Adoption and Children Bill

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Felicity Collier: No, we could not. One issue that concerns me, and I do not know whether it is part of the Government's thinking, is that it could be thought—I think erroneously—that more failing and disadvantaged birth parents would relinquish their children for adoption if they felt that there was no opportunity to be found later in life. I do not think—I am not suggesting that that is necessarily the point that you are taking, but it is a possible interpretation—that that is a feasible situation. That would reproduce the fiction of 30 or 40 years ago, when one thought that by relinquishing one's child, it was as though that child had never existed. We do not think that that is helpful.

Jacqui Smith: I agree, but could you never envisage a situation in which there might be a right for a birth parent? You think that there is an absolute right in every circumstance for a child or adopted adult to have identifying information about their birth parents.

Felicity Collier: That is the current situation. Like all these situations, one may be able to imagine an individual case that would suggest extreme difficulty, but we do not think that good law is made on the basis of one individual case.

Mr. Love: I have been reading the submission of the Association of Directors of Social Services and I apologise to Ms Gibb if my referring to it proves slightly embarrassing under the circumstances. My question relates to the following sentence:

    ``However it is important to recognise that the majority of children now being placed for adoption come through the court arena, many of whom have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused or neglected, or a combination of all of these factors, which suggests that the potential for similar extreme examples is likely to increase in the future.''

Do members of the panel other than representatives of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering—it is perhaps not appropriate to ask this of them in the light of their earlier answer—think an increase in such cases will be a factor? If so, how do we deal with the small number of cases where that major problem is likely to arise?

Moira Gibb: It is obviously true, as has been said, that adoption is a very different service from the one that I think the general public still carry around in their heads. It is a service to separated children and many, many more adoptions are subject to disputes. I think that what the Government are trying to achieve in this exercise and other work around the policy is to improve the planning for children so that the disadvantages that they face early in life are improved upon and their initial disadvantages are not compounded by poor care when they become looked after. What we are trying to achieve is early settlement and a permanent bond for them to be able to achieve. However, I think that it is fair to say that, because we are successful also in rehabilitating children with their families, the children that we do separate often come from very complex and difficult backgrounds.

Mr. Love: But you accept that that is an increasing problem.

Moira Gibb: Yes, I do, but that is not to say that it would necessarily contribute, therefore, to the more extreme cases. Again, the whole principle of openness is just so much more accepted now, and it underlines all our thinking in relation to adoption, but that is a push in the opposite direction.

The Chairman: Councillor Rutter, do you have a view on this area?

Maureen Rutter: I was asked whether I think that such a situation is liable to increase because there appears to be some sort of evidence at the moment that it is increasing, and whether they will be likely to be coming from abusive situations or neglectful situations.

It is true that this particular type of situation has increased. There is no doubt about that, but I do not think that we know why. I have asked whether we have research to show why, but there just does not seem to be any. On the face of it—

Mr. Love: I am sorry to interrupt, but there is always a time constraint. I do not think that the Committee is looking for those answers, so the question is, if the situation is increasing, should we recognise that that may well be a factor in the disclosure of information in a small number of cases?

Maureen Rutter: I do not think so, I have to say. At the end of the day, it is a fundamental and very important right for every person to know about their origins. With a different hat on—I have done a lot of work in counselling, as against councilloring—it seemed to me to be so important to every single person that I came across to know about their birth, their antecedents and so on. I honestly think that this is something that should not be taken away.

Ms Munn: Moving on to intercountry adoption, there seems to be general support for the tightening up that is envisaged in the Bill. However, I want to ask a specific question about agencies, particularly voluntary adoption agencies, that approve the adoption of people from other countries. Do you have a view on whether they should supervise subsequent placements, or would it be preferable for them to be supervised by the local authority in the area in which they live?

Deborah Cullen: This is a topic on which the Government are currently consulting in respect of the proposed regulations and guidance in connection with implementing the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 and The Hague convention. With a different hat on, I am a trustee of a small voluntary adoption agency that has in the past undertaken intercountry adoption assessments, and something that exercises us very much is whether the agency would be in a position to supervise the follow-up when the child is actually placed with the prospective adopters, and how that would be financed.

It is a difficult issue. What appears to be proposed under the draft regulations is that it should remain, as it is now, a local authority responsibility. I can see the advantages of that. On the other hand, from the point of view of the prospective adopters themselves, I can see disadvantages because they will have got to know the agency and the assessing social worker during the period of assessment, and then suddenly they have to chop over to a new arrangement, so I think that there are disadvantages. Because that consultation has only just been issued, we have not actually had time to consult and form a view.

12.15 pm

Moira Gibb: Our view is that, anyway, local authorities are more and more commissioners of services and do not necessarily provide them directly. They wish to see variety, particularly in the area of adoption, in sharing and setting up consortiums and perhaps commissioning work from independent agencies. The important thing is that, whoever does it, the agency is set up to have the capacity to do that as well as any assessment.

The Chairman: We come now to the issue of unmarried couples adopting.

Mr. Brazier: I should like to ask Felicity Collier about the survey that she has kindly enclosed in her submission.

I find myself in agreement with your last remarks that a few hard cases should not cause us to change a situation that has worked very well for 30 years. I am a little puzzled, however, as to what your polling material is supposed to suggest. Obviously, the general public might have views on the issue, but are you suggesting that because they feel that unmarried couples should have an equal entitlement to adopt to married ones, Parliament should somehow take the view that the welfare of the child is best served in that way?

Felicity Collier: I thought that you might be interested in those findings. The actual headline that we announced in national adoption week was based on a survey conducted for us by MORI of 2,000 adults and their interests in adopting either previously or in the future. It found—this was very interesting—that 21 per cent. of adults in unmarried relationships and who declared that as one of their characteristics had either considered in the past, or would consider in the future, adopting a child, compared with 7 per cent. of married couples. We thought that that was really quite interesting and clearly demonstrated the social trend in people's current living arrangements and in the structure of society.

We also looked at what the general public's reaction was. I have spoken to many, many people, including many MPs in the House, on the issue. However much most of us support the institution of marriage as a way of providing stability, continuity and permanence to children, the reality is that many people also know, in their experience, people living in unmarried, close, stable relationships who would also offer very good care to children through adoption. That just demonstrates the public view, as does the early-day motion of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), which has currently been signed, as I understand it today, by 66 MPs.

Mr. Brazier: Could we stay on the survey for a moment, before getting on to another issue?

I read the article, and you had a good splash in the press on both points. Before you can say that it demonstrates anything, the crucial question is, was it sized for age? The age profile of unmarried couples is very different from that of married couples.

Felicity Collier: I suppose that that is why I gave you the statistics, so that you could actually look at them, but I can tell you—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Could we have one person speaking at a time, please?

Felicity Collier: What I can tell you—this is the bit that I extracted because I thought that it was what you might ask me—is that, looking at the attitude of people of different ages to whether unmarried couples should adopt, 75 per cent. of 25 to 54-year-olds either believed or believed strongly that unmarried couples should adopt, or were neutral but did not disagree, compared with 59 per cent. of those aged 55-plus. So undoubtedly people over the age of 55 are rather less inclined to believe that unmarried couples should adopt. One could speculate that that would be because—

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