Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Shaw :The hon. Gentleman is criticising the Bill for its bureaucratic processes, but I have never heard of a more bureaucratic process than the one proposed in the amendment.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman might think so, but he will have heard me say that the process is ''necessarily'' a bureaucratic one. It is not possible to describe the process of adoption, which is purely a creation of statute, as anything other than bureaucratic. We aim to make that bureaucracy work as well as possible. We want a system that caters for the needs of all parties and speeds up the process.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, but to describe adoption as a bureaucratic process is wrong. It is about understanding, sympathy, building relationships and working with people. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) says it is an art; I think it is a craft. In any case, it is far beyond a bureaucratic process and we should not describe it as such.

Mr. Djanogly: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that having heard several of my contributions, he appreciates that I do not see the adoption process—from the point of view of the adoptive parents, the child or the natural parents—as a bureaucratic process. However, surely he recognises that the mechanics of adoption involve bureaucracy; that is all that I mean.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend has touched a raw nerve among the professionals on the Labour Benches. Of course, adoption is a bureaucratic process as it stands: were it not, we would not be considering a Bill to make it less bureaucratic. The fact that the average time for adoption has fallen from two years and 10 months to all of two years and nine months suggests to any right-minded person that the process is excessively bureaucratic and that we need to bring those times down. Notwithstanding all the sensitivities involved in dealing with individual cases, to which the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) refers, it is bureaucratic. The Bill aims to make it less so.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification and agree with him.

That being so, the adoption authorities should be aware that if they slow things down, if they do not allocate adequate resources to the process, or if they do not proceed as envisaged under the Bill, we will be able to call them to account. However, that should be done not in an annual report of the sort that notes that X authority takes on average 20 days longer than Y authority to complete some part of the process, because that would be meaningless to the people caught up in the system. It may be a bureaucratic process, but our aim in the amendment is more to achieve a better appreciation of the human aspects of the process, than to provide individuals a right to cut through the bureaucracy. The people caught up in the system should have an outlet through which to voice their concerns. That is the purpose of the amendments.

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Proposed paragraph (h) deals with parental consent. We have debated the matter and I shall not go over old ground. I do not need to remind the Committee of the complexity of the issues, but I note that there should be a straightforward forum such as the panel that can review the circumstances surrounding consent if that is required.

Proposed paragraph (i) goes to the heart of the Bill because it would maintain the paramountcy of the interests of the child. The Committee will know that I have argued on several occasions that the Bill needs to give children the right to consent to their adoption. I acknowledge that that suggestion has been repeatedly beaten down by Labour Members, but that makes it more, not less important that the Bill provides specifically for children to have the right to take their concerns to the panel. They should have the chance to say that the process has not adequately considered their views. We have heard about people's right to seek judicial review, but that route is all but impossible for children to take given their age and financial standing. The most appropriate forum for them would be a relatively informal panel hearing.

Proposed paragraph (j) deals with the contents of and access to the two existing registers and the new register to be set up under the Bill. There will be circumstances in which one party or another feels that too much or too little information has been included or not included in the registers, or that the information is not accurate. Are regulations are being prepared to deal with such situations? The panel would be a good forum for such discussions, whereas dragging such cases through the courts would surely be inappropriate.

Proposed paragraph (k) deals with the process of intercountry adoptions. The issues surrounding such adoptions have been discussed by the Committee at some length, and I am sure that hon. Members agree that they are often complicated. We have heard that prospective adoptive parents sometimes feel that their case has been made overcomplicated by the relevant adoption agency, or that their applications have been put to the bottom of the pile for some reason. It is right that such people should have the right of access to the panel.

I have attempted to explain to the Committee that the amendment would give the various parties to adoption the right to seek redress through the relatively informal and cheap mechanism of the panels. It would be helpful if the Minister were to give the Committee some idea of the difference in cost between access to such a panel and access to judicial review. I assume that the difference is massive.

The amendment is designed to give people greater confidence in the system. People will be encouraged to adopt if they are able to have confidence in a process that characterised by transparency, because they will know that their concerns about any cases in which they feel that they have been dealt with unfairly will be listened to. That is why I commend the amendments.

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Jacqui Smith: Opposition Members, despite complaining about the amount of time available for consideration of the clauses, have taken us on a considerable detour around a range of issues, some of which we have previously debated, some of which will be discussed in relation to later clauses, and some of which are only tangentially related to adoption and children and the principles of the Bill.

The argument enshrined in the amendments comes down to whether the Government are right in their intention to focus in the first instance on the two key issues of the ability of prospective adopters to get a review of a decision to turn them down, and the ability to have adoption agency decisions relating to access to information independently reviewed. I believe that the Government are right to focus their attentions on those issues.

Mr. Brazier: Is the Minister saying that that rules out appeals on individual matchings? She said that couples who have been turned down would be able to appeal, but I presume that by that that she means instances in which they have been turned down for a place on the register rather than for a particular matching with a child. Will she clarify that point?

Jacqui Smith: I am going to talk about matches. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands which determination would be reviewed. The review will not deal with the determination on whether a couple should be placed on the national adoption register, but with the approval of a couple as prospective adopters. That approval will be a prerequisite to a person's inclusion in the national register.

The argument is about whether the Government should focus on certain important issues—which, as hon. Members have rightly said, we need to tackle—relating to the independent review process, or whether we should widen significantly, and in some ways inappropriately, the extent to which the independent review mechanism is to be used.

In response to the hon. Member for Huntingdon, I would like to reiterate the view that in legal terms the matters to be reviewed do not need to come under the clause 9 regulations. Any determination made by an adoption agency could in theory—should the consultation suggest that it is appropriate—be eligible for review under the independent review mechanism. The question we need to ask is whether that is appropriate and whether it will deliver the objectives that we have set for the independent review mechanism. It is right to focus our action on certain areas.

The hon. Member for Canterbury made a range of points relating to some of the paragraphs in the amendment. Proposed paragraph (f) deals with

    ''the suitability of a child for adoption with particular prospective adoptive parents''.

I am sympathetic to the cases he raised, but the independent review mechanism is not the appropriate place to consider that issue. In the national adoption standards, we have already stated that children who need adoption should not be left waiting indefinitely

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for a perfect family, and we discussed at length in relation to clause 1(3) the need to ensure that there is no delay in the process.

The hon. Gentleman asked about foster parents deprived of the ability to adopt. If a foster parent applied to be approved as an adopter for the child that he had fostered and was turned down, he could use the process that we are setting up to have the decision reviewed.

Mr. Brazier: The Minister has moved on from the point about couples turned down for a specific matching when no one else is available. She says that there are guidelines, which I accept, but the central point is that there is no other recourse for such a couple. If, as in the case of Natasha, they see a two and a half-year-old baby for whom there is still no adopter in sight, where else but in the appeal mechanism could they find new recourse? No one could argue that the mechanism is to address delay, as the delay is all in the care system.

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