Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: I shall be brief because I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has put a very strong case. There is no question that our new clause is sharper, more focused and better drafted. We have run it past a number of lawyers and tried to make it more user-friendly than more lawyer-friendly. Lawyer-friendly clauses are those that are going to go to court and result in a lot of lawyers spending a huge amount of time debating and making a lot of money at the public expense, which is why we are trying to make it easier to understand. The differences—my hon. Friend explained exactly what they were—are small, but significant.

Will the Minister clarify the meaning of ``secure environment''? Unless we are careful, that will lead to much legal debate. Does it mean secure in the wider family or social sense, or in the more narrowly defined physical sense? If we do not clarify that now, we might end up creating opportunities for lawyers to spend considerable time in court and make a lot of money.

We have had a wide-ranging debate on clause 1. I hope that the Minister will accept that the Opposition have been as constructive as possible. We are simply trying to help her and her officials to ensure that, when we report the Bill to the House, clause 1 is better suited to its overall requirements. That is why I support my hon. Friend.

Jacqui Smith: I shall respond to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham in his lengthy and legalistic explanation of new clause 2, but in the spirit of being helpful and constructive, it might be better to write to the hon. Gentleman with a more detailed response.

It may be worth clarifying the use of the word checklist and explaining why it is included in the Bill and the explanatory notes. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was itching to tell the Committee that one reason for the word is that it has significant judicial backing. Lord Justice Waite referred to the use of the term in the Children Act 1989 in the London Borough of Southwark v. B in 1993:

    ``The colloquial description `checklist' describes the function of s.1(3)''

of that Act

    ``with complete accuracy. It is an aide-memoire designed to ensure that none of the factors potentially relevant for a court considering a child's welfare generally in the circumstances of each particular case is left out''.

I am always willing to learn from judges' decisions about the significance and use of words and I hope that that is useful to the Committee.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised several points in his introduction to the more substantial legal issues. He mentioned the importance of resources. Government Members will cite the significant £66 million increase to local authority funding for adoption support. Long-term decisions are rightly subject to Government discussions. I am sure that all hon. Members will be cheered by the prospects for future public service investment—particularly in the national health service—held out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his statement this afternoon. Significant extra investment is forthcoming.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to the wishes of the child. We should return to the issue later in our considerations, which should satisfy the hon. Gentleman and others that the Government are genuine in their concern to ensure that the child's wishes are considered and that effective action that builds on good practice is taken. He also mentioned timetables and implementation. I can assure him that the Government have no intention of taking the eight years that it took to implement the 1976 Act. We shall return to implementation timetables later in our consideration of the Bill.

Although new clause 2 may possess some of the virtues suggested by the hon. Gentleman, I am doubtful about most of them. It would create significant problems, it misses out important issues and it places other issues in the wrong place. It should therefore be resisted.

6.15 pm

I should like to respond to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham's point about the change to clause 1(1), which attempts to make it clear that the clause does not apply to proceedings under part IV—dealing with care orders—of the Children Act 1989. The hon. Gentleman spoke about twin-tracking. We believe that the courts have a clear dividing line between the Bill and the 1989 Act. The new clause is therefore unnecessary in respect of courts. In care order cases, the court's role is to consider whether to make the care order, not to re-„write the care plan for the local authority. The court does not take a decision on adoption, but decides whether a care order should be made. Section 1 of the 1989 Act applies, so there is no need to provide for it explicitly in the Bill.

The position is slightly different with local authorities. Restricting local authorities from using the adoption clause 1 on care proceedings would be undesirable because that would fail to recognise their different role in drafting a care plan in respect of a care order application. In considering adoption as an option, we want local authorities to be subject to clause 1—or, in other words, to the adoption welfare checklist—whereas the new clause would disapply it for care proceedings.

With that explanation and my commitment to respond in detail to specific points on the legal relationship between the Children Act 1989 and clause 1, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the new clause.

Tim Loughton: I am not terribly impressed. Our new clause was detailed, but the Minister has failed to respond, for example, to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk and myself about the definition of ``secure environment''. If parts of the new clause that attempt to mirror the Children Act 1989 are inappropriate, that Act is flawed. We anticipate that the Government will have to amend certain parts of the Act. I shall eagerly await my postbag every morning for the Minister's detailed response. We have spent a long time debating clause 1 and to expedite the Committee's work I shall not press the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Placement for adoption by agencies

Sandra Gidley: I beg to move amendment No. 29, in, page 12, line 10, leave out `And adoption agency may' and insert

    `Where an adoption agency is satisfied that a child ought to be placed for adoption it may'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 30, in page 12, line 11, leave out `a' and insert `the'.

No. 31, in, page 12, line 12, leave out `a' and insert `the'.

Before I call the hon. Member for Romsey, I draw the Committee's attention to an error on the amendment paper. Amendment No. 29 should read

    ``leave out `an adoption agency may' . . . ''

and not ``and adoption agency may''.

Sandra Gidley: Amendment No. 29 is a probing amendment and is grouped with a couple of small amendments that merely seek consistency of language. The purpose is to make it clear that parental consent alone is not enough to trigger the authority to place a child for adoption, which is the impression given at the moment. The onus should be on the agency to satisfy itself that placing for adoption will promote the child's welfare in accordance with the long-discussed clause 1. It is probably not intended to be in doubt, but I believe the amendment tightens up the meaning of the Bill.

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how the Government expect agencies to approach cases. I appreciate that the details will be set out in regulations but could the Minister elaborate on their likely scope? For example, when a parent requests or consents to an adoption, how far will the agency be expected to pursue other options such as placement with relatives? There is another thrust, which is mainly welcome, to speed up the adoption process. That is as it should be because speeding up the process is generally in the best interests of the child's welfare. However, parents also need a breathing space to consider and reflect on the consequences of adoption. The amendment seeks to clarify that the authorities still must have regard to all the other considerations.

Mr. Dawson: This is an extremely complex series of clauses relating to placement for adoption and adoption orders. During our witness sessions we heard some particularly complicated evidence, particularly from the Family Rights Group, about the impact and significance of placement orders. I have several remarks to make, some of which would fit comfortably in a debate on the clause, but others may stray into other clauses. I apologise for that but it is almost inevitable, given that these elements of the Bill are so closely related and complex.

What was presented to us quite late in the day last Wednesday was a more simple approach to placement orders, which allied them more to the Children Act 1989. Instead of taking on the entire complexity of the flow chart, which I think we will refer to often on this part of the Bill, and instead of relying on parents placing children for adoption and following that through, in principle every proposal that a child be adopted should result in a court appearance with regard to establishing a placement order.

Some complicated aspects of the Bill suggest that if children are simply accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and a parent then wishes to withdraw their consent to the child's being adopted, 14 days' notice of the child's proposed removal must be given. That significantly amends the 1989 Act. Most crucial of all, one proposal goes far beyond what is in that Act by conferring parental responsibility on the local authority and adopters without a court process. That works very much against the spirit of the 1989 Act and should be viewed with enormous caution. Elements of the proposals for placement orders seem to bring back into play something more akin to old-style parental rights resolutions, which were available to local authorities under the Children Act 1948 but were ended by the 1989 Act.

I appreciate that this is all becoming very complicated, but a Family Rights Group proposal would simplify matters. One can go down the voluntary route—with a child accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Act—or the compulsory route, with a child subject to a care order under section 31 of that Act. Whatever route one takes, it would be extremely useful if in all cases in which children were proposed for adoption, there were a mechanism whereby they were brought before a court and its permission were sought to set out an adoption order.

That would mean that children would retain their legal status under the 1989 Act, but the adoption order would then be a means of deciding whether placement for adoption would go ahead. The proposal would provide a proper forum for debate on alternatives to that. The placement could then go ahead and the process could move on to an adoption hearing, where other crucial and final issues such as whether that adoption should go ahead and contact could be dealt with.

I have tabled no amendments to the clause, because that is too difficult at this stage, but I hope that officials will have more discussions with the Family Rights Group and the British Association of Social Workers. I believe that British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering is also interested in pursuing this line of inquiry to see whether some of these highly complex and technical matters can be brought more comfortably within the scope of the 1989 Act and whether some procedures can be made more simple and more open in the interests of, above all, children, as well as their wider family and those who will have to operate the laws.

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Prepared 27 November 2001