Adoption and Children Bill

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Kevin Brennan: May I press that point a little further? The information exchange requires the registration of both parties, but there are cases—those that have just been mentioned might be examples—in which an adopted child might have an incorrect belief about its birth parents and the reasons why it was adopted. For example, an adopted child might believe improperly that it was abused by its birth parents, rather than by somebody in the care system. I know of such a case. Under those circumstances, is there any provision for the birth parent to signal actively through a third party their desire to make contact, rather than having to rely on the adopted child seeking information in adulthood by registering?

James Paton: The question of a more active service is part of the issue of the role of intermediary services in providing adoption support. As I said, we will be consulting on that as part of the national framework.

Mr. Dawson: What criminal offences in the past 25 years have been committed by adopted people against their birth parents?

James Paton: I do not have that information.

Mr. Dawson: Should not that information be absolutely seminal to a decision, given that a step is being taken that could cut across what many would regard as a fundamental human right: to have knowledge of one's origins?

James Paton: There is no absolute right to access to the information on the register at the moment. Of course, when the birth parent registers no objection, things will continue, and that is what we expect to happen in the vast majority of cases.

Mr. Dawson: These issues are full of emotional pain and difficulties, worries and anxieties, but what real evidence is there that the legislation since 1975 has been harmful to anyone?

James Paton: As we said at the beginning, we are talking about a small minority of cases of concern. Representations have been made to us by individuals who have been contacted against their wishes as a result of the supply of identifying information. They consider that to be extremely distressing. There are also risks inherent in the small number of cases in which the adopted person may wish to cause the birth parent harm. We have had such cases anecdotally brought to out attention, and there was also the Smith case, but it is fair to say that we are talking about a small number of cases.

Mr. Dawson: Did the adopted person actually harm the birth parent in those cases? Were the police involved, or did the matter just not come to anything? Is there any case in which someone has actually committed a criminal offence against their birth parent?

James Paton: I do not have that information. In one of the cases that was mentioned to me, the adopted person was seeking information with the express intention of killing his birth parent. He sought that information through his adoption agency, so they were able to counsel him, to inform the police and to contact the birth relative. As things stand at the moment, he could have sought his birth certificate through the registrar-general and taken action to track down the person without involving the adoption agency, so the system might never have been made aware of what was happening. There were potential risks involved in that situation. However, we are talking about a small number of cases.

Mr. Brazier: I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and, indeed, yours, Mr. Chairman. It seems an extraordinary use of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, messing up an arrangement that has worked very well for 25-odd years in order to protect one or two alleged abusers who are in danger.

I return to what the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said. The Bill is absolutely right to hold the line on information to birth parents. We can all exchange stories about that. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre nodding. Through my constituency postbag I heard about a couple who adopted an unconnected boy and girl of a young age who had both had a terrible time prior to being taken into care. The boy turned out very successfully and has a good university degree; the girl was all set until age 15, when the birth mother managed to discover where she was living. From then on, she went rapidly downhill and is now a prostitute in London. Countries such as Australia, which have allowed birth parents access to information in most adoption cases, have seen a collapse in adoption, because potential adoptive parents know that it does not work. I am sorry: that was a point rather than a question.

The Chairman: It was a very interesting point.

Kevin Brennan: I was talking about contact in adulthood, not during the process.

Mr. Djanogly: The damage that could be caused to a recipient of information is not just physical damage, which is all that has been mentioned so far. It could be the result of moral pressures, someone wanting financial support, or, in relation to a pre-1975 adoption, the child not even knowing that it was adopted—pre-1975, people often changed first names. There are many issues other than whether someone is going to be physically attacked, including emotional and financial matters.

The Chairman: I am conscious that we are in debate rather than asking questions, but do you want to respond briefly to that, Mr. Paton, before we move on?

James Paton: I do not think that I have any specific point to make. Generally, I agree that it is a question not only of safeguarding from physical harm, but allowing birth relatives to have some kind of say about whether or not they want identifying information about them to be disclosed.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Before we move on, I want to ask Mr. Paton a question about the independent review mechanism. A great deal is being left to regulations in terms of procedures and which decisions will be taken, yet the mechanism is supposed to create confidence in the system. Can you outline the independent review mechanism and how it will operate?

James Paton: There are two things that the independent review mechanism will do. First, it will deliver the White Paper commitment that there should be an independent review available for prospective adopters where the agency indicates that it is minded to turn them down and they are dissatisfied with the reasons that they have been given. At the moment, they can make representations to the agency panel that assessed them and request a further consideration. The view taken in the PIU report and subsequently confirmed in the consultation was that that was not seen as sufficiently independent to build the credibility of the assessment process and that there should be an independent review mechanism that prospective adopters can turn to where they consider that they are going to be turned down for unsatisfactory reasons. The review mechanism would be able to consider the case afresh and make new recommendations to the agency.

That is the first purpose of the review mechanism, but the Government did say that they would consult on the detail of how it would work and set that out in regulations. It is clearly important that it works in a way that supports the process, that it is not overwhelmed, and that it does not lead to delay and set up perverse incentives. That is why the provisions in the Bill are flexible—they enable us to take into account the effects of any consultation.

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We also envisage a potential role for an independent review mechanism under the new access to information provisions, and our memorandum to the Committee sets out what we envisage providing. There may be some cases where, in exceptional circumstances, the adoption agency that is handling the exchange of information feels that, although there is no objection to the provision of such information, to do so might constitute a risk to the person concerned or be against their interests. We felt that, where the agency decides to override an objection or consent, we should provide an independent review of that decision. Those are the two instances in which the independent review will be activated.

Mr. Love: To follow that point up, I have been told that there has been a mixed reception to the proposal. The main concerns appear to relate to the costs and how they will be attributed. Can you comment on that at this stage, after consultation?

James Paton: As the explanatory notes make clear, the costs of setting up the new independent review mechanism will be met centrally by the Government. The provision in the Bill that has raised some concern is actually an enabling provision that allows regulations to be made for agencies to meet some of the costs of the review. At the moment, if an adopter requests a reconsideration by the original agency, it is clear that they meet the costs. To clarify matters, I repeat that, as the part of the explanatory notes that deals with public expenditure points out, the costs of setting up the central body will be met centrally by the Government. It is not a self-funding system, as it were.

The Chairman: Have the Government given any more thought to the difficulties, which I have mentioned in previous parliamentary debates, associated with turning down those who apply to adopt children? Giving the reasons for turning down such people can prove extremely destructive to their personal lives. I was given no clear answers before. Are we any clearer on that point?

James Paton: This is something that we have considered. It is an issue that applies now and will apply in future. The general principle is that, where somebody is turned down, they should be given as far as possible clear reasons why. Current guidance and regulations are to that effect, and we would expect future guidance and regulations to be to that effect. That recognises that there may be circumstances where information has been supplied in confidence by referees and cannot therefore be provided directly, or where sensitive information that is known about one party in the relationship is perhaps not known by the other party.

Current guidance suggests that there are also instances involving confidential health information. It suggests that such information should be disclosed appropriately through the general practitioner, and we would expect that to continue. Where confidential information is provided by referees, current guidance suggests that agencies should attempt, as far as possible, to provide clear explanations, but where they cannot because of confidentiality, there is recognition that, in some cases, explanations will not be able to be communicated. We would not want to compromise or deter referees from being completely frank, so a recognition has been made that agencies cannot give full and complete reasons in all cases under current regulations. That will continue under the Bill. The general thrust is to try to provide as full an explanation as possible, but it is recognised that that is not possible in a number of circumstances. Nothing that we are doing changes that.

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