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Special Standing Committee
Tuesday 15 January 2002
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town): On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. I would like the Programming Sub-Committee to have a brief meeting five minutes after the adjournment of this morning's sitting, so that we can discuss Report stage. It is a matter of which I have apprised the Opposition parties, and I hope that it meets with your approval.
The Chairman: The request has been made that the Programming Sub-Committee meet after this morning's sitting. I am content that such a meeting should be held, and that it should begin five minutes after the questions are put at 1 pm, so that the Room can be prepared for the private meeting.
Restriction on arranging adoptions, etc.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Welcome back, Mrs. Roe, to the final furlong of this lengthy Bill. It will be a great shame, after this week, not to have our Tuesday and Thursday sittings to look forward to.
The clauses on restrictions to be debated this morning contain little that is contentious, so I hope that we can make progress and move on to the amendments and new clauses, which are of greater interest. However, I hope that the Minister will elaborate on the extent of the restrictions on arranging adoptions. In particular, I cannot see how the provision applies to those accused of trying to arrange adoptions over the internet; given recent cases, I want to be sure that all loopholes are closed. The matter might be covered in another of the clauses that we are about to debate, but I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that all the loopholes have been closed and that people who are not authorised to do so will be prevented from arranging adoptions.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I will say a few words about the extent of clause 88, but first I shall answer the question asked by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about internet adoptions. Adoption advertisements on the internet are covered by clause 113, which we shall debate later this morning.
Clause 88 deals with restrictions on arranging adoptions. It restates, with some amendments, section 11 of the Adoption Act 1976. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that it is essential that the welfare and needs of children are safeguarded: the protection and care of vulnerable children is our first priority. There are those who are prepared to engage in buying or selling children for adoption, but even if
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money does not change hands, no one should be permitted to arrange private adoptions. The welfare of the child must be paramount, and only those who are properly qualified and trained should arrange adoptions.
I shall briefly list the provisions of the clause so that the Committee is clear about the various restrictions it imposes. Subsection (1) makes it clear that only local authorities and registered adoption agencies, and those acting in accordance with a High Court order, should make arrangements for adoption. That provision is subject to subsection (4), which provides that the prohibition does not apply to the taking of certain steps if one or both of the prospective adopters are parents, relatives or guardians of the child, or if a prospective adopter is a step-parent. Clause 88 maintains the current legal position, but provides greater clarity than section 11 of the 1976 Act and the previous version of the Bill by listing in subsection (2) those steps that should not be taken by anyone unless an adoption agency is involved.
The step in paragraph (a) is asking a person to provide a child for adoption, for example, where a person asks a birth parent or a third party to supply a child; and in paragraph (b) asking a person to provide prospective adopters, for example, where the birth parent approaches a third party, such as an intermediary, and asks him to provide adopters for her child. The step in paragraph (c) is
''offering to find a child for adoption'',
for example, where X approaches Y and suggests that he can locate a child for Y to adopt. In paragraph (d), it is
''offering a child for adoption''—
where X, a parent of a child or an intermediary, has identified a child who could be adopted and makes a direct proposal about that child to Y.
The step in paragraph (e) is handing over a child for the purpose of adoption by the person who receives him or by someone else, for example, X takes and gives the child to Y for adoption, or X takes and gives the child to Z, so that he can hand the child over to Y for adoption. Paragraph (f) covers receiving a child for the purpose of adoption in contravention of paragraph (e): that would catch Y for taking the child from either X or Z, and catch Z for receiving a child from X to hand the child over to Y. I was thinking of preparing a flow chart, but I hope that the use of letters, particularly if people pore over my remarks later, will make clear the different restrictions.
Paragraph (g) covers
''entering into an agreement with any person for the adoption of a child, or for the purpose of facilitating the adoption of a child, where no adoption agency is acting on behalf of the child''.
That would catch both X and Y in their bargaining or agreement for the adoption of the child by Y; it would also catch Z for helping to facilitate the arrangement under paragraph (e), or in any other way assisting X and Y in the adoption of the child. Paragraph (h) covers
''initiating or taking part in negotiations of which the purpose is the conclusion of an agreement within paragraph (g)''
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for the adoption of a child or an agreement to facilitate the adoption of a child. In my example, it would also catch a new character, W, who has no role in the illicit adoption other than opening negotiations between X and Y by introducing them to each other for the purpose. Another example would be a person who participated in the negotiations in a mediating role. Finally, paragraph (i) restricts
''causing another person to take any of the steps mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (h).''
That final step catches anyone who does not take any of the aforementioned steps himself, but induces another person to do so.
Clause 88(3) and (4) provides that the prohibition does not apply to the taking of certain steps where one or both of the prospective adopters are parents, relatives or guardians of the child, or where a prospective adopter is a step-parent. The steps that do not apply are paragraphs (d), (e), (g), (h) and (i) of subsection (2).
That is probably sufficient explanation of the intentions behind the clause, and I urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful. The clause has been made terribly clear and we can proceed.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 88 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 89 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Restriction on reports
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Tim Loughton: The clause is not terribly contentious—[Interruption.]
The Chairman: Order.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I am sorry, Mrs. Roe.
Tim Loughton: However, there seem to be a lot of let-outs. We agree that people who are not authorised to do so should not produce reports on prospective adoptions. However, subsection (4) provides that
''Where a person is charged with an offence under subsection (2)(b), it is a defence for him to prove that he neither knew nor had reasonable cause to believe that the report would be, or had been, prepared in contravention of subsection (1).''
In my experience, ignorance of the law is no defence. Anybody could say that they did not realise that a report would be used for the purposes of adoption. I should have thought that there ought to be a greater onus on a person who prepares literature akin to that which would be required for promoting an adoption. Does not subsection (4) give too lenient a let-out for the clause to be effective?
Jacqui Smith: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman by outlining the restrictions in the clause. The intention is to cover cases of domestic and intercountry adoption in which couples seek to
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circumvent the safeguards by commissioning private social workers to write inaccurate favourable reports to support their adoption applications. The clause permits only properly qualified people employed by or working on behalf of adoption agencies to carry out home study assessment reports and post-placement and post-adoption reports. We want to ensure that such reports are impartial and accurate. They are an essential part of the decision-making process, which exists to safeguard the interests of the child and to make an appropriate match between the child and adoptive parents. There is a further risk that placements may be disrupted by private report writers working on post-adoption reports, which are sometimes requested in intercountry adoptions by the country of the child's origin to monitor the way in which a placements is working, as is the case with adoptions from China and the Philippines.
The clause provides for restrictions on the preparation of adoption reports. Under subsection (1), we shall be able to specify that only qualified people in registered adoption societies, agencies or local authorities are able to prepare and write those essential documents, which play a key role in informing decisions in the adoption process. Unqualified and unregulated individuals should not be able to prepare home assessments on prospective adopters or post-placement or post-adoption reports. Under subsection (2), an offence is committed when someone prepares a report that contravenes subsection (1), or causes a person to prepare or submit such a report. Under subsection (3), when a person who works for an adoption society that is not registered commits an offence, the manager is also guilty of the offence. That ensures that the manager of an adoption support service is penalised, as his organisation is not registered.