Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: Let us turn to the issue of unmarried couples and adoption, which, as you are probably aware, has been discussed at some length in Committee.

Ms Munn: It might be easier to cut the question short. What are your views on whether we should consider allowing unmarried couples to adopt?

Kathy Evans: As with everyone on the previous panel, we think that children should be entitled, where it is the placement of choice, to be jointly adopted by unmarried parents.

The Chairman: There is complete consensus on the subject, then.

Ms Munn: I would like to ask Julia Feast and Kathy Evans about research. I know that your research was mainly about searching and reunion but did any issues arise from it, or is there evidence from any of your other work, which might be helpful on the issue?

Julia Feast: The research that we have done was dealing mostly with married couples, because it was adoptions of years gone by, not current-day adoptions. So that is not very helpful.

Caroline Abrahams: There is research which I know of, and we could get you the source. I am not an adoption expert, but I was talking to our family placement adviser yesterday who was saying there is research that shows that children suffer, as it were, in that kind of context. They have a legal bond to one parent but not to the other. The quality of the relationship slightly suffers because of that difference, which is really pretty much what your previous witnesses were saying. I am sure we can get you the reference for that research, if that would be helpful.

Ann Haigh: It is really important to look at the skills and experience that people are bringing to meet that particular child's needs—looking at the family that is going to meet the needs, not the marital status of the family.

Kevin Brennan: Can we probe witnesses, Mr. Hinchliffe, on the subject of right to information, although it is not on our list?

The Chairman: That is no problem.

Kevin Brennan: I am sure that Julia Feast would like to be asked a question on this subject, as pretty much everyone else has been. Everyone else has held their nose and pulled their face when presented with the idea that adopted children should not have an automatic right of access to their birth certificate. What are your views on that?

6.45 pm

Julia Feast: I feel extremely strongly that these clauses would be a retrograde step. The research shows that for the majority—the vast majority of people—getting information or having access to it is very important. It answers very simple questions. You can sit on a bus and know that the woman next to you is not your mother—basic things like that. So for these to go through would be awful, but what is terrible is that they are going through so quickly. That concerns me. Many professionals do not know that this is happening, adopted people do not know that this is happening, or adoptive parents or birth parents. Nobody has had time to have a proper consultation about it, but my view is that most people would disagree with what is happening.

The Chairman: We have had a clear message on that in the past two days.

Kevin Brennan: Do I take it that there is no dissent from that among our witnesses?

Ann Haigh: We have 11 years' experience within the project of doing this work and we would say most of the outcomes of people receiving the information have had such a positive impact on their lives. It would worry me for the outcome for people's mental health if this is denied them.

Kevin Brennan: The other side of the coin—the other thing on which we have been pressing people—is the right of birth parents to contact adopted children. People have taken two positions on this: first, that birth parents should have a right to contact adopted children in adulthood and, secondly, that birth parents should at least actively, through an intermediary, be able to inform the adopted child in adulthood that they are seeking contact. What are your views on those two outcomes? Are either of them satisfactory?

Julia Feast: Again, I think intermediary services for birth relatives and the second option that you are describing should be in legislation. We should be modernising legislation. We have been promised an overhaul of adoption legislation; unless that is put in place, it will not be modernised and will not meet the needs of all these birth mothers of years gone by, who are desperately wanting to know whether their children—who are now adults, not children—are alive and well. That is the minimum.

Ideally, we should be moving like other places. Ireland is even considering equal access to identifying information when the child is 18. The stigma around that is even greater in that country than in ours. We really need to go forward and not backwards.

Ann Haigh: I would endorse that. I think that what has been developed and seen as good practice would actually be stopped by the proposed legislation, and that would give me very great concern. I do not see any evidence that would support that—I think all the evidence from the agencies and research studies—as this actually has been a very positive development.

Julia Feast: I know that you are all very busy and this is not the time, but the Children's Society published its research last year and we held a conference in London, and 260 people came to that conference. We had five adopted adult people speaking—non-searchers as well as searchers, so it was the other way round. We have a video that lasts 40 minutes on which those people describe their experience. If you are interested, I will leave that video here, because it is not us telling you, it is them.

The Chairman: That would be very helpful.

Mr. Walter: The Chairman mentioned this morning our inquiries relating to a particular group of adoptees, who were child migrants. I am looking at the Government's response to our suggestion that they should help people to trace their roots by assisting them to confirm their identity so far as possible from available records—name, date of birth, address at birth, identifying sending agencies and so on. That seems to be an about-face. The evidence from the Children's Society about compatibility with the European convention on human rights contains a phrase to the effect that you will be seeking further legal opinion. Have you made any progress on that?

Kathy Evans: We have not, as yet. That came up because we have seen cases that have proceeded to the European Court, establishing the right of adopted people to identify information about their birth. We think that those set the precedent that casts this in doubt as being compatible with the Human Rights Act.

Mr. Dawson: Can we consider equal access to identifying information? I accept that adopted people should have the right to seek out all available information about their birth, but should we really be enabling birth parents to do the same? We recognise the anguish that people go through; we also recognise the fact that some people have been adopted as a result of abuse that they have suffered from birth parents. I accept that there are schemes for mediation and good practice that make available the information that birth parents are seeking in order to make contact with their children. However, surely it is in the interests of those children—now adults—that there is not 100 per cent. open access to them from people who have in the past seriously offended against them.

Julia Feast: We are talking about two different groups of the population. There is the population of people who were placed as babies, who have not had harm done to them, and there are the children today. Whatever is introduced has to safeguard all people. We must not rush into these things. At the same time there should be a basic human right for people to know whether their child is alive and well.

Mr. Dawson: That is agreed.

Julia Feast: Also, there should be safeguards for the other generation of children who are coming through adoption now, which is different from the women and men who are now 50 and 60 years old. We are talking about two different groups; we are talking about adults, not children.

Ann Haigh: It is important that we remember that we are dealing with two categories. What I would hope to see incorporated would be the right of birth relatives, including siblings and grandparents, to access an intermediary service that could contact the adopted adult to notify him or her of their interest. It would then be up to the individual to take that forward. I believe that it is important for people to have a right to such a service.

The Chairman: We want to cover a number of other areas. One is inconsistencies in the Children Act 1989.

Mr. Bellingham: That is right. The evidence of BAAF carefully highlights various inconsistencies. Do you agree with BAAF that the Bill would leave glaring inconsistencies in the Children Act 1989, and do you feel that that is a problem?

Liz Garrett: I think that I would need you to clarify which inconsistencies you were referring to since I cannot, off the top of my head, remember all of them.

Mr. Bellingham: Shall I go into a little more detail? BAAF's evidence states that

    ``the Bill, as currently drafted, would leave some glaring inconsistencies within the Children Act framework. In particular these relate to the distortion of the Children Act framework covering children accommodated by the local authority under voluntary arrangements. Unlike the Children Act the provisions in the Bill:

    vest parental responsibility in the local authority or adoption agency without any court order

    vest parental responsibility in prospective adopters on placement without a court order

    place severe restrictions on the right of the parent to remove the children from accommodation...

    authorise the local authority to retain a child against the parents' wishes if the local authority intends to apply for a placement order (whereas...under the Children Act the local authority would be required to apply for an emergency protection order).''

That is quite technical stuff. Who would like to comment?

Liz Garrett: I cannot speak to the highly technical detail there. It is important that all aspects protect children and put their welfare first. Some of those inconsistencies are what we have referred to. For example, in the contact arrangements, that a child be protected is the most important thing. But I cannot speak to those technicalities.

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