|Adoption and Children Bill
Ms Munn: I am puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If an adoption agency is deemed not to be up to scratch, surely it will not be allowed to practise. We would not want a situation in which people do not go to adoption agencies because such agencies are not deemed to be capable of doing a good job. The purpose of regulations and inspection should be to ensure that all licensed adoption agencies are up to scratch. I am sure that that is the Government's intention.
Tim Loughton: The fact is that Richmond council social services department is still acting as an adoption agency, even after its shortcomings were revealed in a report and after it tried to gag responsible people who had been doing the job of foster parents—in this case for 30 years—with an unblemished record. The heavy hand of Richmond council sought to gag them and to prevent their speaking out against what they saw, rightly, as inadequacies in a system that had taken a young child who was happy with her foster parents away from them.
Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend has been characteristically generous in his reply by keeping it particular, but the intervention by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, was odd. On the strength of Government-commissioned research, Ministers have spoken out strongly against bad practice in agencies throughout the country, mostly local authorities. There is much good practice too, but many local authorities have been guilty of bad practice. The amendment seeks to address the question of why judges should be prevented from ever making the proceedings public.
Tim Loughton: That is entirely the point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for elucidating it. If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley had been to the Local Government Association social services conference in October, at which the Secretary of State for Health and I spoke, she would have known that the entire basis of his speech was naming and shaming social services departments that had underperformed. We are trying to ensure that when social services departments' shortcomings are revealed, they are not gagged and prevented from revealing what is obviously in the public interest. The Secretary of State agreed that it was in the public interest for shortcomings in social services departments to be revealed, but he went about it in the wrong way by pointing the finger of blame at certain social services departments, many of which suffer woeful billion-pound underfunding against standard spending assessments under this Government.
Mr. Dawson: Has the hon. Gentleman noticed a good word about social workers or local authority social services departments in The Mail on Sunday?
The Chairman: I ask hon. Members to keep to the amendment, please.
Tim Loughton: If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that The Mail on Sunday is making a fuss about nothing in respect of the case in Richmond, he is wrong. The problem, as I said in my speech in Harrogate just before the Secretary of State spoke, is that no one is interested in reading in the papers about the plane that landed safely; it is that sort of business. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that we hear far too much about the things that go wrong in social services departments, especially those involving children, such as the high-profile Victoria Climbie case and the John Smith case. Every day, hundreds and thousands of children are looked after successfully and lovingly because of social services departments, having been placed with exceedingly skilled and dedicated foster parents or in other forms of care by local authorities. Those are the vast majority of cases; if they were 100 per cent. of cases the Bill would be unnecessary, as it tackles the cases in which things go wrong. It is right to cite cases in which things have not gone wrong, to learn from an example and to ensure that there are measures according to which we can legislate against anything going wrong in future.
The amendment would ensure that when things go wrong, a heavy-handed local authority cannot use the courts to take out a gagging order. Even when a judge thinks that it is in the public interest that the shortcomings of a local authority or an adoption agency should be revealed, the proposal as drafted will prevent him from doing so. The amendment would tackle that and enhance the Bill, which seems exceedingly reasonable. We cannot understand why the Government want to take the opposite course and restrict the amount of information in the public domain.
Amendment No. 10 was tabled primarily by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, whose interest in the subject is well known. I was not trying to be derogatory about him earlier. He is involved in many other important parliamentary matters, but his record on education and children's issues is particularly well known. That is why he tabled the amendment, which would make the welfare of the child the ultimate consideration. In most cases, that means respecting the anonymity of the child.
The amendment would add a subsection so that all cases could be disclosed and discussed by the courts, unless there was a danger that a child's name might be revealed. Information about the location of a child would also be restricted, as would the name of his school or other organisation if it compromised the child's anonymity, which is the prime consideration. The amendment would therefore permit the reporting of proceedings, subject to wide restrictions—all predicated on promoting the welfare of the child.
As my hon. Friend said in discussing the amendment with me, some current restrictions are understandable, but they make it almost impossible for the layman to understand much about care and adoption proceedings. They place an unreasonable limit on freedom of information about an issue involving a clear public interest.
The thrust of both amendments is to assure disclosure of information in the public interest, subject to child anonymity. I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary, when she speaks to the amendments, to say why covering up information about the track record of certain adoption agencies furthers the public interest.
Mr. Djanogly: I support all that my hon. Friend has said. Reasons must be given why the High Court has proceedings in chambers, while the county courts are heard in camera. County court judges deal with the great majority of cases, but that could change. If people want more publicity, for whatever reason, they will push for cases to go to the High Court, which would be much more expensive. That might not be to anyone's advantage.
I back up my hon. Friend's point about the rights of the child. Those are what we want to protect, not the right of adoption agencies to maintain their reputations when they deserve to be questioned. The presumption should be that the proceedings should be heard. Wherever the hearings take place, children's right not to be reported should be the outstanding consideration.
Ms Winterton: I shall start by clarifying one point. Hon. Gentlemen raised important questions about the prosecution of an adoption agency, and seemed to feel that the clause would prevent that. The clause deals with the civil courts, whereas the proceedings to which hon. Gentlemen referred would be heard in criminal courts and could not be held in private. I hope that that gives them some reassurance about the cases that were mentioned, because they seemed fearful that there was some attempt to cover up actions being taken against adoption agencies by the National Care Standards Commission. Such actions would be brought in the criminal courts, which do not sit in private.
As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, amendment No. 10 would allow for detailed reports about all adoption cases to be placed in the public domain without identifying details. As has been said, at present reporting can take place on a case-by-case basis, invariably anonymised, only if the court gives permission. Amendment No. 134 would seemingly give the judiciary in the county court discretion to allow all or part of any adoption proceedings to be held in open court, which would mean that anyone could be present, if the judge deemed that to be in the public interest. The intention is that the identity of the child would be protected in all such cases.
There is confusion about two questions. One is who should be in court—whether the proceedings are private or open—and the other is how much of the proceedings should be reported. As Opposition Members have said, and I am sure all my hon. Friends would agree, when cases come before the courts concerning sensitive issues in the context of adoption—we are talking about adoption proceedings, not the prosecution of agencies—it is important to protect the welfare and interests of children. In that context, the Bill provides that only people directly concerned with the case should be present, and the public should not be admitted. Cases involving children are usually conducted in private, to safeguard the welfare of children.
The position on children's cases in England and Wales was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights last November in the cases of P v. UK and B v. UK. The court upheld the UK's position.
As for who should be present in court and what should be reported, we intend the courts to retain their discretion to allow reporting of cases, suitably anonymised, when that is in the public interest. I hope that my comments have met the concerns that led the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to move amendment No. 134.
On amendment No. 10, there may be some room for improvement—
It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 4 December 2001|