Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: I am delighted to move the amendment. I should like to start by putting on the record a small point about timing. This is an example of the knives not working well. For reasons that I fully understand, the Government were unable to continue the debate after 5 o'clock on Thursday. However, the

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group of clauses is very important. Clause 12 is probably the second or third most important part of the Bill. It covers material—the independent review—that has been central to many of the submissions made to the Committee, but we will run out of time to discuss it at 1 o'clock because we were unable to continue any later on Thursday.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Does my hon. Friend agree that he has just described a disgraceful state of affairs? The Bill is not controversial, but it is highly complicated and we need more time to debate it.

The Chairman: Order. We have already debated the programme resolution. We are now debating amendments Nos. 59 and 138.

Mr. Brazier: You are quite right to bring us to order on that, Mrs. Roe. On the whole, the Committee has been good-natured, because all parties support the Bill's aims. I was merely saying that it is a pity that we must cover such an important area so briefly.

During the years that I have been co-chairman of the all-party adoption group, we have heard from many outside groups about the sheer frustration that is felt at the lack of any independent form of review of local authorities' decisions on adoption. It is not quite true to say that there is no form of independent review. In theory, people can seek judicial review, which is always unbelievably expensive and almost always fails, or go to the ombudsman, who, however, has no statutory power. The Opposition welcome the clause, but as it is drafted, without our amendments, it has little in the way of teeth.

The Minister, in replying to the previous group of amendments, implied that there was a chink of light. We had understood from earlier comments made by Ministers in her Department that the independent review, welcome though it was, was likely to be restricted to the question of whether or not a couple got a place on the register, and was unlikely to be extended further. However, the Minister said a moment ago that the Government were still considering what to put in regulations made under clause 12. I hope that the amendments, which are probing in nature but none the less go to the heart of what the Bill is intended to achieve, will give her some good ideas.

Because of the lack of available time, I do not intend to go through amendment No. 138 from paragraphs (a) to (k)—

Tim Loughton: Go on.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend tempts me. We have a lot of other amendments that we would like to discuss, but I am still tempted to go through the suggestions contained in the amendment, because all they are all sensible. However, I would like to focus on paragraph (f), which concerns the suitability of a placing a child for adoption with particular prospective parents.

I should like to take the Committee back to a point that has been made several times during our deliberations, mostly by Labour Members. The hon.

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Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), who was a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill's earlier version, spoke of being sent off, when a social worker, to seek a child who was one eighth of a particular middle eastern ethnic origin. More recently, a similar case arose, which is extremely relevant to the amendment. It was widely publicised in the national press. The identity of the baby—it was a baby when the case began—was concealed for obvious reasons. I shall call the lady by her Christian name of Natasha. She was a single potential adopter of independent means and she could afford to offer the baby a loving home, but she was of mixed race complexion, as was the baby. Her complexion was not identical to the child's, but they were both part European and part middle eastern.

One of the points most frequently made in debates on adoption is that few babies are available and that they should therefore be easy to place. Natasha's attempt to adopt the child took two years of struggle, and she eventually gave up. If the Government were to restrict themselves to the limited measure, welcome though it is, of considering merely whether people such as Natasha should go on the register, such scandalous cases will continue. The scandal was not that Natasha was not allowed to adopt, but that no one else adopted the child. I would exasperate you, Mrs. Roe, if I were to go beyond the amendment and describe the sheer ghastliness of the case, but the child was passed to foster parents who left the country with it but eventually brought the child back, who considered adopting it and then decided against adoption. The case went around in circles.

I draw the Committee's attention to that case, especially in connection with paragraph (f) of the amendment, because for the review mechanism to have teeth it must go beyond determinations of a panel. The Opposition fully recognise that the Government cannot commit themselves to allowing appeals on every aspect of adoption. That would be unrealistic, not least because the social workers tied up in the appeals would be taken from a limited pool of staff, and we would want them to be carrying out their mainstream adoption activities and their other work. We need some sensible guidelines, which would allow appeals in cases such as Natasha's.

I shall focus again on subsection (3)(f). The Government obviously could not allow every potential adoptive parent to appeal. Six or seven couples might all put in for the same child and one could not allow them all to appeal, but there would be nothing wrong in the Government allowing appeals in two circumstances that arise from time to time, but not in most matchings.

I give two examples, but the Government might want to issue better guidelines. First, foster parents might want to adopt a child that they have been fostering for some time but are refused. I am not saying that every foster parent should have the right to adopt the children in their care, but they should have the right to appeal if they are refused after a successful fostering. The Minister will know of the research done by Cardiff university, as it was commissioned by her

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Department. One of the university's reports showed that a number of local authorities were so strongly prejudiced against foster parents being allowed to adopt that, as recently as 18 months or two years ago, their policy was never to allow it. Under paragraph (f), that is one circumstance in which they could automatically allow an appeal.

The other example—I return to Natasha's case—is when no one else is allowed to adopt a child. You would rightly restrain me, Mrs. Roe, if I were to return to our debates on clause 1 and the balance between subsection (4)(e) and the provisions on delay, but the amendment addresses that situation clearly. The Government have recognised that delay is inherently bad for a child waiting for adoption. Surely, in a case in which an adopter or adopters have made it on to the panel with or without an appeal, and a child awaiting adoption drifts—in this case, absurdly, a baby, the easiest in theory to adopt—because overzealous social services departments are unable to find parents whom they consider to be an ideal match for the child, there should be an automatic right to appeal. Such people are on the list, having been approved as suitable, but are then told that they are unsuitable although there is nobody else in sight for that child.

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I have focused mainly on paragraph (f), because that is the matter about which I feel most strongly. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon has a lot to say about it, and time is needed to discuss the many amendments that we have tabled to this critical clause. However, I should like to speak very briefly about three elements of amendment No. 138.

Paragraph (c) concerns

    ''the supply of information concerning the child to any person including the child''.

We received some very telling testimony during our evidence-taking sittings, particularly from the Nottingham branch of the Catholic Children's Society. It should be possible, if local authorities refuse to give information to parents, for the parents to be able to appeal against that refusal. I know that the Committee was sympathetic on that point during those sittings.

Similarly, paragraph (e) concerns

    ''the movement of the child between successive foster carers''.

The worst single case that was put to us in the written testimony was the example of a child who was moved more than 200 times. That example almost beggars belief; it brought people such as me, who have no professional background in this area—unlike many Labour Members, whom I greatly respect—into the arena and led me to help to set up the all-party adoption group. Surely, the clause provides an opportunity for checking up on extraordinarily bad practice where it, sadly, occasionally happens. I commend paragraph (e).

Paragraph (i) is about

    ''assessing whether the child's views have been adequately considered''.

We have had a long and interesting debate on that matter. The Government were right to resist the amendment to give the child a veto, for reasons that

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were very succinctly put by Labour Back Benchers as well as Front Benchers. A child should not have an absolute veto. However, if there is evidence that a child's views have not been adequately considered, there should be scope for an appeal.

We are subject to ridiculously tight time constraints, so I shall not go through all the items listed in amendment No. 138 or discuss amendment No. 59, which says that all determinations should be qualifying determinations. When the Government come to set the regulations, one of the most effective tests of whether they are really serious about making the Act happen—I know that the Ministers do intend to be so—will be the extent to which they allow determinations to be qualifying determinations for the purposes of appeal. I understand why they cannot open the floodgates on everything, but they must be willing to go beyond the mere decision as to whether people get on to the list. Obviously, they will have to do so in a way that sets sensible limits on the absorbing of time into the appeal processes. However, taking paragraph (f) as an example, I have tried to illustrate how the Government might consider aspects that are going wrong and achieve an 80:20 principle. In that way, only some classes would reach appeal, but they would include most of the worst cases and require only a limited time.

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