Adoption and Children Bill

[back to previous text]

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): Surely the correct place for raising that issue was the Programming Sub-Committee. We should have flagged up some of our concerns then rather than wasting valuable Committee time now.

10.45 am

Tim Loughton: The concerns were flagged up well before that, on Second Reading, when we had an inkling that the Government wanted to programme the whole matter to end in January.

We will then move to clauses 41 to 49, which deal with pre-adoption procedures, adoption orders and the thorny issue of whether adoption should be exclusively for married couples—I am sure that Government Members will have things to say about that if they are true to the comments that they were keen to make throughout last week's sittings. I note that none of them has yet put his head above the parapet to table amendments on the issue; we shall see whether that happens by Thursday.

We will then deal with definitions of legitimation. The relevant group comprises 10 clauses, but only two and a half hours have been allocated to debate them; that is only 15 minutes per clause, leaving aside all the amendments that have so far been tabled and all those that we eagerly await from Government Members.

Next, we will go on to clauses 94 to 99, 104 and 105, which deal with proceedings for offences resulting from the regulations and the important issue of how to avoid delay, which is one of the core principles in clause 1. That group comprises eight clauses, for which we have five hours of debating time—very generously, we get 37.5 minutes per clause.

After that, we will go on to clauses 63 to 73 and the status of adopted children, where we have been allocated 10.5 minutes per clause. That hardly seems enough time to do the clauses justice, particularly as they deal with the topical subject of the inheritances of Members of the House of Lords and adoptions. I am sure that the Minister will comment on that, given that the Government have proposed various changes to the operation of the House of Lords.

Then we will come to clauses 80 to 87, 120 and 123 on intercountry adoptions, covering the issues of Scotland and overseas territories. That group again comprises 10 clauses, for which just five hours have been allotted—half an hour per clause, leaving aside the amendments.

We will then move to clauses 2 to 16, dealing with adoption support, assessments, local authority plans, fees, the review mechanism, inspection and regulation. Clauses 115 to 119 deal with the use of the register, which leaves a lot to be desired—again, that is a very technical subject—and grants to local authorities. There are 21 clauses in that group, which means 28.5 minutes per clause, leaving aside the amendments.

We will then deal with an enormous hotchpotch of clauses, beginning with clauses 53 to 62, which deal with access to information. As we have said, the provisions are retrogressive compared with the 1976 Act—I am sure that all hon. Members will want to contribute to that debate, as many did during the earlier proceedings. Other clauses cover the information and counselling available to adopting parents at the time of placement, entries on the register and disclosure of records. The group comprises 16 clauses and two schedules, with less than 25 minutes to debate each item.

Finally, we will have just 415 minutes for the remaining 24 clauses—plus all the new clauses, of which two have already been tabled, all the new schedules and all the new amendments dealing with the Children Act 1989. On top of that, we have constantly to refer as our bible to the flow chart on page 73 of the explanatory notes, which explains the way in which adoption works. It is one of the most complicated flow charts ever devised, requiring many hot towels and sessions in dark rooms to interpret effectively. We will doubtless refer back to it on many occasions, to follow the Minister's detailed explanation of how the Bill flows—if it begins to seem that the flow has been thwarted at any point.

This is not an easy Bill. It is not minor legislation. It is highly technical and contains several contentious areas dealing with matters of principle. Throughout it are clauses that require expert legal input. However, the Government have rushed it through in a matter of weeks, having produced the revised version on 19 October. Less than a week after detailed witness statements, which raised interesting, important and new points, we are debating this Bill. Our time has been heavily curtailed and we have to produce findings by 17 January. We must get this right; implementation of the Bill must not take eight years. In the interests of expediting debate, we will not, despite our objections to the timetables, oppose the motion.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I will clear up the confusion on the point made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley). The breakdown of the clauses was agreed without a vote in the Programming Sub-Committee, but the grossly inadequate number of sittings to scrutinise the Bill was determined by a whipped vote on the Floor of the House.

I have supported the Bill's main measures for a long time. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned, some were included in a draft Bill under the last Conservative Government. Sadly, this Bill has taken a long time to come to fruition. It deals with a complicated subject, on which there is a broad consensus of principle, but also disagreement on complex and detailed issues. The Government accordingly agreed to the Special Standing Committee process, which followed on from the three hearings of the special Select Committee before the general election.

We have a truncated programme, with only five weeks for debate, which has directly followed that scrutiny process. We were not allowed even a one-week interval to digest those complicated and intensive hearings, which lasted for six hours on one day. We all felt tired by the end. However, we had only a day and a half to table amendments to the initial clauses dealing with complicated issues of principle, particularly clause 1.

The Government's approach contrasts strangely with the handling of earlier Bills—for example, the Children Act 1989, which has been referred to repeatedly. That legislation was not forced through on a timetable. It was not guillotined, and Members of all parties worked hard to make the best stab at a complicated subject. The Act achieved much good. Some mistakes were made despite the time taken, and we will deal with some today.

Another example is the Family Law Bill. The debate on that lasted much longer than five weeks, and I was privileged to serve on the Committee. The then Opposition welcomed parts of the Bill, and they agreed that, if elected, they would bring it into force. No fixed time was set to bring it into force, and after three or four years, it has now been abandoned.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is not making an empty point. There is a huge discrepancy between the incredible rush in which the Bill is being forced through and the lack of a specified time when the Bill will become law. It is a question not just of when the legislation comes into force, but of when resources will be made available. We all know that any amount of laws and regulations relating to social services can be passed, but without the resources to implement them, little will be achieved in practice.

The Bill will definitely become an Act. The Minister may attempt to suggest that the Opposition, in stressing that the time for scrutiny is inadequate, are trying to damage, slow down or wreck the Bill. Let us be clear that the Opposition are strongly committed to the Bill. It is being dealt with early in the Session, and no one could argue that allowing an untimetabled approach with a few extra weeks for scrutiny—and an extra week's reflection between the hearings and the start of our working scrutiny—would prevent the Bill from becoming law. Rather, it would allow us to get our teeth into the issues and produce better law. Nevertheless, with the support of my hon. Friends, the Opposition will work as best we can within the limited time available.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that debate will be restricted. It is an early stage of the Session and we have plenty of time. It is extraordinary that debate of such a highly topical and uncontroversial Bill is being curtailed. It is an absolute disgrace.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Romsey, we voted against the Bill on the Floor of the House because we strongly believe that the Bill should not be dealt with in this way. Many Government Members present have a background in the caring services. At least two are former social workers who have made significant contributions in our Special Standing Committee. Others, such as the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), have backgrounds in local government. The hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) has worked in the caring professions. So it goes on. I would have thought that such Government Members wanted to spend as much time as possible debating the Bill. I hope that they will take every opportunity to impress on Ministers that they feel as strongly as we do that the Government are dealing with this important Bill so shabbily.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham seems to share the view put to me as a teacher about how to deliver a good lesson—tell everyone what you are going to say, say it and then tell everyone what you have said. If that is his approach to the rest of the Bill, it may foreshorten our time to debate the important and significant issues. The Bill introduces a major reform of adoption legislation. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman believes that the Bill has been delayed, but the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) thinks that it has been rushed through too early in the Session. It is doubtless part of the conflict of views among Opposition Members with which we shall have to grapple throughout the Committee stage.

The Bill is a major piece of legislation, which puts children at the centre of the adoption process. It sets out the basis for adoption support, reforms and modernises the legislative framework, and introduces special guardianship as a means of reforming and modernising the system. It should be considered alongside other significant Government actions, such as publishing national adoption standards, setting up the adoption and permanence taskforce and the adoption register.

The Bill should receive the scrutiny that it deserves, but it should also be delivered in a timely fashion. As our debate progresses, we shall be able to discuss how and when the measures should be implemented and how much detail should be set out in regulations.

Now that Opposition Members have had the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to a rational way of organising the House of Commons rather than to anything substantive in the Bill, perhaps we can get on with the matter in hand.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 November 2001