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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I doubt that I shall get a similar cheer even if I speak for only a little longer than the hon. Lady.

The Opposition do not intend to oppose the programme motion, although we are against programme motions in principle. We are grateful for the additional allocation of two full days for consideration of the Bill after the

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abortive first day when, due to an emergency debate—also on Afghanistan—our deliberations were curtailed and we had only two hours for debate.

I want to record, however, that we are not entirely happy with the events of recent days, which have led to our having to confront a large number of amendments and new clauses during the allotted two days. A total of 319 amendments and 16 new clauses were tabled previously and a good many of them were dispatched during the two-hour debate on 20 March, including many Conservative amendments on substantial subjects. Those amendments were not debated and were all subject to the guillotine that fell after two hours.

Nevertheless, during the rest of today and the next allotted day on Monday, there are still left for debate 210 Government amendments and five Government new clauses, 11 Conservative amendments and three new clauses, seven Liberal Democrat amendments and one new clause—although they are purely on the subject of adoption by unmarried people—and 47 Back-Bench amendments and four new clauses. A total of 275 amendments and 13 new clauses are to be debated—more than all the amendments tabled during the entire Committee stage.

We are especially aggrieved because the vast majority of the Government amendments have appeared only during the past few days: 136 were tabled last Thursday, 18 on Monday and a handful on Tuesday. We only received on Monday a letter from the Minister, dated 10 May, by way of explanation of some of those amendments. We have had only a few days to start studying some detailed and extensive new amendments.

I remind the House that the Committee stage ended on 17 January—four months ago. There were 24 Committee sittings between 6 November 2001 and 17 January 2002 when the Government could have considered those matters in more detail. We tried to start our consideration on Report on 20 March, so why have the Government taken so long to come up with all these new amendments? Why have they tabled them at such a late stage in the Bill's proceedings, thus giving the Opposition very little time to scrutinise them properly before the two days on Report?

The Bill is not party political. We have supported it throughout its passage and we intend to continue to do so. We have made many constructive and positive amendments to try to improve it. However, the current situation is extremely unsatisfactory. There are some huge groups of amendments—the third group contains no fewer than 59—but we have only limited time to debate them. We have many meaty subjects to debate today, but all the Conservative amendments have been timetabled today, leaving less contentious issues for debate on Monday, so that timetabling is questionable.

I do not want to detain the House any longer because, for the reasons that I have mentioned, we need to get on and maximise the time that we have to debate the Bill. In the few minutes that I shall take, it is worth putting on record that this is not the most courteous way in which the Government could have treated the House, particularly those hon. Members who have spent many weeks and months living and breathing the Bill. We have done so for the past six months, but debate is now being curtailed to just two days even though we have an extraordinarily

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large amount of work to do—much more than was originally intended. I will not oppose the programme motion, although we have problems with it in principle.

2.10 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I should like to take this opportunity to associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the number and the short notice of the Government amendments, and therefore the crowding of today's agenda in particular.

In addition, many hon. Members will think it regrettable that it is not possible to vote today on amendment No. 158, which deals with the substantive definition in relation to unmarried couples. Unfortunately, it appears that, by virtue of the programme motion, the decision on that amendment can be taken only on Monday, so dissociating the decision from the debate. For those reasons, I, too, am concerned about the programme motion, but for the same reasons as those given by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, we do not propose to press the motion to a Division.

Question put and agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Adoption and Children Bill

[2nd Allotted Day]

As amended in the Standing Committee, further considered.

Clause 1

Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

2.11 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I beg to move amendment No. 162, in page 1, line 9, after "life", insert—

', and that of any sibling or half-sibling of the child, having regard to their age and relationship.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 159, in page 2, line 16, after "the child" insert—

'(4A) The court or adoption agency may not have regard to any estrangement of the child from his parents caused wholly or substantially by the application of provisions of this Act or of the Children Act 1989.'.

No. 1, in page 2, line 19, after "background", insert—

', subject to the proviso that such consideration shall be secondary to the matters to be considered in subsections (2) and (3).'.

Mr. Turner: When I became a Member of Parliament, I did not expect to have to deal with a large number of inquiries in my constituency surgery relating to child care and adoption issues; but, in my first few months here, they were some of the most significant issues that came before me. I am glad therefore to have this opportunity to move an amendment based on my experience before and after my election.

It is said that hard cases make bad law, but it is certainly true to say that bad law makes hard cases. I hope that amendments Nos. 162 and 159—the two very simple amendments that I have proposed—will alleviate two possible injustices in the Bill. Indeed, if such provisions had been effective previously, they may have alleviated injustices that may have taken place.

It is obviously not my intention to refer in detail to any case, but I shall refer to my long association with one of the families involved—it dates back to 1999. It is almost difficult to understand, certainly from my lay position on such matters, that a decision on a child taken into care at the age of nine months in 1997 was not taken until September 2000. In other words, he spent three years and four months in a sort of limbo because of the toings and froings of the judicial and child care process, which concluded with the decision that he should be adopted.

The Bill could address two issues that may or may not have made a difference to the decision in that case, but they would certainly have made the proceedings fairer, and I address those issues in my two amendments. Amendment No. 162 relates to families where one child is being put forward for adoption, but other children may not be. Clause 1 clearly states:

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Of course, if children come from a family, there may be more than one child whose welfare should be considered. The fact that one child is being put forward for adoption does not in any way diminish the responsibility of the court to take account of the interests of the other children. The clause, however, refers to the child who is the subject of the proceedings; it does not refer at all to children who may not be the subject of proceedings.

My first amendment therefore proposes that the interests of a sibling or half-sibling should also be of paramount consideration, having regard to their age and relationship to the first child. Clearly, if the sibling is an older brother who is away at university and has little contact with a child of nine or 10 months, the court may wish to place less emphasis on that relationship than on that of, say, a twin, particularly if the twins were six years old. If one is put forward for adoption and the other is not—I realise that this may be unusual—it seems wrong that the second child should not be considered on an equal basis with the first. That is the reasoning behind amendment No. 162.

2.15 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does not the hon. Gentleman think that it is important for each child's concern to be considered individually? Their needs in relation to their family relationships with siblings and other family members are dealt with in subsection (4)(c) and (f). That is the appropriate way to consider the needs of siblings.

Mr. Turner: I agree with the hon. Lady's first proposition but not with her second. The reason for that is to do with the word "paramount". If one child's interests are paramount, those of the other child are, by definition, of less importance—they must be taken account of but they are not equal. I see no reason why two children in the same family who may be of the same age should be treated unequally by the courts in relation to such proceedings. Clearly, an effect on one may be equal on another; indeed, it may be equal and opposite on another. I accept the intention of subsection (4), but it does not deal with the issue of the word "paramount".

Amendment No. 159—my second amendment—considers the length of time that proceedings can go on and the effect of that estrangement on the natural parents of a child. I should like to refer to the judgment in the case that I have in mind. Among other things, it states:

three years and one month's delay. It continues:

the child—

the prospective adopters—

his sister—

That is the judgment. It seems incredibly unfair to parents who are simply pursuing their rights, as the local authority is pursuing the rights of the child, under this and other

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legislation, that the passage of time should lead to the estrangement of the child to such an extent that the court may consider that nothing may have been wrong in that relationship except the passage of time. In the case that I have in mind, no charge has ever been preferred against either parent, and no arrest has ever been made of either parent. The only reason that I can see, in reading the judgment, is the passage of time.

I accept, of course, that three years and one month in the case of a child who was four at the time of adoption is a very long time. That period allows much time for the formulation of bonds with the foster parents and prospective adopters. However, the parents concerned feel deeply that it is unfair that the court should take into account that estrangement, which is not their fault, when deciding on adoption.

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