Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the provision marks a significant break with the Children Act? It means that an adoptive parent, or the local authority, will acquire a share in the parental responsibility without going through a court process.

Jacqui Smith: That could happen only if the parents consent to it. That brings me to the restrictions and the safeguards that we need to place around the consent process, and the important matter of sharing parental responsibility.

When there is consent to placement for adoption, parental responsibility is given to the adoption agency and shared with the prospective adopters once the child is placed. However, in contrast to freeing orders, the birth parents will retain parental responsibility up to the final adoption order, although their ability to exercise it may be limited. I shall state what I believe are the justifiable reasons for that proposal in clause 24.

The sharing of parental responsibility once the child is placed will help the management of the placement by making it clear that the agency and the adopters have responsibility for the child and can make day-to-day decisions. It is appropriate for the adoption agency, which has overall responsibility for managing the placement, to be able to determine the extent to which the birth parents may exercise parental responsibility. However, I emphasise that parental responsibility has not been transferred but shared in such cases.

My hon. Friend also raised the important case of a child who is voluntarily accommodated, and spoke of his concerns about the removal provisions. We must be clear that a child who is voluntarily accommodated cannot be deemed to be placed for adoption with, for example, foster carers without the consent of the parents. When considering the 14-day removal period, we must remember the direction of travel. If a child is voluntarily accommodated to provide respite or support for the family, or to enable rehabilitation, it is right that the parents have their child returned directly to them when they ask for that voluntary accommodation to end.

However, it is different when the direction of travel is towards adoption. In such cases, the child would probably have been spoken to when they were first accommodated and prepared for leaving their original mother and father for a new family. The birth parents would still have the right to remove their consent for the placement, but if they did, the local authority would have 14 days either to return the child to the birth parents or consider whether it wanted to go through the placement order process. In that situation, 14 days would be reasonable, given that everything that the child would have experienced before that would have been geared towards adoption. It does not seem unreasonable to have a period of time within which that child could then be prepared to return to their parents. That is qualitatively different from voluntary accommodation with the intention that the child will be returned to their family.

Mr. Djanogly: Are there circumstances in which a child could be adopted in less than 14 days after a placement order?

Jacqui Smith: I think not, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong. Given that we have made provision for three months between notice of intention to adopt and the application, I suspect that it would be impossible for there to be less than 14 days. Those three months are important, because they provide the birth parent with the ability to exercise their right to have their child returned to them, notwithstanding the 14 days' maximum removal period.

To summarise, the local authority cannot get a share of the parental responsibility unless the parent has given consent or the authority goes through a placement order court case. We will deal with the detail of consent, because it is important to be clear about safeguards and the process of granting and withdrawing consent. I emphasise that the forms for consent to placement and withdrawal will be prescribed to show clearly the full implications of what is involved. An independent Children and Family Court Advisory Service officer will witness consent to ensure that it is properly given. That will involve talking through the implications to ensure that the type of situation mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), in which someone is rushed or bamboozled into giving consent, could not happen. Placement with consent is intended to be a voluntary process. Birth parents can withdraw their consent at any point up to an application for an adoption order.

10.15 am

Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is very difficult to have these discussions when one has not seen the detail of the regulations? In fact, the witnessing of the consent agreement by a CAFCASS officer is a very important provision. Members of the Committee need to be aware of such regulations when discussing the issues covered by the Bill.

Jacqui Smith: I should make it clear that the provision on witnessing by a CAFCASS officer is in clause 97. The point that we discuss legislation and then perhaps need to look at the details afterwards is frequently made, although the same process was used for the Children Act. It seems sensible and logical to set out the principles in legislation and then provide the opportunity to discuss concerns, which may then need to be represented in regulations. It is also necessary to enable wide and full consultation on the regulations to ensure that the issues raised, as well as any others on the detail of the regulations, are taken into consideration.

Mr. Djanogly: Will someone who is going to give consent be entitled to legal representation? Will they get legal aid for that representation?

Jacqui Smith: I do not believe that that would be appropriate. As I have spelled out, they will have the independent support and witness of a CAFCASS officer. That is an important assurance. The nature, form and withdrawal of the consent will also be designed in such a way that it will be very clear to that person what they are and are not consenting to when undergoing the process.

The clause strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of the birth parents and stability and security for the child and the prospective adopters where consent to placement has been given.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19

Advance consent to adoption

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 46, in page 13, line 25, after `section', insert

    `and will be given a written explanation as to the timing and procedure by which consent can be withdrawn.'.

In his interesting speech on clause 18, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre highlighted problems with the Bill. Even with all the advisers and expert witnesses available to Committee members, it is complicated enough. It will be particularly complicated for children and prospective adoptive parents, and especially for birth parents who, at a highly emotional and difficult time, are in the process of voluntarily or involuntarily giving up their children for adoption. Anything that we can do under the Bill to clarify that situation and make it less able to be challenged in the courts through messy and long-running proceedings must be in the interests of all concerned.

In her comments on clause 18, the Minister stressed that a parent who has consented to giving up his or her child for adoption has every opportunity to withdraw their consent, right up to the granting of the adoption order. I agree that that is important. During such a highly emotional time, the circumstances of the parent may change daily or weekly—particularly those of a young mother who did not expect to fall pregnant and is faced with the dilemma of deciding whether to keep her child or give it up for adoption in the belief that the child would have better opportunities if looked after by someone else. That is a difficult decision.

Interestingly, the problem has featured heavily in various television programmes and newspapers recently. Dear Deirdre recently dealt with adoption in The Sun, and the nation's favourite soap tackled the issue and realistically portrayed the dilemma faced by someone considering whether to give up their child for adoption. Other television programmes, obviously taking their cue from the legislation and the proceedings of this Committee, have tackled the complex subject.

The amendment aims to be helpful and lessen confusion. We constantly refer to the flow chart at the back of the explanatory notes, yet I still need a dark room and a wet towel around my head to get my mind around it. How will the person who is actually faced with the various options and procedures represented in the flow chart make sense of the measure?

If a parent, after taking the decision that it is in the best interests of his or her child to be given up for adoption, makes the process easier by giving consent, which will speed up the process—speed is always of the essence, because the child should be settled in a new, stable, long-term environment as soon as possible, particularly if there are threats of domestic violence—surely it is only right that that parent should have properly explained to them the procedure by which they can withdraw their consent should circumstances alter or they have a change of heart as they realise, as the time draws nearer, the full implications of giving up their child for irreversible adoption. Instead of simply thrusting a flow chart into the hands of parents who may be in a state of semi-trauma or explaining references to a flow chart that appeared in some regulation, the agency should be obliged to provide a clear, explicit and simple written explanation of timings and the procedure by which they can withdraw their consent.

One representation sent to the Committee cites an instance in the 1980s of a parent who, by force of circumstances—she was going abroad—placed her daughter in voluntary, short-term care with foster parents, under the aegis of Surrey county council social services department. Much to her consternation, she returned to find that her child had been placed in permanent adoption without her knowledge. That is an extreme case, although I have heard of similar ones.

The point is that it is surely incumbent on the authority and agencies involved fully to inform the parent at every step of the way, and to make the process as simple as possible. That is why I am asking that, instead of a complicated flow chart, there should be an obligation to tell the person concerned, ``Here are your options. If you consent at this stage and sign on the dotted line, until a certain date you will be able to reverse that consent, and the way to do so is through''—for example—``form A.''

That simple requirement would not place an enormous extra bureaucratic burden on the agencies concerned. It would avoid the subsequent challenge that adoption took place without parental consent, because the parent would be fully appraised of the options during the difficult time leading up to the granting of the adoption order. That simple requirement is all we are asking for. No great expense or extra burden of work would be involved. It would ensure that the parent is absolutely certain of their decision, and if they change their mind they can notify the relevant authorities.

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