Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case. He will not be offended if I say that it is slightly unfortunate that he referred to Australia and New Zealand, because the academic evidence that we received confirmed what a number of us already knew about those countries. Sadly, in an otherwise very good social system, adoption has tended to fail

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miserably in Australia, and the New Zealand system is modelled on the Australian one. There are very few adoptions there because of too much openness. None the less, the hon. Gentleman has made a powerful point.

I should like to make two small, detailed points, which could open the way to making new clause 7 retrospective without causing some of the problems hinted at by the Minister. First, I emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that it should be made abundantly clear that there is no duty where there is no information. We cannot start imposing extra duties on people to struggle to find records that no longer exist. The phraseology must be reasonable. Small, struggling voluntary organisations responsible for adoption must not feel that a huge extra burden has been placed on them.

3.30 pm

Secondly, I am sure that it is in order for me to refer to a useful conversation that I had at lunch time with some of the parties who take an interest in the Bill. Although I feel that there may be scope for extending new clause 7 retrospectively, I have received a representation from the other side of the argument, from a very articulate adopter, who said that he was sometimes made to feel that it was somehow wicked if his children did not try to make contact with their birth parents. If the measure is to be extended retrospectively, it is important that the regulations make it clear that the consultation of those whom the information concerns, which is set out in a very good subsection of new clause 7, should be carefully conducted and that nobody should be made to feel that it is their duty to contact anybody just because they happen to be a birth relative.

With those two caveats, there is a lot to be said for new clause 7. In particular, it applies only to adults, so, in making it retrospective, there is no question of the measure affecting families with children.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I approve of new clause 7. It is carefully drafted and takes a balanced approach to a sensitive subject. It makes it plain that a careful approach is required. First, a person has to apply to an appropriate agency for protected information. The agency is not required to proceed with the application unless it considers it appropriate to do so, but if it does proceed with the application, it must take all reasonable steps'' to obtain the views of any person about whom information is sought; the agency then has another opportunity to review whether it is appropriate to disclose that information. The new clause also makes it clear that the agency must consider above all the welfare of the adopted person, and any other views. It is a well-drafted provision.

I had assumed that siblings of people who had been adopted would also be able to seek information under the provisions.

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Mr. Brazier: In thoroughly agreeing with what the hon. Gentleman has said—the new clause is one of the best parts of the Bill—I would like to say that it shows that we can get really important and sensitive detail in the Bill, rather than leaving it to regulation.

Mr. Dawson: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

I am concerned that the clause applies only to adoptions made under the Bill. A graphic illustration of that fact is that on the day the Bill is enacted and for years afterwards not a single person will be able to benefit, because they will be ineligible to apply for information under the Bill. We are talking only about adoptions made after enactment, and the new clause refers only to adults, so chances are that it could be tens of years, or even longer, before many of those involved in adoptions made under the legislation will be eligible. That is especially true in the light of the appropriate trend towards open adoptions, whereby the number of people who will need to seek information will diminish markedly.

Conversely, while this excellent piece of legislation is not being used by anyone, standing on the sidelines will be a large group of people who would like to use it, or even need to use it, but cannot take advantage of it. The other glaring anomaly is that a number of people in that group would be able to benefit from the enlightened approach of some adoption agencies in some parts of the country: they would be able to gain information, but that would be tremendously unfair given that people will be reliant on the good practice that is embodied in the Bill.

The evidence given to the Committee by Professor Triseliotis and others is that people will generally benefit from the Bill's provisions. If problems arise, however, the Bill is explicitly weighted in the interests of those who have been adopted. There is little chance that anyone seeking information will be able to obtain it against the wishes of the person who has been adopted.

I am disappointed in the clause, because it may not be used to its fullest extent. I stand to be corrected, but it is not even retrospective. It should represent a new opportunity for a particular group of people who have been through a particular process—often in the dim and distant past. Although I support the provision, I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect over the next weeks whether to offer people who are currently denied it access to use the Bill. That would be very much in their human interests and would continue the role adopted by the Government of righting historic wrongs in the care system.

Nothing is perfect. We cannot solve everything for everybody, even if we want to. The information will not exist in many cases; in others, acquiring it will be complex and difficult—perhaps too difficult. However, there are people who could benefit tremendously from the Bill. We can do some real good through the new clause by extending it to embrace the group of people who are, as it stands, to be excluded.

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Mr. Djanogly: On several occasions I have given my views about aspects of the Bill being retrospective, including those parts that deal with access to information. I shall not rehearse those arguments again, other than to make one point which came to mind after we last discussed the issue. It relates to statistics, which have often been mentioned. Statistics can only have been collected from people whose records have been accessed and with whom contact has been made. By definition, a 70-year-old who has not been approached by a birth parent and who does not know that he was adopted cannot be included in such statistics. Therefore, to say after they have been approached that people would automatically have had a certain view before they were approached is a non sequitur. That is not necessarily so. Once somebody has been approached, it is more than likely—and wholly understandable—that they will want to make the best of their situation and put the best aspect on it.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made an important point about the scope of delegation in adoption agencies—that is, how they make the decisions regarding access to information. Presumably, agencies delegate decisions in different ways: councils may have a committee policy to determine to whom decisions should be delegated, while non-council adoption agencies may have a policy forum that discusses who will make decisions for them. I wonder whether there has been any standardisation in the past and whether Governments have taken an interest in how decisions are made. It is an issue worth exploring, if that has not yet been done, in terms of guidelines and good practice.

I have two other concerns. The first just requires clarification. The Minister said that the clause 12 mechanism—the right of appeal, which will be important in terms of the application of these provisions—will apply to new clause 7. I will be grateful if she confirms that it will apply also to the provisions of new clause 8, which I do not think she mentioned.

Finally, if the answer of an adoption agency was Yes, you can have information,'' but one of the people who had been consulted said, No, I don't want that information to be given,'' and the adoption agency took the decision that, in the circumstances, the information should be released, as things stand the individual would have no way to appeal or to stop that decision before the adoption agency released the information, and once the information had been released, an appeal against its release would be meaningless. Will the Minister provide some clarification on that? If a negative view were expressed and the adoption agency were minded to consent to the release of the information, might there be a case for adjudication by the panel?

3.45 pm

Ms Munn: I support much of what has been said about the clause by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, although I have some sympathy with the Minister's view that birth parents may approach an

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agency and the agency may approach an adopted adult at a bad time for that adult, thus causing some disruption and distress. However, we know that the decision by adopted adults to seek out their birth parents is often taken after several years' consideration: for example, people who were adopted in the 60s and early 70s often start to think more about their birth parents when they have their own children. They choose to make the search at the right time for them, but clearly one of the dangers of the provision being retrospective is that the approach may not be made at a good time.

Having said that, the knowledge that birth parents or siblings are seeking contact and want to pass on information may in itself be important information for the adopted person in reaching a decision about seeking out his or her origins. The fear of rejection by a birth parent is often extremely off-putting to an adopted adult who is deciding whether to search. An adoptive father with whom I placed some children and who had been adopted himself dithered for many years about whether to start a search for fear that his birth mother would not want anything to do with him.

For many adopted adults, knowing that people want to contact them—that the circumstances in which they were adopted were not ideal and they were not rejected as babies—can be extremely important in enabling them to take steps to begin a search earlier. Time runs out for some people. There is nothing more heartbreaking for a person seeking contact than to find that his birth parent died perhaps only six months or a year before and that had he taken the step sooner, he might have had some positive contact with his parent.

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