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Special Standing Committee
Thursday 10 January 2002
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Amendment made: No. 202, in page 32, line 33, leave out 'or 55(4)'.—[Jacqui Smith.]
Clause 56, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Disclosing information to adopters
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 32, line 37, leave out
'As soon as practicable after the making of an adoption order'
Good morning, Mr. Stevenson. I trust that you had a fortifying recess and that you are refreshed and ready to deal with the rest of the Bill.
Clause 57 is about the disclosure of information to adopters. No doubt, the Minister is geared up to say that we have already dealt with that, but in the last, rather rushed, sitting before the recess, when we started debating the raft of clauses—53 to 62—dealing with access to information of different types, we were faced with a number of 11th-hour Government amendments.
I said then that it was all rather confusing, and I see from Hansard and from the fateful letter that she provided to the Committee on 13 December that the Minister agrees that it is an especially complex part of the Bill. It is therefore slightly annoying, Mr. Stevenson—I wonder whether any approaches have been made to you on the subject—that there has been a substantial rewrite of those clauses, including clause 57. If I understand the Minister's intentions correctly, Government Members will vote against clause 57 stand part, having already replaced it with new clause 6—a new clause of which the Committee had very little notice before agreeing it during the last sitting before the recess.
Whenever amendments are used substantially to rewrite parts of the Bill because of a change of heart—a welcome one, in this case—comprehensive explanatory notes should be provided to explain Ministers' thinking, and those clauses should be written in a draft form that includes those amendments, which would make the changes easier to follow. We are now considering an amendment to clause 57, but the Government have tabled an amendment to delete the whole clause—and amendment that has not been selected because it is
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technically wrong. My guess is that the clause has been superseded by new clause 6, which we still think is inadequate.
What I am attempting to do this morning is not easy. I want to amend clause 57 and I am happy with the amendment, but I fear that it will be blown out of the water because the Government have already inserted a new clause that sort of relates to the subject but is wholly inadequate. That may sound confusing, but we are in a confusing position. I wonder, Mr. Stevenson, whether the Minister has made representations to you about making further information available to the Committee.
The Chairman: I am advised that the answer to that direct question is no.
Tim Loughton: I am not surprised, Mr. Stevenson, but it is a shame. Perhaps the Minister will make further information available to the Committee. She said that this part of the Bill is complicated, and it is to be changed fundamentally. It would, at the very least, have been courteous of the Government to give the Committee a full explanation of their thinking when their amendments were tabled and before we started discussing them at our last sitting before the recess. Had they done so, Opposition Members would have known on what basis we could table amendments to influence the Government's thinking.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I agree with my hon. Friend. Given the Government and Opposition amendments before us, it will be impossible to consider properly this messy series of clauses. I note from the amendment paper that the Government have tabled amendment No. 203 to delete clause 57, but the amendment is not on the selection list.
The Chairman: It has not been selected.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend's comment demonstrates the confusion about this part of the Bill. We shall progress, but events will show the inadequacies of the Committee system when at the very last moment at which amendments can be tabled, a Committee is faced with a complete overhaul of the Government's intentions.
To return to the amendment, in her letter of 13 December—afternoon—to the Committee, the Minister said:
''we have decided to table amendments to the relevant provisions in the Bill to provide an enabling power through regulations to require adoption agencies to release certain information to prospective adopters at three key stages''.
She then gave rough details of what those stages were likely to be. However, the Government have tabled no amendments; they simply want to get rid of the clause and to replace it with a new clause, and they will do so, provided the Committee votes accordingly.
Theoretically, new clause 6 will replace clause 57. I have a complaint about an issue that some hon. Members, including me, failed to recognise when we first saw the amendments in the last-minute rush the day before the recess. The new clause states:
''Regulations under section 9 may require adoption agencies in prescribed circumstances to disclose in accordance with the regulations prescribed information to prospective adopters.''
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I take issue with the words ''may require''. Making available information about medical records and other matters is such an important part of the adoption process that ''may require'' is not good enough. Furthermore, those words are connected with regulations that we have not yet seen and of which we have been given only a rough idea in a letter that was, in any case, flawed. That does not give me sufficient confidence that what the Minister has sort of suggested she wants will achieve what Opposition Members want.
Let me state the reasons why amendment No. 52 should change the wording of clause 57 to make it clear that it is crucial that information should be available at the time of matching, when the adoption process is in full flight. We suggest removing the words
''As soon as practicable after the making of an adoption order''
and inserting the words
''At the time of making''
the adoption order. That is the key to the amendment.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Before my hon. Friend moves on to the detail, he might consider further the point about ''may'' or ''might''. Ironically, the new clause appears to water down the provisions: new clause 6 says ''may'', but clause 57, which it replaces, says ''must'', at line 38.
Tim Loughton: That is correct. We want to retain clause 57 because it contains phrases such as ''must disclose'', which make matters absolutely clear. There is no ''may'', or ''regulations may prescribe''—the word is ''must'', and we want to retain that. The bone of contention is when the information is to be made available. It should be available much earlier in the adoption process. I shall give some examples of why that is so important.
To be fair to the Minister, she admitted in her letter that there had been concerns about and representations on making sufficient information available to prospective adopters at an early stage. That is supposedly why she came up with the changes, but we feel that they do not go far enough. One representation that all members of the Committee saw was from the Children's Society. Referring to the provision in clause 57 that required information to be given after the adoption order was made, it stated:
''This is too late. In order to consider whether they are able to care properly for a child, adopters must have all the necessary information about the child at the outset of the placement so that they can make an informed decision about whether to proceed. A finding of many disruption meetings is that a contributory factor to the breakdown of a placement is the lack of information given to adopters at an early stage. Anything that can be done to prevent the damaging effects of disruption on young people must be pursued.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 236–37.]
I agree wholeheartedly.
The Adoption Forum, referring to the same problem in clause 57, stated:
''without sufficient information at the time of matching . . . the prospective family''
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''make an informed decision about whether they could or would want to become the child's parents. For example, a family may not feel it could deal with a child who had been sexually abused.''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 169.]
If social services departments hold that information—such matters, of course, are sometimes revealed only when a child settles with a new and trusted family—it should be provided at the start, the Adoption Forum suggested. Again, I agree.
Barnardo's is an interesting case, as it was recently pulled up for not providing information. It stated:
''We cannot understand why the proposed timing for this is not consistent with current practice or the requirement of Regulation 12 (1983—Adoption Agencies Regulations). Adoptive parents need written information about the child and their background when they are considering whether to proceed with a placement not after the order has been granted. The Department of Health will be aware that, together with a local authority, we were recently sued for allegedly failing to provide full information at the time of a placement, which subsequently disrupted after the adoption order. We were successful in refuting the claim and the case was dismissed but we believe that we could have been legitimately accused of negligence had the information not been provided until after the child was adopted, as required by clause 57''.—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 355.]
Mr. Robin Harritt, who has been in communication with me and made submissions to the Committee, has personal experience of adoption, having been adopted himself. He has spent a long time trying to contact his several siblings, with partial success. He said:
''It might interest the Committee to know that I have only just received some of my personal medical information from Barnardo's after ten years of complaints and legal threat, I still await from Barnardo's, the kind of information that Ms Gunn-Rosso required from Nugent Care''.—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 295.]
That was a well known case. Mr. Harritt continues:
''In my search for my siblings I have found that one of my brothers died in his early thirties, from coronary thrombosis, apparently my maternal grandfather also died from a similar disease, everyone in our family needs to know this. I am aware of the service provided by the National Health Service Central Records department at Smedly Hydro, but very few other people who might want to make use of it, have.''— [Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 298.]
Mr. Harritt draws my attention to a case that the BBC is taking up in a documentary. The subject of a news item on the internet last week, the case of the Gorry family is interesting and pertinent to our endeavours. The news item stated:
''Losing one member of your family in tragic circumstances is devastating, but when a third of your extended family is wiped out, it is a catastrophe.
This is what happened to the Gorry family.
But it was not until a doctor in Australia diagnosed a rare heart disorder in a member of the younger generation, the family realised some carry a life-threatening inherited rogue gene . . . Father-of-two Neil Halliday, who appears to have escaped the disorder, discovered the 'catastrophe' while researching his family tree . . . he discovered that nearly a third''—
of his family—
''had died suddenly while young.
He has since discovered that his brother Kevin, sister Yvonne, mother Phyllis . . . and other members of the family were the victims of Long QT syndrome—a type of sudden adult death syndrome''
Mr. Halliday is now desperately trying to make contact with all the members of the family—some of
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whom have been adopted and with whom he has no links—to warn them that there is a serious family genetic problem of which he and, he assumes, other family members have until now had no knowledge. The condition can be treated using, among other things, beta blockers.
Two alarming aspects of that motivated the amendment, which would emphasis the importance of providing the information as early as possible. The first is medical: it is essential that prospective adoptive parents know about a prospective adopted child's medical condition, so that they can assess whether they can cope with it. Later, it is essential that those parents are in possession of as full a medical record as possible, in case the sort of genetic disorder is present that could have a serious impact on the health of the child and his or her siblings in future. People should not have to wait for 10 or 20 years for medical records. It should be implicit that when a match is made, a full medical history is available to the prospective adopters so that the well-being of the child can be properly attended to.
The second aspect was mentioned by Professor Triseliotis, who spoke about his work in adoption during the witness sittings of the Committee. He mentioned the case of a child who had been abused at bath time. The child was subsequently adopted, but went berserk whenever his new parents tried to give him a bath. They could not understand the problem. Of course, the problem was that that child associated bath time with being abused and the horrific events of an obviously tragic case of abuse in his original home.
Surely it is essential that prospective adopters know about such things when a match is being made. Then, they can fully assimilate all the facts about a child and determine whether they can cope with him and give him an adequate environment. That is especially important if the child has a range of special needs and comes from a rather murky background. There should be no ''mays'', no ''it will come along if the regulations allow for it''. At as early a stage as possible, full medical, behavioural and other pertinent records on the prospective adoptive child should be made available to the prospective adoptive parents. Only on that basis can they hope to make an informed decision on whether they can offer the appropriate environment for that child. Only then can they hope to be in possession of all the facts that might affect the future medical well-being of that child and other siblings with whom contact might be made in future.
That would be in everyone's interests. It would not involve an enormous amount of extra work, because if the work is done properly, there may be savings later on the pain, angst and requirements for extra support—and the associated extra costs—if the placement breaks down because all the facts were not properly made available and assimilated out in the first place. That is what we are trying to achieve.
I appreciate that the Minister has gone some way to recognising the importance of such a provision, but, there is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned, a serious flaw: the new clause waters down the Bill's good intention.
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Furthermore, the issue of timing needs to be beefed up. That is what the amendment is designed to achieve, and I strongly commend it to the Committee.