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Mr. Hogg: I do not want to be churlish about the timetable motion. The exit date of 12 June is, on the face of it, acceptable. What troubles us is that we do not know when the Bill will be committed, and therefore do not know for how long it will be considered by the Select Committee.
Mrs. Spelman: That is just one more element of the unreality that we are encountering. I have a few questions to ask the Minister about this. If we were governed by normal times, rather than these "end times", we might safely assume that some of the excellent contributions that have been made today by Members on both sides of the House would have attracted the attention of the Whips. We might assume that their thoughts would turn rapidly to staffing the Committee with those Members, and giving it the benefit of their experience. However, the unreality comes in because not one of us can be sure what would happen after a general election and whether the hon. Members selected prior to the general election would be returned. Logically, therefore, it is not possible to constitute the special Select Committee before we are clear when the general election might be, which gives the whole discussion a distinct air of unreality.
The important point, which we endorse, is that, for a subject such as adoption, on which different groups have very different opinions and on which sensitivity is high--I referred earlier to the eternal triangle between the needs of the child, the adopters and the birth family--it is particularly important to ensure that we create the opportunity to consult those different groups about the draft legislation.
It has been pointed out that, historically, we get the chance to legislate on adoption about once a generation--every 25 years. There is a substantial need for reform. This is the time. This is now. The important thing for hon. Members is to ensure that we get it right. One of the best ways in which to ensure that we do so is to have a fairly detailed consultation on the way in which the proposals will affect those different groups.
Therefore, it is important to preserve the notional two and a half months that, if there were no election in the way, we would assume that such a Select Committee had to do its work. Certainly, when speaking to the all-party group on adoption, the Minister said that such a Bill could not be galloped through and that it would require at least a couple of months of proper scrutiny in that way. That is a view with which we concur. Our only concern in debating the committal motion is whether we shall be stuck with the date of 12 June if a three, four or five-week election campaign intervenes, when no progress can be made on the type of scrutiny that such a special Select Committee would offer. That is important.
It is the integrity of that point that I want to impress on the Minister. As I said, it is only those who pretend not to know what is going on, or who have been stuck in here too long today who are unaware of the unreality that surrounds the date in the motion. It is for that reason that we want to impress on the Minister the need to give the right allocation of time.
There is perhaps another element of unreality in all this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who played an important part in the previous debate--indeed, he played an important part in considerations of adoption by hon. Members on both sides of the House--put an important question to both Front-Bench teams: whether they would ensure that an adoption Bill came back immediately after the election in the Queen's Speech. I am happy to give him that assurance. It would be good to hear the same assurance from the Government of today, although they may not be the Government of tomorrow. For that reason, it is fair to ask that question.
As I have said, we have a once in a generation opportunity to reform adoption law and to get it right. I assure the Minister that he will have the support of Conservative Members as long as the child is at the centre of the process and that principle is not compromised in any way. We have given the Minister a number of constructive suggestions on the way in which the legislation can be improved. We look forward to the opportunity to refine it further and to ensure that we contribute to getting the reform of adoption absolutely right.
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): I missed the first half hour of the previous debate and did not speak in it because I had a long-standing previous engagement to speak with young people in my constituency. However, I am pleased that I did not speak in it, as I did not want to break up the modicum of consensus that seemed to be warming the hearts of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.
It makes complete sense to commit the Bill to a special Select Committee. Today's debate made the issues seem all too simple whereas, as we know, the problems with which the Bill deals are extraordinarily complex. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned some of the difficulties with targets. Of course targets will be different in different parts of the country, depending on the mix of children and their ages and disabilities.
I also hope that the special Select Committee will examine some of the evidence taken by the Select Committee on Health, for example, in its inquiry on migrant children. In those days, when we had a particularly unsympathetic benefit system and a non-existent support system, parents were placed under great pressure--they were literally blackmailed--to give up their children for adoption. Moreover, that event is not so historical. People alive today are grieving the loss of children whom they lost in the 1960s and 1970s, after being told that they could not support them and that it would be best for them to be given up. I hope that the Select Committee will take evidence from those mothers, who were disfranchised.
Although it is important that children come first, I believe that it is most important to maintain children in a happy family relationship that is based on birth rather than on man's intervention. Of course, sometimes, we have to intervene. I am sure that the evidence would support that assertion. However, I am concerned that we should not go for the simplest and quickest outcome--an adoption with some nice middle-class people--and give up on parents and their children.
Although I appreciate that the Select Committee may not sit for long, I hope that the evidence presented to it will be available to a successor Committee. I am also sure that this motion will serve as a precedent should a subsequent, related Bill be introduced by the Government, or by a successor Government, after the next general election.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): This is an interesting motion. If the Minister will forgive me, I rather regret the absence of the Leader of the House from the debate, as it raises some interesting issues that the Minister has not entirely addressed, as she might have done.
I have spoken to most of the timetable motions that we have had since the start of that process and opposed all of them. I shall not oppose this motion because I cannot say that the report date of 12 June provides too little time. However, we do not really know enough about this process. I therefore hope that the Minister will forgive me if I ask him some simple questions.
First, the Bill is to be committed to a special Select Committee. Will that be a specific, ad hoc Select Committee or one of the House's established Select Committees? I imagine that it will be committed to the former. If so, at some stage, we shall be invited to approve a list of proposed Committee members. Hon. Members are entitled to ask when that list of names will be presented to the House for nomination.
Secondly--the answer to this question hinges upon that to the first question--when will the Bill go to the Select Committee? Until we know when it will go to the Select Committee, we cannot say whether the exit date of 12 June provides sufficient time.
I approach this as a student not of the Bill but of the constitution. Why are we proceeding via a Select rather than a Special Standing Committee? I have long held the view that Standing Committees should take evidence. As the Minister will know--if he does not, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is on hand to tell him-- a Special Standing Committee can take evidence.
Mr. Hutton: First, if a Bill goes to a Special Standing Committee it must report within 28 days. I thought that Conservative Members were not much in favour of such deadlines. Secondly, Select Committee procedures are more flexible, which will facilitate the deeper and wider scrutiny that we want to encourage.
Mr. Hogg: Those are certainly points of substance. On the first, I am not too worried about the artificial constraint of 28 days, because I would rather that we got Bills right; on the second, I do not know whether the Minister is right about flexibility, although I am prepared to listen to the arguments. I am not yet persuaded that a Select Committee is better than a Special Standing Committee, but I accept that the process of taking evidence is worth while.
Can a Select Committee amend a Bill, or does it merely make a report to the House? I understand that the general procedure is for a Select Committee to report to a Committee of the whole House. Is that correct? It would be extremely helpful to know now that such a Committee of the whole House will not be subject to a timetable, because the House as a whole will have no other opportunity to scrutinise the detail of the Bill.