Special Standing Committee
Thursday 29 November 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
PLACING CHILDREN WITH PARENTAL CONSENT
Amendment proposed [27 November]: No. 42, in page 12, line 35, after the word `child', to insert the words
`with reference having been made to the expressed wishes of the child himself (considered in the light of the child's age and understanding)'.—[Mr. Loughton.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): We are awaiting the Minister's response.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I start by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. We had a good debate on Tuesday while your co-Chairman, Mrs. Roe, was in the Chair.
Before I respond to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), it may be useful to remind the Committee of the purposes of clauses 17 to 34. They introduce the new system of placement for adoption through adoption agencies, and significantly reform the legal process for adoption. One advantage of the proposals is that they will replace the legally unsatisfactory freeing provisions, so that birth parents can voluntarily relinquish their children for adoption. Freeing orders have been widely criticised. Once they are made, they leave the children legally without parents, and parental responsibility is transferred to the adoption agency. Many stakeholder groups have welcomed the abolition of freeing orders.
The new system ensures that substantial decisions about whether adoption is the right option for the child and whether the birth parents consent are taken earlier in the adoption process. Courts are involved where necessary. The Government believe that greater certainty and stability for children will be provided by dealing with the bulk of issues around consent to adoption before they are placed with their new families.
The new system will also be fairer to birth families who, under the current system, can be faced with a fait accompli at the final adoption order hearing if the child has already been with the prospective adopters for several months. The new provisions also minimise the uncertainty for prospective adopters and reduce the risk of their facing a contested final adoption order hearing. Once the issues around placement have been resolved, there are limits to the circumstances in which the adoption order may be opposed.
There are two routes to adoption through an adoption agency. The first route is through voluntary placement with parental consent, which is open to adoption agencies and local authorities. The second route is through placement for adoption under a placement order where there is no parental consent, and is open only to local authorities. Where a local authority is authorised to place a child for adoption with parental consent or under a placement order, subsection (2) provides that the child is to be considered a looked-after child to ensure that the local authority properly reviews and supervises the adoptive placement and promotes and safeguards the child's welfare. It will also mean that children placed for adoption will have access to the varied services for looked-after children, and should help to ensure that they are properly supported in the unfortunate event of the adoptive placement breaking down. Under subsection (4), placement has an extended meaning and covers placing a child with prospective adopters and, if a child has already been placed for other purposes—with a foster carer, for example—leaving the child with the carer as an approved prospective adopter.
Having considered some of the wider issues around placement provisions, I now turn to amendment No. 42. The Government believe that the amendment is unnecessary, because clause 1(4)(a) requires the agency, in deciding whether a child should be placed for adoption, to ascertain the child's wishes and feelings and to take them into account, in the light of their age and understanding, as part of the decision-making process. Clause 1(1) makes it clear that the obligations in the rest of clause 1 apply
``whenever a court or adoption agency is coming to a decision relating to the adoption of a child.''
Current regulations require an agency to make a decision based on advice from its adoption panel that adoption is in the child's best interest. Similar regulations will be made under the Bill, and they will set out the process for ensuring that the agency takes proper account of the child's view in the decision-making process, as it is obliged to by clause 1. The new adoption agencies regulations that will accompany the implementation of the Bill will place explicit obligations on agencies to consult the child, to record its views, to ensure that its views are considered in the decision-making process—for example, by adoption panels—and, if the child's views are not acted on, to record the reasons why not.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Is the Minister not aware that, in evidence laid before the Committee, the Adoption Law Reform Group asked that as part of proceedings the child, subject to his or her age, should have to consent, or refuse to consent, to the adoption? Several important bodies have been involved in the sittings: the Association of Directors of Social Services, the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, the British Association of Social Workers, and so on. Do the Government not accept their views?
Jacqui Smith: We had considerable discussion about the principle of consent on Tuesday, and there was wide acknowledgement of the burden that would be placed on a child if they were asked to consent directly. Furthermore, that is not what amendment No. 42 is about. As mentioned on Tuesday, the Government have considerable concerns about requiring a child to consent, either directly to an adoption or indirectly through other decision-making processes. For that reason, we argued against the need for it. Given the assurances that I have offered, I repeat my request that the amendment be withdrawn.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) rose—
The Chairman: I call Mr.—
Mr. Djanogly: Djanogly. On Tuesday, Mr. Stevenson, we were all wondering how to pronounce the name of a Welsh constituency.
I believe that we all agree that the Bill is aiming—in some ways, more than the Adoption Act 1976—to put the child's rights more to the fore. When debating our amendments on how the child's rights should be stated, the argument seems always to return to the fact that they will be set out in regulations—but we have had no sight of those regulations. If a child is to have rights, they should be reflected in the legislation.
Tim Loughton: I welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Stevenson. We have a marathon stretch ahead of us. You have already encountered the difficulty in pronouncing certain names—you are lucky that you did not have to question Professor Triseliotis last week.
I thank the Minister for her response to the amendment which, as I explained when I moved it, is a probing amendment. It harks back to the concerns that we have expressed throughout our deliberations that the child should play a greater part in the adoption placement process. We expressed concerns earlier in the week about how the appropriate agencies should go about ascertaining the wishes of the child, and we argued that that should certainly include direct contact, which is not explicitly stated in the Bill. The Minister has gone some way to assuring us, particularly by saying that the regulations will place explicit obligations on the agencies to refer to children and that if they do not do so they will have to give a good account of themselves as to why not. Given that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 41. in page 12, line 37, after `identified' insert `(directly or indirectly)'.
If you had been with us on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Stevenson, you would have an inkling about what I am about to say. However, I fear that I am going to bore the rest of the Committee by repeating some of the comments that I erroneously made prematurely at that stage.
The amendment addresses a point that has been raised by the British Association of Social Workers. It is a probing amendment in order to gain clarification on procedure. We are not sure whether the present arrangements, whereby a parent may consent to adoption by specific adopters whose identity is protected by a serial number, is to be continued. The Bill implies that adopters are to be named. Will it still be possible for a parent to agree to an adoption by unnamed specific adopters about whom the parent has received information? A child needs to be afforded a measure of protection if he or she has come from a violent background—which is the reason for adoption in the first place. Where the child is living with their adopted parents should not be disclosed directly. I ask for the Minister's clarification on whether the present system of partial anonymity is to continue.
Jacqui Smith: I can help the hon. Gentleman. The word ``identified'' was deliberately included in this version of the Bill instead of ``named'', which was the term used in the 1996 draft Bill, with the aim of enabling parents to consent to placement with specific adopters whose name they did not know but with whose characteristics and details they may be familiar through, for example, an anonymised profile passed on by the adoption agency. I assure the hon. Gentleman that identification on the consent form by serial number will be allowed.
Tim Loughton: That is straightforward. My only query is whether ``anonymised'' is a word in the English language. It sounds like the civil servants have been working overtime to produce that one. On the basis of the Minister's clear clarification, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.