HL Deb 04 February 1975 vol 356 cc760-6

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, that the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

Clause 1 [Establishment of adoption service]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness YOUNG

I should like to take this early opportunity of thanking the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for sending me notes on clauses, which I found extremely useful. At the same time, may I say that we on this side welcome this Bill and are most anxious to be constructive in all matters throughout the Committee stage. If I may so describe it, it seems to me that this is very much a Committee stage Bill, with each clause raising almost a new point or changing some part of a former Act.

I have already given notice that under this clause I intend to raise the question of cost. I intend to do so on Clause 1, because it is in that clause that we see immediately a major extension of the adoption service, and the cost that goes with it. I do so, very conscious that this is not usually done at the start of a Bill, but as I said on Second Reading unless financial provision is made I very much fear that the Bill could go the way of the 1969 Act, which has been criticised not so much for itself, but because adequate resources to implement it have not been forthcoming, with the consequence that a great deal of criticism has fallen on social workers up and down the country.

I therefore went back to read what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said about the question of cost in winding up the Second Reading debate. The noble Lord said, at col. 102: It is envisaged that the cost of adoption services will rise gradually as they develop and that it will be borne by local authorities, most of which already provide the elements of the service, and by the voluntary services. So one has to bear in mind that a good deal of this is already in being—the machinery is there, the personnel are there, and it should not prove to be a very costly thing."—[Official Report, 21/1/75; col. 102.] On the other hand, I have had almost unanimous advice from professionals engaged in this work that the financial memorandum is most inadequate, and if I may quote from a memorandum of the Directors of Social Service who are quite unequivocal on this point, they say: In our opinion, the financial memorandum to the Bill seriously underestimates the impact on resources which the provisions of the Bill will have and could only serve to mislead Members of Parliament. In many areas of the country there is a very inadequate adoption service, and nowhere is there a service comparable to that which is envisaged by this Bill. When such a service is a statutory duty, those local authorities which do not at present place children for adoption will find themselves faced with considerably increased expenditure. Voluntary adoption societies, if they are to continue to play a role in this field will increasingly look to the local authority for substantial grant aid. It will be readily apparent that those two statements are somewhat contradictory and I make them not in order to raise a debating point, but to draw attention to what I think is the seriousness of the situation.

I have also looked at the recently published expenditure statistics up to 1979, to see whether they can provide any guide as to what is the expected level of expenditure by the local authority personal social services. Although it is perfectly true that the sums of money for local authority expenditure rise, the explanatory memorandum to these figures states on page 176: Because of the economic constraints, annual expenditure will be held broadly at the level planned for 1974/75. I may be misunderstanding that, but it seems to me that little increased expenditure is expected to arise from the Bill. Therefore, I should like to ask some of the questions which seem to me to arise quite specifically on the new services which are proposed.

First, I think it is suggested that there may be a saving, because a number of children at present in local authority homes will be freed for adoption, and, therefore, there will be a saving in local authority expenditure. Of course, we all hope very much that these children will find homes and be happily settled, but the total number of children who could possibly be adopted—although amounting to some 6,000 or 7,000—is only 7 per cent. of the total number of children in care. So that these children represent what are called the "hard to place" children, in regard to whom the search for a suitable home could well be long and difficult. The help to the adoptive parents that will be required will be quite considerable. This work will obviously require highly specialised staff. I have heard from the British Association of Social Workers, who are very concerned on this point, that there should be adequately qualified staff to do the work. It is also true that under this Bill local authorities will no longer have to undertake welfare supervision of children placed by adoption societies, but new duties are imposed by Clause 1, especially the duty to supervise adoptions by parents or stepparents. This is not necessary at present, but half the adoption orders granted in 1970—that is to say, 10,256 out of a total of 22,373—were adoptions of this kind, so this is a considerable extension of work.

Then there are proposals under custodianship. So far as I can see, the financial memorandum makes no allowance for maintenance to be paid to custodians where this is required. Then under Clause 13 and Clause 50 there are proposals for separate representation of children, a matter I entirely support. But it does mean that the existing provisions will be used more fully, and, of course, again it will require the training of social workers and others to be able to undertake this work.

Then there is, as the directors of social service have pointed out, the cost which arises if voluntary societies which at present provide the service are not, in fact, approved by the Secretary of State, and the local authority has to step into the breach and provide the service itself. What I think would be a very great mistake in all this would be to imagine that we can implement what I believe to be a very good Bill without making adequate financial provision. It may well be that it would be far better to implement it much more slowly—making sure that the resources are there—rather than expecting that it will come in next year. I would be very disturbed if we tried to implement the Bill without providing the resources, trying to meet the needs, in the adoption section of this Bill, of the 6,000 or so children who might be adopted but who at present are not being adopted and failing to meet the needs of all the other children in care, the money spent on those for adoption being taken away from the other 93 per cent. of the children in care to provide this new service.

This fear, which has been put to me, is underlined in, for example, Clause l(2)(a) where it describes the facilities to be provided as part of the service and refers to temporary board and lodging, where needed, by pregnant women, mothers and children, as being part of the adoption service, not part of the whole of the Social Services Department as such. This almost implies that only mothers who intend to have their children adopted may use the service, and, therefore, one is, in a sense, forcing everybody to have their children adopted as a kind of cheap method of doing so. I do not wish to suggest that this is the meaning behind the Bill, but I think it is a meaning that could be read into it if adequate finance is not forthcoming. This would be most unfortunate, because I do not believe it to be the intention of those who framed the Bill—certainly not of ourselves on this side of the House—that there should be any lessening of the work for children over the whole range of services within the Social Service Department. So I should be very glad if we could have a statement on cost, on how the Government propose to meet this, at the start of the Bill, because it seems to me that it underpins all the other discussions that we are to have about the details of the service.


I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving me an opportunity of trying to reply to the matters which she has raised. I think I shall end up with some kind of difference of opinion still existing between us. I must make it perfectly clear to your Lordships that a good deal of discussion has taken place between the Department and the local authorities and everybody who is to be concerned in the implementation of the Children Bill. Those negotiations and discussions are still taking place. It was arising out of those discussions, which have not been completed, that the Government decided to put into the Bill certain figures with regard to the cost at the beginning as well as subsequently.

It is not the Government's intention to try to apply all the Bill overnight. This must be a gradual introduction, so that it will not have some of the unpleasant consequences which some Bills have had in the past. The public expenditure implications of a comprehensive adoption service are, I admit, difficult to quantify but they are not expected to be significant. The cost of the present service, I would admit, cannot be closely estimated; there is no detailed information about the proportion of social services expenditure by local authorities which is devoted to adoption services. But the total expenditure by local authorities and voluntary organisations is thought to be, as is mentioned in the Bill, in the region of £2½ million a year, and that figure has not been put down without some very careful consideration.

I said at Second Reading that the Department's estimate—that this figure would rise to about £4 million—is based mainly on the fact that of the present 22,247 adoptions a year which take place in England and Wales (they are the 1973 figures) some 10,000 are by strangers, and the calculation that, assuming that all the elements of a comprehensive service are available, each such adoption would not cost more than about £300. Other adoptions by relatives who might be advised to apply for custodianship require the services of the guardian ad litem and independent placements require welfare supervision of the child. It is estimated that the cost of such adoptions would be in the region of about £50 each.

Better adoption and fostering procedures, we feel, would tend to prove much more economic than the present arrangements, and could be more effective because a better and more economic use could be made of the services by reducing—and I tried to make this point at Second Reading—the number of children needing residential care. Many of your Lordships will be familiar with the study Report Children who Wait; that pointed to a total of about 2,000 children in care, most in residential care rather than boarded out, who needed placement for adoption. The average cost of maintaining a child in a local authority home in the 12 months ending March, 1973, was a little under £1,500. The extent of the financial saving that might accrue from the new provisions, as I said, cannot be accurately quantified, and would depend upon the degree of success in placing children for adoption.

I want to emphasise that there are and there have been, as I have already mentioned, consultations with local authorities. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Owen, met representatives of local authority associations as recently as 28th January to discuss all the implications of the Bill for their manpower and financial resources. As foreshadowed in the Lord Chancellor's speech on Second Reading, these matters will be the subject of continuing consultation with the authorities in the coming months. The Minister of State has invited the local authority associations to consider with his officials any additional information which local authorities might be able to provide which will help in assessing the likely effect on resources of implementation of the new adoption service, taking into account the scope of the services already being provided by about three-quarters of the relevant authorities.

I do not think that, at this stage, I can add anything more useful—if it, indeed, has been useful to the noble Baroness and your Lordships—except to say that we take the point she has made. It is a very valid one. It is one that one has to keep constantly under review. But we have no reason to believe that it will impose any greater burden upon local authorities than the burden, in terms of £2½ million and subsequently £4 million a year, that I have mentioned.

Clause 1 agreed to.

House resumed.