Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: The clause is about ensuring that counselling is provided where necessary. Under current regulations, there are no obligations on adoption agencies to provide counselling to any person seeking access to information within the existing legislative framework. However, counselling is provided where an adopted person seeks access to the information that would enable him to obtain a copy of his birth certificate from the Registrar-General under the Adoption Act 1976. As has been said, individuals adopted before 12 November 1975 are required to see a counsellor before they are given access to the information. Those adopted on or after that date will be informed of the counselling services that are available to them, but counselling is not a precondition to disclosure of the birth record information.

I think that I made it clear in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre that there is nothing in the Bill that makes counselling compulsory subsequent to enactment of the legislation.

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Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister envisage counselling being carried out by social workers from the departments involved, or will it be done by an independent trained counsellor? Most social workers do a great deal of counselling anyway, but it could be said that they are not trained counsellors. They are not, for example, bereavement counsellors. Will she elucidate on that?

Jacqui Smith: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be less unsure if he had let me continue to the stage at which I was going to talk about that. I was going to say that counselling is of real value in helping adopted people—especially those whose family history includes distressing events—to come to terms with sensitive information about their backgrounds. The clause makes provision in respect of counselling for individuals seeking information under these clauses who are considering whether to consent or object to the disclosure, and those considering an arrangement for the sharing of identifying information through an agreement made under clause 54(6).

Agencies will be obliged, through regulations, to provide information about the availability of counselling services to those seeking information under these provisions, to any person considering whether to object or consent to the disclosure of information under these provisions and to anyone considering entering into an arrangement to share protected information. The first requirement is to make information available.

Adoption agencies will also be obliged, under regulations, to secure the provision of counselling, where the person wishes to take it up, for people seeking information under these clauses in prescribed circumstances. Adoption agencies—in response to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham)—should be able to arrange for agencies with skilled counsellors to provide specialist advice and help or general counselling on their behalf.

Hon. Members asked about standards. As we have previously discussed, monitoring will be carried out by the National Care Standards Commission, which will be the registration authority for registered adoption societies and adoption support agencies. Monitoring of counselling carried out by local authorities would be part of the performance management and inspection regimes that are in place. In relation to the costs, we have already provided £66.5 million for adoption services in England over three years.

When counselling is carried on outside the United Kingdom, the agency will be able to charge for disclosing information. That may ensure that the counselling is carried out by a counsellor where the person lives, as that would be the appropriate way in which to secure counselling in that case. The clause also provides that the regulations may enable adoption agencies to disclose the information needed by the counselling agency to provide the counselling. Through regulations, we shall be able to deal with the details of how the process will work following

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consultation and require local authorities, registered adoption societies or adoption support agencies to provide that counselling.

I hope that with that further information, hon. Members will feel able to support the clause.

Tim Loughton: Yet again, the £66 million figure has been trumpeted. I wonder whether those people who are going to benefit from it are aware that it will extend to counselling services as well. It seems to be one of the most overspent sums of money in history.

I have one query. Why is there differential treatment for pre and post 1975 people? Why is it felt that counselling for pre-1975 people is absolutely required and compulsory before they can be given the information, whereas it is not as important for someone adopted after that date?

Jacqui Smith: I know that Opposition Members may address this issue under later amendments. They seek to remove the distinctions between persons adopted before and after 1975. That brings us back to the debate that we were having earlier. Hon. Members will know that Parliament introduced that distinction when it passed the Children Act 1975, parts of which were subsequently enshrined in section 51 of the Adoption Act 1976. It was felt most strongly that the introduction of the provisions that allow for the first time an adopted person to be able to apply for information about their birth record should be set in a framework built on support and guidance.

There were many who felt at the time that the state was reneging on its undertaking to the hundreds and thousands of birth parents—mainly mothers—that their son or daughter would never be able to contact them. Parliament decided that it should safeguard those people by ensuring that the information was disclosed to adopted persons by professional staff with experience of the sensitivities that surround adoption and its consequences. Therefore, it was made mandatory for people adopted before 12 November 1975 that they should see a counsellor before they were given the information provided by the Registrar-General. For persons adopted after 12 November 1975, it was decided that they should have the choice as to whether to receive the information direct from the Registrar-General or to attend an interview before proceeding. That is the reason for the distinction.

Mr. Djanogly: I am not exactly sure why there should be a difference. The reason why the hon. Lady gave was a good explanation for why counselling should happen in pre-1975 cases, but I did not understand how it follows that the counselling should be less adequate post-1975.

Jacqui Smith: The issue is not about the adequacy of counselling but whether it is possible to access information with optional counselling. Pre-1975, counselling is compulsory, but post-1975, including in the Bill, counselling is optional although in many cases beneficial and important.

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4.30 pm

Mr. Bellingham: I have one more question for the Minister, as she did not really answer my question. We would like to have more of a flavour for who the counsellors will be. I am not trying to nitpick, but am keen to find out more detail on that if possible.

Jacqui Smith: I think that I answered the question. The people will depend on the agency. They could be social workers or trained counsellors. Organisations already provide counselling in relation to access to information under current law. There will be a range of people. The important issue is that there should be quality, and I responded previously as to how we would ensure the maintenance and monitoring of quality.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 60 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 61

Other provision to be made by regulations

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 212, in page 34, leave out lines 31 to 33.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 213 to 216.

Jacqui Smith: The clause provides for a group of powers through regulations that we intend to use to balance the rights of individuals, and to regulate the operation of the new duties for adoption agencies and the Registrar-General. As the Committee has discussed, the Government have changed the original approach that we set out in the Bill in relation to access to birth certificates and any other protected information. The changes are provided for in new clause 7(3) and new clause 8(3) and (4). Clause 61(2)(a) and (b), which provided for regulations to prescribe the circumstances in which a person may object to the disclosure of information about himself, and how he may do so, are therefore no longer needed. They are taken out by amendment No. 212.

Amendment No. 213 is a consequential amendment to clause 61(2)(c) that omits reference to the manner in which objections to disclosure are to be recorded. Amendment No. 214 omits subsections (2)(d) and (e), which provide for regulations to prescribe under paragraph (d) the circumstances in which objections are to be treated as effective and, under paragraph (e), the circumstances in which a person may be treated as having objected to the disclosure of any information.

Mr. Bellingham: I have a technical point. Amendment No. 216 leaves out paragraph (b), which is fair enough. However, amendment No. 212 leaves out lines 31 to 33. Would it not have been easier to have left out paragraphs (a) and (b)?

Jacqui Smith: I assure the hon. Gentleman that, when the Government table amendments, we have in mind not ease but ensuring that we deliver our policy commitments. I assure him that the amendments do so.

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Amendment No. 215 is a consequential amendment that replaces object'' in subsection (3)(a) with give their views as''. The effect is that regulations may require adoption agencies to give prescribed persons prescribed information about their rights, or opportunities to give their views on the disclosure of information under clauses 53 to 62, rather than to object to the disclosure of information under those clauses. Those amendments are consequential on the policy changes that have removed the ability for objections to be made in certain circumstances to the giving of information for access to a birth certificate. They follow on from the decisions that the Committee made earlier.

Amendment No. 216 is also consequential and omits subsection (3)(b), which provides that

    Regulations may require adoption agencies to make enquiries in prescribed circumstances to ascertain whether a person objects to the disclosure of information about him''.

Once again, as we have removed the statutory ability to make such objection, that particular paragraph is no longer needed.

Those are the reasons for the amendments and I hope that the Committee will support them.

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