Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.22 am

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) on having chosen such an important Bill to promote and eschewing the attractions of choosing a more high-profile, but doomed, subject simply for the publicity. He has grasped the tough and tender aspects of intercountry adoption: where such adoptions are appropriate, the Bill

23 Apr 1999 : Column 1164

makes the process smoother, but where they are inappropriate--indeed, criminal--the Bill strengthens the sanctions.

The few hon. Members here will know that I am not entirely wedded to the concept of consensus, so, in a small digression on a partisan note, I should like to say that the hon. Gentleman has also done the House a service by beating the appalling Gerry Malone, not once, but twice in this Parliament. In the class of 1997, he distinguishes himself by having made two maiden speeches during his parliamentary career. I should be grateful if he would pass on the secret of turning a majority of two into one of 20,000--not that I need an increase of such magnitude, but I would appreciate a small part of it.

It is important to see the Bill in the wider context of adoption and to take into account the sensitive issues of caring and emotion that surround it. It is a truism that all societies will be judged by the way in which they treat their children, but they will be further judged by the way in which they treat their less well-off, most deprived children and those who live in horrendous circumstances, such as a war zone.

There is much that we can do, both in our home adoption system and in intercountry adoption, which should be seen as an important element within our home adoption system. Intercountry adoption is not an adjunct, a process with a different set of criteria, or an alternative route for those who fail to secure adoptions of home children, but a part--albeit a unique part--of our wider home adoption system. It is important that the Bill does not introduce peculiar criteria for judging those eligible to adopt, simply because of the nature of the societies from which the children may come.

I have no professional experience of adoption. I am not and have never been a social worker, so I bow to the expertise of those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been. Unlike some, I do not decry or demonise social workers, because I believe that they do a useful and extremely important job for society. I have some personal experience of adoption, in that my older brother, who sadly died some 20 years ago, was adopted; I never thought of him as anything but my brother. However, with the indulgence of the House, I shall dwell on my father's experience; it may not, at first glance, appear relevant, but it does relate to intercountry adoption and the treatment of children. Given the tale I shall tell, let me express the hope that the treatment of children has moved on since my father's time.

My father was born in 1933 in north-west Donegal. There was nowhere more conservative than rural Ireland in the 1930s, and in Donegal one reached the nether reaches of that conservatism. He was born of an illicit relationship between an 18-year-old woman and someone from the north of the county--I say "someone" because I do not know the identity of my paternal grandfather, although I am still looking. Given the circumstances, the child welfare system that prevailed at that time in that place immediately whisked my father to the county orphanage in Stranorlar and packed his mother off to England, where she was to live with relatives and never again darken any door in Donegal.

In some senses, my father was in a similar position to those children who might become the grateful recipients of a home via the provisions of the Bill, because he languished in the orphanage for three years. However,

23 Apr 1999 : Column 1165

he was lucky: I do not know the details--I am still investigating--but a family called MacFadden from north Donegal took him in and subsequently raised him as their own child. Although they were not kin to my father, I have always regarded the MacFaddens as my blood relatives and I continue to visit them regularly. My father's escape from the orphanage was via an informal route--he was never adopted. He then followed the classic Irish pattern of coming over to England aged 14 or 15 and building his life securely here.

That is the general background, but what my father lost because of that background is important in terms of the human aspects of the Bill. I have looked long and hard for the jigsaw pieces that will give me some sense of my family background in Donegal. My father never knew his mother and when I tried to follow her trail, I found myself bereft of clues and avenues to explore. Every time I got close, walls were put up--those sensitive issues of caring and emotion that I referred to earlier came into play, albeit to negative effect.

I finally put the jigsaw pieces together only five years ago when I discovered not only the identity of my grandmother--who had sadly died--but a range of relatives from Britain, Ireland and America unknown to me or my father. Most dramatically, I had the pleasure of introducing my father to his half-sister after 50 years. Following my father's experiences in an orphanage and of semi-adoption, I was able to complete the circle by uncovering at least some of his background. I still have some way to go, but that thumbnail sketch of child welfare in the past demonstrates that we must treat adoptions, both domestically and between countries, sensitively.

We must not be complacent about Britain's domestic adoption system. Although it remains second to none, some aspects of it cause concern--particularly the bureaucracy, level of detail and the time that the adoption process takes. The Bill's strength is that it seeks to graft the convention's legal framework on to the intercountry adoption process. We must strike a balance between delay and rigour in national and intercountry adoptions. We cannot sacrifice rigour for emotion.

As other hon. Members have said, of the 400 intercountry adoptions that take place every year, 300 take the legal route and 100 do not go through approved channels. We must seek to redress that balance in some way. The hon. Member for Winchester would be the first to say that the Bill does not provide all the answers: it does not make everything tickety-boo in the area of intercountry adoption. However, it is a move in the right direction. There will always be a steady stream of intercountry adoptions, and it is a pity that interest in such adoptions is heightened only when Ceausescu's Romania collapses or the plight of street children in Brazil is highlighted.

I shall demonstrate that I am not partisan by quoting a Tory: the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley). In introducing the previous Government's White Paper , she said:

23 Apr 1999 : Column 1166

    I agree with that. She continued:

    "Given their fundamental importance to the life of the child, all adoptions will continue to be authorised by the courts, advised as appropriate by social services authorities or adoption agencies, which are in turn advised by adoption panels."

The right hon. Lady was referring principally to the domestic adoption system, but the same rules should apply to intercountry adoptions. There must be a level playing field and good practice in all adoptions. That is why I welcome the Bill so warmly. It does not introduce secondary criteria or a secondary route for intercountry adoptions, although many people would like to see that. The right hon. Lady continued:

    "Those who want to adopt children from abroad should have their wishes respected. In all suitable cases, such adoptions should be facilitated. However, the procedures must be proper."

They should fall in line with domestic arrangements. She went on:

    "They must prevent abuse. We must aim for the same high level of protection and benefits for the child as in domestic adoptions."

One could add--it is implicit in the right hon. Lady's remarks--that "suitable" should mean taking full cognisance of the cultural, ethnic and social concerns of the child. As with domestic adoptions, the interests of the child must remain paramount. Intercountry adoption should take place if, and only if, it is in the interests of the child to leave his or her social, ethnic and historical background.

This is a controversial issue--not least because of the various elements associated with poverty and war. Hon. Members will have read the excellent brief prepared by the Library, which highlights some real concerns. I feared that my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) was going to nick part of my speech regarding the case of Edita Keranovic, a four-year-old from Bosnia. That important case highlights some of the difficulties involved with intercountry adoptions. Edita was adopted by a family in the United Kingdom. According to press reports, in February 1997, a High Court judge ruled that the child should remain with the British family against the claims of her grandfather who emerged at some stage after the adoption. He had apparently been separated from her father by the Serbs. The grandfather never saw the father again, and his body was never found.

Mr. Oaten: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. There is a particular problem involving children who are adopted from a war zone and whose relatives emerge later. The protocol in those circumstances is that adoptions should not take place until at least two years after the war is finished in an attempt to avoid the sort of problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Relatives of children may be dispersed in such circumstances, and we see examples of that in Kosovo at present.

Next Section

IndexHome Page