Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: I only want to make the point that the memorandum is dated 21 November, which must have been after or very close to the dates on which we heard evidence. I apologise for not remembering the exact dates. The document is signed by Adoption UK, the Association of Directors of Social Services, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, the British Association of Social Workers, the Catholic Child Welfare Council, the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies, the Family Rights Group, the National Children's Bureau, the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents, the Natural Parents Network, and the Overseas Adoption Helpline. That is a comprehensive list, and they all say the same thing.

Jacqui Smith: My argument still stands in relation to whether, in all circumstances—this would be the effect of some of the amendments tabled by the hon. Gentleman—the consent of the child would be necessary for a placement or adoption order. That is our concern. The provisions in the Bill, and the reassurances that I have given previously to the Committee about the processes through which we will ensure that the child's wishes and interests are heard and represented, are appropriate. For those reasons, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I wish to ask the Minister about subsection (3) and the consent of the parent or guardian. If a parent has signified consent in general terms to adoption, but dislikes the particular proposal for adoption, does he or she have to cross the bridge of applying to oppose the making of the order, or can he or she do so as of right? It may confuse many people if, on the one hand, they can withdraw at will their consent to adoption but, on the other hand, require leave to make such a withdrawal.

Jacqui Smith: Whether the parent or guardian has to ask leave to be a party to the proceedings and to oppose the final adoption order is based on the point in the process at which we have arrived. If the placement is by consent, up to the point when an application order is made the parent can withdraw his or her consent. After that time, the parent can make an application to the court for his or her objections to be registered on the basis that there had been a change of circumstances.

I have spelled out clearly the balance that must be achieved between the needs of the birth parents, the prospective adopters and the child, and where their relative needs are represented in the course of the process. The Government believe that such a reasonable balance affords all parties ample opportunity to have their views heard throughout all stages in the process. It also ensures that there is some certainty as we near the end of the process, having given consideration to consent earlier because of the placement provisions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 47

Applications for adoption

Mr. Shaw: I beg to move amendment No. 118, in page 28, line 34, leave out `married'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 119, in page 28, line 38, leave out `spouses' and insert `applicants'.

No. 120, in page 28, line 41, leave out `spouses' and insert `applicants'.

No. 121, in clause 48, page 29, line 8, leave out `married'.

No. 122, in clause 48, page 29, line 9, leave out `spouses' and insert `applicants'.

No. 123, in clause 48, page 29, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Shaw: The issue was debated at great length during the evidence-gathering sittings. It was a key matter in which all members of the Committee showed an interest when they cross-examined the witnesses. As I recall, 30 witnesses gave evidence, 29 of whom believed that children should have the opportunity to be adopted by unmarried couples as they have the opportunity to be adopted by single persons and married couples.

We must ask ourselves whether it is inconceivable for us to consider circumstances in which the children's greatest needs would not be met if they were unable to be placed with an unmarried couple. Do we believe that one size fits all? Opposition Members believe that the child's rights should be put to the fore. If we believe that and the child says, ``These are the parents who I want to live with. These are the people I want to be with permanently, not just up to 18 years old, but for the rest of my life'', surely we can imagine circumstances in which that might happen.

Under previous clauses, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that he wanted to get rid of inequalities in respect of those who are eligible to adopt.

Tim Loughton: Did I?

Mr. Shaw: I think that the record will show that the hon. Gentleman did. Under the Bill, there are inequalities that make people ineligible to adopt. The best interests of the child are fundamental. As I said at the beginning of our proceedings on Tuesday, we do not want hard and fast rules; we want flexibility to be able to meet a child's needs. We all agree that we do not want delay or political correctness, whether left-wing or right-wing—

Tim Loughton: What is that then?

Mr. Shaw: When the issue arose on Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said, ``I'll duck this.'' I wonder whether he will duck it on this occasion. [Interruption.] He can check the record again; it is there for all to read.

We need to consider race, religion and linguistic aspects and all the other demands at once when trying to find the right place for a child. We all broadly agree with those demands and we want to increase the adoption rate by 40 per cent. That is a tall and ambitious order, but it is right and we all support it. Children should have the opportunity to be adopted; they should not have to languish in care. That is what the amendments are about and they would strengthen the Bill.

We have a huge responsibility. We know the benefits of children moving to an adoptive placement, compared with moving from one foster carer to another, and what it does for their social, welfare and life opportunities. I know that from having worked in the system for 10 years. We have an enormous responsibility, and an opportunity that comes along once in a generation to get the legislation right for children. Hon. Members must seriously consider the fact that the Bill as drafted will prevent children from being adopted by appropriate and loving parents.

We know what the optimum is: prospective adopters would be married and would meet the racial, religious, linguistic and cultural needs. Child and parents would be the perfect match and would have a supportive network. However, perfect families are not always available. That would take the notion that all children looking for adoptive families were white and middle-class, but our society is not like that. If only things were that easy, we might not need additional legislation—but life is complicated. Children who come into the care system have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused. They have been damaged, and the demands on adopters in looking after them are considerable.

There are some excellent clauses to deal with post-adoption support, but children need to find permanent homes first, and finding the right family is not always easy. Should we say that only married couples or single parents can adopt children? That is an ideological position. On the other hand, if we believe that that is best practice and will provide the best opportunity, let us have that debate.

Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is hypocritical that although, presently, couples living together and gay couples may adopt children, only one person in such relationships can be the adopter? Is that not a poor way of bringing up children and an inadequate message to give to children and young people?

4 pm

Mr. Shaw: I agree with my hon. Friend. The situation involves a second-class parent. A child may have a mum or dad, but not a mum and dad. What do we call the second-class parent in that family? The situation flies in the face of all the evidence that we heard and the overarching principles of the Bill.

It is not easy to find the right families. We remember my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) talking about trying to find a quarter Pakistani family for a quarter Pakistani child. Let us suppose that such a family was found, and they happened to be an unmarried couple. Let us suppose that the child lived with that couple as his foster carers, that they wanted to adopt the child, and that everybody thought that such permanency was correct for the child, but that, for a variety of reasons, the couple were unable or unwilling to marry. The Bill would deny the child an equal mother and father. That is the key test. If we can argue that it is in the child's best interest not to be placed with the couple, or that it is better for one parent to have a higher status, let us hear that argument. If we agree with my earlier point about equal parents, we have an ideology that does not work in the best interests of the child. That is key.

I have not quoted from the evidence in Hansard, but all members of the Committee who heard it know that is was overwhelming. Hon. Members argued with witnesses, but in my assessment, arguments in support of the Bill as it stands floundered. I am keen to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister will say. She has done a magnificent job in introducing the Bill so early in the Parliament—there is adoption legislation only once a generation—and starting the process by ensuring that we have good quality witnesses.

Mr. Bellingham: I accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman said about the Minister's effort and work on the Bill. She has done a superb job and should be applauded. I respect the hon. Gentleman's professional background. Does he agree, as a professional, that it is a pity that we are debating under a programme resolution that curtails debate on a Bill as technical and lacking in controversy—except on one or two clauses—as this?

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Prepared 29 November 2001