Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: I rise to reinforce the argument made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). Possibly because I enjoyed the Christmas break too much, I did not fully follow the debate, and I am a little puzzled. On information, we heard some of the clearest and most eloquent testimony that I have ever heard in a Committee. I shall not bore hon. Members by repeating the points that my hon. Friend drew from that testimony.

People who have adopted have repeatedly made the point that it is crucial that they have all the information available on the child. I shall refer to a constituency case that I have mentioned before. The problems in that case did not relate to information, because the couple were given the information, but the Committee will be able to see what problems would have occurred had they not been given that information immediately on taking on the children.

The case involved two young lads, one of whom had been kept locked in a cellar for six years and was almost unable to speak; the other had been left outside in cold weather so frequently that he developed gangrene in both feet and came close to having to have them amputated, although in the end, doctors managed to save them. Knowing that he would become upset if he got at all cold, the mother would immediately warm his feet. That may sound a little bizarre, and is something that she would not have thought of had she not been given the facts of the case, but the boy found it very consoling.

The case of the poor boy who had been kept for six years in the cellar is more complicated. He had almost no ability to speak, and if the adoptive parents had not been told the ghastly circumstances in which the child had been kept by the people who had passed for his parents, he might have appeared to be completely stupid. In fact, there is no evidence that the child had any genetic failings: if one is shut off from all communication for the first six years of one's life, one does not learn to talk. It is a difficult challenge to teach a child aged six to talk.

My hon. Friend's two main arguments are crucial. First, full information must be provided and, secondly, it must be provided in good time. Our courts do not allow the introduction of hearsay evidence. Although Parliament is not controlled by that rule, I will not name names because of the seriousness of the matter. However, people involved in adoption for whom I have great respect tell me that—occasionally, and off the record—professionals have said, ''If we allowed the parents to have all the facts on some of these cases, we'd never get the little blighters adopted at all.'' That is a serious allegation to make about those professionals, but I shall not name names because I cannot actually prove that they said such a palpably untrue thing.

Every member of the Committee supports the central objective of the Bill, which is to get more children adopted. The sort of approach reflected in such remarks is completely unacceptable and wrong.

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My saintly constituents who took on those two little boys knew everything about them—and there is not much worse that one can know about a child than that he was locked in the dark for six years and cannot talk. We owe the people who take on those potential emotional tragedies, turn them round and give them loving homes, the right to know everything that has gone wrong in the child's life, as far as the agency involved is able to provide that information.

I apologise for not going into more detail, but I am a little confused about the mechanics of what is going on. It strikes me as extraordinary that we are moving from tight original wording to much looser wording. I look forward to the Minister's response.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I welcome you, Mr. Stevenson, and the rest of the Committee back after the break.

I begin by responding to the points made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the extent of the information on amendments that has been made available by the Government. I remind the Committee that we made information available both by circulating a letter to members of the Committee and by tabling the amendments and new clauses setting out the changes before Christmas. Although, as has been said, we were not able to discuss them on the Thursday before the recess, the Government gave Committee members and others a clear idea of the our intentions.

Hon. Members will remember and the record will show that I spoke at considerable length in Committee about how the Government intended the provisions to fit together to deliver the changes that we were making in response to evidence that emerged during the Committee's proceedings. I understand that hon. Members might have returned after the break not quite as immersed in the Bill as they were before, but we have made significant efforts to spell out the future position and explain our proposed changes.

As the hon. Gentleman said, amendment No. 52 is to be made to a clause that the Government, consequent on other changes that we are making, will propose should not stand part of the Bill. I have some sympathy with the issues raised by Opposition Members, but none with the idea that we have not already made explicit the way in which the Government intend to deal with concerns about what information is provided for prospective adopters, and when it is provided. We made that clear in the debate before Christmas, in my letter to the Committee, and in the other information that I have made available to the Committee.

We were aware that during the Committee's hearings several witnesses had stated the importance of adopters receiving full and appropriate information about a child during the matching process, and of supporting the adoptive placement well in advance of the adoption order being made. A number of witnesses suggested that the Bill did not address that clearly enough, commenting that clause 57, referring to the provision of information following the adoption order,

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did not make sufficiently clear the need for information to be provided before the stage of the adoption order being made was reached. Introducing new clause 6 and explaining it enabled us to make that explicit.

We will set out in regulations that information should be made available to prospective adopters before the stage of the adoption order. We entirely agree that it is crucial that adopters receive full information during matching to help the placement to succeed. That is not a change of policy. It was always our intention to use the various regulation-making powers under the Bill to provide for that, but in the light of the points made, we thought it appropriate to amend the Bill to make the intention clear. That is why we propose to remove clause 57, while new clause 6 makes it clear that the general regulation-making power under clause 9 may be used to set out the key stages at which adoption agencies are to provide information to prospective adopters, and the information that they are obliged to provide.

10 am

For the benefit of the Committee and in view of the break that we have had, I shall explain what we envisage being provided at the relevant stages. That should overcome some of the concerns that have been expressed by Opposition Members. First, in the light of the intervention by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), it might be worth while—although it is not my role—to set out what I understand to be the process by which clauses are removed. An amendment is tabled to remove a particular clause; it appears on the amendment paper, thus making the Government's intention clear, but it does not have to be dealt with as an amendment, because the outcome can be achieved by moving that the clause not stand part of the Bill. There has not been a Government error, although the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made such a mischievous suggestion—dare I say that he might be slightly bad tempered following his holiday? The procedure adopted is perfectly in order.

Mr. Djanogly: Holiday moods notwithstanding, given all the amendments, it would have been helpful if the Committee had received a redraft of all the information and the provisions, along with some accompanying notes. In effect, we are starting from scratch and have been left with a confusing series of amendments.

Jacqui Smith: Without claiming too much for my letter, the intention behind it and the amendments was to set out with greater clarity than is often found in explanatory notes our intentions and the way in which the provisions would fit together. I am sure that in the intervals between celebrations during the festive period, the hon. Gentleman pored over the amendments that were available before the holiday to ensure that he was clear about what is intended. Nevertheless, as I proceed today, I shall try again to make it clear to the Committee what the provisions will achieve.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I appreciate that the new clause is important. Why does

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the word ''may'' appear in the first line, rather than ''shall''? Also—and I ask this not mischievously but for information—may we have examples of the ''prescribed information'' referred to in the new clause?

Jacqui Smith: We have previously debated the use of the words ''may'' or ''shall'' in relation to regulations. I made it clear that using the word ''may'' does not imply that the Government will try to evade their responsibility to provide regulations. When discussing new clause 6, I explained—in a way that I thought made matters clearer—what we intend to include in the regulations; however, I shall explain again. We intend to use the powers under new clause 6 to ensure that, through regulations, we prescribe that agencies must provide certain information to adopters and prospective adopters at three different stages.

First, a summary report on the child would be prepared at the linking stage, when the prospective adopters are first visited by the child's social worker and the adoption social worker. The report would provide information about, for example, the child's appearance, his family circumstances, the part played in his life by his birth parents, his home environment, why he was taken into care or is being given up for adoption, his behaviour, how he interacts with other children, how he relates to adults, and his current care status. It should not contain identifying information about anyone other than the child, and adopters would be asked to agree to keep the information provided confidential.

At the next stage, a full matching report on the child will provide the prospective adopters with all the information that they need to decide whether to go ahead with the match. That report would include much of the information that Opposition Members have highlighted as information that prospective adopters should have, both to enable them to make a decision about the adoption and to ensure its success. Included in that report will be a full description of the child's history, needs, problems, progress at school and in care, personality and behaviour, supported by medical, psychiatric, psychological and educational information.

At the third stage, if the prospective adopters want to proceed to make preparations for the placement, they should be provided with a written proposal setting out the terms of the placement. The proposal should include details of proposed financial and other support arrangements, as well as details about any agreement about contact arrangements. If the child's birth family agrees in writing, life story books, which may include birth certificates, photograph albums and family trees, may be passed to the prospective adopters, who would be asked to sign an undertaking to keep the identifying information confidential.

Although amendment No. 52 does not relate to this point, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to information that might subsequently become available. We will ensure that adoption agencies pass on relevant information to adopters when such information is obtained after the adoption order has been made.

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