Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Shaw: We all want to speed up the adoption process and avoid any unnecessary delays being inherent in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman says that he wanted to give adoption agencies the freedom to find placements for children and that he would be doing the agencies a favour by removing aspects of the clause, but I do not recall any adoption agency making that request either during the evidence hearings or in written evidence. Has the hon. Gentleman received representations from a UK adoption agency making such a request?

12.30 pm

Mr. Walter: My reasons for tabling the amendment are those of all Members of Parliament: we represent our constituents and, in doing so, we want to do what is best for children.

Tim Loughton: On the comment of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, clause 1(5) was not the specific subject of inquiry during the witness hearings. Witnesses were not asked for their comments on that part of the Bill. However, we received submissions along the lines that my hon. Friend has mentioned and if I catch your eye, Mrs. Roe, I will mention them later.

Mr. Walter: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and look forward to hearing about the more detailed representations that have been received. I refer the Committee also to the minutes of evidence taken by the Select Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill—this Bill's predecessor—in April. The subject was discussed at that time.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us further on the intention behind his amendment? I am confused about whether he wants to broaden or narrow the clause. He says that it is too prescriptive; presumably that means that he would like to add other factors, but the amendment would leave the word ``background'', which can include all the factors already listed and others. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee what other factors in a child's background he wants to be considered during an adoption process?

Mr. Walter: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the purpose of the amendment. We want a clauses that states that an adoption agency must give due consideration to a child's background, but does not have a prescriptive list of items of background to which the agency must, by law, refer. The items in subsection (5) are not especially relevant to many of the children who come forward for adoption. Of course, some factors will be relevant in cases involving older children, but many if not most are irrelevant to children who are merely babes in arms. The essence of the adoption process should be that if children are available for adoption and all parties, including the birth parents, are content, the adoption agency should be able to find a suitable home for them as speedily as possible so that they can be brought up in a relevant environment. Religious and cultural backgrounds are irrelevant to a babe in arms.

Kevin Brennan: Will the hon. Gentleman consider a babe in arms who was circumcised because of its religion? Would that be a relevant factor in the adoption procedure?

Mr. Walter: I am not sure that it would. I do not want to go into my personal situation, but circumcision has taken place in British society for some time, and often has nothing to do with religious background.

Mr. Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: Does the intervention involve circumcision?

Mr. Shaw: Ah, the cut and thrust of debate—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is very quick.

The hon. Member for North Dorset speaks of very young children, the relevance of their background and how it might affect them in later life. He has also mentioned child migrants, and I understand that he was involved in the inquiry into that issue—an excellent inquiry on which the Health Committee should be congratulated. Does he recall that very young children were removed without consent or adoption certificates and shipped abroad? He heard testimonies from people who had been moved to a different country and who spoke about the need to understand their background. Many others were removed from their homes and placed with white families. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that?

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which will help me to answer him. It was horrendous that older children who came from religious backgrounds were placed in children's homes of a different faith in Australia. The crux—and the real horror—was the forcible removal of children by the authorities here with the connivance of those in Australia and their shipment to the other side of the world. The biggest injustice suffered by these children, who are now all adults, was their inability to find out where they came from and who their birth parents were. They did not feel that there was a particular injustice along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests. There were myriad injustices in the procedure—the way in which children were removed; the duplicity of the various agencies in respect of the birth parents; the forging of certificates for emigration; the abuse that they suffered in Australia; and the cultural background in which they were placed. It was assumed that the girls would become domestic servants and the boys would become farm workers.

Mr. Shaw: As a member of the all-party child migrants group, I have met several of them. I have also read ``Empty Cradles'' which is a powerful account of what happened to many of them. The hon. Gentleman is describing the process, but I want him to consider the effect of that process on the individuals involved in it. ``Empty Cradles'' gives testimonies from people who said that they did not know where they belonged; many of them were stateless. Failing to take account of people's backgrounds and origins leaves them with questions. It is not just the testimonies in ``Empty Cradles''—there are testimonies going back for years and years of people who were placed inappropriately.

Mr. Walter rose—

Mr. Bellingham: On a point of clarification, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford made a good intervention, but he did not say how old those children were.

The Chairman: That is an intervention and it is for the hon. Member for North Dorset to decide whether he will give way again.

Mr. Walter: I can probably answer the question. The children involved the tens of thousands of cases that occurred ranged from as young as three or four-year-olds to those in their early teens. There is one point that I want to bring home and then I would like to move on because I think that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford makes some valid points. I have no doubt that we will discuss those points when we deal with intercountry adoptions—

Liz Blackman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: When I finish my point I will be happy to give way to the hon. Lady. The crux of the issue is whether the factors are relevant to very young children or to older children. I believe that they are relevant to older children. They should have been taken into account in the case of the child migrants, but no one was taking anything into account at that stage; it was simply that money was available to ship them to the other side of the world.

Liz Blackman: I want to take the hon. Gentleman back to the beginning of his speech, when he said that this subject was debated in April by the Select Committee on the previous Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), who used to be a social worker dealing with adoption, said most on the subject. She described trying to place children in her early days and the nonsense of having to look for adoptive parents who were seven-eighths Afro-Caribbean and one-eighth white. She said that the system was totally politically correct and that because social workers were chasing people who simply did not exist, the child would not be placed.

The Bill takes us well away from such a system. All it says is that such factors are part of the list of considerations. Subsection (4)(d) answers many of hon. Gentleman's concerns about what consideration will be given to such issues, depending on a child's needs, age and circumstances. The climate created by the Bill will be vastly different from the one described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport.

12.45 pm

Mr. Walter: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention because she has made my point for me. If we were to leave the matter at clause 1(4), especially paragraph (d), I would be content. My problem is that subsection (5), which is much more prescriptive, has been added. If, as the hon. Lady has pointed out, we are simply considering

    ``the child's age, sex, background and any of the child's characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant'',

I am happy with that. I have tabled no amendments to that subsection, because I find it entirely reasonable. However, I do not find reasonable the situation into which I fear we could be led, wherein adoption agencies and others will start to be very prescriptive about taking things into account. They will create a checklist, particularly when considering younger children. They will consider a child's religious persuasion—even though they may have none—racial origin, cultural and linguistic background. I do not think that the linguistic background of an 18-month-old is particularly relevant. The linguistic background of a four-year-old, however, is very relevant.

Sandra Gidley: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that if a child were very young, religious background need not necessarily be considered. Is he saying that if a child has already been baptised as a Christian, that can quite happily be ignored?

Mr. Walter: I did not say that at all. If a child has a particular religious background—a baptism would obviously be a significant event in such a background—that should be taken into account. However, it does not necessarily need to be on a checklist that the adoption agency considers. I challenge the hon. Lady to produce statistics on the number of very young children who have been baptised or been through any other such ceremony and are presented for adoption. My impression, based on anecdotal evidence, is that the number would be very small. A particular religious background could be taken into account, but that does not mean that it should appear on a checklist for the adoption agency to have to satisfy itself and the court about it.

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