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4.30 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I acknowledge the Minister's characteristic graciousness in alluding to the useful debate in Committee. Practical and useful points were made there, and in the interests of bipartisanship, I must acknowledge that the Government have generally taken them on board. However, I fear that that will make for a boring debate this afternoon, as is witnessed by the lack of hon. Members in the Chamber.

I broadly welcome the amendments. I am especially pleased about new clause 14 and the consequential amendments that change the basis of the six-month and three-year restrictions that currently apply. We had a good

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debate in Committee about offences that are often undetected for a long time and hidden by those who are clever at getting around the law. There are shortcomings in part of the inspection system, but the work of the National Care Standards Commission will improve matters in future. Some agencies are inspected on a three-year cycle and the prosecution period is limited to three years, whereas it may take a long time after inspections for some matters to come out of the woodwork. The measure is therefore wholly sensible, and we welcome it.

We welcome the application of the new clause to the more serious case of private adoptions. Like private fostering, those are an unknown quantity. We know that some cases have sprung from lack of proper checks, which is understandable because the private adoptions and fostering have not been officially recognised.

Government amendments Nos. 30, 31 and 32 deal with the change to the evidential basis for the burden of proof, which echoes recent arguments in Committee on the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill. The Minister has not had the pleasure of being party to those debates, but I have, as I try to juggle those responsibilities with my others in connection with this Bill.

The amendments are consistent with those that we considered to the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill. However, it always pains me when I read phrases such as:

I fear that plain English has not prevailed.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): I did not say that.

Tim Loughton: The Minister says that she did not say that, but that is the wording of her amendment. I fully realise that it is legalistic jargon, but such terrible English pains me, and it seems to be used all the time nowadays.

Amendments Nos. 62 and 63 refer to the change to proceedings in court. Amendment No. 63 refers to the Administration of Justice Act 1960. The Minister responded positively to sensible points that were made in Committee to ensure the anonymity of vulnerable children in sensitive circumstances. I shall not shed tears for the dismissal of the terms "in camera" and "in chambers". It may sadden lawyers, but it is good news for laymen and supporters of plain English.

The Minister might have said more about amendments Nos. 235 to 237, which single out the treatment of corporate bodies and partnerships. I may have missed her comments but I do not think that she referred to those amendments. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) may want to speak about his amendments, with which we have some sympathy.

We believe that the Minister listened to the discussions in Committee, and the amendments are broadly sensible, so we welcome them.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Two of the amendments in this group—Nos. 130 and 131—are in my name. I will not press amendment No. 131, which has been

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largely accepted by the Government: Government amendment No. 226 is very similar to it, so I will not waste anyone's time quibbling. That amendment relates to amendment No. 111, which we discussed on Thursday. It was the shining example among my 30-plus amendments: the Government accepted it completely. With that little triumph achieved, we will quickly pass on and feel that we are working on the same lines.

I hope that we can also be on the same lines over amendment No. 130 which is similarly about the participation of parents and of anyone who has an involvement in these issues; perhaps it is particularly about the participation of parents, though. The Bill basically says that someone who has given consent for a placement or for adoption need not be required to attend court unless the court insists on it. The amendment says that the person, whether at placement order stage, at the stage of variation of such an order, or at adoption order stage, has a right to attend and be heard.

This is a matter of fundamental human rights. It is about the proper participation of parents in perhaps the most fundamental decisions that any parent can make about the future of their child, and perhaps the most fundamental decisions that any court can make about the future of children. It is not an amendment tabled by some idiosyncratic Labour Back Bencher. It is supported by a vast range of children's organisations. I think that almost every children's organisation that has been involved in making representations on the Bill supports it.

The amendment relates to the concerns that many of us have—unfortunately, we did not have time to air those concerns on Thursday; I hope that we will get the chance later today to refer to them—about the nature of consent under the Bill. The Children Act 1989 is to be changed fundamentally. Parental responsibility could be transferred to other authorities—to the local authority, to the agency, to the adoptive parent—without going through court. Fundamental decisions could be taken at the consent stage, without taking every case to court for a placement order. Huge decisions about children's lives could be taken under the scrutiny of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—we will return to that point later—without involving the courts. In fact, without returning to court, decisions could be taken that militate against previous court decisions concerning Children Act section 8 orders, residence, or contact.

In essence, the amendment would enable parents to "attend and be heard" at crucial court proceedings at the stage of placement, of possible revocation of placement, and certainly of adoption hearings. The argument might be advanced that, if accepted, the amendment would introduce another stage, through which those who have perhaps not attended to their children's best interests could disrupt, delay and prevaricate over the best efforts of all concerned to meet the interests of vulnerable children. However, I have greater faith than that in the court process and in those who work with children.

I hope that it will be accepted that parents have a right to attend and be heard at these crucial stages, and to participate not just in discussions about whether adoption will proceed, but about crucial issues such as contact with

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extended family and siblings. It is a matter of human rights and—most importantly—of the best interests of children, so I hope that the amendment will be supported.

Sandra Gidley: I, too, welcome Government new clause 14, and echo the frustration expressed about our proceedings in Committee. Certain hon. Members were delighted when any of their amendments were accepted, and felt that the Government were ignoring them. I am pleased to say that that is no longer the case, as most of our concerns have been addressed through this group of amendments, which will probably improve the process.

I greatly sympathise with amendment No. 130, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). A change in emphasis whereby parents would have the right to be present at a hearing is a sound one. Although we can find our way around the system with ease because we do so every day, not everybody feels that way. We tend to forget how difficult it is for others to realise that they have to do certain things at a certain time—such as applying to be present at a hearing—particularly if they are going through a traumatic and stressful time. Anything that would help such people to be part of the process is very welcome.

Through our constituency surgery cases, we have all discovered how easy it is to be wise after the event and establish what should have been done. However, if parents can be involved at every stage, such situations might decrease. In certain cases, social services could decide that the parents are not doing a very good job and put the child up for adoption themselves. In such cases in particular—I am thinking of one fairly close to home—parents often feel victimised by the system and by social services, and excluded from the whole process.

4.45 pm

I do not want to go into the rights or wrongs of individual cases, but I contend that it is fairer to encourage the parents to be there. It is also fairer for social services departments if the parents are involved. The parents may not like what happens, but they will be able to witness the process and, probably, take part in it in some way.

Many of the adoption agencies have raised concerns about the human rights aspects. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Bill fits in with the human rights legislation, especially relating to the rights to a fair trial and to a family life.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is right to say that we are in accord on amendments Nos. 226 and 111—the latter was debated last week—and on his amendment No. 131. He should not be so modest about the impact that he has had on the course of the legislation.

The Government acknowledge the importance of ensuring that the views of parties to proceedings are appropriately put before the court. The way in which views of the parties—for example, the birth parents of the child—are put before the court will vary in different circumstances and in different types of proceedings. The requirements in the Bill to notify parents and guardians of adoption hearings represent minimum requirements to be set out in court rules. We have already said in Committee that the full detail on representation and party status in proceedings will be set out in secondary

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legislation such as court rules. We can do that by virtue of the wide rule-making power contained in clause 128(1). We have of course listened closely to Members on both sides of the Special Standing Committee on this issue and we will consider the points made by them when we come to consult on detailed proposals.

Amendment No. 130 clarifies that a parent or guardian can attend a hearing for a placement order, for a variation or revocation of such an order, or for an adoption order, and may be heard as to their view regarding the proceedings. That is not necessary, because it is legally implicit in the current drafting that notice is given to a person for the same purpose that he is entitled to receive it—that is, to give or withhold consent, apply for leave or whatever. The amendment would not add anything of substance to what is implicit in the Bill.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) invited me to comment on amendments Nos. 235, 236 and 237. As he suggested, clause 130 makes provision in relation to offences by bodies corporate and unincorporated bodies. If an offence under the Bill is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or owing to the neglect of, an officer of a body corporate or an unincorporated body, that officer himself, as well as the body, is guilty of the offence. In cases in which the affairs of a body corporate are managed by its members rather than by officers, the provisions of the clause apply equally to members as to officers.

Amendment No. 235 inserts three new subsections into clause 130. It clarifies the position on taking proceedings against unincorporated bodies under the Bill. The amendment provides for the procedural provisions that already apply to the prosecution of corporate bodies to apply to the prosecution of unincorporated bodies. The second new subsection provides for any fine imposed on an unincorporated body on its conviction for an offence under the Bill to be paid from the funds of the body, rather than from the funds of its individual members.

Amendment No. 237 inserts another new subsection into clause 130. It makes specific provision in respect of partnerships, which are a type of unincorporated body. The amendment provides that if an offence is committed by a partnership and it can be proved that it has been committed with the consent or connivance of a particular partner, or that it is attributable to the neglect of a particular partner, that partner as well as the partnership is guilty of an offence. That aligns the provisions on partnerships with the provisions already included in the clause on bodies corporate and unincorporated bodies more generally, and makes the potential criminal liability of a partner clear.

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