Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I am grateful for the opportunity to express some qualms about the clause—and about chapter 3, with which it is intimately linked.

Yesterday, a young woman who works for a national care organisation came to see me about another aspect of the Bill. I had met her and her delightful five-year-old daughter previously at a conference. They are great together, as anyone who saw them would acknowledge. While discussing other parts of the Bill, she told me her own story. She is a highly intelligent and articulate young woman who can stand up for herself. She had been in care most of her life and became pregnant at the age of 16. She was due to have a baby, but had no family support. Understandably, she was nervous at the prospect. She confided to her social worker at a fairly early stage of the pregnancy that if she felt that her child would have the sort of upbringing that she had endured for 16 years, she would certainly view adoption as in the child's best interests.

Anyway, she duly gave birth. Having been only a spectator at these events, I do not know about such things, but apparently it was a difficult birth. Both she and her baby were ill. She gave birth in the morning. Still under the influence of medication, she was asked in the afternoon to sign a form to consent to placing the child for adoption. I repeat that she is an articulate, intelligent and strong-willed person. Even in such a state, she was able to refuse the opportunity, stand up to the local authority for several weeks and assert her right to look after her child. She now has an excellent relationship with her child and things are definitely looking up for both of them. That is an example of extremely bad social work practice—and there is no way that we can legislate for that.

My worry is that the clause and chapter 3 will make that young woman's position even worse. The Children Act is good legislation, although we should still try to improve and build on it. Certain aspects of the proposed provisions ring alarm bells. If the young person to whom I referred had been dealt with under them, her parental responsibility could, quickly and without recourse to a court, have ended up being shared with the local authority and the prospective adopters. That major change would undermine a fundamental element of the Children Act, which asserts that parental responsibility can be transferred only by a court.

The Bill harks back to the Children Act 1948, which became discredited over the years. It was replaced by the 1989 Act, which removed the ability of local authorities to declare parental rights resolutions without recourse to a court. Those resolutions transferred parental rights from parents to local authorities. We should tread carefully in seeking to amend legislation that has been on the statute book for 10 years, has stood the test of time and has proved to be workable.

Under the Bill, even if the young person had not got to the stage where her parental rights were removed, she could not simply tell the local authority that she wanted her child returned to her, as she could under section 20 of the Children Act if the child was placed voluntarily in care. She could be required to wait for 14 days before the child was returned to her. That is a major amendment to a Children Act whose fundamental principles have widespread support, especially in the social work profession, and that has been shown to work well.

I am also concerned that the provisions are so complicated—[Laughter.] This is a serious point. The proposed legislation is not just for politicians, and certainly not just for lawyers. Children, young people and parents must be able to understand it. Social workers must certainly be able to understand it, and to use it daily. I used the 1989 Act for six years, but have not used it for the past four years and I am struggling with it as I am a bit rusty. There is no reason why the chapter should not be easier to understand.

Adoption is extremely complicated. The child's needs must be understood, the birth family and relationships must be assessed, and the child must be matched with prospective adopters. Trying to predict how things will work involves such fundamental and morally difficult issues that we do not need extra complications from the law. We need a law that has understandable architecture. The significance of the Children Act, which goes far beyond situations such as the one we are discussing, is that it has such a comprehensible structure.

We have discussed clause 1, which is a complex but clear and balanced piece of legislation. However, neither the clause nor this accompanying one have such clarity. It is beyond our ability today to table and fit cogently the necessary amendments to this and related clauses, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure further discussion between officials and organisations such as BASW, the Family Rights Group and BAAF, which have expressed concern about the issues. Much of the legislation is excellent, but freeing provisions must be abolished. The advantage of placement orders is that they speed up the process of getting into court and making clear decisions about the way forward.

There are two routes into the care system under the Children Act: through section 20, when a child arrives voluntarily and is accommodated by the local authority, and through section 31, when a child's case is looked at compulsorily under a care order. I urge my hon. Friend to consider whether a local authority should seek a placement order whether or not a child comes into the system under a voluntary or compulsory route.

We heard in a previous sitting about children in the adoption process having to make two court appearances. One court appearance is necessary—to deal with the adoption order. I strongly suggest, in line with the Family Rights Group, that regardless of the route on which children enter the system, there might be great merit in the local authority going for a placement order in the first instance if they want to go for adoption. That would enable a decision to be made on whether adoption is the best option, whether the parents' consent should be dispensed with and whether there might be other placement options. It would also allow permission to place to be obtained.

I hope that a child's legal status will remain the same under such a system, so that he or she would still be accommodated under section 20 or, for compulsory care, under section 31. However, if the threshold conditions are met when a child comes before a court for a placement order, that should surely be the stage at which a care order is made, to ensure that the child is given sufficient protection. That would deal with the 14-day limit on removing children from care and the transfer of parental responsibility. Early, meaningful decisions could be taken and there would be the sort of openness that everyone wants to encourage in adoption. There would be compliance with the Children Act, which is good legislation. The legislation would be more coherent for the people who have to use the system. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that significant discussion is needed on these issues between our officials and the groups that are so concerned.

10 am

Jacqui Smith: I will respond to all the points that my hon. Friend has made in a moment. The clause allows parents to consent to their child being placed for adoption through an adoption agency. It is important to provide a route through the difficult area of adoption which allows parents to consent without necessarily having to go through unnecessary court cases, as would happen if a placement order were required in every case. I will come to the significant safeguards shortly. A parent can consent to the child being placed with specific identified perspective adopters or with adopters whom the adoption agency selects.

My hon. Friend raised several understandably important points of concern. He highlighted a sad case of a young woman who was asked to provide consent for adoption on the same day—soon after—she gave birth. Under clause 50, no consent can be given for the adoption of a baby less than six weeks old, and so the situation that he described could not happen. Considerable support and regulation would surround the form and the nature of any consent and the extent to which it would be possible to withdraw it. I will talk about that more in a minute and certainly in relation to later clauses.

My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable call for clarity and simplicity in the system. Without speaking ill of courts or lawyers, I am not convinced that insisting on a court case, even when there may be no need for one, will introduce either clarity or simplicity—for birth parents, prospective adopters, or most importantly the children themselves.

Mr. Dawson: I am sure that my hon. Friend would acknowledge that at some point in every adoption case a court appearance is necessary. Would not the use of placement orders in the manner that I described simplify that experience in court and resolve fundamental issues more efficiently?

Jacqui Smith: We certainly agree that one of the advantages of the placement provisions is that they ensure that the difficult issues of consent and placement are dealt with much earlier in the process and that there are two routes—one through the courts, via a placement order. However, I still contend that it is right to provide a route through which parents can voluntarily consent that their children be placed for adoption with, of course, the proviso that they can withdraw that consent at any point up to the time when an application is made for an adoption order. My hon. Friend may have qualms about the removal provisions, but it is important to remember that. We are not asking parents to consent and then to find that there is no way out; parents can consent and then even in the case of advanced consent, to which we will come in a moment, they can withdraw that consent at any point up to the time when an application is made.

My hon. Friend also raised points about parental responsibility, questioning the way in which it is shared under the provisions for placement with consent. I hope that I can reassure him. Parental responsibility can not be shared unless the birth parent consents or a placement order has been made through a court case. Parental responsibility is not transferred; we need to be clear about that. We should remind ourselves of the present system. Under freeing orders, parental responsibility was transferred; it was taken away from birth parents and given to the adoption agency, and thus no longer remained with birth parents. Alternatively, in the case of children who were already in care, an application for an adoption order was made without the issue of consent having been addressed. As I said earlier, the placement provisions overcome the fait accompli that birth parents faced under the old system. Under the new placement provisions, parental responsibility will not be transferred; it will be shared between birth parents, the adoption agency and, as the placement goes on, the prospective adopters.

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