As I have previously stated to the House, I am aware that there are different timescales for the completion of the assessment process in the different health boards. This difference arises principally from the greater volume of applications in some areas, particularly in the Eastern Health Board. Arising from the additional funding approved by the Eastern Health Board for child care services in 1998 the board has appointed three new social workers to its adoption service. This will facilitate a speedier assessment of applicants who wish to adopt children abroad. I understand that the current waiting time prior to assessment in the Eastern Health Board is nine months: a reduction of five months on 1997. This reduction can be accounted for by the allocation of additional resources and to greater efficiencies in the overall process of application.
I have received a large volume of representations concerning both delays in commencing assessments and perceived differences between health boards in the assessment process itself. I am not convinced that simply assigning more social workers to deal with an ever expanding case load is the most efficient way of dealing with this situation, particularly when one considers the other areas of pressing need in our child care services. It is also necessary to consider how health boards can best utilise existing resources to manage cases and whether or not legislative change is required to assist them in this regard. I therefore announced on 30 September last my intention to commission an independent consultancy to review the foreign adoption assessment procedures in the eight health boards with the aim of ensuring that an efficient and standardised assessment procedure which accords with best practice in the field operates across the country while at the same time having regard to the priority that must be attached to other areas of the child care services. The terms of reference of the consultancy are as follows: (i) to review the current assessment procedures in health boards in consultation with relevant interests (this review should encompass both social work practice and service management); (ii) to provide an overview of the current assessment procedures in health boards which identifies any particular issues which need to be addressed; (iii) to propose a standardised framework for the carrying out of future assessments which accords with best practice in the field and delivers the service in the most efficient and sensitive manner possible.