Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: Finally, is there any trend of poorer performance? Does it relate to more deprived areas, such as inner-city areas, where the statistics tend not to be so impressive, or is that not a leader at all and you judge performance on completely different factors?

Moira Gibb: The Children Act report acknowledged recently that the better-resourced departments were likely to be better performing, although the joint reviews have consistently attempted to disprove this theory. While it is not true that well-resourced authorities are always better performers, that correlation is now established. Authorities that are stretched in other areas are going to find it very difficult to put into practice the development that is required to bring about improvements.

Liz Blackman: I was going to ask a question, but the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has just asked it.

The Chairman: Can we move on to disclosure of information? Sticking with you, Ms Gibb, you probably heard us discuss this point in the earlier session. Your organisation clearly supports the Bill's provisions in respect of disclosure of information. You are probably aware of the criticism of that position; how do you defend your corner?

Moira Gibb: I am going to retreat from my corner—[Interruption].

The Chairman: I was asking Ms Gibb. I shall come to you in a moment, Miss Collier. I know that you were up very early this morning.

Moira Gibb: I am not going to defend our corner; I wish to retreat from it and to say that we have had further information that we would like to consider. We recognise the very strong concerns that exist. Obviously, we recognise the small number of individual cases that give rise to concern, but we acknowledge the point that others have made to us about the very strong message about the rights of children and the needs of children coming first in adoption, which is very much part of our approach. If you wanted to accuse us of being confused, we would probably acknowledge that, but the matter is so significant and important that we would want to withdraw that part of our evidence and say that our position is undetermined.

The Chairman: I welcome your frankness. You are reconsidering the initial position; that is helpful.

Kevin Brennan: I welcome that, too. In the evidence given this morning, we were given the extreme example of a case of an individual who was abused in childhood and then sought out their birth parent with murderous intent. It seems completely illogical that an individual who had been abused but had not been adopted would presumably have the right to know who their abuser was, but someone who had been adopted would not have the right to know. Where is the logic and justice in that? I was going to put that question to you in light of your evidence, but since you are withdrawing it, you have rather removed the need. Should not the fundamental human right of people to know as much as possible about their origins should outweigh all other considerations? Should not other mechanisms deal with threats to the physical safety of parents?

12 noon

Moira Gibb: Again, clearly, we are talking about a service to children and meeting children's needs, which should always be at the forefront of our thinking. Adoption as a service is only achieved by adults who are prepared to come forward and do it, so therefore people have obviously listened. I am not defending our previous position. I am just explaining again that there is a view that says if you do not make it safe and secure for adults to come forward to undertake this difficult task and reassure them, it will make it less likely that we will be successful in our targets. I recognise the fundamental point at the core of this.

Kevin Brennan: Just to finish the point, I appreciate that clause 1(2) is at the heart of the Bill and that the paramount consideration should be the child's welfare throughout his life. I know that, in that initial sense, that refers only to the adoption decision, but is it not logical that the continuum of adoption beyond childhood should also be a consideration?

Moira Gibb: Yes.

The Chairman: Miss Collier, would you like to come in on that point?

Felicity Collier (Chief Executive, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering): I do, because, as I am sure you are aware, we feel very strongly about withdrawing a fundamental right to which adopted adults have known that they have had access—to their birth certificates and, therefore, their identity—since 1976. It is very important because one cannot put one's name on the adoption contact register to trace one's brothers and sisters, whom one is aware exist, unless one has access to one's original name. That is valued so greatly by so many adopted adults that we think that to lightly withdraw it would cause enormous distress.

We know that this is expected to be a future rather than a retrospective measure, but we would say that there is significant and emerging research evidence about one of the points that Mr. Paton made in relation to the wishes of birth parents. Indeed, there is evidence that I know you will hear from an academic researcher tomorrow—John Triseliotis—who is happy for me to refer to it. The evidence says that of a sample of birth parents who were contacted by their adopted adult children, no less than 94 per cent. were either positive or very positive about the fact that that had happened. Although about 20 per cent. of birth parents initially express some concerns and nervousness—clearly, there are issues for them in relation to this—the overwhelming view is that this is something that has been with them probably throughout their lives. The feelings around relinquishing your child, or losing your child through contested court hearings, are so fundamental, that such parents often harbour a wish to be discovered at some point.

Basically, this is a right of adopted adults and we take the point made over here that there are many thousands of children on care orders who have been horrendously abused and neglected. Those children have the right to know their identity. Some of them may or may not seek out their birth parents with a feeling of revenge, but there is no evidence to suggest that that is a major problem. For adopted adults it will be a much smaller problem. We are talking about withdrawing a right to protect a tiny minority.

We support the fact that, as a general rule, access to birth records should be through adoption agencies and local authorities, rather than through the Registrar-General. That puts in a safety clause. If there are very difficult issues about the circumstances of a person's adoption, he or she can be offered counselling and support. However, we hope that you will reject this change.

Jacqui Smith: If, as you have rightly said, the only source of information should be through an adoption agency, what is your view about the fact that it would be possible to sidetrack that route to get direct access to a birth certificate without protection being available?

Felicity Collier: It is not available currently because only adults who were adopted before 1976 have to receive counselling. The difference now is—I am trying to think laterally about this—if you approach an adoption agency rather than the Registrar-General, the adoption agency, in looking out for that birth certificate and information, will take the opportunity to flag up whether there were earlier concerns, and possibly take appropriate safeguards or alert the person. I am not quite sure how that will work. I wonder whether my colleague takes a view on that?

Deborah Cullen: I would have thought that that could be built into the many regulations that there will be under those particular sections. We were told earlier that there was going to be consultation about what form of intermediary services would be offered, and that would obviously be an area where, if it were known that an adopted adult was seeking information, the agency could have a duty to make the initial contact with the birth relative—if it were able to find them—so it would not come as a shock to that person.

Felicity Collier: Given the point made earlier about the changing nature of adoption—far more children who have had very troubled early beginnings are now adopted—it may be right to build in some safeguard for an intermediary service to be available. That would make sense.

Jacqui Smith: Right. So what you are saying is that you would not accept a situation in which the only access to identifying information about birth parents would be through an adoption agency. Would you still argue that there need to be other routes that are unmediated in the way in which you have just described?

Deborah Cullen: I was anticipating your question and wrongly second-guessing you. The Bill provides for access to both more general information, which should be through the agency, and the birth certificate, which is now obtained from the Registrar-General. We see no objection to that; indeed, we see some positive benefits. We would not want to say that a person seeking that information has to be the compulsory recipient of counselling or should be prevented from choosing, if he or she so wishes, to make a direct approach to the birth parent. I do not think that it would be right to prohibit that, but the agency would obviously be in a position to take a proactive approach and say, ``We have the information. We suggest that you take the opportunity to talk this through, and if you want to make an approach to your birth parent, allow us to make the initial approach so that they have time to absorb the information and think about it.''

Jacqui Smith: Could you never envisage a situation in which a birth parent might have the right not to be identified?

Deborah Cullen: No, I think it goes the other way.

Jacqui Smith: I did not ask the question the other way. Could you never envisage a situation in which a birth parent might have the right not to be identified?

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