Adoption and Children Bill

[back to previous text]

Jacqui Smith: Part of the debate is based on a misunderstanding of current law. It is not currently possible to commission private home study reports for either domestic or intercountry adoptions. Hon. Members will remember that we discussed section 13 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which came into force on 30 January 2000 and which amended section 72 of the Adoption Act 1976 to include the assessment of prospective adopters in the definition of ''making arrangements''. By virtue of section 11 of the 1976 Act, the effect of that amendment was to ban privately commissioned home study reports and to make it clear that only a council or voluntary adoption agency may assess and approve an individual as suitable to adopt.

11 am

I maintain that the current legal position is right. There should be a structure of accountability, monitoring and peer review for the process of producing an assessment report, which is, let us not forget, crucial to determining whether the child's best interests will be served by the adoption. Monitoring—post-placement and sometimes post-adoption—of the success of the placement, should also figure in the arrangements. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) made an important point about the inappropriateness of a direct contract between the relevant person and the person or organisation given the task of assessing their suitability to adopt a child or to continue a placement or adoption. That seems an incestuous and difficult relationship that does not serve the child's interests.

The points made by the Opposition focus on whether the process is currently quick enough. Under clause 90(1), the person who prepares the report must fall within the prescribed description. We shall consult on that, and the criteria I have outlined today and the need for monitoring and quality assurance will be a significant focus of that consultation. We are also taking measures to speed up the process of adoption and to make it fairer, through, for example, the national adoption register, the national adoption standards and the independent review panels. In those ways—not by reducing the quality of the process to enable things to be rushed through in a way that could be inappropriate or even dangerous for children—we shall ensure that children can be appropriately adopted more quickly.

As we have now had a lengthy discussion, I hope that the Committee will feel able to agree that clause 90 should stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Djanogly: To return to the question of speed, the Government have stipulated that a planning application for a property should be determined within eight weeks, and every council must reveal at

Column Number: 801

the end of the year the extent to which it has met that target. The process of adopting a child—a matter that I should have thought was somewhat more immediate, given the sensibilities involved—can sometimes go on for years. Is that right? Is not it reasonable to require that the reports should be produced within a set period, and that if they are not, the council should be obliged to have someone else produce them?

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that prospective adopters have other options? It is not necessary that they approach only the local authority in whose area they live, and it is not unusual for prospective adopters to approach other local authorities or independent agencies. They do not have only one place to go. Furthermore, do not some authorities prioritise certain prospective adopters, such as those who want to adopt older children, because they currently have such children in their care, so that a couple wanting a younger child would be better advised to approach an independent agency or other local authority?

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Lady makes several important points with which I do not disagree. On the other hand, she illustrates many of the system's inconsistencies, which will not disappear under the Bill. While approaches to other agencies may be appropriate for people living in some council areas or boroughs—for example, her local council is known to be very slow—the fact that they are able to do so does not excuse those councils from their duty to do a better job.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) makes a crucial point. We are not talking about restricting choice, or, as we shall discuss later, about not putting pressure on the system to ensure quicker adoptions. The system, which is not incoherent, contains choices between quality options that can safeguard the welfare of the child. The hon. Gentleman seems, surprisingly, to be arguing for a choice between a quality option and a slipshod option that would make things a bit quicker regardless of the welfare of the child.

I do not want to repeat arguments that I have made before. The key point is that the restrictions are to do with ensuring that the adoption process works in the best interests of the child's welfare. Of course, time scales are important: that is why the Government have introduced the public service agreement target on time scales, which we published just before Christmas; it is why we have introduced much tougher performance management for local authorities; and it is why we shall publicly ensure that the performance of local authority social services departments is much more open to scrutiny. That is the reason we have already made progress in reducing the time that children spend in care before they are adopted. Those are the actions not of a Government who are unconcerned about time scales, but of a Government who want to speed up the process of adoption in a way that safeguards the interests of the child. The argument is about that fundamental issue.

Tim Loughton: There is a large degree of agreement on the clause, but the Minister—unintentionally, I am sure—still seems to be missing the point. Her remarks

Column Number: 802

about the slipshod option identified the very concern that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and I tried to express. People approach other local authorities or adoption agencies—they have a wide choice—for reasons that relate to the points I made originally: either their local authority is taking too long, or they believe that the requirements of another local authority or adoption agency might be less stringent. The Minister mentioned a third factor—another quality option—involving the wish to adopt a certain type of child or the fact that a local authority is concentrating on a particular type of adoptive parent. Essentially, people's reasons for going elsewhere are either that it will be easier—if they have been rejected by their home agency—or that it will be quicker.

We all want to speed up adoption, but the admission that people may have a choice between a quality option and a slipshod option is an admission that there are slipshod agencies. That is what we must bear down on. Such agencies are the target for improvements in speed, approach and the quality of the adoption services offered. However, I fear that that is not the problem that the clauses deal with.

We need to bring the slipshod option up to the standard of the others, so that good quality options exist in all parts of the country and people can expect a consistently high standard wherever they happen to live, or whichever agency they happen to approach first, whether a local authority or a voluntary adoption agency. I think that the Minister would agree with me. However, we have had a good discussion on the clause and we do not need to take the debate further.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 90 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 91

Prohibition of certain payments

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 259, in page 50, line 5, leave out from 'in' to end of line 6.

Having discussed restrictions on arrangements and reports, we come to the prohibition of certain payments. That safeguard is important because some individuals are prepared to engage in the despicable business of buying and selling children for adoption and do not recognise the needs of those children. It is essential that the welfare and needs of children be safeguarded.

The extent of the penalty in the clause acknowledges the seriousness of such activities. Individuals who are convicted face a prison term of up to six months, a fine of up to £10,000, or both. That is tougher than the current penalty under section 57 of the Adoption Act 1976, which the clause largely restates. The current penalty involves a prison term not exceeding three months, a fine not exceeding £5,000, or both. We are right to increase the penalty and thus the deterrent because children need protection.

The clause prohibits the exchange of any money in adoptions, other than that excepted in clause 92, which covers the payment of legitimate expenses incurred by adoption agencies and persons who apply or propose to apply for adoption or for the transfer of parental responsibility orders. Subsection (1) provides that the clause applies to any payment—other than the

Column Number: 803

payments set out in clause 92—which is made in adopting a child, consenting to an adoption, or removing to a place outside the British islands for the purpose of adoption a child who is a Commonwealth citizen or who is habitually resident in the United Kingdom. The subsection also applies to any payment that is made in connection with steps taken to arrange an adoption under clause 88(2), to which I shall return when I discuss the amendment.

Subsection (3) provides that an offence is committed if a person makes any payment to which the clause applies, agrees or offers to make any such payment, or receives, agrees to receive, or attempts to obtain any such payment. Subsection (4) provides for the toughened penalty that I outlined. It will ensure that there is a strong deterrent to discourage those who use financial reward to induce others to act in contravention of clauses 91, 82, 88 and 90.

The amendment is intended is to strengthen the connection between the steps taken under clause 88, which I spelled out in some detail, and the restriction in clause 91 on payments being made in taking such steps. Clause 88 makes it clear that only adoption agencies and persons acting in pursuance of a High Court order may take specified steps in relation to adoption, other than in certain circumstances—if the prospective adopter, or one of the adopters, is a parent, step-parent, relative or guardian of the child.

Clause 91 restricts the exchange of money in adoptions, and payments that fall under it are prohibited unless excepted by clause 92. As the Bill is currently drafted, clause 91(1) does not catch three of the nine steps specified in clause 88. Those are:

    ''asking a person other than an adoption agency to provide a child for adoption''

in clause 88(2)(a),

    ''asking a person other than an adoption agency to provide prospective adopters for a child''

in clause 88(2)(b), and

    ''receiving a child . . . in contravention of paragraph (e)''

with a view to adopting or allowing another person to adopt the child without an adoption agency being involved, which is dealt with in clause 88(2)(f). Therefore, any payment made for—or consideration of a person taking—any of those steps is not an offence. The amendment will make such payments unlawful and will ensure that clause 91(1) covers all nine of the steps in clause 88.

11.15 am

By including the three other steps under clause 91(1), we increase the safeguards for vulnerable children and provide the means to penalise those who make inappropriate payments, agree or offer to make such payments, or agree to receive such payments. For example, as well as those who approach a birth parent directly—under clause 88(2)(a)—we want to ensure that intermediaries are caught by the provisions. Someone who offered money to an intermediary would also be caught, such as a person offering money to someone involved in giving

Column Number: 804

advice and support to pregnant mothers or in providing care for children.

A person, X, might be eager to find a mother who is willing to give up her child for adoption; he approaches Y, a nurse who works in a maternity clinic, and offers Y money to approach new mothers who are experiencing problems and who might be persuaded that their difficulties could be easily resolved by giving up their newborn child for adoption. In respect of clause 88(2)(b), a parent may be unwilling to keep a child, but not want to put the child into the care of the local authority. That parent may offer money to an intermediary to find prospective adopters and then give the child up freely or negotiate some reward for the exchange of the child. The amendment would restrict that payment. Finally, in respect of clause 88(2)(f), those who, as part of a financial transaction, place a child with another person for that person or another to adopt will be penalised.

The Committee will agree that making payments in relation to adoption is inappropriate, except in specific and excepted cases. It is certainly inappropriate to use adoption to make a profit. The restrictions in clause 91, strengthened by Government amendment No. 259 with its explicit links to clause 88, provide the protection to ensure that such practices do not find their way into our adoption system.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 15 January 2002