Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: I agree that that would be an obvious and sensible way in which to approach the issue of advance consent. The question is whether, given the nature of advance consent, the amendment is appropriate. On balance, I believe that our approach is correct, and I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for her clarification in respect of a probing amendment. It is a splendid suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon that there should be a box to tick, like the one on the football pools that says ``no publicity required'' if one is fortunate enough to win.

I do not completely follow the Minister's logic in her response to the case that I have made. Should it be easier for someone to opt out of the information process than to opt into it, given that a person may not be completely clear about that process? Although she has given us assurances about the way in which the regulations will prescribe explicit written information, I am not entirely assured, but at least she has given undertakings that the matter will be addressed in detail in the accompanying regulations. That is an example of how we are debating the Bill with one arm tied behind our backs because we have not seen the regulations. So much of the Bill depends on the small print, and the devil will be in the detail. When the detail appears, the Committee's work will have been done.

Jacqui Smith: That is why the regulations will be extensively consulted on.

10.45 am

Tim Loughton: Obviously we are pleased about that, but the Government will have the final decision on which consultation to take on board and which will influence the final regulations. That the Government have been entirely uninfluenced thus far by the enormous body of witness statements, submissions and consultation on disclosure of information does not bode well for things being taken on board in future. However, we must take the Minister's word that the regulations will be addressed fully, properly and to the satisfaction of the Committee. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Placement orders

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 13, line 36, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

    `(1) A placement order is an order made by the court authorising a local authority—

    (a) to place a child for adoption with any prospective adopters who may be chosen by the authority; or

    (b) if the child is already living with the prospective adopters, with the prospective adopters named in the order.'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 34, in page 14, line 5, after `authority', insert

    `or, as the case may be, with prospective adopters with whom the child is already'.

Sandra Gidley: The aim of the amendment is to clarify placement orders. I will use the example of a child who has already been placed with foster carers, those carers want to adopt and that decision is supported by the local authority. Under clause 21, the local authority will be required to apply for a placement order. However the placement order as defined in clause 21 entitles the local authority to place the child with whomever it chooses. It is odd to ask the court to make an order that authorises the local authority to place the child for adoption with anyone it chooses when there already is a plan for an adoption by the current carers. Can the Minister explain the reasons for that apparent anomaly? If the appropriate placement order cannot be achieved, the court would have to consider whether adoption was the correct course of action.

Jacqui Smith: It might be helpful to spell out the fact that clause 20 defines a placement order, which is

    ``authorising a local authority to place a child for adoption with any prospective adopters who may be chosen by the authority.''

It continues in force until

    ``(a) it is revoked . . .

    (b) an adoption is made in respect of the child, or

    (c) the child marries or attains the age of 18 years.''

Only local authorities can apply for placement orders. That is a change from the previous version of the Bill, published earlier this year. Dare I say that the Government have been listening to representations and have responded? Under the previous Bill, voluntary adoption agencies applied for placement orders. Consultation suggested that it was inappropriate for a private voluntary sector body to be able to seek a court order to place a child compulsorily for adoption against the parents' wishes. The Government agreed and made the change.

Subsection (2) provides that a court may not make a placement order unless the child is already subject to a care order or the court has the power to make a care order under section 31(2) of the Children Act 1989. The court must be satisfied that the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm because he is not receiving what is reasonably expected of a parent. That is another important change from the March version of the Bill, and one that delivers our commitment to align adoption legislation with the Children Act. The effect is that the same threshold for compulsory intervention in family life applies where a local authority seeks to place a child for adoption without parental consent. That is the right position. The Children Act threshold is widely accepted and well understood, and it should apply in this respect.

The effect of the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) would be that, when a placement order is made for a child who is already living with prospective adopters, the order would authorise that specific placement, not placement for adoption generally. The main problem with that proposal is the question of what would happen in the regrettable event of the placement breaking down.

Sandra Gidley: That was the point I was trying to make, albeit slightly differently. If the local authority is convinced that adoption is the right choice, there is obviously a problem if a breakdown occurs. In such a case the court would have to reconsider whether adoption was the right course to take. Surely that would be determined by whether the foster care was at a stage where the child had been with those foster parents for a long time, and whether coming to that decision had involved a long process.

Jacqui Smith: I believe that the situation is precisely the reverse. If, as the hon. Lady appears to be suggesting, the placement order was a specific placement order, relating to a specific placement, and if that placement broke down, the local authority would not be authorised to place the child elsewhere.

The terms of the placement order as envisaged under the Bill enable a child to remain placed with foster carers if those foster carers had originally planned to adopt—that seems to be what the hon. Lady is concerned about. However, if that placement broke down and if the local authority still thought that the child should be placed for adoption, it would not have to return to court seeking another placement order before it could place the child for adoption again. Such a process would lead to harmful delays for the child in cases where a suitable alternative adoptive family was available.

The issue of whether placement orders should be general or specific was a key question posed during the public consultation on the placement proposals conducted by the Conservative Government in 1994. The responses to that consultation were strongly in favour of general placement orders on the grounds that they made the process both simpler and more flexible.

The purpose of placement orders is to enable the court to decide whether placement for adoption is in the best interests of the child. The identity of any prospective adopters will clearly be relevant if the child is already placed or if a potential match has been provisionally identified, but the court is essentially being asked to take a decision in principle that the child ought to be placed for adoption. It is not being asked to select and match the child with prospective adopters—that is a role for which adoption agencies have the proper skills and that they are equipped to perform. With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Sandra Gidley: That clarification is useful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Sandra Gidley: I beg to move that amendment No. 33, in page 13, line 42, after `met' insert

    `in which case if the court makes a placement order it shall also make a care order'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 38, in page 17, line 42, leave out subsection (1).

Sandra Gidley: This is another probing amendment, because it is by no means clear why the framework in the Bill makes placement orders an alternative to care orders instead of simply an adjunct. Perhaps the Minister could explain why the Government think it necessary in effect to give children who are the subject of placement orders a separate status.

Clause 20(2) states:

    ``The court may not make a placement order in respect of a child unless—

    (a) the child is subject to a care order,''

but clause 28, which deals with further consequences of care orders, states:

    ``Where a placement order is made in respect of a child . . . subject to a care order . . . the care order does not have any effect at any time when the placement order is in force.''

Trying to understand how it will work in practice is like bashing one's head against a brick wall.

Under a care order made under the Children Act, the local authority would have parental responsibility, but clause 51 provides that certain Children Act duties may be modified by regulations: examples include ascertaining and taking into account the views of parents and others to promote contact with the parents. It is hard to see why no reference is made to modifying section 23 of the Children Act, under which local authorities have a duty to make arrangements to enable a child to live with a parent, guardian or relative. Is it considered that the placement order automatically removes that duty?

The purpose of the amendments is to tease out whether the Government believe that it is feasible to have a placement order as an adjunct to a care order rather than provide for a separate scheme. If the amendment were accepted, clauses 25 and 26 would have to be modified.

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Prepared 29 November 2001