Adoption and Children Bill

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Kevin Brennan: I do not want to take the Committee's time, but the hon. Gentleman claimed that the Minister had said that it was a perfect Bill and that it did not need to be changed. Later, he said that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford had accused the Opposition of tabling wrecking amendments. I have listened carefully to the Committee's proceedings and I heard neither of those remarks. I realise that the hon. Gentleman has to make his mark, but we are not here so that he can engage in political point-scoring for a starring spot on ''Woman's Hour''.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what we here to do. The producers of ''Woman's Hour'' will be even less amused by his comments than they were by the way in which the Department of Health treated them last week. However, that is aside from the issues that we are debating.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I do not want tempt your patience, Mr. Stevenson, but it should be placed on record that adoption is a subject on which ''Woman's Hour'' has taken a considerable interest. It has had several programmes on the subject and I have been privileged to take part in a couple of them.

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The Chairman: Order. I attempted earlier to guide the Committee gently. The last thing that I want to do is to intervene too often. That is not why I am here. However, a debate on the content of ''Woman's Hour'' seems to be far wide of the amendment.

Tim Loughton: You are obviously not a devotee of ''Woman's Hour'', Mr. Stevenson—

The Chairman: Order. I would not want that remark to remain on the record, nor would the hon. Gentleman.

Tim Loughton: I apologise, Mr Stevenson. I return to the point in hand. Opposition Members have no objection to the amendments—[Interruption.] Government Members treat the Committee as though everything should be rubber-stamped and think that we have a cheek to raise objections. Our objection is that we saw the Government amendments only yesterday, by which time it was too late for us to table amendments to those proposed changes. That is not a good way to run a Standing Committee. It is particularly bad when the Committee has not had the opportunity to debate more than one fifth of the Bill because of the draconian programme motion. That is the truth of it.

We will support the amendments, but we would like more explanation about further the amendments resulting from the Government's change of heart. However, the Government have a duty to all members of the Committee to explain any further changes in plenty of time.

5.15 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I also welcome the amendments, which the Minister should be congratulated on tabling. It is disappointing that Opposition Members were not afforded the same privilege as Labour Back Benchers last week and it would have been courteous to treat us identically by giving us advance warning. However, one must give credit where credit is due because the Government have listened and learned from the debate. Several Labour Back Benchers should be congratulated on having had the courage to stand up to the thugs and bully boys in the Labour's Whips Office—the same ones who intimidated the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), pinned him up against a wall and frightened him.

The Chairman: Order. My patience is running out a little, and I am sure that hon. Members will understand why. I urge the hon. Gentleman to return to the terms of the amendments.

Mr. Bellingham: It is difficult to return to the terms of the amendment without putting them in the correct context and I am sure that you will sympathise, Mr. Stevenson.

The Chairman: Order. I am jumping up and down like a jack-in-the-box, which I did not want to do. I have no problem with hon. Members debating amendments in context, but the hon. Gentleman should return to the wording of the amendment.

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Mr. Bellingham: Indeed. I welcome the amendments. The Minister may genuinely have thought that she could push the Bill through as it stood, but let us give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that she took her time to introduce the changes because she wanted to get the wording absolutely right. As a result, there were discussions in her Department and experts were brought in, in an effort to draft everything in the most perfect order.

None the less, I welcome the amendments and pay tribute to Labour Back Benchers who had the courage to stand firm. A rebellion was brewing and the Government would have lost their provisions had they not made concessions.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 194, in page 31, line 33, leave out 'a person's' and insert 'his'.

No. 195, in page 31, line 37, leave out from 'information' to 'is' in line 38 and insert

    'kept by an adoption agency by virtue of subsection (1)(a)'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 124, in page 31, line 41, at end add—

    '(4) All records and other relevant information must be securely held by the relevant adoption agency on a permanent basis; furthermore, all such information must be passed on to any successor agency.'.

The Minister mentioned records and the secure holding of relevant information. However, I am not clear from her comments whether there will be an obligation on adoption agencies to keep records permanently and to ensure that information is passed on to any successor agency. Will she clarify that aspect of her earlier remarks? If there is an element of doubt, I humbly suggest that a simple way forward would be for the Government to accept the amendment to make it crystal clear that the relevant information must be securely held.

Different agencies are involved in the adoption process. Local authorities will have systems in place to ensure that records are properly stored and logged. Although other agencies may be good at their jobs, they may lack record-keeping facilities, attention to detail and access to the resources needed to ensure that the right systems are in place. They may have completely different standards of information storage and retrieval and it is essential that we include in the Bill a requirement that information be securely held.

It is equally vital that information is passed on to a successor agency, as we discussed a fortnight or so ago in relation to a later clause. When debating Bills, one has the problem of dealing with some clauses before others, which sometimes leads to confusion. I know that there is a reason for it, as was mentioned during the debate on programming.

I want the Minister to consider my amendment carefully. It would tidy up the relevant aspect of the clause.

Mr. Djanogly: I support the amendment. Will the Minister suggest what the security arrangements are for holding the records? Presumably, thousands of

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adoption records are held in locations around the country. Have the Government taken an interest in the subject before, or should it be of more concern than we have heard to date?

Although the amendment refers to adoption agencies holding information ''on a permanent basis'', my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) will be aware that such agencies sometimes close down. Several have in recent years. In such cases, what happens to the records? In the past, they have been lost. Sometimes they have not been handed to the new agency as they should have been. What security measures are there? Might lost records have found their way into the wrong hands? I would be grateful to hear the Minister's views on the important questions that surround the amendment.

Jacqui Smith: I shall respond first to the points made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). In my introduction to the previous amendment, I spelled out the fact that adoption records should be kept in a place of special security under current regulations. There is no detail as to what such a place should be, however. The hon. Gentleman suggested that information might reach the wrong hands, but no evidence suggests that that is the case and that adoption agencies do not hold information securely. The clause will enable us to make regulations to cover the nature of information that adoption agencies need to keep and the way in which they should keep it. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned transfer.

Mr. Djanogly: Is it intended that such records could be sent using electronic communication? Clearly, that could give rise to a new series of security problems?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, and one in support of stating the details in regulations as opposed to in the Bill. It is likely that the way in which information will be held and transferred will change with technology. Regulations enable a more flexible approach to ensure that safeguards remain as changes happen.

Clause 53 allows regulations to be made that govern the transfer of information between adoption agencies when, for example, one agency is to cease operation and it is essential that its records pass into the safe keeping of another. If a registered adoption society were to cease operation, the local authority in the area where the society was based would be responsible for safeguarding the information. That will reflect the present position under regulations, except that when now the Secretary of State is notified of the transfer of records, in future it will be the National Care Standards Commission. Hon. Gentlemen may recall our discussions under clause 6 and 7 last week about the ceasing of an adoption agency, the safeguards that need to be put in place, and the role of local authorities in relation to inactive and defunct adoption agencies.

I have outlined why we believe that regulations provide a better and more flexible legislative means to detail the responsibilities that we intend to place on

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adoption agencies. We intend to consult key stakeholders, including adoption agencies, on the regulations, which we will ensure are based on best practice. The consultation will also enable us to set, through regulations, the prescribed periods for which records should be held. I remind hon. Members that they are currently held for 75 years.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk contains a contradiction. It requires that the agency hold the records permanently, but that it should pass them on to any successor agency.

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