Adoption and Children Bill

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The Chairman: Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that his comments are outside the scope of the clause, although he has made his point well.

Tim Loughton: Thank you, Mrs. Roe. Your comment was well timed.

I should like to make one more point in relation to the clause. It is notoriously hard to marshal the internet. Bearing in mind the nature of the internet and the difficulty of finding the originator of an advertisement or the disseminator of information, how does the Minister intend to make these clauses work, particularly with regard to a body or an individual seeking from a country that does not fall under UK jurisdiction to encourage some form of adoption in the UK? Has her Department had bilateral discussions with a view to enforcing the clauses in countries outside the UK, bearing in mind the fact that, when people advertise to adopt UK children or to find adoptive parents in the UK, the effect is felt in the UK? The financial authorities sought to come to such arrangements with other countries when various dubious organisations set up in overseas tax havens and advertised their latest ''get rich quick'' schemes in the UK.

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I agree with the need for and thrust of the clauses but, where the internet is concerned, they will work, particularly on a global scale, only if provisions are implemented by authorities in other countries to ensure that the same considerations apply.

Jacqui Smith: I missed the programme that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): He has a great video collection.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham needs to get out more. He has raised an important point. Subsection (2) spells outó[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I must ask the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Huntingdon not to hold sub-Committee meetings in the Room; I can hear a burble of conversation.

Jacqui Smith: I was drawing the Committee's attention to subsection (2), which clearly spells out which advertisements are restricted. I suspect that the programme did not contravene the proposed conditions that

    ''(a) the parent or guardian of a child wants the child to be adopted,

    (b) a person wants to adopt a child,

    (c) a person other than an adoption agency is willing to take any step mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (e), (g) and (h) and (so far as relating to those paragraphs) (i) of section 88(2), or

    (d) a person is willing to remove a child from the United Kingdom for the purposes of adoption.''

However, it is inevitable, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that such programmes will draw interest in adoption. That is not necessarily a bad thing. What is important is that the safeguards are in place. We have discussed at length the intercountry provisions to be applied in the interests of the children, were such a programme to prompt someone to consider adoption. It is unlikely that the clause would catch the programme that he mentioned, but programmes that broadcast explicit details about children who are available for adoption should do so only on behalf of or with an adoption agency.

You made clear your views on Romania, Mrs. Roe, so I shall say only that I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary question on the issue with a little more information about the Romanian Government.

The hon. Gentleman is right that it is difficult to control the provision of information over the internet, and, as in the other areas that he mentioned, there are limits on what we can do. However, there are clear steps that the Government can and will take to avoid the problems that I mentioned. An internet service provider in the United Kingdom that hosts a website containing illicit information can be penalised if it fails to block access to that website once it has been notified of the problem. We therefore have a clear power as regards internet service providers that host websites in this country.

If the host internet service provider is based outside our jurisdiction, we will press it to close access to the illicit website or ask the authorities in that country to

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take action. We will have no powers under the Bill to block access at the source or through a UK conduit internet service provider. However, my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry will soon consult on regulations to implement the e-commerce directive, which explicitly promotes co-operation between member states to meet the ends that we are discussing. Codes of practice may well give us the scope to ensure that we achieve our objectives as regards the internet. With that clarification, I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support clause 113.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 113, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 114 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 106 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 107

Acquisition of parental responsibility

by step-parent

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton: We can move fairly swiftly through the next group of clauses. A step-parent can acquire parental responsibility for a stepchild on marriage to the child's mother. Does parental responsibility automatically lapse if those individuals are subsequently divorced, or is the question subject to a parental responsibility court order as part of a divorce settlement? I am sure that there is an obvious answer. I see the Parliamentary Secretary scribbling fiercely and I am sure that she will respond quickly. The Bill is not clear on the point.

12 noon

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): Perhaps it would help if I first outlined the effect of clause 107. It inserts into the Children Act 1989 section 4A, to enable a step-parent to acquire parental responsibility for a child of his spouse, either by agreement between the step-parent and the parents who have parental responsibility for the child, or by order of the court. The measure is intended to provide an alternative to adoption where a step-parent wants to acquire parental responsibility for his or her stepchild.

The advantage is that the provision will not remove parental responsibility from the other birth parent and will not legally separate the child from membership of the family of that other birth parent. It will enable step-parents to acquire a legal status in relation to the child for whom they are caring. Given that that will come about by order of the court, parental responsibility will not automatically lapse. It could be terminated only by the court. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question and that he will therefore agree to the clause.

Mr. Djanogly: Under subsections (3)(b) and (4) of new section 4A, the court could, effectively, bring the arrangements to an end if they did not work out. The child would be listened to and the court would need to see whether the child had sufficient understanding. I

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have been thinking about whether we should also turn matters around. Why should the child's views not be heard in the first place, when it was proposed that parental responsibility be given?

Mr. Dawson: This is an excellent clause. I am sure that a large part of the delay in social services departments affecting adoption arises from the vexed question of step-parent adoptions, which can have little priority for overworked social services departments but which, nevertheless, are important for children, step-parents and natural parents. I welcome the proposal to enable step-parents fairly readily to acquire parental responsibility without all the pain, difficulty and frustration that loss of parental responsibility and of contact between the child and the wider family would cause to the birth parent with whom the child is not living. I very much hope that the clause will be widely used and that it will lead to the withering away of the use of step-parent adoptions. I can see no further use for such adoptions, given the content of the new provisions. This is a very important step forward. It is efficient, sensible and above all humane, and I welcome it.

Mr. Llwyd: I agree; the clause is useful and important and brings into line a matter that needs to be dealt with. The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked the Minister why we could not turn the whole matter round. If, under subsection (3), the child has the right to apply to the court, why should the child not be consulted when the step-parent makes his or her application for parental responsibility? That would be perfectly logical and right and would extend the concept. The question is useful, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider it further.

Mr. Shaw: I should like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre in warmly welcoming the clause. I remember, when I was a duty social worker, receiving calls from birth parents and having to explain to them that they would have to adopt their own child. The messenger was often shot. I was considered to be responsibleónot true with regard to existing legislation, but to some extent true with regard to this Bill.

It is beyond me how anyone could have dreamt up the idea that a birth parent should be obliged to adopt their own child. A constituent in such a situation wrote to me a couple of years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), the ministerial predecessor of my hon. Friend the Minister, wrote to me, stating that the Government were committed to removing the anachronism in order to facilitate a speedier process in which families could secure themselves and children could be adopted by their step-parents. My constituent was put off by the thought that they would have to go through the whole adoption process, and put the idea on ice. I hope that, when the Bill receives Royal Assent, that constituent's family and thousands of others will be able to take advantage of it. The legislation is long overdue, but represents a promise kept and is very welcome.

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