Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: I apologise to the Committee for my voice. Everyone I rang this week thought that I was an obscene caller, but I merely have laryngitis.

Tim Loughton: That was last week.

Mr. Brazier: I thank my hon. Friend for that kind remark, which will help to sustain me in my hour of need.

The clause is extremely important. It relates to offences under clauses 9 and 56. In moving the amendment, my hon. Friend gave a series of examples of relevant offences under clause 9. I want to look at a constituency case where clause 56 would have been relevant under slightly different circumstances.

Emma—for obvious reasons I cannot give her surname—was responsible for the largest constituency file on an individual case that I have ever assembled in my 15 years as a Member of Parliament. I shall not try the Chairman's patience by describing the case in detail, but instead I shall provide a brief outline for the Committee. Emma was one of two unconnected children adopted by two kind constituents of mine who know that both children brought a great deal of difficult baggage with them. Her adopted brother is today a graduate with a successful job. Emma, sadly, is somewhere on the streets of London, a drug addict and perhaps a prostitute as well. The problem in her case arose from the fact that somehow—I remind the Committee that clause 56 deals with the disclosure of information—the birth mother discovered where Emma was living, not when she was a young child but when she was almost 15 years old. She arrived at the gates of Emma's school and from then on, a happy child was set on a rapid downhill trend: within a year or so Emma had disappeared to a squat with a much older boyfriend. The rot had set in, and it almost destroyed my kind and caring constituents.

The relevance of that case to the amendment is clear. My constituents were unable to discover how the information had got out, but let us suppose that it transpired that a breach of information under clause 56 had taken place and that the adoption agency had released the information to the birth mother with catastrophic consequences—the ruination of a young life. We shall return later to the fact that the penalties are so small; absurdly, that subject relates to an earlier clause. Without our amendment to the Bill, my constituents, whose surnames I cannot give, would be faced with either trying to persuade the National Care Standards Commission to prosecute, or having to make an application to the Attorney-General as described by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton). Why should they have to do that?

I sincerely hope that the National Care Standards Commission will work well. I hope that in such a case it would be willing to bring a prosecution, but it is possible that it would not. There is a danger with all regulatory agencies that they will be captured by the system. I am not going to mention names, but familiar faces pop up—I am thinking of the work of the NCSC on residential homes for the elderly—in certain regional offices and elsewhere. One can think of reasons, such as old ties from the past, why the NCSC may not always be vigorous in its pursuit. One looks at the various independent inquiries that have occurred over the years: sometimes they took place because of the lack of a proper outside regulatory agency, and sometimes because the existing systems did not function properly.

As my hon. Friend said, this is a probing amendment. To reject it prima facie would mean that people like my constituents—decent people who provided a home for two unhappy children and gave them a very happy upbringing—would either be forced into the hands of a Government quango, or be made to go all the way to the Attorney-General for permission to bring proceedings. If they could not afford a solicitor, why should they be denied the right to go to the Kent Law Clinic, for example, or another organisation that provides free help? I do not know whether circumstances would have allowed the couple in question to bring a private prosecution. Why should not they be able to prosecute a horrible offence under clause 56? Incidentally, I have not named the local authority that acted as the adoption agency in this case, because I have no grounds for believing that the leak came from the local authority. I am creating a hypothetical case based on a real one.

My hon. Friend, with customary excellence, dwelt at length on possible clause 9 offences. Everyone who has taken an interest in adoption issues in the past two years has done so because of the failure of so many adoption agencies. One can see from the Government's league tables, which I and other people welcome, that nearly all statutory agencies have had unsatisfactory procedures, apart from an honourable few that have shown the way and done much better. On Second Reading I quoted two bad cases that might have been eligible for clause 9 offences. I quote one of them again.

Jane adopted two siblings in the south of England. The contact arrangements required them to meet monthly with their younger brother who is in long-term foster care. Because they like him and they all get on well, he gets upset when they leave, so the parents have applied to adopt him too. The social worker, who represents the adoption agency in the context of the Bill, said that he needed to be assessed, and her first step was to remove him from the stable foster home in which he had lived for several years and put him in a new placement. Within weeks, he showed signs of emotional disturbance.

That is a genuine case of bad practice. I do not suggest that good practice does not exist because from the dark days of several years ago when only a few authorities got it right, an increasing number of agencies are doing better. However, when things go wrong and a clause 9 offence is committed, why should not an organisation other than the NCSC be able to bring legal action?

Tim Loughton: In the light of the cases that my hon. Friend has cited and of some of the more extreme cases that I have mentioned, does he think that a level 5 fine of £5,000 provides any deterrent at all, given that the money would not come out of an individual's pocket but would be covered by insurance? The professional integrity of the person who committed the offence might remain completely intact.

Mr. Brazier: I see that Mrs. Roe is about to call us to order. My hon. Friend knows that we shall have to return to the matter when we debate the relevant clause, which precedes clause 94 in the Bill but is being debated after it. However, I could not agree more strongly with him and I look forward to debating the matter.

I turn to the role of the Attorney-General. Hon. Members will remember that during the debate on the Home Office's Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, the point was made repeatedly that although reserving powers to the Attorney-General for prosecution is not unprecedented, it is certainly unusual and something that Parliament should not do lightly. I am puzzled. Why have the Government chosen to give the Attorney-General a special role under the Adoption and Children Bill? That seems curious, and I look forward to hearing the Parliamentary Secretary's comments.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I concur with my hon. Friends that subsection (1) seems out of place and against the spirit in which we have generally proceeded, which considers the rights of people other than social workers and other professionals. The subsection seems to tend away from that. I concur also with my hon. Friends' comments on the subject of the Attorney-General. It seems extremely unusual to have to go to that level to get consent, should consent be thought necessary. I should have thought an approach to the court would be more than adequate in the circumstances. A demanding requirement is being established for non-professionals who want to claim their rights. The rights of non-professionals are not adequately catered for in the clause.

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The effect of the clause on younger children and teenagers has been discussed. I shall focus on older children and, in relation to disclosure, the over-18s. Adoption has been around since the early 1920s. There is a lot of information in existence, much of it highly confidential. The further back in time we take the matter, the more likely the information is to be confidential. It was not until the mid-1970s that the regime changed and information was dramatically opened up.

Mr. Brazier: Without anticipating amendments that have yet to be moved, I remind my hon. Friend of the three-year time limit, which seems absurd to many Opposition Members, on pursuing prosecutions under the clause. That further reinforces my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Djanogly: Indeed. We shall discuss that in due course.

Even if an adoption agency had held records for 50 or 60 years, there might be an opportunity to start proceedings if information was wrongly disclosed. In considering the clause we are exploring the impact of such disclosure. In our discussions, we often leave aside the question of adoptive parents' rights. They are relevant in connection with protection from disclosure of confidential information. People involved in the earlier adoptions might have lived for 50, 60 or 70 years with a certain degree of knowledge or disclosure, but one day a social worker in an adoption agency might take it upon themselves to disclose information without having any right to do so. I concur with my hon. Friends in the view that it is difficult to discuss the question in detail because we have not yet discussed clauses 9 or 56.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I am puzzled about why, years after a case has been closed, someone might be likely to obtain the records and disclose information to a birth parent. With all my years of social work practice, I cannot conceive of that happening.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Lady makes an important point, but in a year as a chairman of a social services department I received no fewer than 20 requests for such information. Many birth parents whose children were adopted early on are now approaching death. Their children were adopted under a regime under which they accepted there would be no further contact, and they have lived with that for a long time, sometimes 40, 50 or 60 years. As I said, many are now approaching death, and some want to make wills, so requests for information are becoming much more frequent than they once were.

In many ways, we are dealing with a specific period. As time moves on and we move further into the post-1974 adoptions, the problem will become smaller. However, it is important because the disclosure of information about people could negatively affect them. They have a right to redress.

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