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Adoption Agencies (Panel and Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2012

Volume 739: debated on Wednesday 25 July 2012

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the Adoption Agencies (Panel and Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2012 (SI 2012/1410).

My Lords, in putting my name to this Motion, I should like to make clear that it is not in any way a Motion of Regret, nor indeed any intention to criticise the government policy on adoption. As chairman of the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, I feel that I should highlight possible implications in relation to the statutory instrument that comes into force on 1 September. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hill, and Tim Loughton MP for seeing the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Howarth, and me last week. We had a most constructive discussion on the statutory instrument and other aspects of the work of our committee.

To start with, I was rather taken aback by the statutory instrument being laid and coming into force so quickly, when we are actually hearing evidence about the duty of adoption panels to recommend whether a child should be placed for adoption. I should correct an error on my part during our evidence-taking, when I suggested that the Government were saying that panels were to be abolished. I was wrong and apologise for saying it. I now understand that the statutory instrument we are discussing today was already in the pipeline while our committee was being set up. However, it raises a rather more important issue in that it will come into effect while we are hearing conflicting evidence about the benefits as well as the disadvantages of this part of the work of the panels. This is evidence that the committee of which I am chairman believes should be brought to the attention both of the department and of all those who are engaged in the adoption process.

The disadvantages are based on delays in the adoption process and there is no doubt that children’s welfare is at risk when final decisions as to their future are not made within the suitable timescale of the child. This appears to happen in many adoption applications. The family justice review, at paragraph 78 of its final report, refers to duplication by adoption panels of the work of the court, which leads to delay. The review suggests that,

“the court’s detailed scrutiny of these cases should be sufficient”.

The Government have accepted most of the Norgrove recommendations, including the removal of this task from panels. Martin Narey, in his evidence to the committee this week, supports removing this part of panel’s duty. On the other hand, we have received evidence that panels do not contribute much, if anything, to delays, but there appears to be an element of duplication. Ofsted, for instance, reported in some detail that panels do not add to delay. Moreover, we have received written and oral evidence on the value-added element of the panel assessment from the chair of the adoption panel in the north-east, orally from BAAF on 3 July and from Coram on 10 July. They set out their concerns and disagreed with the removal of this duty. Both Coram and BAAF have reinforced their concerns in further written evidence that I hope Minister has now received.

I shall read a brief passage from the transcript of 3 July of the oral evidence of a witness, Alexandra Conroy Harris. She said:

“The theory behind the abolition of panels in the decision on whether a child should be placed for adoption, which came out in these regulations, is that the court will be able to give proper scrutiny to the care plan for the child. We have a lot of concerns that the courts do not have the time, the wide range of expertise or the opportunity to reflect that panels do. Panels draw on experts from social work, psychologists, lay people and people who have had personal experience of adoption and bring them together. They put a lot of time and effort into considering quite a lot of paperwork and evidence about a child before making a recommendation. The idea that a judge would be able to duplicate that within the court process, given the time pressures they are under and the lack of broad-based expertise available to them in making that decision, is quite concerning. It reduces the background to the decision for a child and it makes it on a much more narrow basis”.

Noble Lords will be relieved to hear that I do not propose to read out any other passages from the voluminous evidence that we are receiving.

BAAF also submitted written evidence as the result of the committee asking these questions. It strongly opposes the removal of panel involvement and suggests that the proposals in the statutory instrument do not reach the panel members, practitioners and managers most closely involved in adoption because they did not form part of the consultation process. According to BAAF, the panel hearing gives an opportunity for experienced and specialist multidisciplinary teams to consider all the options for a child and to ensure that all regulatory requirements have been met. It monitors the quality of decision-making, the assessment of the child’s situation, and can require further work to be done. That distinguishes it from the role of the court, which it suggests does not include a detailed consideration of the care plan for adoption. I cannot resist reminding the Minister that Norgrove recommended that judges should not get too closely involved in the detail of care plans.

The Coram representative, in her evidence, said that the panels are,

“quite cumbersome bodies. However, one of the things people value is that there is an independent element”.

The representative went on to say that:

“There is a huge variation in practice within local authorities, and sadly the quality of the reports being prepared is sometimes quite poor. Panels provide a point at which, first, social workers know that they have to produce their reports and, secondly, the reports are often sent back for further work”.

If there is no panel, according to Coram, it,

“will just shove the problem on to a different part of the system”.

Coram also suggested that the panels could be streamlined.

The subsequent written evidence from Coram set out key concerns, including on the task of the decision-maker and the unintended consequences of the current proposal. I hope the Minister has read or will read all these. They include concerns about a significant increase in the work of the decision-maker, the possibility of quality slipping without multidisciplinary scrutiny, and the removal of the independent panel chairs. I therefore ask the Minister to reflect on what both Coram and BAAF said in the evidence to which I referred.

Barnardo’s on 10 July, and CAFCASS on 17 July, gave evidence stating that panel assessments come too late in the process. Barnardo’s, at page 39 of the evidence, argued for a vastly enhanced role for the IRO—I always forget what the initials stand for. Barnardo’s said that the IRO should be much more active,

“to twin-track from the earliest point”,

that it is,

“rare to come across someone who tracked the system from end to end, from first contact with the child right the way through to adoption”,

and that it is concerned that without a detailed focus, “matters will drift”.

CAFCASS said that the trigger for local authorities to begin to consider a placement order application is a bit late in the process, and that the discipline of panel meetings serves as a focal point for local authority activity. CAFCASS said at page 8 that it was not so much the committee or the panel but the quality of the work done at an early point. In the absence of adoption-panel assessment, quality work should be put in place at an earlier stage so that there is a proper focus of a kind that a family judge would not be able to give before the child placement application is heard.

I received a briefing yesterday from the NSPCC, which I hope the Minister also has received. I will read only the questions that the NSPCC suggests that I should ask. Given the judiciary’s well documented mistrust of social workers, how will the Government ensure that cases brought before the court recommending adoption will have been properly considered and decided in the absence of scrutiny by adoption panels? How confident are the Government that the proper supervision is in place, or will be in place, to ensure that decisions to adopt are properly considered and made in the absence of scrutiny by adoption panels? How will the Government ensure that the court system is not clogged up with cases where adoption is the wrong decision?

My Lords, a Division has been called in the Chamber. The Committee will therefore adjourn for 10 minutes and reconvene at 2.47 pm.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Before I continue, I should, with a further apology, make a correction: I went to see the two Ministers with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—not the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. I apologise to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Howarth.

As a former judge, I have my doubts whether the adoption judge hearing a placement application would be able to carry out a task similar to the panel, and whether they would have the evidence and the opportunity to carry out the detailed scrutiny expected by the Norgrove committee. I have some questions for the Government. On the assumption that the Government go ahead with removing this duty from panels, what will be put in its place? Will an independent person other than the decision-maker pull together all the relevant evidence about the child at an early stage and advise, or will there be a gap, with the potential for drift? Will the whole burden be placed on the decision-maker alone?

Is the department looking at active involvement of the IRO and, if so, recognising that the IRO would have to have a much reduced current case load? The adoption committee has not yet—and I emphasis this—formulated any conclusions on any of the issues that I have raised. However, we are concerned that there is a conflict of evidence and consequently some degree of confusion over the removal of the panel from this task. When the statutory instrument comes into effect on 1 September, the committee is concerned about this degree of conflict and confusion and what advice the department is going to give, particularly to local authorities, to resolve these issues and to avoid drift, lack of momentum and possible delay, with the case not being in order for the judge. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness very much for bringing this matter to the Committee, and for her quite splendid chairmanship of our committee. I thank the Minister and Tim Loughton for the meeting last week. I am very flattered to have been confused with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, I must say. The meeting was extremely useful and I hope that we made it clear that members of the Select Committee share with the Government the objective of the best possible outcome. We have received powerful evidence about the impact of lack of permanence, particularly in the early years.

Given the jigsaw of interlocking procedures, it is important for the Government to explain why they are taking one step of several steps that may be available, and which I suspect will be taken quite soon, when a number have been identified. It is not always entirely clear why one step should be taken in isolation. I appreciate that one can argue it the other way—that if you have identified a step you should get on and do it—but this is quite a complex area.

The Explanatory Memorandum says that the objective of the regulations is to remove both delay and duplication. Delay is, of course, a loaded term. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has experienced, as I have, that when one is arguing planning applications in local government, delay does not actually go to quality. She is agreeing with me. Taking time may sometimes be necessary. Taking time unnecessarily is a bad thing, of course. The duplication that the Explanatory Memorandum refers to, as the Norgrove report did, is between the panel and the court. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, will know how long a judge is typically given to read the papers—I suspect less time than a panel is, although I am always amazed at how quickly panels assimilate information.

The Government are not pointing to duplication between the panel and the decision-maker, who does not need the prior work of the panel, in the view of the Government. It seems to me that the decision-maker must need the same information as the panel, and Coram, to which the noble and learned Baroness has referred, regards the panel as providing quality assurance. Coram has given us some very helpful evidence, and the noble and learned Baroness has referred to the possible slippage in quality because of the loss of the independent element.

Coram also talks about adoption decision-making being delegated to less senior staff or the creation of a dedicated role that would not be integrated in the same way that the current post is. It also talks about the removal of independent panel chairs, and we have heard some very forceful evidence, particularly from BAAF, about the contribution made by independent members. The expertise from outside the authority brought to panels is really quite important. Alongside that, we are hearing quite a lot of concern about the lack of experience of adoption work among social workers. We asked the Local Government Association for its comments on these regulations, and, after a moment’s thought, one of the councillors who was at our session more or less said that authorities would invent a structure to replace panels. Admittedly, she might have been thinking about the abolition of panels as a whole, but it was a very practical response. If an authority sees a need to bring in outside expertise, it will find a way to do so.

The Government say that panels add no value, but I wonder whether the converse of that is the risk of abolishing what is excellent practice. We have heard that, in practice, panels meet frequently—weekly if necessary. If they do not meet often enough and are causing delay, their practice needs to be improved. I also wonder whether, if a panel is retained for matching a child with a family, that panel would not need to cover much of the groundwork that would have been covered by the panel dealing with placement.

When we met the Minister, Mr Loughton, he told us about the visits that he has made to sit in on and observe panels. He commented on the amount of material that panel members are expected to absorb, but he did not seem to say that they are failing. There are professionals, sometimes from different professions, who become skilled through the job that they are doing. I have to say that, as a society, we are very lucky that there are people who are prepared to do this job. I am not convinced that they should lose this role.

My Lords, I do not intend to repeat the very clear, coherent points made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, but I shall add to them. I am delighted that this debate is being held because the committee was extremely concerned when it saw the instrument. It is important to make the point that if the Government ask a Select Committee to undertake a task—in this instance to look at adoption—the committee should be kept well informed and other decisions should not be made without cognisance of the evidence that it is hearing and has heard. If it is not, we might as well all go home, rather than continue to work hard on the issues. I know that the chair is unable to say that but I think I can.

I shall say a little about some of the work around the family justice review, which was extremely complex and fraught. I know that because while it was being undertaken I was chair of CAFCASS, which was central to the disputes and discussions about delays and whether systems should be changed. David Norgrove did not say a great deal about panels but they are what I call low-hanging fruit. In looking at structures and systems, panels are one layer that you might be able to take out. You would then have removed a level of what looks like bureaucracy to move things forward. However, David Norgrove found an extreme level of mistrust between all the partners. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Hill, spoke to him during that period. He was almost obsessed by the relationships between judges, social workers, CAFCASS and the other stakeholders in dealing with the issue. Therefore, finding good recommendations was important to him, and there is much in his report that takes us forward.

It is clear that, at present, many children spend far too long in care, moving in and out of it before decisions are made, and that we have to find ways of speeding this up. Views about adoption panels and whether they help or hinder the process are mixed. There is no systematic evidence. There has not been any decent inquiry into the working of panels. Again, I will not repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, have said about the evidence that we have heard from other parties, but people have anecdotal evidence that is as strong as any that might come from a review. I think that that would be useful. Personally, I am agnostic about panels and I suspect, as CAFCASS said, that they could be reviewed; that they come far too late in the process; and that the important thing is that the multi-professional information is gathered appropriately together to properly inform the decision. I do not think that the way in which that is processed has been properly looked at in relation to the decision to remove panels. Those are the things that would make a difference.

One of the other things that we know—I shall repeat this—is that when information gets to the judges, if they do not believe that they have enough expert information, they will commission experts to give it to them. A piece of work we have done recently is that of reducing the number of experts in court, particularly in the family courts, in order to reduce delay and speed up good quality decision making. It is quite clear that social workers and CAFCASS officers have a high level of expertise, but we also know that local authorities vary hugely one from another. What is the Minister going to do to make sure that when information goes to court, it does not add to delay because the judge is looking for the right information which he or she does not think has been quality tested? At the moment, they have the assurance that it has gone through a number of experts in a panel. It may be that there is an answer to this; I am looking for it.

I am also extremely concerned about the amount of work that falls on the shoulders of both decision-makers and independent reviewing officers. We have seen examples where the level of caseloads—certainly for independent reviewing officers and, I am sure, people up and down the country who have to make these decisions—is quite inappropriate in terms of being able to make the quality of decision that is needed. If Tim Loughton, when sitting in on panels, thought that they had a lot of material to digest, imagine what it would like for the decision-makers if they have to digest the material for themselves without having an expert opinion across a range of issues. They will be looking at psychiatric problems in some children who are going to be placed, or children with learning difficulties. We know that children who are being placed for adoption and coming through care are not straightforward babies with no difficulties. The panels help to assess that information before it is given to the judge in relation to the placement.

However keen you are on adoption, it is necessary to remember the balance between birth families and prospective adoptive families. There is a danger that, if you do not have good information on their families, which social workers in local authorities have to assess, there will be miscarriages of justice. That is of deep concern to me.

I would ask the Minister to answer the questions from the NSPCC which were repeated by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is extremely concerned about the mix of practice across the country. I also ask him to tell me how he, being responsible in central government, can ensure that local government, with all the decentralisation, do not overwhelm those who have to make these decisions so that quality decisions continue to be made. I will rest my arguments there.

My Lords, I will follow the same theme but I hope that I will not be repetitive. A great deal is going on in the area of adoption, whether it is the Norgrove review, the March action plan or the existence of the Select Committee on which I am very pleased to serve.

I want to draw attention to paragraph 78, which records the decision and has already been quoted by the chairman, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It ends with the sentence she has already quoted:

“We believe that the court’s detailed scrutiny of these cases should be sufficient”.

It does not say “is sufficient” or “is known to be sufficient”: it says “should be sufficient”. It is quite important that that sentence is conditioned. Indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum should have quoted paragraph 78 in full and not selected the middle sentence. In my view, the Explanatory Memorandum to this instrument has a tendency to short-cut.

Let us take the words “should be” and look at what this enormously comprehensive report, with more than 100 recommendations, said on the relationship between courts and local authorities in paragraphs 3.45 and 3.46. It is worth reading this into the record:

“Our recommendations are intended to restore the respective responsibilities of courts and local authorities”.

If I may interpose, the word “restore” is a quite strong use of language. It implies that something is not as it used to be, even if not quite that it has broken down. The report continues:

“But to change the law does not tackle the root cause of the difficulties. This stems we believe from a deep-rooted distrust of local authorities … This in turn fuels dissatisfaction on the part of local authorities with the courts, further damaging relationships.”

Paragraph 3.46 states:

“The result is that the relationship between local authorities and courts can verge on the dysfunctional. For the system to work better it is not acceptable for each group to sit on the sidelines and criticise the other.”

It may be right to have taken away one of the responsibilities of panels. It could be right to remove the second opinion which may be provided very helpfully either to local authorities or to courts which might need it. It may be right to make them face up to the need to work successfully together. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that that is the Norgrove motivation. But it seems very risky.

We know that the performance of local authorities is uneven, for some quite good reasons such as the size of the authority or the ethnic mix in the authority. Political persuasion may have entered into it at some stage. We also know that the performance of the courts is very uneven. Our committee has not yet received as much evidence on that as we will have done when we come back in the autumn. Indeed, the government literature—the action plan in March or the Explanatory Memorandum—is quite cautious about criticising the courts. It is perhaps overcautious in the balance between its opinions on local authorities and the courts.

However, Norgrove is very clear. I think that he is saying that the front-line troops—the local authorities, the IROs and the social workers, and the courts with the judges—need to be in the front line. They need to get together and to perform without being intervened upon by outside experts and interests, which may be right as a long-term objective. Certainly, one would hope to find relationships between local authorities and courts in general becoming much better than they apparently are if this review is to be believed—and I see no reason to doubt it.

However, the Government will have to watch what happens very carefully, because it is not self-evident that removing this second opinion, this ability to put things together to the benefit of both the local authority and the court, will enhance the process of adoption. Delay has been mentioned as a reason. The evidence for it does not stand up. The evidence for duplication is dependent on there being confidence that the ability to perform exists both in the local authorities and the courts. If it does not, the duplication argument does not stand up either.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for putting down this Motion today. She has enormous expertise in this area and, as I had anticipated, it has been very instructive listening to her speak not only about her past experience but about the work of the scrutiny committee. It has been interesting also to hear the details of the ongoing work of that committee that other noble Lords have been able to share.

I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if other people in the Room have more expertise in this area than me; I see myself as being on a learning curve. However, I believe that we have so far failed to get the balance right between scrutiny and decision-making in adoption procedure, leading to unacceptable delays in the processing of applications for children to be adopted. As has been said today, this matter has been debated on many occasions over many years. It is also addressed in detail in the Family Justice Review report. As we have heard, the amended regulations before us today implement one small change in a much bigger set of recommendations contained in that report.

Having looked at those recommendations, we are persuaded that a one-stage process of scrutiny by either an adoption panel or the courts through a placement order should be sufficient to protect the interests of children and parents, with the emphasis being clearly on the primary interests of the child. However, the questions posed by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, chime with several of our concerns.

The Explanatory Notes accompanying the regulations make it clear that this change is part of a larger package of legislative reform affecting adoption practices and that the Government will consult on these wider proposed changes. We look forward to participating in the consultation, and I would be grateful if the Minister could take this opportunity to update us on the timetable and scope of the planned consultation. Is it the intention, for example, that the outstanding recommendations from the Family Justice Review relating to adoption and the conclusions from the adoption scrutiny committee will be incorporated in the consultation?

This leads to the fundamental question, which the noble Baroness raised, of the timing of the proposals. We wonder at the wisdom of introducing this change to such an important piece of public policy on a seemingly piecemeal basis. Perhaps the Minister could clarify why the changes are being introduced now, when the scrutiny committee’s work is ongoing and when more radical issues relating to the role of local authorities and adoption panels are on the cards. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked powerfully why the scrutiny committee’s work was commissioned if it was to be pre-empted in this way as it now appears to be.

Given the sensitivities involved in dealing with adoption issues and the need to ensure that safeguarding the interests of the child is built into everything that we do, can the Minister confirm whether the changes, if introduced, will be monitored and reassessed over time? It is vital to ensure that child protection at this fundamental level is not being compromised. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

My Lords, like others, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for raising the issues that she has today and for giving us all the opportunity to discuss the role of adoption panels. I was glad that she came in last week, with my two noble friends, to see my honourable friend Mr Loughton. I know that he was glad to have the opportunity to meet her and other noble Lords, and to respond to the concerns put to him. I think that we had a useful discussion on that occasion.

I will make sure that Mr Loughton sees the evidence to which the noble and learned Baroness and other noble Lords have referred today because I do not think that the submissions to which she referred have yet come through. I also take the wider point, which was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about the importance of making sure that the various strands of what the Government are doing and the work of the committee are joined up.

That also relates to the question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. There are a lot of separate strands, on some of which consultation is taking place and on some of which it is not. It might be helpful—I will commission this from colleagues—if I pull together where we are on various issues; for example, the timescales, the proposals around consultation and so on. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, but unlike all other noble Lords here, I am relatively new to this as well. As I am trying to understand where we are on a number of fronts, it might be helpful if I can pull it together and set it out.

I hope that that also responds to the point put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth: in laying the regulations on adoption panels, the Government were not seeking to pre-empt the conclusions of the committee. Nor, obviously, did we intend any disrespect to the committee. It was simply that the Government had announced that they had accepted those recommendations from the family justice review on that specific point on the adoption panels back in February before the committee, I think, was convened. This relates to a point made by my noble friend Lady Hamwee. We know that the lives of vulnerable children can be improved by making rapid progress, which makes us want to make progress as fast as we can. However, we have to recognise the whole time that we need to strike the right balance between wanting to make progress where we can identify issues that we are able to knock off and move on, and needing to make sure that the safeguards are there so that we do not end up approaching it in a piecemeal way but with a consistent approach across the piece.

As has already been alluded to, the Government accepted the recommendations of the family justice review as part of their overall drive to speed up the system, which we all agree has become too slow. Noble Lords know better than me that the delay damages a child’s development. Where adoption is right for a child and subject to proper safeguards, the adoption process should work as smoothly and swiftly as possible. It is not right that children should have to wait more than a year for care proceedings to be completed by the courts or that it takes an average of one year and nine months for a child taken into care to move in with their adoptive family.

The previous Government recognised this when they set up the family justice review. Tackling delay in care proceedings was one of their key objectives. The 55 weeks for a child’s case to progress through the courts is a very long way from the 12 weeks—I think it was that—envisaged when the Children Act 1989 was introduced.

This Government, like the previous one, are keen to reduce delays. In March, we set out our plans in An Action Plan for Adoption, to which my noble friend Lord Eccles referred. On 6 July, the Prime Minister announced further measures to see children, particularly the youngest, moving in with their adoptive parents as quickly as possible. I know that the Select Committee is looking at this issue through its call for evidence and discussions with expert witnesses. We look forward to hearing the committee’s views in due course.

In the overall context of wanting to reform the system, we have brought forward the adoption agency regulations we are discussing today and which we plan shall come into force in September. I will briefly set out what we do and do not propose. I know that Members of this Committee are clear on them, but this is an opportunity for me to put on the record the Government’s stance because I know that many people are interested in them.

Adoption panels will continue, as now, to provide independent scrutiny in cases where parents have relinquished their child for adoption, and in cases where a child has been taken into care and parents have then consented to the child being adopted. That is because in cases where the birth parents support the decision that the child should be adopted, there is no further role for the courts and so no independent scrutiny of the local authority’s decision; therefore, we can clearly see the need for panels. That means that the adoption panel function is not removed in any circumstances where the case is not scrutinised by the courts, and only in cases where there is parental consent to the adoption under Section 19 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

The regulations do not propose to change the role of adoption panels in assessing the suitability of prospective adopters, or in the matching of children with approved prospective adopters. These will continue, and we have an open mind about the future. It is important to say that my honourable friend Mr Loughton is considering whether future changes, including to the size and membership of the panels, would strengthen and speed up the system. He would very much welcome the views of the committee on this in due course.

The change that we are proposing concerns the decision-making process at the point where adoption becomes the plan for a child in care. The amended regulations relate to those cases where a social worker’s recommendation that a child should be adopted need to be scrutinised by the court through the process of a placement order application. In these circumstances we propose that the adoption panel should no longer have a role. Rather than refer the case to the adoption panel, social workers will send their recommendations directly to the decision-maker, an experienced social worker and senior local authority official. If the decision-maker agrees with the recommendation, the local authority will make an application to the court for a placement order.

I have been asked why the Government are proposing this change, and we have talked about duplication and delay. In cases where the court will need to consider an application for a placement order, the role of the adoption panel is duplicative. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for making the point that if we have a system in which we have confidence, having just one system is desirable in principle. The courts see the same evidence as adoption panels. They provide independent scrutiny of the local authority’s adoption plan. Having adoption panels and the courts both providing independent scrutiny seems unnecessary and, indeed, a potential cause of delay. As noble Lords know, that was the conclusion of the family justice review. The recommendations of that review were widely consulted on and, over time, they have received broad support. The review heard evidence from the judiciary, local authorities and the Family Justice Council which showed that children’s cases were being delayed while the courts waited for adoption panels to make their recommendations. Although there were respondents to the review who opposed the recommendation to remove panel scrutiny of these cases, the majority of respondents recognised that detailed court scrutiny was a sufficient safeguard.

We have discussed whether panels add delay. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred to the Ofsted survey and questioned whether there is any evidence for this. When the family justice review looked at this, it concluded that it does. A judgment published last year by Her Honour Judge Lesley Newton highlighted that the adoption panel had added 83 days to the process. I recognise the point that has been made forcefully by noble Lords that there is conflicting evidence around this, and therefore the core argument that the Government would make is around duplication. However, we have also concluded that there is evidence of delay as well.

I want briefly to put these changes into a historical perspective. I hesitate slightly to do so because again I know that there are noble Lords here who have helped to construct these systems over many years. Adoption panels have been part of the decision-making process for the best part of 30 years now. They were originally introduced in 1984 because of the changing face of adoption. The majority of children being adopted were no longer babies; rather they were older or disabled children with more complex needs. The panels certainly provided independent scrutiny of adoption agencies’ plans. Before the Adoption and Children Act 2002, an adoption agency could place a child with the prospective adopters without any intervention by the court. The court’s role was limited to making the adoption order which the prospective adopters, then as now, would apply for after the child had lived with them for at least 10 weeks. However, the 2002 Act changed how local authorities could place children for adoption. A major change was that they could no longer place a child for adoption unless they had the authority to place either as a result of parental consent or under a placement order made by the court. The courts are therefore involved much earlier in the process if the birth parents will not consent to placement for adoption or there are pending care proceedings. Having the court’s early agreement to the adoption plan and sorting out consent before the adoption order stage is better for children and their adoptive families. It reduces the risk that a court would not make an adoption order.

It is arguable that the function of the adoption panel covered by the amendment regulations could or should have been removed in December 2005 when placement orders came into force. It was at that point, when the change was made, that the element of duplication came into the system. A decision was not taken then, but we think that now is a sensible time to address it.

We have also touched on the issue of independent scrutiny. Noble Lords are rightly concerned that we should retain sufficient independent scrutiny of what is a momentous decision about a child’s life. We are confident that this will remain the case. There will be independent scrutiny in all cases, whether from the adoption panel or from the court. In all cases, the local authority decision-maker will hear the views of those with specialist expertise, for example, on medical or mental health issues, before reaching their decision.

We have also heard evidence today from some noble Lords who believe that the courts do not necessarily have the time, the expertise or the opportunity to reflect on children’s cases in the way that panels do. We think it is the case that the courts have the expertise they need. In making decisions on complex issues, they consider the information provided by experts. They do not simply rubber-stamp the local authority’s adoption plan or recommendation of the children’s guardian. Before the court can make a placement order, it must be satisfied either that the parents have consented or that the child’s welfare requires that parental consent should be dispensed with. The court must also be satisfied that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. In making its decision, under the 2002 Act, the court must give paramount consideration to the child’s welfare throughout its life and must apply a list of criteria concerning the child’s welfare.

Therefore, the court will continue to play its vital role. The work of the social worker and the adoption team in drawing together and assessing the evidence will not change, nor will their work be added to because they no longer have to seek a recommendation by the adoption panel before decisions are made. We would argue that a simple system with no duplication where the local authority decision-maker is fully accountable for the recommendation that he or she puts forward to the court will function better. Good decisions will be taken quickly in the best interests of children.

I was asked a number of detailed questions. I shall do my best to respond to the main points, but if I fail to answer some of the more specific points, I will follow them up. There was a recurring theme of what the impact would be for local authorities and the burden on the decision-maker. I was asked by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, what advice and support the department would give to local authorities. Alongside the regulations, we have published amended statutory guidance to help local authorities and other professionals understand how we expect the change to work in practice.

On pulling the information together and whether that will be too burdensome for the decision-maker, the agency adviser should maintain an overview of the quality of the agency’s reports to both the panel and the decision-maker. The social worker who currently prepares the reports for the panel will provide them directly to the decision-maker instead. That should not be more burdensome but the change is about making the decision-maker more directly and clearly accountable.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, asked about the role of the IRO. Some strengthened regulations came into force in April last year to address concerns about the effectiveness of the IRO’s role. Those provisions included setting out the name of the IRO in the care plan, a named IRO being appointed for each child and requiring the IRO to meet the child before review meetings to discuss matters to be considered. Therefore, consideration has been given to that matter but we will continue to reflect on it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, rightly asked me whether we could make sure that when information is sent to the court, it does not add to any delay. It will be the responsibility of the decision-maker to ensure that that does not happen.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee raised her important concerns about the lack of experience of adoption work among social workers. She makes a good point about that but I am glad to say that we are picking up feedback during the visits that are being made to local authorities as part of the adoption scorecard process that says that the current higher profile of adoption as an issue at national level is raising its profile among managers at a local level. I hope that we shall see that working through.

My noble friend Lord Eccles made an important point about organisations working together and raised concerns about mistrust between various players, including local authorities and the courts. Back in March, my honourable friend Mr Loughton wrote to all local authorities, asking the DCSs to convene meetings with family justice professionals to agree on how they can work together better. He is following that up and we think that it is starting to happen.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked about monitoring. How will we monitor these changes to make sure that there is no harmful effect? That is a recurring theme from all noble Lords. We will monitor it partly through Ofsted inspections. A new inspection framework was published for consultation—another consultation—earlier this month. That will allow inspection to focus more clearly than it presently does on the child’s journey through care and adoption services. We will also monitor delay in the system through the new adoption scorecards that we are introducing. They will give us feedback. They are designed to look at the speed of the adoption process and to take contextual data into account, so it will not be a crude measurement.

It is clear from this afternoon’s debate that we share a desire to simplify the adoption process where that is in the best interests of the child. The Government do not contend that speed is the be-all and end-all. A balance must be struck between speed and the interests of the child. However, we believe that these regulations will increase the accountability of the people in the system, remove duplication and, in some cases, help to reduce delay.

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for providing us with the opportunity for this important debate and for me to set out the Government’s position and put on record the views of my honourable friend Mr Loughton, who is driving this whole programme forward. I hope that the noble and learned Baroness will have felt his commitment from looking at the chart on his wall about the complicated adoption process and how he is trying to work through it. She knows of his commitment to making progress. He certainly wants to benefit from the deliberations of the Committee, so I am grateful that they have been aired. I hope that I have addressed some of the Committee’s concerns this afternoon.

My Lords, I thank all the speakers. I am particularly grateful to my fellow members of the adoption committee for having come this afternoon on the last day of term, and to all those who have spoken. I am also very grateful to the Minister for his thoughtful response. I do not at all doubt the commitment of the Minister in the other place to adoption. I very much admire his commitment. I am just not entirely sure that he and the noble Lord the Minister have totally taken on board my major concern, which is about independent scrutiny of the work of the decision-maker. I am not certain that the decision-maker will, pulling everything in together, have quite the same opportunities as somebody else who can advise, assess and monitor. Will the team behind the Minister look at whether they accept that there is a potential gap, and how they might give advice to the local authority on that potential gap, which may not be entirely met by the decision-maker, who will end up with a greater burden?

The points made by Coram, in particular, about the task of the decision-maker—the Minister will see this when he gets the Coram written evidence—are very interesting. I would be grateful if he would reflect, with those behind him, on whether the removal of this particular work of the panel will leave something that will need to be filled at some stage. The inspection by Ofsted will be absolutely crucial. I hope any inspection by Ofsted will move into that area and not simply look at issues of delay, but look more keenly. If not Ofsted, somebody will have to look at it because something is being lost, although I understand the reasons why the Government are doing it. Having thanked everybody very much, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

Committee adjourned at 3.37 pm.