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20 Mar 2002 : Column 374

Adoption and Children Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

7.52 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move,

    (3) The proceedings on Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion six hours after the commencement of the proceedings on the Bill on the third allotted day.

    (4) An allotted day is one on which the Bill is put down on the main business as first Government Order of the Day.

Because of this afternoon's emergency debate, we had to revisit the programme motion late yesterday. I take the opportunity to thank the usual channels for their co-operation in enabling us to make the necessary changes. Following a resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee, it had previously been agreed that Report should be taken over two days, to allow for the fullest possible consideration of the issues that had arisen in Committee, the changes that the Government undertook to make in response to concerns raised by hon. Members during an extremely useful Committee stage, and

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concerns raised by those who gave evidence in the Special Standing Committee. So far, the process has been always been open to input from stakeholders.

The motion provides for debates to take place over three days, including tonight. I emphasise that in providing for this revision, it is our intention to allow even more time than was previously available. The second day is not programmed in detail. There will be an opportunity to revisit the motion when the timing of the remaining stages becomes clearer. Of course, there will be full consultation before any revised motion is laid.

The proposed programme provides extensive opportunities to debate aspects of the Bill that attracted particular interest in Committee—for example, disclosure of information concerning adoption, the modernisation of the legal process of adoption, and some of the important changes introduced by the Government, such as the extension of the Adoption and Children Act register to Scotland. We should have an opportunity to discuss that this evening.

I commend the programme motion to the House.

7.54 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I thank the Minister for a generous allocation of time, which has come about because of the emergency debate this afternoon. The Opposition welcome that. We are itching to get back to this important Bill, from which we have been absent for some two months, since we finished the 24th of our sittings in Committee and Special Standing Committee, way back on 17 January. We are keen to get on with the work of progressing such an important Bill, giving it as much time as possible to be considered in another place, and allowing it to become law as soon as possible. Many of the measures that we have been discussing in detail are sorely needed in the best interests of many children who need stable homes—a luxury that they do not have at present.

I take issue with the need for a programme motion at all, and the need for the programming of the entire Bill through its various stages in the House. Right from the start, the Bill clearly had cross-party support. All hon. Members interested in the subject made a constructive contribution on Second Reading and in some detail, with considerable expertise, during the Committee stages.

This is a case in which programming has been counterproductive. It is a shame that, because of the Standing Orders of the House, we were not able to have more sessions or longer sessions during the pre-scrutiny witness stage at the outset, which we all found exceedingly interesting and helpful, but which was severely curtailed. Given the short period between the witness stage and Standing Committee, there was little time to revisit in more detail some of the issues that the expert witnesses brought up in response to our questions.

Because of the previous programme motion, there was an imbalance in the way the time was allocated during the Committee stage, the result of which is that 43 clauses were unscrutinised, and seven were only partly scrutinised before the knife fell. That means that 37 per cent.—more than one third—of the clauses had no Committee time. Even the more generous allocation that we are getting because of this afternoon's debate does not make up for what we missed out in Committee, where we had little time to debate the detail of placement orders, the problems

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of recovery of children by parents, parental consent issues, and the finer detail of the adopted children register and the adoption contact register. Two of the five schedules received no consideration in Committee—those dealing with registration, disclosure of birth records and so on.

We welcome the additional time. It is not my intention to take up the entire time allocated for discussion of the programme motion, as we want to get on with the debate. The way in which the emergency debate this afternoon shifted the timetable is helpful. It was only at the end of last week that the Government disclosed their hand on the Bill and tabled about 90 amendments and four new clauses, with a long letter by way of briefing notes from the Minister. Why has it taken two months for those amendments to be put before the House, giving us little time to consider some intricate and technical issues? It is a shame that we have not had longer to consider them.

As many witnesses attested, the Bill is a once- in-a-generation opportunity to change the situation regarding adoption and adoption law in this country. We need to get it right, and we are more likely to do it by maximum scrutiny of the highly technical amendments that we will discuss on Report. It is worth mentioning that the Bill raises certain issues, especially relating to adoption by unmarried couples, domestic violence and contact orders, which, although important, have received undue publicity in the press. I would not like those two issues to overshadow and dominate a Bill that deals with many other important, complex and detailed issues relating to providing better homes for children. It is important to have a good spread of time for those issues.

The Minister said that we may have to revisit the programme motion. I believe that that is a strong likelihood, either because there will be another emergency debate or because many more Government amendments will be tabled later. Few Government amendments have been tabled so far for the second allotted day, especially for the latter half of it. No Government amendments have been tabled for the third allotted day, on what are likely to be interesting matters for debate.

When are the second and third allotted—and, I hope, full—days likely to be? Will the Minister assure us that she will do everything in her power to ensure that they take place sooner rather than later? It is an oddity, although I gather that it is not unique, for Report days not to fall in quick succession. We do not want the trail to go cold.

We shall not object to the programme motion, but we have some difficulties with it. We are agreeing to it reluctantly and giving the Government a great deal of trust. I hope that in return the Government will give us as much notice as possible of any further amendments, with as full an explanation of them as possible. I hope too that the gap between the Government giving us the information and our being able to debate the amendments will be as long as possible.

There is great and increasing interest in the Bill from outside the House. The many interested professional bodies and voluntary agencies take a close interest, and they have been immensely useful to Committee members of all parties in the way that they have informed our debate. In addition, ordinary people have a real interest in adoption, either because they want to adopt or because

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adoption may become a real option for younger members of their families. The current system does not work as well as it might in helping people in such circumstances.

The Opposition will not oppose the programme motion, but it is worth putting those provisos on record. In the spirit of co-operation, I hope that the Minister will respond generously.

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