents whether natural or adoptive, will know that parenting goes on and on. We also know that the family relationships, of which parenting and being a child is a part, are trans-generational, and they include a range of relationships of all kinds; more distant blood relationships and friend relationships.

If taken seriously, the words, "throughout his life" seem to underline the importance of the root question, which was well put by various speakers in your Lordships' debate on 10th June. It was: how can those who have not made a permanent commitment to each other in marriage—the word later used in the Bill is "enduring" commitment—publicly and in the face of relatives, friends and so on, take on the particular character of parenting which in all respects is like that of natural parenting but is that of adoptive parenting? That is in part a question about "enduring".

I want to ask the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, a question which I would put in terms of what seemed to me to be among the most distinguished speeches on 10th June; that of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. I want to ask whether the language of subsection (5), and any language which may replace it which does not discriminate against homosexual couples as such, allows an authority, whatever that authority may be—and we had that debate on Amendments Nos. 1 to 3—to admit into the weighing and decision making the kinds of questions that the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, raised in the middle of his speech.

There is an argument to be had—the Minister may believe that it is concluded and many others, doubtless equally qualified, may believe that it is not concluded—about the effectiveness and the effects of same-sex parenting. There are questions of religious conviction and not only from Christians. Does the kind of language in those last nine words preclude the possibility of such arguments being heard by those responsible? If that is the intention, is that not a remarkably draconian intention?

As part of the same point, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, spoke of listening to the views of parents. Clause 1(4)(f)(iii) speaks more widely of relatives, but let us suppose that it was among the views of parents and relatives that such an adoption was, for whatever reason whether on the grounds of evidence or religious conviction or both, inadmissible. Do those nine words, and anything that replaces them, foreclose such evidence and such conviction?

What of the language in the second part of subsection (6), as regards the judgment of the court and any other, that making the order would be better for the child than not doing so"? Are such considerations admissible or not within the wording of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell?

There are some further points which it seems important to make, although perhaps they are of a more procedural kind. First, I would like to know more about the character of the legal commitment in subsection (4) of the noble Lord's proposed clause in relation to the making of legal commitments by a couple who, in many legal senses, are not a couple—at least until the discussion around the Civil Partnerships Bill has been fully had. Does the noble Lord's language here, and the language of the Bill in general on the other points I have mentioned—Amendments Nos. 71 to 73 and 122—pre-judge that set of discussions which are still to be had?

Finally, an undertaking was given in the Commons debate that the Government would bring forward what was described by the Secretary of State for Health as necessary amendments to deal with any legal or technical implications. Perhaps I have missed them, but I have not seen them on the face of the Bill. I suspect that they relate to the still contentious questions concerning the further work to be done following the debate on the Civil Partnerships Bill in your Lordships' House in early January. However, I ought to make clear that I and others would want to argue that anything like those last nine words of the noble Lord's subsection (5) should not stand part of the Bill.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Barker

I rise in part to beat the noble Earl. Lord Howe, in answering the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. I strongly believe that we have come too early to one of the biggest and most difficult parts of the Bill. In saying that, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for putting forward his amendment in the way he has. In so doing, he has admirably pulled together many of the main concerns about how the Bill will operate in practice. I thank him for putting forward an amendment which specifically talks about how implementation will take place.

I think back to a number of other Bills in which similar discussions on similar issues have taken place. An enormous amount of time has been spent by this House in discussing first matters of principle and then matters of great detail and regulation and having very similar discussions on both. It is commendable that in moving the amendment the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has recognised that these are issues of principle for some people. However, for many more people they are issues of practice and concern. The Minister would do well to look at the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has framed his intentions, although, by his own admission, they are not perfect. They have given rise to a very interesting and helpful debate, to which I should like us to return at a later stage.

In response to the right reverend Prelate, I should tell him, first, that this is an issue on which there will be strongly held opinions and beliefs. However, I do not believe that this Committee is the place in which to hold that discussion, or even to have such a discussion at great length. I believe that many of our colleagues will wish to debate the issue when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House. It has been useful to have an airing of some of the issues, not least for our colleagues who read the reports of our proceedings and study them.

I, too, listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, on Second Reading. One of the parts that I found the most sad was his frank admission that his mind was closed on these matters. Notwithstanding very strong opinions, I believe that this is an issue on which it is not helpful to have closed minds on either side. The one thing that our House can do, perhaps in a way that no other place in this country can, is to have an open, thorough, and thoughtful debate without rancour and recrimination. It seems to me that that is one of the most important functions that we can fulfil, whatever decision the House reaches. It is a matter of some sadness that noble Lords have effectively closed their mind to the issue.

The second point that I wish to make to the right reverend Prelate is that one of the most important facets of the debate on Second Reading was the extent to which people on all sides made an admission that there is very little evidence in this area. That is, perhaps, a matter for both sides to consider and to reflect upon over the course of the summer. Many of us will be pondering these issues before we return to the matter at a later stage.

Without coming to any conclusion on one side or the other, I believe that the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, for which I thank him, has been extremely helpful.

The Lord Bishop of Winchester

As the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, is not here to respond himself to the point that the noble Baroness said, perhaps I may clarify the position. In what the noble Baroness admirably says about minds not being closed, she is presumably open to that possibility as regards those on many sides of the discussion.

Baroness Barker

I believe I did say that. At the end of the day, we are dealing with the real lives of vulnerable children. Above all else, I believe that ideology should not stand in the way of their wellbeing. I believe that as passionately as anything else.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

I should just like to pick up two points in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. The first relates to subsection (5). Where a married couple are contemplating adoption, it is most usually because they have been trying, often for a number of years, to have children of their own unsuccessfully. Therefore, they have probably been married for a number of years. That gives some sort of criterion for assessing their stability. The same may also be the case for an unmarried couple, a cohabiting couple.

In the case of a homosexual couple, this is obviously not the case. I wonder whether it is contemplated that there should be any minimum time for which they should have had to be together before they can be considered for adoption. If so, I wonder what that minimum time should be. I have heard it suggested that two years should be the minimum time, but that seems to me to be perhaps too little.

My other point relates to subsection (3)(a), which says that, the adoption agency shall arrange a meeting with the prospective adopters having informed the child of the prospect of adoption". I believe I am right in saying that best practice nowadays is generally that the child should be fostered by the prospective adopters for a period of time before he is asked to make any decision as to whether or not he wishes to live with those people; and, indeed before any decision is taken as to whether they wish to adopt him.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, helped me to sort out something in my mind. Being fairly new to these procedures, I am struggling somewhat to sort out quite where we are. I believe that we are trying to deal with two issues here. The first is how, on the face of the Bill, we can make better legislation that will help us to implement better practice. I am not sure that those two things are easily matched. Therefore, in the process of adoption, I was certainly surprised by the anecdote that a child had not been told except by a social worker that he was going to be adopted. My experience is that it is a very complex process. A baby would not know anyway and older children have usually been in care, which means that there has been a process of discussion about their future, with reviews and panels, until a conclusion is reached. There is then a very difficult process involving matching, discussion and introduction. The latter is very difficult to implement through statute. Therefore, although I admire the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, because I cannot see how I could ever get this clause together, I cannot see how it is useful in implementation.

While I am on my feet, I should like to consider the very difficult issue of partnerships. I do not think for one moment that there will be huge numbers of same-sex couples adopting children. If one considers the child's needs as being paramount, we are looking to place those children who either find themselves with one parent who has settled down with another partner, where the first partner has disappeared, and wish to be brought up by those two people; or children in similar situations where he or she is known to both partners.

An adoption agency would he very concerned about a same-sex couple coming out of the blue for a baby. It would not be a matter of prejudice, but simply because most children need two parents. If you can find two parents of the opposite sex to form a proper family, then that is fine. I say that coming from a background where I have worked with families of all sorts. I recognise the changes that are taking place in our society. To say that adoption is always like natural parenting is not to understand the kind of children who are going to be placed in families and the kind of experience that those families will have in bringing up such adopted children. Anyone who has worked with those families will know about the excruciating difficulties that they have, and why they need support.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, will withdraw his amendment, simply because I cannot see how we can legislate for practice in this way. However, I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on these issues.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Could of Potternewton

There is much that I would like to say on subsection (5) of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. However, I would like to leave most of it for another time because we will have time in Committee—we need not wait for Report—when we can debate the issues in greater detail. I would like to make two particular points.

One is about fostering. If a child is currently being fostered by an unmarried couple who then want to adopt, only one of them can do so. Surely it is not good for the child suddenly to find that after being in a stable relationship he is in one which becomes unstable. That is one of the serious anomalies of the present situation.

I want to make another point. I am sorry that we are quoting the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, when he is not here but I hope he will be able to be here when we discuss the Bill further. At Second Reading he stated: It is not a case of considering the child's welfare at the moment of escape from a care home or an institution but for the rest of that child's life".—[Official Report, 10/0/02; col. 98.] Of course, that is what the whole argument is about. We are talking about a child having two parents for life, not about suddenly gaining two parents and things going wrong as life goes on. We are talking about trying to make sure that there are two parents who can take decisions about that child's education, about the child's health, about whether the child can go on a trip or whatever. So to argue that somehow or other this does not go through the child's life but is just at that moment when the child is taken out of care is the wrong approach and it is standing the whole argument on its head.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Perhaps I may make a brief comment on subsection (5) of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, which he has already told us he is not going press. In writing it he made a useful point by stating: A new scheme of rigorous assessment shall be instituted … which does not discriminate against homosexual couples as such". I am looking forward very much to receiving the copy of the Minister's letter which I am sure will address that point. It seems to me that the whole core of the matter is that any couple—or for that matter, individual—who wish to adopt will be assessed on exactly the same criteria as any other couple. If the assessor feels that there are inherent instabilities in that couple, after discussing things with them and learning as much as he or she can learn about them, whether the couple are married or not, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, they should not adopt a child.

There is therefore no question that the social workers involved will be determining matters according to the wishes of the couple; it is the good of the child to which they will return. I am hoping that when we get the Minister's letter, we shall see a good deal more about this assessment process. I hope that it will be a reassurance to people outside this room as well as those in it when they understand that that is the case.

Earl Howe

I rise briefly to add my congratulations to my noble friend on this amendment, which raises a large number of important points in a very short space. Although he disclaimed any pretence to being a parliamentary draftsman, he could have fooled me!

I would like to make one or two brief points. I entirely subscribe to the sentiments behind subsection (2). Of course, independent representation through CAFCASS is already supposed to happen. Unfortunately, the main failing with the current system, apart from the fact that CAFCASS is in very severe organisational difficulties, is lack of continuity. One quite frequently finds that although the same person is supposed to follow a child through the case from start to finish, that does not always work out and for obvious reasons the disruption can be damaging to the whole process.

I looked at subsection (3)(b) and had a great deal of sympathy with it. I wonder whether, on reflection, my noble friend would agree, particularly in the light of our earlier debate on hearing the views of the child, the phrase he has employed that the views of the child shall be heard should be qualified very slightly. We should, of course, listen to what a child has to say, but we should also remember that a child is still a child and on the whole, in matters of critical importance, children need some form of guidance if they are to make the right decisions. Without guidance the degree of judgment that a child exercises in some cases is not really adequate to enable him to decide that he would like to forsake all that he knows, however ghastly that may be, in favour of going into a stranger's home and living with another family.

By all means consult the child and ensure that he or she knows exactly what is going on and why, but also be sure that someone is being a real parent in the sense of being a good guide and a wise advocate. That is the flavour that we get from Clause 1(4(a) of the Bill. There is a clear steer there on taking into account the child's ability to understand what is going on.

With that, I readily concede that my noble friend has raised some extremely important points. I am going to skirt over his subsection (5) because that is a matter for a later debate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. As other Members of the Committee have suggested, he has raised a number of very important considerations which we will debate in separate amendments. There are some important points that I would like to respond to as a result of the debate.

It is a unique experience for me to say to the noble Lord that in four years it is the first time I have been congratulated on ministerial correspondence. In general we will do our very best to ensure that where it is relevant and where the noble Lord agrees, that correspondence is copied as quickly as possible to other noble Lords when it is relevant to our deliberations.

Secondly, as far as the specifics of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, raises a very interesting question to which we will return on more than one occasion. It is what is right for the Bill in terms of setting out the broad principles and what is right in terms of ensuring that the practice at the local level is as effective as possible. Some of our debates have centred on that fact.

Ultimately, we need to be very careful to ensure that any enacted legislation is as clear as possible to those in the field who have to implement it. Equally, there is a responsibility on my department to ensure that we work with agencies, with the Local Government Association and with the directors of social services to ensure that advice, guidance, training and support is available to those people who have to operate the Bill once enacted.

As for subsection (2) of the amendment, on the child having access to the Official Solicitor, and on a technical point, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service was set up on 1st April 2001, bringing together the children's section of the Official Solicitor's Office, the guardian ad litem, reporting officer panels and the Family Court Welfare Services for England and Wales. Clearly, therefore, it is the responsibility of CAFCASS.

I have listened to the comments on CAFCASS's effectiveness, and I know that those comments are being considered. The substantive point, however, is to ensure that the voice of the child is heard throughout the court process, as we discussed in relation to an earlier amendment. While noble Lords have not necessarily agreed with my conclusions, I hope that they will recognise that we understand the importance of the matter. Consequently, regulations and court rules will be consulted upon to ensure that the child does have a voice. The same comments apply to subsection (3) of the amendment, which take us back to our earlier debate.

As for the assessment of adopters, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Winchester was right to echo the comments of my noble friend Lady Gould about the importance of recognising that the paramount consideration in Clause 1(2) is the child's welfare throughout his life. As noble Lords know, when it comes to the question of the assessment process, the principle by which we are governed is the need for the most rigorous assessment process which applies equally to all prospective adopters regardless of their marital status or sexual orientation.

Clause 44 amplifies the general power in Clause 9 to make regulations in respect of the functions of adoption agencies and adoption support agencies. Subsection (1) of Clause 44 provides that regulations under Clause 9 may make provision as to the matters to be taken into account by an adoption agency in determining or making any report in respect of the suitability of any persons to adopt a child.

Subsection (2) of Clause 44 makes it clear that the regulations may make provision to ensure that adoption agencies pay proper regard to the stability and permanence of the relationship between prospective adopters when determining their suitability to adopt. The requirements on the stability and permanence of the relationship set out in the regulations made under this clause will apply to the assessment of both married and unmarried prospective adopters.

The regulations made under this clause, accompanied by statutory guidance —although I do not particularly want to go down the path of discussing again what is meant by statutory guidance—will ensure that, in the interest of children, only couples in stable and lasting relationships will be approved to adopt jointly. Similarly, regardless of whether the prospective adopters are single or a couple, they will not be approved to adopt unless they can demonstrate that they can provide a stable and loving home for a child.

In the White Paper we promised and are currently performing a fundamental review of the adopter assessment process. We are taking this forward in close consultation with key stakeholders. The object of the review is to ensure that the adopter education, training and assessment system is transparent and ensures that adopters are approved who are empowered to meet the need of the range of children and young people waiting to be adopted.

The scope of the review will include the range of criteria used for the assessment of potential adopters and the consistency of their applications across the country with a view to improving the process in future. This will be an extensive piece of work which is critical to making sure that we get it right. It clearly informs the decision in relation to unmarried couples, whether same sex or opposite sex. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, is right to raise the issue of how it can be shown that people are indeed in a stable and loving relationship. As I said, we are carrying out a fundamental review of the adopter assessment process which addresses the very issue that she raises.

5.45 p.m.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester asked me about the consequential amendments to the amendment on unmarried couples passed in another place. I shall be writing very shortly to noble Lords with the proposed government amendments which I hope will inform the debate in Committee. I stress, however, that my intention is not to table those consequential amendments in Committee as I believe that that would be best done later in the Bill's passage. However, I think that it would be helpful to noble Lords at least to know what consequential amendments the Government have in mind.

Finally, perhaps I could respond to two other issues, the first of which—on "patchy" services in general—was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. All the work done in the past few years on the practice of adoption services leads one to conclude that services are very patchy indeed—from the wholly inadequate to the excellent. The National Adoption Standards, and the consultation report which we issued today on providing effective adoption support, very much draw on the excellent good practice that currently exists. The challenge is to spread that practice and to ensure that it is implemented across the country.

My noble friend Lady David slightly took me to task for not responding to her point on Second Reading. After 30 minutes of speaking in that debate, I thought that noble Lords had generally thought that I had said enough. I agree with her that as much information as is appropriate about the child and his characteristics and background should be provided at the matching stage so that adopters can make an informed decision on whether they wish to be matched with that child. The powers under Clause 53 enable us to make regulations setting out the information that should be provided at key points during the whole adoption process.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

Before the noble Lord sits down, will we be able to have copies of the draft of the regulations under Section 9?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

No, those will not be available for some months, and certainly not before the passage of the legislation.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

Before the Minister sits down, having listened to the debate, I should like to ask him a question about the voice of the child. As my noble friend Lady Howarth says, a baby would not know what was going on. What is the advice on the age of the child? Or is the matter based on its intelligence and whether it is thought to understand? There should be some guidance for those who will be administrating this.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

We had an earlier debate when we discussed those very points.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

Yes, when I was stuck on the other one.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I was riot going to be as indelicate as to remark that the noble Baroness was not in her place at that time. There will be guidance and regulations covering that point. I feel that it would be very difficult indeed to make a hard and fast rule that, up to age 10, the child will be treated differently from a child over that age—though clearly, the older the child in general terms the more appropriate it is for him to be involved. Surely one has to make a judgment in the case of every child because every child is an individual and, as parents, we know that children of the same age can have very different maturity. The general principle is set out in the Bill in terms of obtaining the ascernible wishes of the child. We shall follow that up by consultation on appropriate regulations.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I feel that the less I say the better, because we shall have another opportunity to discuss this matter and the questions that have been raised. My case was put in two sentences—just like that—by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. It was then supported by the Minister, who explained in essence why on the information that I had, if the right reverend Prelate could understand it, I had to take the point of view that there was a satisfactory new regime, and pointed out that it had been explained to me that there was going to be no discrimination whatever, as put in the terms of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas. On that basis, if that is what I know, I have to accept it; and I do.

All the points that have been made are of the greatest possible importance, particularly on guidance. Of course, that marries with representation and with who controls the representation. As I promised, I shall get together with my noble friend Lord Howe and the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Thomas, and anyone else who would care to join us, to try to work out a sensible composite provision and decide where we should put it in the Bill, but assuredly not in Clause 1. I undertake to make that effort. It is better that I do not entertain a reply to the questions put by the right reverend Prelate, not because I am not able to do so but because it would he a slight imposition on the time and patience of the Committee. It is a matter that can be dealt with on the Floor of the House on another occasion.

However, as to what was said by the right reverend Prelate about the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, I can confirm that I have read his analysis. He is a very fine lawyer. There is nobody who could make a better analysis, but it was wholly unsupported by any evidence. That was in the letter of 20th November, which the right reverend Prelate has not had an opportunity to read. So I am making no criticism, and I am certainly not excusing myself. I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale)

Before calling the next amendment and at risk of teaching my grandparents to suck eggs, perhaps I may remind the Grand Committee that the procedures for debate are exactly the same as in the Chamber? It is not, therefore, necessary to say, "Before the Minister sits down", and so on, or to use any other such formulation.

Baroness Barker

moved Amendment No. 8:

Clause 2 [Basic definitions]: Page 3, line 6, leave out subsection (4). The noble Baroness said: This is a probing amendment, though I am not sure whether it is just probing my ignorance. I wanted to ask why an adoption agency has to be incorporated, and under what powers the Secretary of State can overrule the provisions of charity law. Under charity law, my understanding is that only the trustees of a charitable body can determine its government. I am not saying that this is a provision with which I would necessarily disagree. However, as the noble Lord knows, this happens to be one of my areas of expertise, and one of my areas of interest. I also have an approach, which comes from a point of principle; namely, that I believe the Secretary of State should confine himself to powers that are right. I do not believe that over-riding charity law is one of them. However, having said that, I should like the Minister to explain just why this provision is in the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Amendments Nos. 50, 106, 117 and 119, which stand in my name, have been included in this grouping. However, perhaps I may, first, respond to the very reasonable questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, put to me, though I accept this is a somewhat arcane area.

Clause 2 provides the number of basic definitions with regard to the adoption service provided by local authorities and approved voluntary adoption agencies. These definitions are used throughout the Bill. At present, voluntary adoption agencies in England and Wales are inspected and approved by the Social Services Inspectorate. From April 2003, they will be inspected and registered by the National Care Standards Commission in England, or by the National Assembly in Wales, under Part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000.

Amendment No. 8 would remove subsection (4) of Clause 2, which provides that an adoption society that is an unincorporated body, may not apply for registration under Part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000. Under the existing legal framework, registered adoption societies must be incorporated bodies. This requirement is currently contained in subsection (2), Regulation 2, of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983. Therefore, it has been included in regulations for some time. We have decided to provide for it expressly on the face of the Bill.

It is essential for a registered adoption society to be an incorporated body. An incorporated body is a legal person, which is separate and distinct from the individual members of the body. An unincorporated body has no such separate legal existence and is not in law distinguishable from its members. This is very important because adoption agencies may have parental responsibility for a child. This is a significant responsibility, and there must be a clear definition in law of where that responsibility lies. That is why it is vital that all adoption societies that are registered under the Care Standards Act 2000 are incorporated bodies.

The latter links in with amendments that we have tabled regarding the registration of voluntary adoption agencies. During the progress of the Bill, it came to our attention that there was an inconsistency between the Care Standards Act 2000 and the Bill. The provisions in Section 11(2) of the Care Standards Act require each branch of a voluntary adoption agency to register as a separate agency under Part 2 of that Act. However, Clause 2(5) of the Bill contains the requirement that a voluntary adoption agency must be an "incorporated body", as it must also be under Regulation 2(2) of the current Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983. This means that the agency must be registered as a single body and that each branch cannot be registered separately.

This requirement is fundamental to the structure of the Bill. An incorporated body is a legal person, which is separate and distinct from the individual members of the body. An unincorporated body has no such separate legal existence, and is not in law distinguishable from its members. Adoption agencies, as I have said, may have parental responsibility for a child and, therefore, there must be a clear definition in law.

As for the conflict between the Care Standards Act 2000 and the Bill, we propose to disapply the requirements in Section 11(2of the Care Standards Act in respect of voluntary adoption agencies. This is the effect of Amendment No. 117. This amendment also makes it clear that Section 5 of the Care Standards Act, which defines what is meant by registration authority, is made subject to new Section 36A.

The remaining amendments ensure that, given that there will be no branch registration, each registration authority under the Care Standards Act—the National Care Standards Commission (in England) and the National Assembly for Wales—has the appropriate level of scrutiny over the activity of agencies operating in their area.

Amendment No. 50 inserts new Section 36A into Part 2 of the Care Standards Act. The new Section 36A makes provision for the distribution of functions in relation to registered adoption societies to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales has the appropriate level of oversight of branches of voluntary adoption agencies situated in Wales, but registered in England, and the National Care Standards Commission has the appropriate level of oversight of branches of voluntary adoption agencies situated in England, but registered in Wales.

Subsection (1) sets out what those functions are. First, they are functions relating to voluntary adoption agencies conferred on the registration authority by or under Part 2 of the Care Standards Act, for example, functions relating to the registration of an agency. Secondly, they are those functions conferred in regulations made under Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Bill, for example, the function of the registration authority to receive a fee on notification of a change of ownership.

Subsection (2) provides that unless alternative provision is made in subsections (3) to (5), or in regulations under new Section 36A(6), the functions of the registration authority are to be exercisable according to where the principal office of an agency is situated. If it is in England, it is the National Care Standards Commission and if it is in Wales, it is the National Assembly for Wales. To make this clear, for example where a voluntary adoption agency has its principal office in England, it must register with the National Care Standards Commission (in England). Under the Care Standards Act, the registration of an agency may be subject to conditions. Conditional registration will be used to restrict the services a voluntary adoption agency is authorised to provide. For example, a voluntary adoption agency may be registered only to provide adoption services for domestic adoptions. Subsection (3) provides that where the National Care Standards Commission (in England), or the National Assembly for Wales imposes, varies or removes conditions of registration, they may do so only after consultation with the other authority. However, if an agency has a branch in Wales, then the commission must obtain the agreement of the Assembly to the imposition, variation or removal of conditions, and vice versa.

Subsection (5) is about inspection. It provides that where the premises of an agency are in England, they are to be inspected by the commission, and where the premises are in Wales, they are to be inspected by the Assembly. This will enable the commission to inspect branches of agencies which operate in England but are registered in Wales and vice versa.

Subsection (6) provides that regulations may be made enabling any function, to which this section applies to be exercisable by the Commission instead of the Assembly, or by the Assembly instead of the Commission, or by one concurrently with the other, or by both jointly or by either with the agreement of or after consultation with the other". These regulations are to be made jointly by the Secretary of State and the Assembly. The purpose of the provision is to ensure that the commission and the Assembly are not inappropriately restricted in the action they can take in relation to voluntary adoption agencies.

Amendment No. 106 is consequential on the more substantial amendments I have just outlined. It amends Clause 96 of the Bill to provide for either the Assembly or the commission to bring proceedings against an adoption agency for contravening regulations under Clause 9, or for contravening Clause 58. This mirrors the provision in Section 29 of the Care Standards Act and gives greater flexibility in relation to prosecution. If it were deemed appropriate, it would allow the Assembly to bring proceedings against a voluntary adoption agency registered in England where the offence was committed at a Welsh branch of the agency.

Amendment No. 119 is a technical amendment consequential on the new section. It amends Clause 135(4) which provides that where subordinate legislation is made by the Assembly, it is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny at Westminster. The amendment makes it clear that where subordinate legislation is made jointly by the Secretary of State and the Assembly, it will be subject either to the negative, or as the case may be, to the affirmative resolution procedure in the Westminster Parliament.

These are somewhat complex amendments. I hope that the Committee appreciates that the intention is to ensure that the Care Standards Act and the Bill work well together; that we are enabled to deal with agencies based in England that have branches in Wales, or vice versa; to make sure that there is no slipping through the net; and that the agencies in England and Wales work closely together.

6 p.m.

Baroness Barker

It is not every day that my paid employment is described as arcane. The amendments may be complex, but they are riveting and fascinating to some of us who work in the field.

I am very grateful to the Minister for the clarification. I entirely accept the point about adoption agencies having parental responsibility. I accept that as a reason for incorporation. I probably would have suggested that if I was not an adviser to an adoption agency, given the potential risk that they run of being sued and so on. I wanted to check that out.

I had another reason for doing so that might interest the right reverend Prelate. I wanted to make sure that diocesan boards would not be caught by the measure because a number of them, as we know, are actively involved in the process of adoption. I am not sure whether under charity law they are incorporated bodies or not, but I should imagine that they are and will have to be because they have been involved in that process for some time.

I was interested in what the Minister had to say about the issue of registration in regard to Wales. The other day when we discussed a children's rights director and a children's commissioner for Wales and the fact that some of the child protection legislation would operate under a slightly different regime I wondered what charities would do if they were registered in both England and Wales. Some charities are registered wholly within Wales if they are organised on a federal basis.

I should like to point out to the Minister that a great deal of work has been done in Wales as regards information within the health service, for example in relation to children. A report was produced by my noble friend Lord Carlile. While the principles are the same, a branch of a charity operating in two countries could find itself operating not within a wildly different legal framework but in different ways in practice in the two countries. That is what concerns me.

I thank the Minister very much for one of the best speeches that he has ever made. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Noakes

moved Amendment No.9: Page 3, line 17, leave out "may" and insert "shall The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 9 seeks to amend subsection (6) of Clause 2. This is a probing amendment seeking further information about the financial aspects of adoption support services, which will of course be specified in regulations.

The amendment seeks to make it compulsory for adoption support regulations to deal with financial support. I do not believe that that is controversial because the Explanatory Notes, at paragraph 30, state that it is the Government's intention that the services set out in regulations will include financial support. I hope that the Minister will agree that regulations must contain financial support matters.

There are a number of problems with the current system of financial support for adopted children. Perhaps the largest of these is the postcode lottery of different amounts being awarded in different parts of the country. In fact, in many cases, no adoption allowance at all is available. There are particular difficulties with the level of financial support for children with psychological or emotional problems. The Special Standing Committee in another place received evidence about the variability and level of financial support, and this can have an impact on attracting more people to adopt. While finance is by no means the most important consideration for people considering adoption, it is an important matter for many.

Many other issues are involved, including the relativity between fostering allowances and adoption allowances and the disincentive effect that has. There is the question of whether allowances may be paid to allow the adoptive parents to purchase adoptive support services or whether they must receive the services that local authorities want to supply. And there is the interaction with means-tested benefits of income support where adoption allowances are treated as income, thus reducing available income support.

I hope the Minister will be able to say something about the Government's approach to financial support, and I hope he will also be able to say something about where the money will come from. In particular, will there be any central budget or provision for this, or will it be left to local authorities with all the consequent problems of local budgetary constraints?

I am conscious that a consultation document was issued on Friday. I regret I was aware of it only when I came into the room today, so I have not had the opportunity of finding out whether that document answers the points I have put to the Minister. I hope he will grant me some tolerance in that regard and answer the questions. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I support this amendment. First, the regulation "shall include" does not mean that discretion to provide them is removed. One has to draw a distinction but it is a very real one and the amendment as it is drafted does not remove the discretion. Secondly, I support it inevitably because it is part of my subsection (4) in Amendment No. 7. That states: taking into account an entitlement to support services to be established on adoption". The amendment marries with my own hopes.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

If we are talking about difficult children coming out of care, it is absolutely impossible for parents to adopt them if they cannot have support. This will be the deciding factor. There is such a big difference between "may" and "shall". As the Minister has said, throughout the country such support is patchy. The word "shall" will make all the difference to those very bad patches, and therefore I support the amendment.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

The Committee stage of health Bills and social care Bills would be nothing if we did not have "may" or "shall" debates. First, I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. I take it that the amendment does not fetter the discretion of local authorities to decide whether or not to provide financial support, it is just that financial support should always be an issue which the local authority would consider.

I have considerable sympathy with the intent behind the amendment. We have always envisaged that the list of adoption support services that would be set out in the regulations would include financial support. We have already made a commitment to improve the availability of financial support for adoptive families, and I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, concerning the current experience. As she said, it is very patchy and there are great difficulties between individual local authorities. I also agree with her that evidence from the US, which is included in the consultative document issued on Friday, shows that the availability of adoption allowances and adoption support services is a positive influence in the US figures. It influenced 35 per cent of adoptive parents in their decision to adopt. In the same study, 29 per cent of parents who received an adoption allowance reported that adoption would not have been possible without that allowance. This is very clearly and extremely important consideration.

As regards resources, in the current spending review we have been investing £66.5 million over the three year period of the review to improve councils' adoption services. In the current spending review, financial support would look to that as part of the way local authorities would raise the resource. One cannot absolve local authorities from needing to invest from their more general allocations towards adoption support services.

In our White Paper, we have promised to develop a new national framework for adoption support services and financial support. Following the consultation period of the Providing Effective Adoption Support paper which came out last Friday, we will finalise the framework in the light of the responses received before publishing for consultation the draft regulations on adoption support and financial support. I would also point Members of the Committee to the National Adoption Standards. They also made it clear that children and adopters are entitled to have access to a range of adoption support services, including financial support, where these services are needed.

The Government intend to make regulations under Clause 2(6) to provide that adoption support services include financial support. However, in the light of the debate and the comments made, I am certainly prepared to look at the matter anew, to see whether we need to make the Government's position even clearer than I have stated. No doubt we will return to it on Report.

6.15 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

I have just two points of clarification as regards the funding for post-adoption support. Does the Minister have any calculations as to how much money will be saved if the target for adoption is reached? If children are moving out of care and into adoption, how much money will be saved?

Can the Minister say whether there will be any mechanism in place to ensure that the money saved will go towards support for the children who have been adopted?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I do not have any figures but I certainly take the point that the noble Earl has raised; that local authorities doing better is a good thing in itself because they will help many more children who can be adopted. That makes sense both in terms of the lives of those individual children and more generally because it should certainly ease some of the big problems we face as regards looked-after children. When we think of their educational attainment, or lack of it, and many of the social problems which many of them have to confront, it is clear that the more one can get the adoption process right, the more children will be adopted in the circumstances for which we wish. One hopes that that will then make less demand on some of the statutory services that are currently provided. Frankly, however, to try to quantify that would be extremely difficult and would consume the entire economics department of the Department of Health for many months.

The Earl of Listowel

I thank the Minister for his response. I hope that he will forgive me because if am coming at this as an outsider. Would it be possible to look at certain costs; for instance, how much it costs to pay fosterers to provide the service of fostering, and then to calculate how much is saved by no longer having to do that? I would be very grateful if the Minister could write to me on that point.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

As part of taking forward the regulations, we will want to listen to all points of view. I shall certainly make sure that those are taken on hoard. The noble Earl mentioned foster parents but clearly one of the issues that many people have raised with us is the disincentive to foster parents to adopt children. We need to reflect on that issue 'very carefully.

Baroness Noakes

I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. I also thank my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway for his support in this. The Minister referred to £66 million, which is not very much money and I am sure goes almost nowhere towards dealing with the postcode lottery effect, which is one of the biggest problems that needs to be dealt with.

A very interesting question was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

The point I was trying to make was that £66.5 was a substantial addition. However, one cannot absolve local authorities from spending sufficient resources on adoption services in any case because it should be a mainstream service. Thus, while it is right to lever in additional resource to help and encourage local authorities, we should not detract from their responsibility in doing the night thing.

Baroness Noakes

We will perhaps leave to another day what local authorities can and cannot afford in particular areas, given their local circumstances in this respect, because that could get us into a very big topic. I was saying that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, raised a very interesting question about the amount of money that is saved. I have seen some numbers which I cannot find at the moment, but it is an obvious calculation. A huge amount of money can be saved by not having a child in care and, to a lesser extent, in a foster home. It is clearly a financial benefit to have a child placed permanently with an adoptive family.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Does that mean that we should not be putting any extra resource into local government?

Baroness Noakes

That is a very interesting question to raise but whether the money thereby saved could be recycled is something that the Government may want to consider when looking at the matter. It is a shame that this debate has taken place before we have had the chance to look at the document that the noble Lord has had with all the yellow stickers on. Can copies of that recent document be circulated to Members of this Committee? We may well want to refer to parts of it later. However, as we have not had a chance to look at it in detail, it is not appropriate to continue any individual points of debate today. I look forward to returning to the subject at a later stage and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Maintenance of Adoption Service]:

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Baroness Barker

moved Amendment No. 11: Page 3, line 31, at end insert ", and () for the co-ordination of any services identified in section 4(9) The noble Baroness said: This amendment picks up on a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in one of our earlier discussions and it was about the coordination of services. We began with a discussion about the role of local authorities and of different parts of local authorities in an overall service which adopted families and children who are to be adopted may or may not have access to. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, made the telling point about co-ordination and there being one person who tracks what happens to a child or to a family.

When one reads some of the details of why adoption fostering placements break down, one sees that a factor—by no means a unique but a recurrent factor— is that different services fail to co-ordinate. That seems to be a deficiency in the Bill as written. This amendment alludes, as the Minister himself did, to Clause 4(9), which deals with health authorities, primary care trusts and education authorities. I have an amendment at a later stage. It seems to me that we are talking of two sets of local services and structures which are undergoing dramatic change. In many cases, health and local government are undergoing tremendous change, the most dramatic of which has been in the county of Wiltshire, for example, where the social services department has been wholly changed.

As the Bill is drafted, there is scope for people whose needs have been assessed to fall between different agencies, and that runs counter to everything that the Bill is trying to achieve. It is with that in mind that my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood and I have identified co-ordination as being a duty. I believe that having a duty to co-ordinate services will be one of the key factors in making those services which already exist work for the benefit of the people they are supposed to work with. I beg to move.

Baroness Noakes

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 14 which relates to a slightly different point. It adds a new subsection requiring adoption services to be provided in conjunction with the social services and adoption services of other areas. There is already a provision in Clause 3(5) which requires co-ordination within the area of a local authority. This amendment is designed to ensure that there will be co-ordination outside the area.

With the Government's aim to increase the number of adoptions, which we fully support, and the use of a national register, it will be more likely over time that there will be more extra territorial placements through other local authorities. It will therefore be much more important that local authorities have adequate arrangements for co-operation with other authorities, and indeed adoption societies, outside their area.

It is already the case that some local authorities already work in consortia, and I am sure that many of them already work with societies in other areas. However, it is that level of best practice that I am trying to enshrine in this particular amendment. I hope the Minister will see this as a helpful addition to underpin the Government's own aims for the Bill, and I hope that he will welcome it.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Perhaps I should add a brief intervention on Amendment No. 13. It is a very clear amendment that adds to the list of services which are to be co-ordinated. It is important because there are occasions when a couple who expect a child to be placed with them need to improve their housing. If they then go to the housing authority, they may be told there is nothing the housing authority can do for them. There is therefore a complicated series of interrelationships which need to be kept under consideration and something done about them in order to enable the placement to go ahead.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I would like to comment on Amendment No. 14. I am not certain whether the point I am going to raise is covered by that amendment. An issue which gives a great deal of concern are those children who disappear because the records are not kept from local authority to local authority. I am suggesting that in order to avoid children drifting in that way, perhaps we are looking for something else as well. The register will help, but perhaps we should also be looking for a much more effective national tracking system which would stop the problem I raised. I am not sure that Amendment No. 14 would do that absolutely.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

I support the amendment in relation to co-ordination but should like to ask the Minister a question about it. Work with any child clearly needs to be seen through from beginning to end, with proper continuity. As I have said before in the House, one of the great difficulties about local authorities is that constant change breaks into the relationship between the worker, whoever the worker is, and the family being worked with. One of my concerns about giving priority to the adoptive situation is that we should not detract from children in a preventive work relationship in which we are hoping to keep that child with the birth family and using resources in a similar way. I should like there to be a degree of co-ordination in relation to every child and every family with whom social services or the health services are working. With that proviso, I support the amendment.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

I think that the word "coordination" is very important. Perhaps the Committee will think for a moment of Victoria Climbié in relation to whom the co-ordination seemed to break down completely. When I try to chase up social services over a case, it very often turns out that the person is on leave or on a course. It is sometimes very difficult to track down the social worker, let alone the child.

6.30 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

Perhaps the Minister will say what function will he performed in this process by the key worker appointed to provide adoption support. Will the key worker be a social worker or will another professional do that job? How will that role differ from the current role of the family social worker or the child social worker?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

The points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, were extremely well made. It is very important that people do not fall between different agencies. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, is absolutely right that there has to be effective co-ordination between different local authorities, when appropriate, and between the local authority and the other statutory agencies. Clause 3 certainly requires local authorities to continue to provide an adoption service within their area. The Government's view is that the facilities provided by local authorities under Clause 3 will cover all types of adoptions, whether domestic, intercountry, relative or step-parent adoptions or foster-carer adoptions.

Clause 3(5) obliges local authorities to provide their adoption services in conjunction with their other social services and with registered adoption societies in their own areas. There is therefore a clear intent here to ensure that services are provided in a co-ordinated manner and without delay.

Amendment No. 11 would require local authorities, as part of their adoption service, also to make and participate in arrangements for the co-ordination of health and education services. The intention behind Clause 3 is to set out the requirements for the adoption service provided by local authorities. The adoption service covers all aspects of local authorities' adoption-related activity, such as arranging adoptions, assessing prospective adopters and providing adoption support services.

The Government are committed to ensuring that joined-up planning and provision of adoption support services take place. We made this clear in the White Paper Adoption: A New Approach, and promised that adoption support services would be planned jointly with local education authorities and the NHS. Clause 4(9) helps to achieve that.

Clause 4 gives people affected by adoption a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from their local authority. Where it appears to the local authority that, as a result of an assessment carried out under Clause 4, there is a need for health or education services, Clause 4(9) places the local authority under a duty to notify the appropriate health authority, primary care trust or local education authority of this need.

Following such a notification, the health authority, primary care trust or local education authority will determine whether to provide services in accordance with its statutory obligations. That means that where people affected by adoption are entitled to receive services under the statutory framework under which health authorities, primary care trusts and local education authorities operate, those services must be provided.

Where a health authority, primary care trust or local education authority decides to provide services, following a notification under Clause 4(9), it will be good practice for it to in form the local social services authority. This would give the local social services authority a clear picture of the package of adoption support services being provided to an individual. It will help to ensure joined-up planning and provision of public services in connection with adoption as we promised in the White Paper.

I was interested in the important point made by my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton on how people can be trapped in the care system. As corporate parents, local authorities should know the location of the children in their care. The Government are taking action to improve record-keeping and planning for children. Local authorities are inspected by the Social Services Inspectorate, and this monitoring will continue under the National Care Standards Commission. The National Adoption Standards themselves include time scales within which the decisions for most children should be reached and action taken to ensure, for instance, that children are not kept waiting for a family.

My noble friend Lady Gould mentioned other circumstances in which record-keeping was a problem. I expect record-keeping to be pursued as part of the normal performance management of local authorities. The key point is that the local authority has a statutory responsibility in relation to adoption services. As I said, the local authority also has the ability to make references to the NHS and to local education authorities. The clear issue is to ensure that that statutory process is co-ordinated to best effect.

I accept that that is a challenge for the Government to take on. We shall issue guidance and directions to local education authorities, health authorities and primary care trusts to the effect that there has to be a joined-up approach, without ultimately detracting from the separate statutory responsibilities of both the NHS and local education authorities to make their own judgments about the provision they have to make. That will, however, be informed by the assessment carried out by the local authority adoption service.

Amendment No. 13 provides that the facilities of the local authority's adoption service must be provided in conjunction with the local authority's housing services as well as with their other social services and with registered adoption societies. I recognise the importance of this issue. It is clearly important that local housing authorities recognise the needs of adoptive families and prospective adoptive families for housing services. Local housing authorities should certainly work constructively with local social services authorities in adoption cases where they are able to do so.

I do not, however, consider primary legislation on the adoption services provided by local social services authorities as the best place to address this issue. I believe that local housing authorities will need to determine the most appropriate way of providing housing services to adoptive families within the statutory frameworks under which they operate. However, I accept that better joint working in this area would be best addressed through guidance.

I understand that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is currently consulting on a revision of the code of guidance on the allocation of accommodation, which will provide revised statutory guidance to local housing authorities on issues which they think should be taken into account in the allocation of social housing. I am certainly very happy to write to my noble friend the Minister with responsibility for Housing, without any commitment on my part, in order to raise the issue and see whether it might be addressed through the code of guidance on allocation of accommodation.

As regards Amendment No. 14, the effect would be to provide that the facilities of the local authority adoption service must be provided in conjunction with any other local authority social services and with registered adoption societies in other areas as well as in the local authority's own area. I very much accept the principle behind the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes.

In many circumstances, local authorities will need to work with other local authorities and with voluntary adoption agencies which operate outside their own area. This will be particularly important where a child is placed with a family living in another local authority area in respect of the provision of adoption support services. For this reason, subsections (10) and (11) of Clause 4 place local authorities under a duty to co-operate with each other in the provision of adoption support services. This will ensure that local authorities work together to support people receiving adoption support services while they are settling into a new area.

Subsection (7)(h) of Clause 4 enables regulations to be made setting out the arrangements for the assessment of needs and the provision of adoption support service where a child is placed with an adoptive family living within a different local authority area. At the moment, adoptive families have told us that where they adopt children from other local authority areas, they do not necessarily receive a satisfactory adoption support service. That was the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was making. That is why we intend to use regulations to make local authority duties in such circumstances clear. We will be consulting stakeholders while developing these regulations to ensure that we get the detail right.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, again implied, we are committed to encouraging local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to work together in consortia. Joint working between councils and voluntary adoption agencies can clearly be a way of achieving a more cost-effective organisation and service provision as well as, very importantly, sharing best practice.

As regards the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I would draw his attention to the National Adoption Standards for England which were published some months ago and particularly to the section on children, which makes clear that all children will have a named social worker who will be responsible for them throughout the adoption process.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

The Minister has given a very long and complicated—or so it seems to me—reply. I am left wondering, rather as I did when I read Clauses 3 and 4 together when I first started to learn the Bill, how the local authority acts in respect of a wide range of different services. Does it act as a gateway? Does it say to the adoptive parents, "If you need X or Y services, give me a ring and I'll tell you where to go"? Or does it hand the adoptive parents a booklet which tells them where in the social services, housing department, education department and so on, they can go in order to get special needs education or whatever? How does the provision work in practice?

6.45 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I am sorry if my long reply did not get to grips with that particularly important question. As the noble Baroness will have realised, like much in this Bill, these are the kind of issues on which we wish to consult and we will follow through with guidance. Surely, however, we want to see local authority support services being as helpful as possible to the parents and the children. I very much hope that in certain circumstances, information saying where you can go for this will be extremely helpful. In other circumstances, however, one would look for a much more proactive role. Of course, it all goes back to Clause 4(1) where the local authority, in relation to persons mention in paragraphs (a) to (c) of Clause 3(1), must at the request of those persons carry out an assessment of that persons need for adoption support services.

It is all based around a proper assessment. Clause 4(9) states: If at any time during the assessment of the needs of any person under the section, it appears to a local authority that", they need either health or LEA provision, they, must notify the Health Authority, Primary Care Trust, or local education authority", accordingly.

That seems to me to set out a very powerful set of arrangements, and it simply would not be a question of the local authority saying to the adoptive parents, "We think you need special educational needs. Here's the phone number, get on with it". I would expect to see more support.

What I am also trying to say is that there are responsibilities on local authorities in providing an adoption service. They are also responsible as LEAs. The health service has its own statutory responsibilities. What we are trying to ensure is that we do not become confused as to which agency has statutory responsibility, but we do want them to work together in ensuring that effective support is available, and that will be the stuff of the guidance which will be informed by the kind of debate we have had today.

The Earl of Listowel

I want to refer to the practicalities of how this is going to be implemented. I may have mis-remembered this particular point, but I recollect that one of the several welcome introductions, together with the duty to provide a post-adoption support service and a post-adoption support plan, was the innovation of a post-adoption support worker. It seems to me that that person might well have an important role to play in terms of pulling in the right resources for the family to enable it to hold together. I wonder whether I have not correctly remembered that particular point. If I did not, I would be interested to hear at this stage more about how that worker would work, and what his or her particular professional qualification would be.

On another matter, and I do not want to distract us too far from this area, certain cases have been reported to me in terms of adoptions which have failed. There was a wish that there had been a proper assessment before the actual adoption had taken place—a very thorough assessment and understanding.

It goes hack to a point made earlier today about full information being given to the potential adoptive parents, but also an assessment which takes into account, as far as possible, all the psychological background of the children, and any liable psychological trauma they have experienced which may display itself perhaps several years later. Perhaps in good practice such assessments should already exist, but certainly in the cases that I have heard they do not seem to have been properly put in place. That may not be a point for the Minister to answer, but certainly on the first point perhaps he might have something more to say.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is right to suggest that those are some of the considerations which need to be thought about in ensuring that we have a rigorous process in relation to adoption. I certainly agree with him that because of the support that one may well need from the health service, it is important that the assessment identifies some of those health issues, that Clause 4(9) then ensures that that assessment is notified to the health authority, or the primary care trust—which ever is the relevant body—and that that body then carries out its own statutory responsibilities.

There is no doubt that some of the children who are adopted, or who we hope will be adopted, may have very pressing health needs. They may have mental disorders as well as physical health needs which will need to be considered. That would fall to the health service to provide as part of its statutory responsibilities, but this ensures that the health service is alerted through the assessment to the issues and concerns that clearly arise during that process.

The other point raised by the noble Earl is the question of key workers. The White Paper talks about looked-after children who are adopted, and their new families, having a key worker identified by the adoption agency to help them access services. The White Paper said that the key worker would not necessarily have to be a current council social worker, but someone who can help the family access all services. We shall be consulting on this matter, and we would be interested in the views of noble Lords in that respect.

Baroness Barker

We have had a most useful debate, not least because it served to highlight one or two issues that will feature throughout all our debates. I start with the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about co-ordination of services for children, as opposed to co-ordination of services for adopted children. I bow to her vast experience, which is much greater than mine. Clearly, we shall return on many occasions to the issue about the necessity or the desirability of having services that are either distinctly provided for, or distinctly labelled as being for people who have been adopted.

I turn to the Minister's comments. I listened with great care to his response. I do not think that he addressed my main point about a central duty to coordinate, not provide, services. Not all adopted children have health needs. Not all of them go to school—some are not old enough. Not all adoptive or prospective adoptive families face issues regarding social housing, but some do. I return to the point about there being a statutory duty to co-ordinate services. In the coming Sessions, I imagine that we shall have long and intense arguments about provision of post-adoption services. I suspect that we may not reach agreement in that respect, but we might do so on one matter; namely, the sheer complexity of service provision at a local level, which is boggling. It is becoming more and more complex.

I can talk about this subject in a completely different context. I am pretty well convinced that in each PCT area there is one person, and one person alone who knows what every conceivable service is for any one client group. That person must be worth his or her weight in gold: first, to the client who is trying to access the services; and, secondly, to his or her colleagues who are trying to co-ordinate them.

Having considered this over the past few weeks, I have become convinced that the importance of coordinating services is something that we have overlooked. I do not know how adoptive parents, birth parents, or people involved in the adoption process know on which door to knock. I take the point made earlier by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I shall finish this point, and then give way to the Minister. It seems to me that that duty to co-ordinate has to lie with local authorities, given that education authorities, housing authorities, and PCTs will only ever come into the adoption process for one small part of it. As a result of our discussion, I am more convinced than I was before of the need for co-ordination and an access point to which someone who is involved in the adoption process can go, if only to find out the next place where they need to go.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I do not disagree with anything that the noble Baroness is seeking to develop. Clearly we want an effective package of support measures to be available, which will go beyond the relevant local authority's duty directly to provide as part of its adoption support service. The specific question about which door to knock on is something that can be provided through the adoption support service, because it is one of the very important aspects of this work that we want to see developed.

I do not disagree with the noble Baroness at all about the need for co-ordination. I hope that some of the words that I used this afternoon, and the advice that we shall give about ensuring joined-up planning and the provision of public services, will meet the very point that the noble Baroness has raised. All I am seeking to caution is this: in attempting to get the legislation right, we must be careful not to use primary legislation in relation to the adoption service which will pre-empt the statutory responsibilities of local education authorities, or NHS authorities, to make their own judgments. They have to make their own judgments about what services they should provide. I fully accept that it has to be done in a joined-up way. That is why I shall very carefully consider the comments and discussions made this afternoon. Clearly, all of us who want to see an effective adoption service recognise that we need a joined-up approach.

Baroness Barker

I thank the Minister because his response signifies a recognition that we have a point about co-ordination. I take his argument about local education authorities. I have sat with colleagues and listened to some of their deliberations on the Education Bill. Some of the structural transformations that happened in health are beginning to happen in education. The whole thing is becoming much more diffuse than it was previously. Somewhere in the middle there has to be something that somebody can hold on to for this particularly needful group of children. I take the Minister's point, and I am very heartened by what he said about housing services—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness again, but it is also right to say that an assessment may not be a once-and-for-all assessment. It is possible that part of the assessment may be a suggestion that a further review should take place after a certain length of time, or, within reason, further requests for assessments may be made further down the line. That is also a way in which new needs come to light and notification can appropriately be made by the local authority. It is important to recognise that this is a very critical part of the Bill. The aim is to ensure exactly what the noble Baroness wants to see.

Baroness Barker

I take the point. I have listened to the views of many adoption organisations, which have said, quite openly, that an assessment of the need of a child of three is wholly different to the needs of that same child at the age of eight. I am not seeking to put anybody into any straightjacket. Similarly, I am not trying to be rigid about the nature of the services.

I return to my point about co-ordination and ease of access. As a result of our deliberations I shall withdraw the amendment but perhaps I need even more convincing than when I started about the need for coordination. I hope that at some time between now and further stages, we might reach a closer accommodation on what I think we all agree is a very necessary part of making the whole system work. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7 p.m.

Earl Howe

moved Amendment No. 12: Page 3, line 36, at end insert— (c) must extend to the provision of services covering intercountry adoption The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 12 I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 28 and 101. During the Second Reading debate, a number of noble Lords—of whom I was one—drew attention to the problems and difficulties faced by those individuals who decide that they wish to adopt a child from overseas. These amendments enable us to focus on those specific issues in rather more detail.

We are inching our way in this country towards having a more streamlined and user-friendly system for processing applications for inter-country adoptions but, unfortunately, that is not saying much. If we think that the hurdles facing domestic adopters are formidable, the hurdles to be crossed by prospective inter-country adopters are perhaps doubly so.

As the noble Baroness, Lady David, pointed out in her Second Reading speech, Britain's reputation abroad is not very good when it comes to inter-country adoption. The number of countries willing to continue dealing with the UK is dwindling. The list of those in the "highly reluctant" category include India and Colombia, two countries which have excellent overseas adoption programmes with first-class protection for the children and families involved. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador all refuse to deal with the UK, although they have fruitful programmes with other receiving countries. Chile, Costa Rica, the Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam, among others, are all unhappy with UK procedures. They want to see proper, dedicated agencies in the UK, with which they can then deal.

There is also concern among many countries about the UK's approach to immigration requirements and nationality. Those countries want to see guarantees that these requirements will be met easily and properly for the child, rather than being left to the discretion of officials at the time of entry.

The number of applications lodged in the UK each year to adopt a child from overseas is about 350. This is in sharp contrast to the 3,500 full inter-country adoptions carried out in France. Norway, with a population of about four million, brings in around 500 children for adoption from overseas each year. This disparity between ourselves and other countries has arisen in part from the negative perceptions about inter-country adoption that some people currently hold. That perception is wholly misplaced. There is nothing ethically dubious about the concept of adopting a child from abroad—quite the contrary.

Of course, all the proper safeguards have to be observed but, if a family in Britain can give a loving home and a loving upbringing to a child who would otherwise be brought up in a residential home, perhaps in quite primitive and impersonal conditions, in a foreign country, that is something that we should embrace and not shy away from.

To be fair on the Government, they have made a number of public announcements to emphasise those points. What they have not yet done, however, is to focus properly on the practicalities, for it is the practical obstacles standing in the way of inter-country adopters that largely account for the low figures that I quoted. Until these are addressed, no amount of warm words from Ministers will put matters right.

There are several key issues. The first is the length of time that couples typically have to wait for a home study. Local authorities regard inter-country applicants as low priority. Perhaps understandably, they tend to give preference to domestic cases. To obtain a home study, there is virtually no alternative but to go through the local authority route—and I shall be raising this issue again when we come to debate a later group of amendments. There are only four registered voluntary agencies able to conduct home studies independently for overseas applications and two of those have recently said that they are ceasing this service.

It is not as though the cost of a home study comes out of the public purse. I am not arguing that it should. But the second main difficulty for adopters is the level of fees that are charged for this service. Some local authorities charge as much as £6,000; others charge a quarter of that; others again charge nothing. There is a huge divergence in the level of charges depending on where you happen to be living. That cannot be right. We surely all recognise that an agency has to cover its costs. Equally, we all fight shy of telling a local authority what it may or may not charge for a service. The charge has to reflect local conditions. However, there ought to be a mechanism to ensure that local authorities do not get away with over-egging the charges.

The third main problem for couples is that they are often left entirely on their own to navigate through the complexities of the adoption process, not only in the K but in the country of their choice as well. Abroad, there are language problems; there often has to be a go-between acting for the couple; they have to find lawyers; there are legal fees; and they have to commission the right key professionals who can identify the child and then steer the process through the courts. In none of that is there any protection for the couple; they can be exploited or misled. We have to ask why we do not offer specialist help and advice to such couples to enable them to avoid reinventing the wheel every time.

The Bill is helpful in stating that local authorities have a duty to provide home studies and support services. My fear, however, is that as now, these will be rationed because there are simply not enough people and not enough resources to ensure that inter-country adopters get a fair crack of the whip. When it comes to support services, that is the reverse of what should be happening because often, the needs of children adopted from overseas are even greater than those adopted here.

That is why I have tabled these amendments They are designed to ensure that inter-country adopters do not suffer discrimination and that they would receive the same support as all other adopters. They would also oblige the Government to set a cap on the level of fees to ensure that these do not create too great a disincentive to home assessments.

Finally, Amendment No. 101 would ensure that when an overseas adoption takes place in one local authority and the parents adopting are in another, there should be proper communication between the two and no excuse for the necessary support services to be withheld. I beg to move.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

Before the Minister answers, perhaps I may ask the noble Earl, Lord Howe, a question. As he said, 350 is a very small number. Does that include family adoptions; that is, an aunt and an uncle who adopt a child whose parents have been killed in a country such as India or Sri Lanka?

Earl Howe

My understanding is that the figure of 350 that I quoted—which is the number of applications lodged in the UK; I do not have a figure for the number of intercountry adoptions finalised each year—includes all applications to adopt children from overseas for whatever reason.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

I should like, if I may, to add my support for the amendments. The United Kingdom needs a properly recognised agency, as other countries have, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has explained. We currently do not have a good reputation in relation to this matter. Now is the time for the Government, through the Bill, to improve our reputation in this sphere.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

I know that, both on Second Reading and today, a number of noble Lords have pointed to the suggestion that we have a poor reputation with other countries. We have had no official notice from the two countries mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and we continue to deal successfully with them. Obviously, if noble Lords have specific information that they would like to draw to my attention, I would be very happy to look into it.

Earl Howe

May I ask the Minister to clarify which two countries he was referring to? Was it India and Colombia?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Indeed so. As I said, I would be happy to receive information to investigate any such allegations.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, also compared the number of intercountry adoptions in the UK with the number for other countries. He mentioned France and Norway. One point to be raised here is that people in those countries adopt a much lower proportion of children in care than we do. That may well be one of the reasons why the figures are so different.

The general point that the noble Earl raised is the Government's attitude to intercountry adoption. He essentially said that we were all right on the warm words, but nothing more than that. I do not accept that that is the case. After all, we introduced the provisions of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 which placed a clear duty on local authorities to establish an intercountry adoption service. My department also has an adoption unit. In addition to providing advice and information to prospective adopters, both on the telephone and through the intercountry adoption section of the adoption website, the unit helps adopters to arrange translation, legislation and notarisation of their papers. It also forwards their papers to the relevant overseas central authority.

As I have said, if noble Lords wish to raise specific comments and issues about how the service operates, I shall be happy to look into them. Clearly, we want the service to operate effectively.

Amendment No. 12 provides that local authority arrangements for the provision of adoption support services must extend to the provision of services covering intercountry adoption. In fact, however, subsection (7) of Clause 2 makes it clear that references in Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Bill to adoption are to, the adoption of persons, wherever they may be habitually resident, effected under the law of any country or territory, whether within or outside the British Islands". This means that the requirement in Clause 3 for local authorities to maintain an adoption service, to meet the adoption-related needs of people living in their area, extends to the needs of people affected by intercountry adoption.

Clause 4 makes it clear in the Bill that people affected by adoption may approach their local authority for an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. This will also cover people who have been affected by any type of adoption. Regulations made under Clauses 3 and 4 will apply to the provision of assessment and adoption support services to intercountry adopters and to children adopted from outside the British Islands.

Our White Paper, Adoption: A New Approach, included a commitment to develop a new framework for adoption support services. We are currently developing this framework in consultation with a stakeholder group, and a consultation document entitled Providing Effective Adoption Support was published on 21st June. The consultation covers all adoption support services for all people affected by adoption—although I am well aware by now that noble Lords have not had a chance to study that in great detail.

Baroness Noakes

Or at all.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath


I turn to Amendments Nos. 28 and 101, which are linked. These amendments make provision in respect of people affected by intercountry adoption. Clause 4 provides that people affected by adoption may request an assessment of their needs for adoption support services from their local authority. The right to an assessment applies to children who may be adopted, their parents and guardians, prospective adopters and adoptive parents, birth parents and former guardians. As I have already explained in connection with Amendment No. 12, it applies to people affected by all types of adoption.

Subsection (1) of Amendment No. 28 requires a local authority to carry out an assessment of needs for adoption support services of the persons listed in relation to a child brought into the United Kingdom for adoption from overseas where Clause 82 applies. I do not believe the provision is needed as the Bill already provides for this. Subsection (7) of Clause 2 makes it clear that references in Chapter 2 of Part I of the Bill to adoption are, to the adoption of persons, wherever they may be habitually resident, effected under the law of any country or territory, whether within or outside the British Islands". Subsection (2) of the amendment would require a local authority, where it decides during an assessment carried out under Section 1 that a person has needs for adoption support services, to provide those services. I have no doubt that we shall discuss these provisions in more detail in connection with the large group of amendments that we shall probably debate on Thursday. However, the Government believe that local authorities are best placed to decide whether to provide adoption support services to individuals, and if so which services, based on need and on resources available locally. Of course, local authorities must also act reasonably in deciding whether to provide adoption support services following an assessment.

Ultimately local authorities provide the adoption services, so they must decide who needs what level of support. The problem—we shall come to this—with requiring local authorities to provide adoption support services to individuals is that, given the way local authority social services legislation has traditionally been enacted, we would effectively be saying that that should have priority over almost every other service provided by a local authority social services department. However, I recognise that I am probably trespassing on the more substantive debate to which we are all looking forward enormously.

Clause 11 enables the appropriate Minister to make regulations prescribing the fees which may be charged by local authorities to adopters. I understand the point that the noble Earl is making about consistency. The evidence which I have undoubtedly suggests that, whereas the average cost is about £3,500 for the assessment, that can vary from as little as £300, as the noble Earl said, to about £4,500.

On the principle of the fee itself, our first priority is to deliver a service that meets the needs of children awaiting adoption in the UK. We therefore think that resources should be directed at finding families for those children. However, I accept that there is a need for greater transparency and consistency about the fee charged in relation to intercountry adoption. We believe that Claus 11 as it stands is sufficiently flexible to enable regulations to be made prescribing specific or maximum fees that local authorities may charge. So it would be possible for a maximum fee to be set. However, the Government do not intend to go down that route. We do not think it appropriate to set or recommend a particular fee level. Each agency will have different costs and we think that they should be able to reflect those and recoup them in the fee charged. The risk of a national set or recommended fee is that some agencies would receive more than they need, while others would not be able to cover their costs.

The problem with subsection (3)(a) of the amendment is that we would have to set out an upper limit for the fees that may be charged. In order to ensure that all local authorities could cover their costs, it would then he necessary to set the upper limit at the highest level incurred by any local authority. We all know that the risk would be that the upper limit might become the norm. It is better that we accept that the regulation-making power is sufficient as it is and focus on ensuring good practice by enabling local authorities to make comparisons. There are some real disadvantages in setting a maximum limit.

Baroness Barker

My name is attached to Amendment No. 12. When those people who are concerned to see the highest standards in relation to intercountry adoption tell us, as they do, that the services are non-existent and that they are concerned about children being brought into this country, does the Minister accept that the Members of this Committee face a dilemma? I do not doubt the sincerity of what the Minister said with regard to adoption services including intercountry adoption, but they do not. That is the motivation behind the measure.

The Minister will know that a number of bodies lobby for regulation in this particular field. They do so as much as anything from a concern that if these services do not exist, people will find a way round them. People who go to the enormous lengths and financial outlay that those who wish to adopt children from abroad undergo must be remarkably inventive.

People say that, first of all, they have the hurdle of paying for a home study. They find the money for that. However, these people then tell us that local authorities already have a duty to make an inspection when a child from another country is adopted here, but they do not do so.

I understand what the Minister says about the priority of the department as regards children awaiting adoption in this country, but I am looking for some hope for those of us who want to forestall another personal disaster. That is the motivation for many of us.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

If it would help, I am happy to reflect on the debate and discuss this matter further with noble Lords in the luxury of the two months we shall probably have between Committee and Report.

There is a question of priorities here and I am clear what they are. Equally, I fully accept that local authorities must conduct themselves in a proper way. I also accept that, if there are specific examples of problems, for instance with the way my own department's unit is operating, we need to know about them and review them. I am indeed sympathetic to ensuring that, as much as possible, we can make this work without impacting on the general priority to be given to adoptions taking place in this country. A also believe that in relation to the general duty—for instance, in terms of assessment for adoption support services—it is clear that children affected by intercountry adoption are able to take advantage of the general improvements that we will want to see in adoption services over the next few years in this country.

Earl Howe

This has been a very useful debate and I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have taken part in it. The Minister was slightly inclined to dismiss the shortcomings in the service that I highlighted in my remarks—and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that they are serious. In my experience, the service offered around the country ranges from less than adequate to lamentable. The Minister appeared to concede that the resources simply are not there to cope with intercountry adoptions.

Until the shortcomings are addressed, we can only look forward to a situation where intercountry adopters will always go to the bottom of the pile. Something has to be done about that. We will have the chance to debate this again and I look forward to that. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said.

At the beginning of his remarks, the Minister sought to explain away the disparity between the UK and other countries in the statistics. I have to say that he sounded a little complacent in doing that because there is no doubt that couples in the UK are deterred from adopting from overseas whereas, clearly, couples in other countries are not so deterred. We have to ask why that is.

It would be fair to say that the Minister categorised my amendments as being either unnecessary or undesirable, or a combination of the two. I take note of his strictures. However, the amendments were a very useful way of highlighting certain very key issues on this topic. I shall reflect on what has been said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

We have done very well. This might be a convenient time for the Committee to adjourn until Thursday at 4 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Dean of Harptree)

The Committee stands adjourned until Thursday at 4 p.m.

The Committee adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past seven o'clock.