Adoption and Children Bill

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Several hon. Members rose—

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The Chairman: Order. Before we proceed, I should say that the Clerk and I have had further consultations. I want to add to my response to the point of order made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. As I said, there is no mechanism under the terms of the programme motion by which more time could be given to consider the business dealt with this morning. It remains open to Committees to amend programme motions, but that first requires a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee. No such meeting has been requested.

5 pm

Tim Loughton: I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Stevenson. No doubt, a letter requesting such a meeting will be in the post shortly.

In response to the Minister, I expect that that is probably the longest scripted U-turn that any Committee has heard for a long time—a U-turn that contained no hint of contrition or mea culpa—from a Minister who, a week ago, said that the Bill was perfect and did not require any amendment. Now, at last, we see its flaws. We welcome the amendments. We would have welcomed them four weeks ago, as would scores of adoption agencies and other voluntary bodies with an interest in the Bill. The Minister is well aware of the comments that were made in representations to the Committee, to which we were all privy.

The south-east post-adoption network said:

    ''The proposed legislation is a retrograde step that is likely to cause harm to the psychological wellbeing of adopted individuals.''

The National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents said:

    ''We are utterly incredulous by the manner in which changes have been made and appalled by what is placed before you purporting to be an appropriate response for at least the next 30 years.''

The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering said:

    ''It would not be putting it too strongly to say that there is consternation among BAAF's member agencies and others at this proposed change.''

The representative of the Fostering Network said:

    ''I think that this is such a draconian proposal.''

All that evidence was available to the Committee five weeks ago. Why has it taken the Minister five weeks to come up with this U-turn? Worse still, why does she constantly refer to this great letter? To turn into some sort of triumph simply returning to the status quo that has existed for the past 25 years and worked perfectly satisfactorily—she has not been able to cite a single case where it has not worked— shows incredible brass neck.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Has not my hon. Friend the Minister stolen the hon. Gentleman's thunder? The speech that we have just heard is one that the hon. Gentleman was hoping to deliver in the event that there were no Government amendments. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), I was unhappy with the Bill and welcome the changes. My hon. Friend the Minister has not presented the changes in a fanfare

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of glory. The Government have listened and introduced changes and the hon. Gentleman is clearly disappointed with that.

Tim Loughton: I am not at all disappointed about what has happened. I am disappointed at the discourtesy shown by the Minister to the Committee and all the voluntary organisations—

Mr. Dawson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: Let me first respond to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). If other hon. Members were seriously unhappy with the Bill, they should have had the independence of mind to table their own amendments five weeks ago, or at least to put their names to our amendments. As we all know, this is not a party-political Bill because it received the support of all parties on Second Reading.

Mr. Shaw: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: One at a time.

In the spirit of co-operation, we have sought at all stages to improve the Bill, which is why we welcomed the pre-scrutiny witness sessions. At those sessions, the evidence was so categorically weighted in one direction that we immediately tabled our amendments to reverse this misguided part of the Bill, as the Government have done at last.

Mr. Dawson: I have a couple of points. First, does the hon. Gentleman really think that his approach is a good way to ensure that the Government will do what he wants them to do, because it seems to me to be tactically inept? Secondly, in all his concern for the adoption agencies, voluntary organisations and people who have been caught up in this issue, does he not understand that those people would have more respect for the process if he simply welcomed the legislation and allowed us to get on to the meat of the debate?

Tim Loughton: Everyone would have much more respect for the process if the Minister had responded favourably and positively at an early stage. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that today represents the first opportunity to discuss clauses 53 to 62, which deal with access to information. That would have been the most contentious part of the Bill if it had not been changed. The last day for tabling amendments to this part of the Bill came at the end of last week and, because it was a non-sitting Friday, the amendments were not published until Monday.

Jacqui Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tim Loughton: I shall in a minute.

Unless hon. Members had had a conversation with the Minister, they would not have been able to see those amendments or respond to them with their own amendments until Monday, which would have been too late for this afternoon's debate.

Jacqui Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is why I wrote to hon. Members on Thursday afternoon?

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Tim Loughton: The Minister wrote her famous letter to us after the Committee rose on Thursday afternoon and the letter was available in Members' pigeonholes after the Committee adjourned on Thursday afternoon. I believe, however, that it was available earlier to Labour Members.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman should check his pigeonhole.

Tim Loughton: We could either sit in Committee between half past two and five o'clock to debate clauses and amendments and challenge the Minister, as we should be doing, or we could nip downstairs every five minutes in the hope that the Minister had changed her mind at the last moment and that there might be a letter in our pigeonhole. What nonsense! We sat opposite each other the whole day, but the Minister gave no indication whatever that the Government had had a change of heart. That would have given all hon. Members the opportunity to see the amendments, which are not contained in the letter, as it is merely a general statement about what they intended to do—although they have not even done that in respect of clause 57, for example. Opposition Members would have had the opportunity to see whether the amendments fell in line with what we sought, and been able to table our amendments in reply. We have not had that opportunity and it is a gross discourtesy to the workings of the Committee.

Mr. Walter: My I help my hon. Friend? I was observing the Committee diligently and I think that letters were distributed personally to Labour Members that afternoon, while our letters were left in our pigeonholes.

The Chairman: Order. It is perfectly in order that hon. Members should examine why the Government tabled the amendments and the circumstances that led to that. I shall be calling a clause stand part debate. When hon. Members have made their points, can we return at the earliest opportunity to debating the amendments?

Tim Loughton: Of course, I am happy to do that, Mr. Stevenson.

The Minister's opening remarks on the amendments gave us a wide background to what brought about the Damascene conversion, but she has yet to give the reason why the conversion happened at such a late stage. It would be useful to hear what the criteria were.

I said at the outset that these are the amendments that we have sought for the past five weeks. They contain some of the amendments that we tabled. For the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford to say that we must be disappointed is to misunderstand what we are trying to do in the Committee. If we had voted against the Bill in its entirety and opposed it on principle all the way through, he might have had a point. Our task, however, has been to improve the Bill and to remove from the present group of clauses some draconian measures—as they were described—that would have set back the adoption process by 25 years.

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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, because the amendments that I have heard being debated have been constructive and were meant to improve the Bill. There have been no wrecking amendments. In previous Standing Committees of which I have been a member, if the Government were minded to amend the Bill, the Minister gave a draft to Opposition Members, which resulted in open discussion. That is the way forward if we are serious about the Bill.

Tim Loughton: That is absolutely right and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have served on Standing Committees that have been debating issues of significance, particularly complicated, technical and legal matters, when the Minister has had the courtesy to write in advance of amendments being tabled giving a full explanation and producing additional explanatory notes to explain the Government's thinking.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford talks about wrecking amendments, but everything has been in order—otherwise you, Mr. Stevenson, or your co-Chairman, Mrs. Roe, would have ruled them out of order.

Kevin Brennan rose—

Tim Loughton: I will give way in a moment. Labour Members seem very excited this afternoon. Perhaps they have been briefed to be excited and animated. The only wrecking amendment on the amendment paper this afternoon would appear to be a Government amendment to clause 57. It is so incompetently out of order—it would delete the whole clause—that it has not been selected. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford should stop throwing stones at people in glasshouses.

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