Adoption and Children Bill

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James Paton: The first thing to do is to say is that we recognise that this is an extremely difficult and sensitive area in which it is difficult to balance the rights of the various parties in the process.

We are making the change because we are taking the opportunity--it does not arise often—to look at the adoption legislation and to consider whether there is anything in the existing system that we might want to change. The Government are taking a consultative approach to the issue, which is why the Bill has been referred to a Special Standing Committee, and we are keen to hear the views of all the various organisations in the field on these proposals. We recognise that they are a change, but this is an extremely difficult and sensitive area in which it is hard to strike a balance.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the thinking behind the change and what drove it.

The Chairman: If you could do so briefly, please.

James Paton: We are trying to do three things. First, we are trying to provide a more consistent approach to the information that adopted people receive about their background, which is why the Bill includes provisions to prescribe a standard package of information that agencies will need to hold because adoptive people will have a right to see it when they reach the age of 18.

Secondly, when information identifies individuals, we want to provide for all parties to be able to express a view about the provision of that information to another party. The Bill provides, for example, that birth relatives would be asked whether they would have any objection in future to an adopted person receiving identifying information about them from the adoption agency record, including a birth certificate. The current system does not provide for birth relatives to be able to express a view on that and for it to be taken into account. The adoption law review suggested that there should be a change concerning adoption agency records in the context of data protection philosophy and human rights. People should be given an opportunity to express a view on whether identifying information about them should be passed to another party.

The third point is about trying to provide safeguards in the system for a small minority of cases in which it would be inappropriate and perhaps harmful for information to be exchanged. We recognise and expect that in the vast majority of cases there will be openness and exchange of information. The provisions have been designed to deliver that, which is why the presumption is that, unless there is an objection by the family to the exchange of identifying information, that information will normally be provided to the adopted person.

The Chairman: Is the change based on evidence of problems arising from birth families being upset by being contacted? Have you had representations about that?

James Paton: We have, but it is fair to say that we are talking about a very small minority of cases—although they are potentially very significant for the individuals involved. I acknowledge that in the vast majority of cases the system works well. The concern is about the small minority of cases in which it does not. People have been contacted as a result of identifying information being provided against their wishes and we have received a small number of representations on the effects of that. In addition, there could be instances in which it might be dangerous for relatives if identifying information about them was provided to an adopted person who might wish to cause them harm.

The Chairman: Do you not think that you are taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

James Paton: This is one of the issues on which we want to hear views and we shall be interested to hear the Committee's views. We acknowledge that in the vast majority of cases the system has worked well. However, the implications for the individuals involved in a small minority of cases in which it does not could be significant.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I should like briefly to look at the matter in an historical context. The regime that people are talking about was introduced in 1975-76, but adoption started in the 1920s. My concern is constancy, and you said, Mr. Paton, that that is an important part of what you are attempting to achieve in the Bill. When we moved to the current regime, what changed from the pre-1976 regime?

James Paton: Kieron, am I right that before 1976 a court order was required to obtain access to birth relatives?

Kieron Mahoney (Office for National Statistics): Yes, and such court orders were relatively rare. It was in response to the demand for access to information that the new arrangements were put in place in the Children Act 1975.It is interesting to note that the Government of the day decided that as a safeguard the new arrangements would be available only to those who had had counselling services if they were adopted before that date to guarantee the promise made to birth parents who had given up children for adoption prior to that date that there would never be any attempt at contact. For those adopted after 1975, counselling was an option so that people could choose whether to be given the information in a more supportive environment.

Mr. Djanogly: The point is that after 1975, one adopted a child on the basis that at some point the child would find out—whereas before they would not have found out.

James Paton: Yes.

Kieron Mahoney: Yes.

Mr. Djanogly: Before 1975, the deal was that the adoptee would not know, and after 1975 that they would know.

James Paton: And that it would technically be open for that person to get a copy of their birth certificate.

Mr. Djanogly: I just make the point because it is relevant in terms of pre-1975 adoptions. We should not assume that people under the old regime should be treated the same as those post-1975, because the situation under which they adopted was very different.

10.45 am

Liz Blackman (Erewash): The restrictions have been introduced to safeguard a small number of birth parents who may be put in danger.

James Paton: That is one view.

Liz Blackman: So, what is your take on NORCAP's suggestion that there should be no restrictions, but that in cases of concern the adoptee should absolutely undertake not to make contact with their birth parents? Are you happy with that suggestion?

James Paton: That is something that it would be interesting to explore. My concern would be about what happens in the small number of cases when the adopted person is potentially intent on causing harm to the birth relative. The new system that we are suggesting channels access to identifying information—both the birth record and the agency record—through adoption agencies, which we thought would be best placed to make these sensitive and difficult decisions. An adopted person would approach such an agency and request access to the information, and we would hope that that would give an experienced agency a chance to pick up instances of concern. I have had such cases mentioned to me by adoption agencies. One concerned an adopted person who contacted an adoption agency seeking information about their birth family because they wanted to kill their birth parent because the adoption had taken place after severe childhood abuse that had left the adopted person disfigured, and they were intent on tracking their birth parent down. I suppose a concern might be how a voluntary system would safeguard birth parents in that small number of cases.

Liz Blackman: I agree; I thought that it was an interesting suggestion, but I was unsure whether it would safeguard birth parents in the situation that you outlined.

Mark Ferrero (Adoption and Permanence, Department of Health): I would like to pick up on the contextual points. It is important to understand that the law we are making now reflects the circumstances of adoptions today, most of which are open and occur with contact. That is beneficial for the child, and it is also beneficial for the birth parent because it can help them come to terms with their grieving over the loss of their child. However, in a tiny minority of cases, the circumstances are very difficult. We are trying to strike the right balance. We are not trying to step in the way of good adoption practice, but we are trying to provide a legal framework that protects against the most serious cases. We would be interested to hear what the ADSS—the Association of Directors of Social Services—has to say about this proposal because I understand from my contacts that it supports this approach.

Mr. Djanogly: The proposals are, of course, looking forward; this is not retrospective. Adoption based on a certain framework in the past holds good. We are looking to what we want to do in future, which is an important point.

Mark Ferrero: That is a very important point.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): It is an important point, although it is also important to reflect on the fact that there have been massive social changes since the deal was done. Many birth parents feel no sense of shame in relation to adoption, and take a different view in later life about contact than that they might have held at the time of the adoption. The point about adopted adults contacting birth parents has been well pressed. Does the Bill do anything to enhance the rights of birth parents to contact adopted children in adulthood, and what principles have you applied in considering that issue?

James Paton: We have applied principles that are generally consistent with the process at the moment: when an adult requests identifying information from the adoption agency concerning the adopted person, that should not be disclosed unless the adopted person is consulted. Of course, the adoption contact register is also in operation so that birth relatives who wish to make contact with an adopted person can register on it. If the adopted person also registers, they are informed of the relatives' registration and can take forward contact.

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