|Adoption and Children Bill
Mr. Djanogly: I certainly support the amendment, although it could go a little further by making it clear that the written explanation should be given when consent is given. The person who is consenting clearly has a right to know the implications of what they are doing. One of the Bill's aims, which we all support, is to facilitate and speed up the adoption process. In certain cases, there could be a family incident, and even though a clear explanation is given at the time, the adopter could be left in a state of shock and consternation. After a discussion, the social worker might decide that adoption is the right course of action. It is therefore more important than ever to establish safeguards such as those that have been proposed.
It is right that notice be given, but during the period in which consent can be withdrawn, will such a person have access to on-going advice? Will advice stop when consent is given? If the person concerned—who may have come out of a vulnerable situation and is a bit more clear-thinking after the consent date—wanted advice, would she or he have to take it from social workers, who may be interested in expediting the adoption, or would there perhaps be access to a voluntary agency? That should be made clear on the form, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.
Jacqui Smith: The clause enables a parent to give advance consent to the final adoption order either at the same time as they give consent to placement or at any time afterwards, and is a means of allowing people voluntarily to give up their child for adoption. It is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that the consent arrangements are fully clear and understood and that people are supported in their decision making. That is why the form of consent and withdrawal of consent will be prescribed in regulations made under clause 50(7) to accompany the implementation of the Bill. It is intended that the form of consent will make clear both the implications of giving advance consent and the process involved in withdrawing it.
Advance consent to placement and adoption will be witnessed by an independent Children and Family Court Advisory Service officer, who will ensure that parents fully understand the implications of what they are agreeing to and that consent is properly given in full understanding of all that it involves. The officer will report that to the court. Clause 97(1) provides for the appointment of CAFCASS officers.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is being either disingenuous or slightly mischievous in suggesting that the flowchart will be used by CAFCASS officers and others who support birth parents. In fact, the flowchart is designed to support legislators in the process of understanding, and I am extremely proud of it.
The adoption agencies regulations will oblige agencies to make clear to parents the timing and procedure for giving and withdrawing consent, as well as the legal and procedural implications of giving advance consent to adoption alongside consent to placement. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the need to provide a written explanation of the process will remain in regulations. It is currently in regulation 7. As for the possibility of a birth parent being in a state of shock when giving advance consent, I assure members of the Committee that advance consent to adoption can be withdrawn at any point until an adoption application has been made.
To respond to the questions raised by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), the measures for adoption support that we will discuss under clause 2 and related clauses also make provision for adoption support for birth parents.
Given those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels able to withdraw the amendment.
Tim Loughton: I am greatly humbled by the Minister's sensitivities about her flowchart. There was no derogatory intent—
Jacqui Smith: Yes, there was.
Tim Loughton: All right, there was. It is a terrible flowchart, and it confuses everybody.
I endorse the useful comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. Explanation should be given at a very early stage and that should be tied down in the Bill. The Minister referred to the need for continuing advice. When we discuss clauses 2 to 16, we shall seek specific guarantees from the Government on the way in which such support services will operate. According to the Minister, they will be available to the birth parent as well, which is helpful.
I was not aware that a written explanation of the options open is currently prescribed under regulation 7 and the Government intend that to continue. That, too, is helpful. The full answer that has been given goes a good way towards giving us the assurances that we require. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 13, line 26, leave out from `section' to end of line 30 and insert
We will discuss the amendment without reference to the flowchart. The amendment deals with the notification of parents who have consented to adoption, and would remove part of subsection (4). It strikes me as odd to ask a parent who has given consent to adoption, in effect, to opt into an information system. For the reasons that I mentioned earlier about the pressures on a parent about to give up a child for adoption, there should be a statutory right for that parent automatically to be told about the various processes that are coming up. It seems for the Bill to state that a parent has to express his or her wish to be informed of any application for an adoption order—a key part of the whole process. Surely, it should be that person's automatic right to be notified that a significant juncture in the process is about to be reached.
The amendment also raises the question, which I mentioned earlier, of the satisfactory notification of such a person on how to exercise their right to withdraw consent. If they are not automatically told that an adoption order is being applied for, they may not know that the period within which they may withdraw their consent is running out. The amendment would give that person an automatic right to be informed by the adoption agency of any application for an adoption order unless they have opted out of the system.
If, for some reason, a person made the decision to be completely divorced from the proceedings, because they were handing their child over and were adamant that they had made up their mind and did not want further information, that would be entirely up to them—they could opt out—but surely it is right for everyone else—the majority, I imagine—to be automatically informed when every stage is coming up, especially the application for an adoption order. They will then know what time they have in which to take avoiding action if they have changed their mind. It is a basic human right automatically to be given information about the future destination of one's child during the adoption process.
I hope that the amendment is helpful. It is intended to make the legislation absolutely watertight and ensure that parents are fully apprised of all facts at every juncture, giving them the opportunity to continue with the decision made, or to reverse or block that decision.
Jacqui Smith: The Government believe that the Bill already provides what is needed in terms of giving notice in cases of advance consent. It is important to understand the difference between clause 18 and clause 19. The purpose of clause 19 is to allow, in the rare cases that arise, advance consent to be given to the making of the final adoption order at the same time as consent to placement. That will make provision for cases in which parents want to relinquish a child for adoption and not be further involved in the legal process. The arrangement will replace in part the freeing orders that can currently be used in situations in which parents consent to relinquishment.
Of course freeing orders can also be made against parents' wishes, but not under clause 19, in which the order is voluntary. It will be used solely in cases in which parents want to relinquish a child for adoption, hence the presumption that they will not want to be notified of the final adoption hearing. It is right that parents should be able to decide that they want to receive notice of the final adoption order hearing, and subsection (4) provides for that; if parents opt in, the provisions in clause 126(4)(c)(ii) apply and they should automatically receive notice. However, after giving their consent, they can decide at any point that they want to opt out of the notice, and they can subsequently opt back in again.
Tim Loughton: Before the Minister befogs us with references to various clauses, may I ask her—an answer will provide a useful background to the clause—whether she knows the approximate number of adoptions wherein parents withdraw consent because they have had a change of heart at the eleventh hour? How relevant is the possibility of people changing their mind?
Jacqui Smith: I do not know the answer to that off the top of my head, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. I emphasise that advance consent to adoption is designed to enable parents in the rare cases in which they want to relinquish their children and to consent in advance to do so. The prescribed form of consent will explain that to parents and, as I said, an independent CAFCASS officer will witness that consent to ensure that it is properly given and that the parents understand what is involved.
Mr. Djanogly: A straightforward way to proceed would be to ensure that the consent form has a tickbox, so, at the very least, the matter would be considered when consent is given, even though parents can change their minds later on.
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