Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Thank you, Mrs. Roe, for allowing me—

The Chairman: Order.

It being half an hour after commencement of proceedings on the motion, The Chairman put the Question, pursuant to paragraph (9) of Sessional Order C [28th June] relating to the Programming of Bills.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill; copies are available in the Room. I also remind Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.

Clause 1

Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

11 am

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 11, leave out `likely' and insert `bound'.

Clause 1(3) states:

    ``The court or adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.''

I have talked to several senior people in social services about that and there is no doubt that when a child is being considered for adoption, it is essential that the process proceeds as seamlessly as possible and that any unnecessary delays are kept to a minimum. The senior executives referred to cases in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cumbria where, because of the length of delays, by the time the children—I cannot mention names—were adopted they found it much more difficult to settle into their new families with their adoptive parents. One child had remained much longer with unsuitable foster parents, but in the other two cases the foster parents were doing their level best.

The drafting is weak, and I want to replace the word ``likely'' with ``bound'', because most reasonable Members would agree that any delay is ``bound'' to be prejudicial to the child's welfare.

Mr. Shaw: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the word ``bound'' is a concrete term? Can he not envisage circumstances in which a delay might be needed—for example, the court may feel that it is in the child's best interests? That is the overarching principle. Our experience in child care legislation has taught us that there must be a degree of flexibility within a framework of principles. He should not recommend making hard and fast rules, because there are so many variable circumstances in a child's life. The amendment would have the reverse effect to the one that he says he wants—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be making an intervention.

Mr. Shaw: Yes, I just remembered that. I have made the shortest and the longest interventions.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid and reasonable point, but does he not agree that the word ``likely'' is too weak? The Bill must send a strong signal that unnecessary delays will damage the child's welfare.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I understand the remarks made by the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). One of the main thrusts of the Bill is to bring the law into line with the Children Act 1989. I practised family law before 1989; I know that in child law one of the worst enemies of any sort of justice is delay. It used to be endemic in the system, but the 1989 Act changed all that—it changed the way that we dealt with children and family law. It brought to bear a sense of urgency that was more important than in other court cases.

Before 1989 there was a laissez faire attitude. The child was placed with someone and reports would be prepared after six, eight, nine or 10 months, with the result that the disposal hearing some 10 or more months later was very often a fait accompli—if all other things were equal, the court might feel that the child had been placed at that home for the last year. The parent seeking care and control or residence lost out completely on the day of the hearing, which was unfair. Understandably, children settle down quickly, so we need to adopt a more urgent approach in this area of the law.

I hear what the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford says about flexibility, but I also heard what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said in moving the amendment. A rule of thumb for the whole Bill is that time is of the essence. The amendment therefore has force behind it and would be a useful amendment to make at this stage.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I rise in support of the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk. The objection to it is that it forces the court to say that delay would be ``bound'' to prejudice the child's welfare and that that is somehow restrictive. Anyone who feels that that is the case should read the clause in its entirety with ``bound'' substituted for ``likely''. The operative phrase comes at the end of subsection (3), which would read:

    ``The court or the adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to a decision is''—


    ``to prejudice the child's welfare.''

My hon. Friend is concerned that having both ``in general'' and ``likely'' makes the provision far too woolly. The clause needs tightening up, but the amendment would not make it absolute because the phrase ``in general'' would remain.

Jacqui Smith: The debate on the amendment certainly fulfilled the intention of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that we should not delay. Subsection (3), which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk would amend, is modelled on the equivalent provision in section 1(2) of the Children Act—which, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly points out, was an important improvement in child law—but it extends the application of that duty to both adoption agencies and courts. I am sure that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) recognises that, but it is an important issue.

Clause 1 and the stipulations that it makes to minimise delay relate to both adoption agencies and courts and therefore to all decisions that are made about children during the adoption process. The Bill, like the Government, is clear that in general delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child. It is important to put our response to the amendment in the context of the other actions that we are taking in parallel to the Bill to ensure that delay, which hon. Members agree is undesirable in most cases, is minimised.

The national standards published in August state explicitly that children will not be kept waiting indefinitely for a ``perfect family''. They state that a plan for permanence must be made once a child has been in care for four months and that the plan must have clear, monitored time scales. We issued binding statutory guidance to local authorities to enforce that.

The standards set challenging time scales for matching children if the plan is for adoption. They also set challenging benchmark time scales for agencies, stipulating that if the agency decides that adoption is in the child's best interests, a family should be found within six months. We monitor that by regularly collecting statistics about local authority performance in respect of the key time scales in the standards for matching children with families. There has already some progress in that important area: the average time spent in care before adoption fell from three years, four months in 1996-97 to two years, nine months in 2000-01. As promised in the adoption White Paper, we will soon set a national time scale target as one of our public service agreement targets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford rightly mentioned that there might be circumstances in which a degree of delay would not prejudice the child's welfare and might even be in their interests: for example, if a child has multiple disabilities or special needs, extra time taken in the matching process may be appropriate. If there is a large sibling group, given the benefits of placing them together, it might be in the children's interest to take more time to find a family that is willing to take them together rather than to separate the group. Once the match has been made, children must be prepared carefully before placement—in fact, when we consulted children on the national standards, they told us that they did not necessarily want to be rushed into a placement.

We begin substantive debate in the Committee with one of the difficult issues connected with the need to find the correct balance in achieving the objectives about which there is widespread agreement. We need to reduce delay while recognising that, given the complex nature of adoption, there may be circumstances in which it is appropriate to take into account considerations that may cause delay. However, none of what I have said affects our determination to continue to bear down on harmful delay. That is our policy, and that is what the Bill and other actions of the Government will deliver. On the basis of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: In the light of the Minister's comment that she and her Department will bear down strongly on any unnecessary delays, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 1, line 14, after ``decision'', insert—

    ``which shall have been ascertained by means of direct consultation with the child'.''

This probing amendment has been tabled to tease out details about clause 1. When looking through that important clause and listening to many of the witnesses that were examined during our sittings last week, it struck me and my colleagues that we must pay a deal of attention to the wishes and position of the child. I think that everyone agrees with that. That is why the welfare of the child has, quite rightly, been put at the centre of the adoption process.

Clause 1 states that

    ``The court or adoption agency must have regard to the following matters'',

which include

    ``the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings regarding the decision (considered in the light of the child's age and understanding)''.

That is an open-ended provision; we will return to that aspect at other points in the debate. Strictly speaking, the clause does not place an obligation on the court or the adoption agency, which includes the local authority social services department, to speak to the child. All the information could be ascertained by other means.

There are provisions, on which I am sure we will have more detail when the regulations are finally published, for social workers to produce reports on the vulnerability of a child or the suitability of his current or prospective accommodation. An educational psychologist may be enlisted to produce reports from teachers or classroom assistants at the school where a prospective adoptee is being educated. The reports may make reference to any police involvement in terms of any police record or problems that the child has got into, and descriptions of any domestic violence may be mentioned, including interviews with the parent or parents. The process will involve frequent discussions with health visitors or GPs about the medical history of the prospective adoptee. However, all those considerations could be fulfilled without speaking to the child.

11.15 am

I am mindful of the process because of a personal experience, albeit on a different scale and going back many years. When my parents divorced, there were custody proceedings for me and my brothers and sisters. We were hardly involved in those proceedings at all, even though we had firm views on the subject. In interviews with the court people making the decisions, we featured hardly at all. A more explicit requirement needs to be inserted so that it is clearly understood that, while all the reports are necessary, someone during the adoption process should sit down with little Johnny and have a meaningful interview with him so that his wishes are properly ascertained— rather than simply refer to little Johnny's parents, probation officer, health visitor and a panoply of other professionals, who will of course have an input.

Many witnesses last week said that children of a certain age or above should have a veto on certain parts of the process, be it the placement process to which we shall come later, or the final adoption orders. That raises many more questions, but on balance I do not favour it—which is why our probing amendment would insert an explicit requirement that in ascertaining the wishes, feelings and needs of the child at the centre of the process, an appropriate person should have a meaningful interview with that child. If the Minister gave us detailed confirmation that that will happen as part of the directional regulations, we would be reassured. Under the clause as it stands, the process can technically take place without the child having spoken a word.

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