Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Winterton: As the hon. Gentleman said, clause 98 clarifies the powers of a CAFCASS officer to examine and take copies of an adoption agency's records relating to a proposed or actual application in respect of the child concerned. Obviously, it is essential to ensure that CAFCASS officers have all the relevant information about a child's circumstances in reporting to the court. Subsections (2) and (3) allow for the admissibility in evidence of a copy of any record that a CAFCASS officer is entitled to examine under the clause in any report to court in the particular proceedings or in evidence in the context of those proceedings.

I am afraid that I may have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman; the amendment is not necessary, because current provisions already provide for what he proposes. Schedule 2 to the Adoption Rules 1984 prescribes what an adoption agency or local authority must cover in its report. That includes 16 points of information, such as the needs of the child, the suitability of the parents and any historical information relevant to the child's needs. A CAFCASS officer can ask the court for leave to inspect other relevant documents under rule 10.20. That may include prior court proceedings involving the child. Regulation 15 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 also obliges adoption agencies to disclose information from their records to reporting officers and children's guardians.

As Opposition Members will appreciate, one aim of the Bill is to ensure that there is no undue delay in proceedings. It is important that there are safeguards to ensure access to other documents, but it is also important for CAFCASS officers to be able to focus on information that is relevant to the adoption proceedings only.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the hon. Lady saying that as a result of the clause some documents may not be accessible? If so, that is a concern.

Ms Winterton: No. I am saying that if a CAFCASS officer believes that there are other relevant documents, he or she can apply to see them. A safeguard is built in. With that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will agree that the amendment is not necessary, as its purpose is covered by other provisions.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for that. Obviously, I was on too much of a roll, and that has been brought to an abrupt halt. I completely overlooked the reference to schedule 2 of the Adoption Rules 1984 in configuring the amendment, let alone the 16 points that the hon. Lady raised. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, although I hope that I might be able to catch your eye in the clause stand part debate, Mr. Stevenson.

The Chairman: That remains to be seen.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton rose—

Mr. Djanogly rose—

The Chairman: I call Mr. Djanogly.

Mr. Djanogly: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson. I was about to give way to my hon. Friend, who is much more senior.

The explanatory notes for clause 98 indicate that the powers are an extension of existing legislation. It is important that we consider the more general implications of the powers. We have had an interesting debate on the last few clauses, and the points that I wish to make arise from implications in earlier contributions.

Do the rules regulating the officers of the service, which are set out in clause 97(1), deal with the confidentiality of the information that they will receive pursuant to clause 98? The question of conflict of interest came up in discussion of an earlier clause. Confidentiality is an important issue in so far as officers who have confidential information and advise the child may also advise the birth parents about giving consent, for example. Have we stipulated that they can use the information for the purposes of advising the child only, and not the birth parent? What would happen if they released information to the birth parents? Does the Bill provide for a penalty if that were done? Clearly, circumstances could be touchy, for want of better words.

Furthermore, if an officer of the service receives full information for a placement or a hearing, what information would the other parties to the hearing be entitled to receive? Presumably, it would not be the same level of information, although that raises the question of the implications in respect of the Human Rights Act 1998, where disequality of the receipt of information—[Hon. Members: ''Disequality?''] I am sorry; I mean inequality in the provision of information may give rights to one side—the birth parents—to have a claim, perhaps under the Human Rights Act. It may be preferable for the proposal to set out not only what the officers of service are entitled to receive, but also what other people are entitled to receive so that it can be seen that that has been considered. There are a few technical points that should at least be considered in the context of the clause.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister clarify one or two points? Clause 98(1) on page 52, in line 12 states ''at all reasonable times''. When might the times not be reasonable?

Subsection (2) is about records, a matter that we shall discuss in another clause, but which I want to flag up now. I want to ask the Minister if there is an obligation on agencies to keep all records, and how long the obligation lasts. Will the agencies have to keep the records in perpetuity? What will happen if, for example, the agency is taken over or goes out of business, or if the people running it retire? What obligations are there on the successor agency? Perhaps the Minister will let me know.

Subsection (2)(a) refers to the proceedings in question and subsection (2)(b) to the evidence in the proceedings. What sorts of proceedings are referred to? Perhaps the Minister will outline the categories or types of proceedings.

Clause 98(3) states:

    ''which would otherwise prevent the record in question being admissible in evidence.''

What circumstances are being referred to? I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten me on those points. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham may want to make a few remarks.

The Chairman: That may be the case, but it depends on whether time permits. The Minister had some difficulty hearing what was just said. I hope that she caught every point that the hon. Gentleman made.

Tim Loughton: I am glad to have caught your eye, Mr. Stevenson. I have a couple of queries about the clause—especially about subsection (2)—that were not covered by our earlier amendment. Subsection (2) appears to require the officer of the service to take a copy of adoption agency records, usually for social services files, in order to rely on such records as evidence. For all practical purposes, that is likely to lead to a mountain of additional paper, since the old guardian ad litem's report would usually be a concise distillation of a vast mass of paper contained in files and would be challenged only in a few specific areas. On crucial matters, original records will need to be consulted in any event, and to require the officer of the service to take copies on the off chance that they might need to be produced in proceedings would be profoundly wasteful, using a large number of trees that could otherwise be saved.

That practical concern brings me to the use of electronic evidence and records. In refuting my amendment to subsection (1), the Parliamentary Secretary referred to the adoption laws of 1984, which are still applied many years later. However, in 1984, the use of e-mail and electronic records was comparatively sparse. Is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied that computer records are fully covered by the descriptions of evidence in the clauses? If not, the evidence will be full of gaps. Records are increasingly likely to be committed to electronic form in any case. Doubtless the Department is aware of the problem, but we would like to be reassured that it will not lead to problems in court.

6.15 pm

Ms Winterton: This has been a fascinating clause stand part debate, in which many detailed points have emerged.

I should like to start with the comments of hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who was not present this morning. Herewith is the lesson of the day on how long agency records can be kept: 75 years. What would happen if an adoption agency became defunct? Regulation 14 states that records must be kept for 75 years. Under further measures, records must be transferred to another agency or a local authority. Information about where those records have been transferred and where they are being maintained must be passed on; the same provision as in clause 53(3) and clause 9.

We debated what constitutes reasonable time to examine and take copies of records. The provision is intended to ensure that unreasonable demands are not made on local authorities or adoption agencies in pursuit of their duties. If my interpretation is incorrect, I shall rectify it later. Current adoption rules provide that all information is confidential. The relevant officers of CAFCASS are likely to be a children's guardian or a reporting officer; two different hats that can be worn. One CAFCASS officer can carry out the role providing that there is no conflict of interest.

Provisions on the copying of records are permissive; it is allowed rather than required. That touches on the earlier point, mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, about the extent to which people would have access to everything.

We have not ruled out the possibility of storing documents electronically, but it is clear that adoption cases are highly sensitive and confidential, so we need to be satisfied that the chosen method is safe and secure. As part of the Government's modernisation of public services, my Department is reviewing all primary and secondary legislation relating to the court process in order to gauge the potential for greater use of e-mail and other electronic means of communication. I should again stress that we must first be completely satisfied about the question of confidentiality in these very sensitive proceedings.

I hope that I have dealt with most of the points that were raised, and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 98 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 99

Evidence of consent

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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