Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: I beg to move amendment No. 191, in page 33, line 23, at end add—

    '(7) The natural parents of an adopted person shall at any time have the right to deposit, with the adoption agency who acted on the related adoption, written or electronic material which is addressed to the adopted person contained in sealed form.

    (8) Upon receipt of such material referred to in subsection (7), the adoption agency shall have a duty to retain such material in sealed form—

    (a) where the agency is made aware of the death of the adopted person, for a period of three years from the date of that death, or

    (b) in all other cases, for a period of 80 years from the date of receipt.

    (9) Upon written request from the adopted person made at any time following his or her having attained the age of 18 years or, following the death of the adopted person, upon written request from a personal representative of the adopted person, the adoption agency must forthwith release such material to the adopted person or his or her personal representative as the case may be.

    (10) At the conclusion of the relevant time periods referred to in subsection (8)(a) and (b), the local authority shall destroy any material deposited pursuant to subsection (7).'.

As the Minister has just said, most adoptions are open, and that is accepted good practice. However, for historical or contemporary reasons, that is sometimes not the case. Normally, that will be where there is no contact, perhaps because the child has been the subject of abuse. In addition, people involved in pre-1976 adoptions might not even know that they were adopted, while those who do so might not want contact with their natural parents.

Even in such problem cases, natural parents have certain basic rights, which should be set out in the Bill. As we discussed, they have no automatic right to information in such cases, but they should have a right in all circumstances to make information available to the adopted person. The amendment proposes a procedure to ensure that they have the right to deposit information about themselves so that the adopted person can access it on reaching maturity. That ties in with the next amendment, which suggests that adopted children should be told that they are adopted. However, the provision should not be retrospective, and there is no reason to tell someone who was adopted in 1945 that they were adopted, if

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they had not been told before. In future, however, it would be best practice to do so.

The amendment would set up a procedure whereby information could be disclosed. It is based on a procedure that was used by the adoption agency with which I was involved as a councillor, and I can tell the Committee that it works very well. Ultimately, however, it would still be up to the adopted person to decide to seek the information.

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Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the amendment would add four new subsections to clause 58. They would provide for birth parents to be able to deposit sealed information with the adoption agency—information that the adopted child would have a right to see only once he had reached the age of 18.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's intention. It would be entirely laudable and appropriate with, for example, private or confidential information that could have no bearing on the child's upbringing but that the birth parents did not wish to share with the adoptive parents—a message, or photographs of the birth family whom the adopted child may not know, such as grandparents who may have died by the time that the adopted child had reached adulthood. However, it is not necessary to make such a provision in the Bill. To do so would prevent flexibility.

To return to a much rehearsed argument, a more practical approach would be for regulations to be made to allow adoption agencies to provide such a service. Indeed, clause 9 enables regulations to be made in respect of local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies. It provides a general power to make regulations for any purpose relating to the exercise by local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies of their functions in relation to adoption, and by adoption support agencies for their functions in relation to the provision of adoption support services.

Although the Government have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's intention, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment in light of my assurance that we shall consider how best to make such a provision through regulations made under clause 9, after due consultation on the details with adoption stakeholders.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank the Minister for taking that approach. It seems that the meat of what is proposed will be accepted and included in regulations. I would have preferred to see it in the Bill, but the Government have accepted that it should somehow find its way into the legal process. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 235, in page 33, line 23, at end add—

    '(7) On attaining the age of 18 an adopted adult shall be formally notified by the appropriate adoption agency that he was adopted.'.

The amendment is all to do with a person's right to know that he is adopted. You may recall, Mr.

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Stevenson, that in debate of an earlier amendment we wanted to make it a requirement that the birth parents would at least be told if their child, who had subsequently been adopted, had died. We felt that that was at least natural and humane, lest at a later stage those birth parents tried to seek out that child, could not access any information and, when they eventually tracked down the records, discovered that the child had died. That would be doubly cruel. We are attempting to insert a fundamental right into the clause.

During our proceedings, and in the preparation that many hon. Members have made in familiarising themselves with a subject with which many of us were not familiar, we have heard many extraordinary tales, cases and life histories of people who were adopted or gave up their children for adoption many years ago in circumstances that were not as equitable as one would hope for.

I have heard cases of people in their 70s discovering that they were adopted, often only when an adoptive parent, whom they had thought was a birth parent, had died. Adoptive parents who did not want to make it clear during their lifetime that they were not the natural birth parents have sometimes left notes for after their death, or the information has been released by friends or relatives in the know. That can come as a very traumatic revelation for the adopted children, especially if they have been living a pretence—although the intentions behind it may have been good—for many years.

It may be a doubly traumatic experience for adopted children if, when they try to search out their birth parents—as many do, for obvious reasons—they discover that they have died, as they are likely to have done if the discovery of the adoption has been made late in life. Those children will live their remaining years with the discovery that they are adopted, which may have come as an enormous shock, and that the people with whom they have grown up are not blood relatives. When they want to research into their birth relatives, if they are lucky enough to be able to trace them, they may find that they have died some years previously.

There is a case for making it a statutory right for adopted people to know that they are adopted. That is not an issue for those who are adopted at an age when they are quite aware that they are being removed from a birth family and placed with an adoptive family. However, a number of children are adopted at an age when they cannot assimilate that information, and that number will increase if this legislation is successful in promoting the number of children who are adopted out of care. In many cases, they will be told by responsible adoptive parents at an appropriate time and when all the adoption support services, to which we referred in earlier debates, are made available to them if appropriate, so that they can assimilate and cope with that information.

However, there still are—and I judge that there still will be—people who reach the age of 18 without for whatever reason being told by their adoptive parents

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or people around them that they are adopted. They will live for a long time under the impression that their adoptive parents are their birth parents. Perhaps by accident they will find out that they are adopted, because certain facts that they come across do not stack up. It is a fundamental right that children, when they reach the age of 18 and become adults, should be entitled to that information, as long as all the necessary support goes with it.

The Children's Rights Alliance for England has stated that it is

    ''a fundamental principle . . . that children should have the right to know they are adopted''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 314.]

It goes on to quote from the United Nations convention on the rights of the child to back up that entitlement.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend has made a cogent case for the emotional side of the matter, and in most cases that is the more important side. However, I hope that he will also allude to the medical aspect, which we were discussing with reference to clauses considered earlier, such as when an adult is suffering from an illness. The provisions for being able to identify birth parents can kick in only at the point where an adopted child discovers that he or she is adopted.

Tim Loughton: That is a very important point. We are not talking about an enormous number of people, just those adoptive parents who, for the best of reasons in their view, are too protective towards an adoptive child. After they have died, a medical problem may emerge. We have ensured, although not quite to the extent that we wanted, that the child's medical history is passed to the adoptive parent, but there is no requirement for adoptive parents to ensure that the child is fully apprised of his or her medical condition. If the adoptive parents die and the child develops a medical condition and examines their medical history, that would be one way of finding out that they were not his or her birth parents. Lack of disclosure could lead to medical problems if there were a genetic history of such problems from a completely different family.

I am sure that the amendment has problems. I am sure that it needs to be better worded, with many more safeguards attached to it. I think, however, that the Committee should consider the principle behind it. I am entirely happy for the Government, if they accept the principle of the amendment, to take it away and rewrite it, making a large part of it reliant on regulations.

The principle is so important that it should be taken up. It needs to be done sensibly, and I am certainly not suggesting that on an adopted child's 18th birthday they should automatically receive communication from some adoption equivalent of the tax office. I am not suggesting that along with their tax code and their 18th birthday card from their Member of Parliament they should receive a bit of paper saying, ''Congratulations. By the way, you're adopted.'' I am suggesting that the process be much more sensitive, which is why I alluded to the support services and counselling for which we have made provision in the Bill.

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It is right that if, on reaching the age of 18, a person has not been told that they are adopted, that information should be made available to them, so that they can go through the rest of their lives knowing exactly where they come from. If they choose to pursue a line of inquiry based on the information given to them, they must know where to start on that path. That is a fundamental human right. On that basis, I commend the amendment to the Committee, although I would be delighted if the Minister bashed it around a bit if she accepted the general principle.

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