Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: Is the Minister satisfied that the procedures for finding the people who must give consent are adequate? Presumably there are such procedures, although it is not an area with which I am familiar. Is there a need to review them?

Jacqui Smith: With some provisos, which I might mention in a moment, we are confident that the procedures are adequate. As I have said, clause 126 lays down the process for notifying the relevant persons. It also provides that if none of them can be found—I think that that is what the hon. Gentleman means—any relative prescribed in the court rules who can be found should be notified instead; however, they cannot give consent. As we discussed on Tuesday, ``relative'' is defined in clause 129 as a person:

    ``in relation to a child . . . a grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt, whether of the full blood or half-blood or by marriage''.

The hon. Gentleman might also have been referring to the procedures for finding and notifying unmarried fathers. Under the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983, a local authority must make reasonable efforts to contact an unmarried father if it thinks that doing so is in the child's best interests. We will place a similar requirement on agencies in the new regulations.

Tim Loughton: I am a little wiser but not entirely enlightened by the Minister's re-explanation of parental responsibility, especially in relation to circumstances in which responsibility is shared and the hierarchy of the people in her list who have to be consulted. She referred to ``reasonable efforts'' to contact unmarried fathers, but that is a moveable feast, so I hope that regulations will specify rather more closely the extent of an authority's investigations—for example, whether they are to be time limited, and whether it delays the process if someone has gone abroad and has to be tracked down to give parental consent. I am still a little unclear about how many boxes need to be ticked off before parental consent can be dispensed with.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman appears to misunderstand. An unmarried father could not grant consent. Only a married father would have parental responsibility and could provide consent in such circumstances.

Tim Loughton: But the fourth category of person on the list that the Minister gave was unmarried fathers who had acquired parental responsibility, so it is not the case that unmarried fathers have no role in giving consent if they have acquired parental responsibility. There is a role for such fathers, under the terms that she outlined.

It is difficult, without seeing the actual regulations, to understand exactly how the procedure will work but it has been useful to place on record, to close any loopholes, that we should go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that people cannot complain that the procedure has not taken place in the full knowledge of all interested parties at the appropriate stages. Given the Minister's assurances, which go part of the way, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.15 am

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 14, line 10, after ``adoption'', insert ``or special guardianship''.

The amendment is very straightforward and would amend what in some respects appears to be an oversight. The Bill introduces special guardianship orders, which is welcome, but I contend that once a child is placed in a legally approved secure environment, whether by adoption or a special guardianship order, there will be no further need for a placement order. The Government appear to be suggesting that special guardianship orders are in some way less secure. Can the Minister envisage circumstances in which there will be a need to continue a placement order once a special guardianship order is in place?

Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Lady said, the amendment would provide that the making of a special guardianship order automatically discharges a placement order. At the moment, it does not do that, and we think it right that the making of a special guardianship order should not automatically cut across a placement order. We want a court to take a positive decision to revoke a placement order, governed by clause 1 of the Bill and the adoption checklist, rather than automatically revoke it by making a special guardianship order. One reason is that, when making a special guardianship order, the court will look at section 1 of the Children Act, which, as we discussed when debating clause 1, is not specifically tailored to adoption and the issues surrounding it.

To answer the hon. Lady's last question, when a local authority agrees that special guardianship is appropriate instead of placement for adoption, we envisage that it should apply to discharge the placement order alongside the special guardianship order application. We believe that that is the appropriate process, and the Bill provides for it.

Sandra Gidley: If the Minister envisages that that will happen anyway, what is the problem with putting it in the Bill? The Minister has not clearly answered my question about how those circumstances will arise. A special guardianship order is, for most intents and purposes, not a second best to adoption but an appropriate legal measure when adoption is not appropriate for some reason—perhaps because older children are involved. It seems to me—

The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Lady wishes to catch my eye to make a further contribution, she is entitled to do so, but interventions should be short. I think that the Minister has got her drift.

Jacqui Smith: I answered the hon. Lady's point when I said that the amendment would automatically ensure that the making of a special guardianship order discharged a placement order without consideration, and that the Government think that there is an argument for the court to make a positive decision to revoke the placement order following, as I have suggested, the appropriate process. The local authority, agreeing that the special guardianship order was appropriate rather than the placement, would then apply to discharge the placement order alongside the special guardianship order application.

Sandra Gidley: I am not completely convinced, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 43, in page 14, line 11, at end insert—

    `(d) 2 years after it is issued at which time it must be reviewed.'.

We continue to wade through clause 20 as the seconds tick away. Under subsection (4), which deals with the lifespan of a placement order, the three conditions under which a placement order continues are given as: revocation, the details of which are under clause 23—I have a hunch we may not come to that; the child is adopted; or the child attains the age of seniority.

The amendment is designed to place a time limit on that process, because it is undesirable that a placement order should remain in force for years. All our discussions and all the representations that we have received have shown that speed is of the essence in taking a child out of an unsuitable environment and placing them in a more suitable, long-term, stable situation. That is in the interests of all the children with whom the Bill deals. A placement order that goes on and on and does not become a permanent adoption order probably contains a weakness. It is not in a child's interest constantly to live under the shadow of uncertainty about where they will ultimately end up. Alternatively, if a child is subject to a placement order that breaks down, they can go to another placement before eventually ending up in a long-term destination.

Other countries deal with the problem more swiftly. Research from Oxford university which other members of the Committee may have received makes for interesting reading. It gives examples from other European countries and further afield. In Sweden, placements away from home must be reviewed every six months, which is shorter than the stipulation that we are trying to impose, which is probably too long. There is, however, a slight difference in that long-term adoption is far less frequent in Sweden. In most cases, the long-term aim is for children to return to their birth parents, but that would be inappropriate for the majority of children whom we are discussing. It is interesting to note that the Swedish have acknowledged the urgency of ensuring that placements do not drag on.

Mr. Djanogly: Is it not the case that in addition to the regular review, someone other than the social services department that procured the placement order should conduct another review? Perhaps the Minister's Department should do the checks so that an outside body can ensure that everything is being kept up to scratch?

Tim Loughton: The Minister's time is valuable and there are many pressures upon it. Her staff's time is also valuable and there are currently inordinate pressures on them to produce explanations of the Bill and flowcharts. None the less, my hon. Friend makes a good point. If the placement order—[Interruption.] There is pressure on the Minister's time even now. To resume, if a placement order is still in place after two years, it suggests that the order is not working and that urgent action must be taken to place the child in an alternative home that may lead to a permanent adoption order and the permanence, security and long-term well-being that we are trying to achieve. Perhaps reviews should be made after less than two years if a two-year placement order is regarded as an admission of failure. As my hon. Friend suggests, an alternative body should carry out that review, because the social services department that made a placement order is responsible for—

It being twenty five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman proceeded, pursuant to Sessional Order D [28th June] and the Order of the Committee [27th November], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

The Chairman: The Question is that the amendment be made. As many as are of that opinion, say aye.

Hon. Members: Aye.

The Chairman: To the contrary, no. The ayes have it, the ayes—

Tim Loughton: Oh, did we get that one?

The Chairman: I apologise—my hearing aid cannot be working properly. Let me try again.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment negatived.

The Chairman then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that time.

Clauses 20 to 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clauses 50 and 51 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock. {**vert_rule**}

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Bellingham, Mr.
Blackman, Liz
Brazier, Mr.
Brennan, Kevin
Dawson, Mr.
Djanogly, Mr.
Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr.
Loughton, Tim
Love, Mr.
Moran, Margaret
Shaw, Mr.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Walter, Mr.
Winterton, Ms Rosie

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Prepared 29 November 2001