§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the question of the need to implement sections of the Children Act 1975. However, I am disappointed that it is necessary to raise the subject. I talk to directors of social services, social workers, representatives of adoption agencies, local authority representatives and justices of the peace. I am made aware that there is much anxiety because major sections of the Act have not been implemented. Since I made it known that I would try to raise the subject I have received letters from directors of social services, the British Association of Social Workers, the National Association of 958 Adoption Societies and Fostering Agencies, local authorities, the National Children's Bureau and justices of the peace, expressing concern that many sections of the Act have not been implemented.
It is worth recalling the history of the 1975 Act. It goes back to the 1960s, when there was major concern about adoption and pressure for an inquiry. The Houghton committee was set up as a result. My right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) promoted a Private Member's Bill in the 1973–74 Parliament to deal with the matter. Eventually the provisions in the Bill were taken over by the Labour Party and a commitment was made in our manifesto. My right hon. Friend then piloted the 1975 Bill through Parliament. The measure commanded all-party support, and since 1975 each Secretary of State has expressed commitment to the Act and said that he intended to implement it. Perhaps it is a pity that my right hon. Friend moved from the Department soon after the Bill was passed. Perhaps there was not so much vigour in getting the Act implemented as there might have been had he remained in that office.
One must ask why, 10 years after the pressure built up, 25 major sections of the Act have not been brought into operation. The excuse is always that resources are not available. I fear that that excuse covers a lack of political will or commitment. I do not blame the present Government, because they have had only 12 months in office. The blame rests on both parties. The Labour Party had three years to implement the sections, so it must take at least as much, if not more, of the blame.
In 1975 it was said that the implementation of the sections of the Act would cost about £9 million. The cost might be as much as £14 million now. They might sound large sums, but for the Department of Health and Social Services they are petty cash. The Department would have to make the money available to the local authorities. The money involved is not much more than the cost of one and a half of the new Tornado multi-role combat aircraft which the Ministry of Defence is busy buying.
The £14 million is almost certainly the gross cost. Once the major provisions of the Act are working many children will 959 be taken out of expensive residential care, which can cost £100 a week for each child. If one tots up, one sees that after two or three years of full implementation about £10 million or £12 million could be saved. The net cost would probably be no more than £3 million or £4 million. The Government have no excuse for not implementing the remaining sections of the Act.
If they say today that they still cannot find the money, they have no excuse for not setting a clear timetable for implementation. No one is clear about how soon, if ever, the sections are to be implemented. It is difficult for local authorities and adoption agencies to plan. I hope that the Minister will give a clear timetable today or before the Summer Recess. The uncertainty is doing real damage to the service. The establishment of the adoption service is crucial. Many local authorities have established good working arrangements with adoption societies, but many others do not have a good working arrangement. Adoption societies are not clear what criteria the Government will demand. The cynic might say that the Government are waiting until the voluntary adoption societies disappear altogether. About 30 have closed in recent years.
The British Association of Social Workers makes the point clearly. It states:The principal purpose of the Act was to introduce a comprehensive adoption service which appears to be no nearer now than it was in 1975. In fact the situation now is worse perhaps than in 1975. Firstly, because of the confusion that has been caused among adoption agencies due to the failure to issue regulations. It is worth noting that some 30 adoption agencies have closed during the 1970s and the confusion has also led to continuing problems for other agencies. Secondly, a comprehensive adoption service is an essential ingredient for the introduction of other aspects of the Act, such as prohibition of third party placements and the provisions for freeing children for adoption.Anybody who served on the Standing Committee in 1975 can remember horrifying accounts of some of the third party placings. It is a scandal that that aspect of the Act has not been implemented. Because of the uncertainty, the situation is worse than if there were no Act.
The whole reason for the section on adoption was based on evidence gathered in 1968–69 of the large numbers of children 960 awaiting adoption. The children in that survey are now grown up. It is clear that many children who are caught in residential homes could be placed in homes and adopted if the Act were implemented. Many children are waiting for families and parents. There is a major need for that section to be implemented as soon as possible.
I turn to the question of payments to adopters. The matter was argued hotly in Committee. Many children, particularly teenagers, would like to be adopted because they feel that there is more security in being an adopted child than a fostered child. However, families that foster often have limited financial resources.
Families do not change from fostering children to adopting children because of the cost involved. They cannot afford to bear the burden of the full cost of bringing up the children. A provision was included in the Act that payments could be made to adopters by local authorities. That is one of the sections that will not cost anything. At present, local authorities pay a boarding out allowance. If they allowed the foster parents to become adoptive parents they would not be asked to pay any more, and I suspect that in most instances the foster parents would be happy with some reduction in the payment, provided that they had some financial help. That is one of the areas where there is no excuse for the Government not taking action.
I turn to the question of custody. Again, the Act set out the establishment of new provisions not only for adoption or fostering but for custody. Play was made of the fact that that provision would have many attractions when families split up, and one or other, or both, of the parents remarried. There are often difficulties if a father who loses the legal custody of the child is reluctant to see the new stepfather adopt the child. The idea was that custody provisions would make better arrangements for the child, giving it much more security. They would give those looking after the child the security of the knowledge that the decisions that they were taking, and wanted to enforce, could not be undermined by somebody else who disagreed with them. At the same time, the provisions left some minor rights to the original parents.
961 Why have the Government not implemented that provision? The first report to Parliament on the working of the Act sets out the parts of the Act that have been implemented, but it devotes a large section to apologies from the Government about why so much of the Act has not been implemented. On the question of custody, the report indicates that the problem was the cost of the local authority preparing reports for custody proceedings. The local authority already has to prepare reports on the children, for one reason or another. It would simply be a question of the reports that are now being used for one purpose being used for a different purpose. It is not good enough for the Government to say that any real cost is involved.
We spent a great deal of time in Committee on the question of guardian ad litem. Strong arguments were put forward about the need to appoint someone to look after the interests of the child. I agree that that section would involve certain costs, but if we want justice in the courts there is a strong argument for bringing that provision into operation as soon as possible.
On the question of reviewing children in care, evidence about children who waited for long periods in residential homes showed that, unfortunately, the social work department tended to forget about individual children. The cynics suggested that if a child was not causing a nuisance in a children's home it could stay there for a long period without its case being reviewed. I am sure that the practice in most social work departments has improved considerably and that the number of children who have been forgotten has been reduced, but I still feel that, in some departments, children remain in residential homes because no one reviews their cases. The Act provides for a regular review of children in care. A conference that involves all those concerned with the care of those children should take place regularly. It is one of those pieces of good practice that should have legislative backing.
The final section to which I wish to draw attention is that dealing with legal aid for parents involved in care proceedings, especially where the parents object 962 to the proceedings. It is unfortunate that although the child can be represented in court, and the local authority almost certainly has legal representation present, parents cannot obtain legal aid. If they are on low incomes, they find it difficult to present their case fairly to the courts. It is a matter of natural justice that that provision of the Act should be implemented.
The Government should grasp the nettle and say "Yes, it will cost us money—or it will cost the local authorities money—but it will be a good investment". Once the scheme is in operation, the cost to the taxpayer will be small. In terms of human happiness and future generations of children, such money would be extremely well spent.
I do not wish to spend too much time on the question of costs. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the high costs of dealing with disturbed teenagers, especially those who get into trouble with the law, and those adults who are disturbed, and are often anti-social. If the Minister begins to think in terms of those costs, he will realise that the Government will make a profit by implementing the Act, rather than lose money by doing so.
I do not expect the Minister to announce today that he will implement the Act tomorrow. My strong plea—and one that would come from all those concerned about the problem—is that we must have a clear timetable commitment from the Government of when the sections will be implemented, especially those concerning regulations for adoption societies. I hope that he will give an assurance that the regulations that he intends to make will be published soon, so that people are aware of what is involved. If they have to wait for a few months, or a few years, before all the regulations are implemented, there should be at least a timetable, a plan and a programme, of which they are aware.
In a parliamentary answer the Minister said that he had had further discussions about costs with the local authorities. I understand that some experiments have been undertaken in Newcastle and other areas, on behalf of the Department, with regard to costing. I hope that the Minister will give more information about those experiments.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Sir George Young)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) for giving me the opportunity to give a full account of the Government's position on the implementation of the Children Act 1975. The hon. Gentleman's interest in that area is well known in the House. In the previous Parliament we worked together on that subject, and since I became a Minister at the Department I have taken a deep interest in the subject. I assure him that there is no lack of political will or commitment on the part of Ministers. We strongly support the main aims of the Act and wish to see progress in its implementation.
The Act is an important piece of legislation, designed primarily to improve planning for children who need long-term substitute families. It make major changes in adoption law—including the requirement for an adoption service to be provided in each local authority's area—extends the scope of custody law to include people other than a child's parents, and includes important provisions relating to other aspects of child care. We recognise that full implementation of the Act would bring important developments in child care services and facilitate improvements, which are already taking place. I fully share the hon. Member's disappointment that more of the Act's provisions have not been implemented.
It is now five years since the Children Act was approved by Parliament and I can well understand the frustration felt by many people that so much of it has not been brought into force. The hon. Member suggested towards the end of his speech that we might make a profit or that local authorities could save millions of pounds by shutting some of their community homes for children and making more use of fostering and intermediate treatment. I am all in favour of moves in that direction, as I have made clear on many occasions. However, the position is not quite as simple as the hon. Member implies, because the alternative fostering and community-based services have to be built up before the institutions can be run down, so that in the short 964 term, unhappily, costs can go up rather than down.
The main responsibility for operating the Act's provisions will fall on local authorities, but there are resource implications for the probation service, the courts and the legal aid fund, as well as for the Government. The previous Administration recognised that the necessary manpower and other resources would have to be available for the Act's provisions to be given effect, and agreed with the local authorities that implementation of the Act would be phased as resources permitted. We, too, recognise that successful implementation of the remaining provisions will require careful planning and adequate resources.
I am sure that the hon. Member will agree that it would be irresponsible to implement legislation if the resources were not available to make it effective. I have to be frank and say that, in the present economic circumstances, resources for the full implementation of the Act are unlikely to be available for a number of years. None the less, I do not want to give the impression that no progress can be made. I assure the hon. Member that the Government are not, as some people would suggest, dragging their feet over further implementation of the 1975 Act. On the contrary, we are determined to make as much headway as we can, and we have taken positive steps to achieve that aim.
A joint working party of the DHSS and the Welsh Office and local authorities has been looking at the costs of the Act's unimplemented provisions. Discussions in the past, as I think the hon. Member knows, about further implementation have been hampered by the lack of information and agreement about the costs—or, indeed, savings—involved.
The costing working party's report will provide a firm basis for discussions about bringing more provisions into force. I hope to receive this report within a month or two, and I shall then open discussions with the local authorities and other interested parties about the scope for introducing further provisions of the Act. My aim will be the speediest introduction of any provisions which the costing working party identifies as needing no extra resources.
965 It would be idle for me to speculate about which provisions might be capable of implementation within existing local authority and other resources. I do not want to raise false hopes; nor, indeed, to dampen hopes unnecessarily. No decisions have yet been made about bringing more of the Act into force. This has to await the costing working party's report.
§ Sir G. Young
I shall write to the hon. Member about that. My own instant reaction would be to say "Yes", but I am not entirely aware of the conditions under which the working party was set up. Perhaps I could write to him about that, but assure him that I can see no reason why the report should not be made available.
I assure the House that I am fully aware of the benefits which should flow from the Act's provisions. Many provisions will be of direct benefit to children, and I shall not permit any unnecessary delay in bringing such provisions into force. I am thinking here of provisions such as those that will enable local authorities and voluntary adoption societies to apply for orders freeing children for adoption, and those that will permit the setting up of pilot schemes, approved by the Secretary of State, for the payment of allowances to adopters.
Freeing for adoption is a procedure which local authorities and voluntary adoption societies will be able to use to assist them in better and more confident planning for children who need new families. The freeing procedure will enable parents who wish to have their child adopted to give early final agreement to adoption, and this should smooth the adoption process for all concerned. It will be possible to make firm plans for the child, and the distress and the uncertainty which both parents and adopters can experience should be reduced.
Local authorities and voluntary adoption societies will also be able to apply to the courts for freeing orders without the parent's consent. Courts will be able to make a freeing order if they consider that this would be in the child's best interests and that one of the statutory grounds for 966 dispensing with the parent's agreement to adoption is satisfied.
It was hoped, when the Children Bill was being discussed by Parliament, that this latter possibility—of a child being freed for adoption without, if necessary, the parent's consent—would assist in those cases where children are drifting in the care of a local authority or a voluntary organisation, with no possibility of returning to their natural families, but, perhaps because of the opposition of parents, with no permanent plans being made for their future. I know that many local authorities and voluntary adoption societies would welcome the introduction of the. freeing provisions to help them in proper planning for children.
The provision for the Secretary of State to approve schemes for the payment of allowances to adopters—which the hon. Member mentioned—should also facilitate the finding of families for children who need them. This provision was included in the Act because it had been suggested that the payment of allowances would enable adoptive homes to be found for children who, because of their special needs, would not otherwise be adopted. The children concerned are handicapped, or are groups of brothers and sisters who need a home together, or who have some other special need which could mean that, although people might want to adopt these children, the financial burden which this might involve would be too great.
Parliament considered that only a limited number of adoption allowance schemes should be approved at first, so that these could be carefully monitored to see whether the payment of allowances did indeed facilitate the adoption of children with special needs. The Secretary of State will have to report to Parliament on the operation of the allowance schemes that he approves, and Parliament will have the opportunity to decide whether his powers to approve schemes should continue.
I think that this opportunity to review the operation of the provision is important. Parliament will wish to take stock of a development that in many ways cuts across traditional assumptions about adoption. Clearly it is desirable for pilot schemes to be got under way, so that we can assess the effectiveness of 967 paying allowances to adopters in helping to find homes for children who need them.
I could talk in similar terms about the benefits that we hope will flow from other of the Act's provisions. Many hon. Members are already fully aware of these. This is why we are constantly urged by hon. Members and others to implement more sections of the Act. I need no converting to an appreciation of the Act's potential value for children and their natural and substitute families. As I have said, I hope that the costing working party's report will provide an agreed framework for discussions about the un-implemented provisions of the Act and will enable us to make firm decisions about bringing more of it into force.
A second working party is also doing valuable groundwork for further implementation of the 1975 Act. This working party is considering the criteria and procedures for approval of voluntary adoption societies by the Secretary of State. The Act provides for the replacement of the present system, whereby voluntary adoption societies are registered by local authorities, by one under which societies are approved by the Secretary of State for three years at a time. This change was thought necessary to ensure that societies' standards of practice and the conduct of their activities were satisfactory for the important role that they will play in the statutory adoption service, and in the light of the new responsibilities that they will have under the Act—such as the opportunity to apply to have a child freed for adoption.
This requirement for the Secretary of State to approve them had made voluntary adoption societies concerned about their future and, through the Association of British Adoption and Fostering Agencies, they have told me that they would welcome clarification of the criteria that the Secretary of State will apply to societies seeking approval. They have also stressed the need, which I readily accept, to encourage and maintain the voluntary contribution to adoption services, and to facilitate the co-operation which is already developing between statutory and voluntary agencies in the provision of adoption services.
We therefore decided that a working party should be set up to consider the 968 criteria and procedures for approval of voluntary adoption societies, and this working party, on which the local authorities, voluntary adoption societies, and the Association of British Adoption and Fostering Agencies are represented, is now well into its task. I hope to have its report by this autumn. I shall bear exactly the same considerations in mind when it comes to publication.
The completion of the working party's task will in itself be valuable, because it will help to dispel the uncertainty currently faced by voluntary adoption societies about what the approval process will entail. The working party's labours will, of course, also be valuable in laying the foundation for implementation of the approval provisions.
The working party is doing essential preliminary work, which has to be completed before the approval provisions can be brought into force. That this work is being done now will bring the introduction of approval that much nearer. Of course we will have to wait to see what the costing working party says about the costs of introducing the approval provisions, but if they are identified as needing no extra resources and we can agree with all concerned that they can be brought into force, the approval working party will have considerably shortened the time needed to prepare for their implementation.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the custodianship order provisions. The previous Adminstration announced that preparatory work for their introduction would be undertaken with a view to implementation early this year. I know that many of those who are caring for other people's children, including stepparents and relatives and foster parents, would welcome the introduction of the custodianship provisions, so that they have the opportunity to establish a secure legal relationship between themselves and the child.
Unhappily we were not able to press ahead with bringing these provisions into force, because there were no agreed figures on the costs of the provisions. The custodianship order provisions will have resource implications for local authorities-although the hon. Gentleman does not agree with this-the probation service, the courts, and the legal aid fund, 969 although views have been divided on the question whether the provisions will lead to increased costs overall.
Again, this lack of agreement about costs bedevilled progress. We therefore asked the costing working party, which was not originally looking at the custodianship provisions, to include these in its considerations. This means that we shall soon have a clear picture of the costs involved, and will be able to consider on that basis whether there is scope for bringing the custodianship provisions into force.
We have received a number of representations about sections 64 and 65 of the Act. Those sections provide for courts to order that parents and children shall be separately represented in care proceedings and that where there appears to be a conflict of interest between them, for the children's interests to be watched over by a guardian ad litem, and for parents to be eligible for legal aid. At present, because of their resource implications, those sections have been introduced only for a very limited group of cases, and many people think that the non-availability of legal aid for parents in care proceedings—which may result in the removal of their child—is a denial of justice.
The matter was debated fully in the other place on 30 April and I do not wish to devote too much time to it today. However, I should like to repeat the assurance that my noble Friend Lord Cullen of Ashbourne gave on that occasion, namely, that the Government fully accept the desirability of such provisions. As soon as resources permit, the Lord Chancellor would like to make legal aid available to parents who wish to be represented. The provision of guardians ad litem is being looked at, along with the other provisions that have resource implications for local authorities.
I have said that lack of money need not mean that progress cannot be made in bringing into force more of the Children Act 1975. I have outlined the positive steps that we are taking to identify areas where we can make some headway. It is, of course, for central Government to bring provisions into force, and until we have done so local authorities and others obviously cannot set about putting them 970 into effect. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that progress is possible only when a commencement order has been made.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman, because he said that the present position was worse than that prior to 1975. Much of the Act is about developments in child care practice and is designed to set a legislative framework within which good practice can develop and flourish. We must not forget that good practice can flourish without all the legislative underpinning that might be desirable. Reviews of children in care, for example, constitute one area where good practice can be invaluable to proper planning for children in care, and the development of good practice need not await the making of review regulations under the provisions of the Children Act.
Equally, in our mutual regret about some of the unimplemented provisions of the Children Act, we should not overlook the very valuable work that is already being done by both statutory and voluntary agencies. Many voluntary adoption societies, for example, are doing innovative and successful work in placing children with very severe handicaps and other special needs with new adoptive families.
I am thinking of agencies such as Parents for Children, which was set up specifically to find homes for such children and which, in its first three years of operation, has placed 37 children with new families. Those children were over 8 years of age, or had a physical or mental handicap of some kind, or were family groups of young children needing to stay together. Many hon. Members will have heard about the exciting new scheme that the Adoption Resource Exchange has recently launched to find families for children through the use of the "Be My Parent" book, which contains photographs of children who need new homes. I am glad to say that the Government make grants to both those organisations to help with their excellent work.
We also support the Association of British Adoption and Fostering Agencies, which does such valuable work in promoting high standards of practice in the adoption and fostering of children and in 971 improving professional and public understanding of all the complex issues involved. The willingness of so many families to take children with severe handicaps or other special needs into their homes is one of the most heartening of all the developments in the field for which I am responsible. I am sure that hon. Members would wish to join with me in paying tribute to the families who have welcomed those children into their homes.
Inter-agency co-operation is another area in which encouraging progress is being made. Co-operation between many voluntary adoption societies and local authorities is already very good, and getting better, despite the fact that section 1 of the Act—which places a duty on local authorities to provide adoption services in conjunction with voluntary adoption societies in their area—is not yet in force. The adoption development project, sponsored by the DHSS social work service in Bedfordshire and Newcastle, has demonstrated that progress can be made in inter-agency co-operation without the full statutory framework. I am not minimising the need to implement more of the Act, but we should not let this be used as an excuse to justify lack of initiative or commitment to improvements in services.
I know that the hon. Gentleman will have hoped for a definite commitment from me about bringing into force further provisions of the Act. He will have hoped for—although perhaps not expected—implementation dates or a timetable for implementation. He has, I am afraid, raised this subject at a time when I can be no more definite than I have been. We support the main aims of the Act. We hope to make progress in its implementation and we have set in train an examination of the Act's resource implications that will enable us to consider, with the local authorities and others, the timing and priorities for bringing further provisions into force. I hope that by the autumn we shall have a much clearer picture of the. scope for further implementation of the Children Act.