Employment Bill

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Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. From my recollection of adoption legislation, all adults in the household where the child is to be placed for adoption are vetted, even if they are not formally the prospective adopters. For example, in a co-habiting couple in which the mother comes forward to adopt, her partner would be another adult who would be vetted but would not be the adoptive parent. I am trying to imagine how a circumstance could arise in which the hon. Gentleman's fears could be realised. Given that all the adults in a household are vetted, does he think it possible that someone outside the household could apply for parental leave because of their relationship with the child to be placed for adoption?

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Lady makes a helpful intervention, in which she may have identified the germ of the solution to the problem. If we can be assured that regulations will ensure that only a person who has been through the vetting process will be entitled to paternity leave as a carer of the child, that would deal with the issue. Perhaps the Minister can explain how the provision will work in practice, then we can judge whether I have identified a real problem or whether the solution lies in the Bill.

Alan Johnson: First, let us be clear that the effect of the amendments would be to deny the partner of an individual who adopts a child the right to paternity leave.

I shall explain our plans under clause 3, which we will discuss later today. Only one parent will be able to take adoption leave when a child is adopted.

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Therefore, when a married couple adopts only one partner will be eligible for adoption leave, with the adoptive mother and father able to choose which of them takes adoption leave and which of them takes paternity leave. That reflects as closely as possible the situation of the parents of a newborn child. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about our intentions in that respect.

However, under existing law it is not possible for unmarried couples to adopt a child together. I am not talking about same sex couples, but couples in a longstanding relationship who have chosen not to marry. Therefore, when an unmarried couple wishes to adopt, one partner must adopt the child individually. That adopter will be entitled to adoption leave. It is important to recognise that such individuals may be in a long-term relationship, but have simply chosen for their own reasons not to marry.

The effect of the amendment would be to move away from that approach to paternity leave relating to newborn babies, which would exclude the other partner in unmarried couples from the right to paternity leave. That would mean a difference between childbirth and adoption, which both the Committee and the hon. Gentleman will agree would be wrong.

In most cases couples adopt children, but individuals can and are increasingly doing so. Indeed, we seek to encourage that by taking forward the proposals in the Adoption and Children Bill. It is right that we extend the new right to paternity leave to offer support to all families with newly placed children.

Mr. Hammond: I regret that I am unfamiliar with the details of the Adoption and Children Bill, although I was a shadow health spokesman. Does that Bill provide for joint adoption by unmarried people? If so, does the Minister envisage that the regulations under new section 80B(1) would be different if it reaches the statute book?

Alan Johnson: I am not conversant with the details of that Bill, and many other Bills, but on Second Reading the Secretary of State said that he welcomed a debate on the issue. He also said that while the Government consider that the proposals being taken forward in the Bill are broadly right, they will consider carefully the evidence heard at the Special Standing Committee, and that while the Government have made no changes to the current draft, by sending the Bill to a Special Standing Committee they are providing an opportunity to hear a wide range of evidence, and to debate that and other issues. Whether the Bill reaches the statute book, at the moment individuals can adopt children. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) rightly said, the whole of the household is vetted.

At this stage, all adoption groups entirely support these proposals, as does the Department of Health, and the proposals have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the experts. We must have safeguards to ensure that leave is available only to parents when a child is placed for adoption through the approved process, which includes going through an approved adoption agency.

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All the vetting procedures to which my hon. Friend referred are written into new section 80B(1), which ties the right to paternity leave into the relationship with the child placed for adoption and the child's adoptive parent. New section 80B, together with the new right to adoption leave, is an important step forward. It is only right that in moving forward we include all parents, including unmarried couples, who offer a loving home to such children. I hope that on the basis of those assurances the hon. Gentleman can withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: That was genuinely helpful, and betrays my woeful ignorance of the current state of adoption law. The Minister's comments explain the need for the provision and the helpful remarks by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood provided some reassurance. It would be a further reassurance if the regulations, when they are published under new section 80B(1)(c), specified the relationship with the person in such a way that it required that person to be identified as a member of the household when the pre-placement vetting procedure was undertaken, which would ensure that that person was not someone who happened along after the placement had been agreed. That is something that could be dealt with in regulation. It is a small loophole, but it probably needs to be closed to ensure the fullest possible protection for children.

I have heard the Minister's comment that all consultees appear to favour this wording, but it is still important to probe the impact of the words in the Bill. I regret that after three years as a shadow health spokesman the fact that the Department of Health endorses the provision does not inspire me with a single ounce of confidence. The fact that some outside groups have looked at it gives me rather more. Having listened to the Minister's reassurances and the information imparted by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Alan Johnson: I should like to correct an error that I made at the previous meeting. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proposed regulations under new section 80B(1)(b), which govern the relationship with a child placed for adoption. In Tuesday's sitting I made an error regarding the regulations under 80A(1)(b), on the relationship with a newborn or unexpected child. I am afraid I got my Calvin Kleins in a twist. When asked by the hon. Gentleman whether the provision applied to the biological father, I said yes. The hon. Gentleman was surprised, which is unsurprising because I got it wrong. In the majority of cases it will be the biological father. We intend that the person taking paternity leave should be responsible as a parent of the child. It will usually be the biological father but in circumstances that we will all understand, that may not always be the case. I needed to put the record straight on that issue.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister. When he made that comment I accused him of being rather more old Labour and rather less new Labour than I had suspected. He has reasserted his status. The unwelcome information about his underwear might further underline it.

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The Chairman: That exchange was most irregular, but we shall gloss over that.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Philip Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 113, in page 3, line 34, leave out subsection (8).

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 140, in clause 2, page 12, leave out lines 1 to 6.

No. 170, in clause 4, page 20, leave out lines 30 to 34.

Mr. Hammond: This group of amendments deals with the same issue in different parts of the Bill. In new section 80(B), subsection (8) permits the Secretary of State to make regulations to apply this section in perhaps modified ways to overseas adoptions not made under United Kingdom law, where there is not a ''placement''. The Bill uses this term extensively but it does not apply to overseas adoptions.

In dealing with the previous amendment the Minister emphasised the importance he attaches to the approval processes being properly undertaken prior to the placement. In our earlier discussions on adoption leave and adoption pay he made reference to the public policy purpose of the provisions, which is to encourage and support adoptive families in order to reduce the number of children being cared for by the statutory authorities or placed in foster homes and to increase the number of children permanently placed with adoptive parents.

I have no doubt that we all agree on that issue, but it is not clear that extending these provisions to parents who go abroad, adopt children and bring them back will necessarily contribute to achieving that public policy objective. That is encouraging the adoption and importation of children rather than the adoption of children in local authority care or foster accommodation in the United Kingdom. The amendment proposes to delete the provisions allowing the Secretary of State by regulation to modify the way in which the enactment works in relation to overseas adoption.

Because of the way in which the Bill is worded, if the Secretary of State did not have the power to modify its provisions in relation to overseas adoption, my understanding is that it would not apply to overseas adoptions because there is no placement as such which would give rise to the entitlement. I should therefore like to hear the Minister's justification for including overseas adoptions in the ambit of his proposed legislation on paternity leave for adoption, and on adoption leave and adoption pay. Although there might be some rationale for that, it would certainly undermine the previously stated public policy of stimulating placement of children who are in local authority care. The Minister himself referred to the economics of that issue at a previous sitting, saying that keeping children in local authority care involved great financial expense while making financial provision to encourage adopters was economic common sense. I agree, but it is clear that that does not apply to overseas adoptions.

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