Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Don't worry.

Sandra Gidley: I am sure that hon. Members were delighted.

The Bill could be amended to require that placement proceedings were closely linked to care proceedings and that adoption proceedings were specified proceedings under section 41 of the Children Act 1989. In specified proceedings, the courts appoint a CAFCASS officer for the child, unless they are satisfied that that it is not necessary to safeguard the child's interests. Such a provision would ensure that the child's wishes and feelings were reported to the court independently, rather than by the adoption agency, the birth family or the applicants. That would ensure proper investigation and a clear presentation of the child's views and welfare.

Jacqui Smith: Clause 126 enables the Lord Chancellor to make rules on matters of adoption

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procedure. The amendment would require those rules to provide that the child be notified of the date and place of a hearing in relation to an application for a placement order, the variation or revocation of a placement order and an adoption order. It would also require the rules to provide that the child need not attend the hearing, unless he wished to do so or the court required it.

The Government do not think that it would be appropriate for the rules to make provision along those lines. In many cases, the child will be too young to understand the meaning of an application for a placement order or an adoption order, let alone the significance of the court hearing. In addition, we will need to ensure that children are not unnecessarily made party to proceedings, because involvement in them can be stressful for children, and it may be in some children's best interests to have their views represented differently.

I understand the points made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and the concerns about how we ensure that the child's interests and voice are best represented in the system. We shall automatically make children a party to proceedings in placement order cases—as they currently are in care order cases—and we shall appoint a children's guardian. That will give children the right to separate legal representation.

The Bill does not provide for a child to be a party to all adoption proceedings, as we discussed earlier in the Committee. That is because such a provision may not be necessary in cases such as step-parent or relative adoptions. Court rules will, however, provide for the appointment of a CAFCASS officer in any adoption proceedings. The Government currently intend the child to be able to apply to the court for leave to be made a party to adoption proceedings, and the application will be considered in the light of the child's age and understanding.

In addition, the Lord Chancellor's Department and CAFCASS will use the opportunity provided by the creation of CAFCASS to consider the representation of children in all private law proceedings. They will consider whether other types of case might require children to be made a party to the proceedings or to be automatically appointed a children's guardian. They will also examine changes to the criteria used by the courts in considering whether to grant leave for a child to be made a party to proceedings. Any rule changes suggested in that review will be subject to consultation.

As regards the timetable for consultation on the draft rules, we must finalise the Bill and take into account the views of Parliament before we complete those rules. We intend to start consultation on their contents as soon as practicable thereafter, which we hope will be before the end of the year. We also hope that that will allow for a full three-month consultation period.

On a more general note, children of sufficient age and understanding are often invited to meet the judge, for example, to celebrate the making of an adoption order in straightforward cases. That ensures that they see the making of the order as a special occasion, and

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they are often given cards to mark the significance of the day. In that regard, it should be said that judges are often careful not to invite the child to court until it is clear that the adoption order will be made, to avoid disappointing them. For some children—particularly younger ones—becoming involved in court proceedings can be a daunting prospect, and we must ensure that the system retains the flexibility to meet children's particular needs. The arrangements that I described are important because they allow the court to convey the significance of adoption, and I am sure that many of us would be excited to meet a judge.

It is important that the Bill ensures that the child's views are taken into account in all the decisions that courts and adoption agencies make about adoption. As we discussed, clause 1(4)(a) will oblige the courts, when making such decisions, to ascertain and take account of the child's views, bearing in mind his age and understanding. Furthermore, the Government have made it clear that the child's wishes and feelings should be actively sought and fully taken into account at all stages of the adoption process. That key value underpins our national adoption standards.

Court rules made under clauses 97 and 126 will provide for the appointment and duties of a CAFCASS officer. Those may include acting on behalf of a child in partnership with a legal adviser or reporting to the court on the child's wishes and feelings. Clause 1(4)(a) will oblige the courts to consider those views in reaching any decision. I hope that on the basis of those reassurances, the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Sandra Gidley: I thank the Minister for that clarification. Such a detailed response is helpful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 126 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 127

Supplementary and consequential provision

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 262, in page 71, line 24, at end insert—

    '( ) The power of the Registrar General to make regulations under Chapter 5 of Part 1 may, with the approval of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, be exercised so as to make—

    (a) any supplementary, incidental or consequential provision,

    (b) any transitory, transitional or saving provision,

    which the Registrar General considers necessary or expedient'.

Clause 127 deals with supplementary and consequential provision. Subsection (1) will enable the appropriate Minister to make such supplementary, incidental, consequential, transitional or saving provisions as he considers necessary to give full effect to the Bill. The amendment will insert a new subsection into the clause. Subsection (2) provides that any power of the Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State or Assembly may be exercised to make those supplementary, incidental, consequential, transitional or saving provisions, if necessary or expedient.

The amendment will extend that provision to give the Registrar-General identical supplementary powers to those of the Secretary of State when exercising any

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of his chapter 5 powers, with the approval of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If those powers are not provided for the Registrar-General, he will not be able to make incidental, transitional or saving provisions when new regulations are made or existing ones amended. To do that, he will need a power that may be exercised only with the approval of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and only if provision is necessary or expedient. One example is a provision in respect of the use or acceptance of a form by the Registrar-General's office before a certain date, such as the date when new regulations come into force.

I hope that hon. Members will accept that the amendment extends to the Registrar-General powers similar to those that exist for others who are responsible for making regulations, and that, on that basis, they will support it.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 127, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 128

Offences by bodies corporate and

unincorporated bodies

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

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I want to ask the Minister how the clause will be enforced. We could have asked the same question about clause 14, but that has been and gone. The clause's purpose is self-explanatory, and I am sure that the Committee will approve of it. If there is no independent body for people to complain to, how will offences be identified? Or does the clause relate only to those rare cases in which a criminal trial or formal inquiry has taken place?

Jacqui Smith: I hope to come to enforcement in a moment. Clause 128 makes provision on offences by bodies corporate or unincorporated bodies. Where an offence is committed by a body corporate—as we discussed previously, a body corporate has a legal existence separate from those people who make it up—and when the offence has also been proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or due to the neglect of, an office of a body corporate or an unincorporated body, that officer, as well as the body, is guilty of the offence. In other words, it ensures that we are dealing not only with offences committed by legal entities, but that we can ensure that the officers of incorporated bodies are made liable. In cases when the affairs of a body corporate are managed by its members rather than by officers, the provisions apply equally to members and officers.

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As with the other offences that we have considered, enforcement might happen in a variety of ways. Offences may be identified by the National Care Standards Commission, as part of its inspection process—for example, offences committed by adoption support agencies. Other offences may be

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reported to the police, or the police may be prompted by complaints to make an investigation.

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