Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: The Minister has unintentionally confused us completely. I have a question, but I am not sure whether I should ask it now or on the clause stand part debate. Perhaps I should make it on a point of order. I want to establish when the Government plan to put the Bill into effect in England, Wales and Scotland.

The Chairman: Order. That is not a point of order, so the Minister can reply.

Jacqui Smith: I will try to respond to that after I have gone through the amendments and new clause 17, if hon. Members will let me.

Amendment No. 264 amends clause 133(3). It provides for Scottish Ministers to commence new clause 17, under which they will have the power to make an order specifying the adoption orders to be recognised in Scotland, as the Secretary of State will with regard to England and Wales. The new clause also allows Scottish Ministers to make regulations that set the criteria that the procedures in an overseas country must meet in order to be included in the list of recognised overseas adoptions.

I will now give a fuller explanation of the new clause. Hon. Members will remember our debate on clause 83. That clause related to the new designated list, and the new clause mirrors it in relation to

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Scotland. Adoption is a devolved matter, with separate systems operating north of the border. The new clause allows Scottish Ministers to work alongside those in England and Wales to put in place arrangements for the recognition in the UK of adoption orders made overseas. When Scottish Ministers make an order that specifies the adoption orders to be recognised in Scotland, they will also protect the status of those adopted in the past from countries included on the old designated list.

The current designated list was created in an order in 1973. To add China, it was amended in 1993 for England and Wales and in 1995 for Scotland. Other than that, it has remained unchanged. It was always the Government's stated intention to review the designated list for England and Wales once the 1993 Hague convention was ratified. However, it has become clear that that cannot happen without changes in primary legislation, largely because the removal of a country from the list could remove recognition of the adoption of someone previously adopted from it.

Mr. Walter: The Minister referred to the provisions coming into effect once the Hague convention had been ratified. When is that likely?

Jacqui Smith: When I respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about the Government's plans on the commencement of the provisions, I shall cover the point made by the hon. Member for North Dorset as well, if he will allow me.

The new clause tackles the issues for Scotland in the same manner as clause 83 tackles them for England and Wales. Scottish Ministers share our intention to consult on the nature of the criteria included in regulations. It is likely that those criteria would be based on key principles enshrined in international law. Those include that the country ensures that the child has been freely given up for adoption and that adoption has not been induced by payment or compensation of any kind, that attempts are made to place the child with a family in its own country, that it has been confirmed that intercountry adoption is in the best interests of the child, that the arrangements and requirements for domestic and intercountry adoption are the same, that profit is not made from the process, and that the prospective adopters have been assessed and approved as suitable to adopt in their home country.

Scottish Ministers have agreed to work in concert with Ministers in England and Wales, so that adoption orders made overseas in future will only be recognised in the UK when the systems in that country meet agreed criteria. The new clause would allow that.

In the excitement of explaining the amendments, I may have failed to point out that amendment No. 265—I am surprised that no one missed it—inserted a new subsection into clause 133. It would provide the commencement by Scottish Ministers of paragraph 15 of schedule 4, which details transitional provisions and savings in respect of section 86(6) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, and clause 124(2) in so far as it

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relates to paragraph 15. I am sure that the Committee is much relieved that I have spelt that out.

The hon. Member for Canterbury rightly asked when we would put into operation the important measures that we have debated. Clearly, we must await the conclusion of Parliament's deliberations on the measures in the Bill and Royal Assent. However, I can give the Committee some idea of our intentions for commencing the provisions.

Hon. Members will be only too aware that the Bill is complex and makes important and fundamental changes to the adoption system. We all want the measures in the Bill to succeed in providing a greater degree of permanence and stability in the lives of more of our most vulnerable children. Changing the law alone will not optimise the favourable impact of what we all agree is needed to achieve that; we must ensure that we properly prepare the way. Some changes will involve completely new areas of law and practice, such as the operation of placement and special guardianship orders. That will require awareness raising and training, not only for front-line staff in social services departments and voluntary adoption agencies but in the courts and among the judiciary, so that there is a smooth transition to the new legal framework.

We have said throughout that we shall consult at each stage to ensure that the detail is right. We shall draft and consult on regulations and court rules to give effect to the new provisions and set in place the new systems. Above all, we want to ensure that children do not experience delays in planning and delivering their permanent future because of uncertainty about the new legal arrangements.

We expect to bring into force the main provisions of the Bill in 2004, but I believe that there is a case for taking action on some measures sooner than that. Today I shall give the Committee an idea of which areas we shall take action on sooner. I propose to bring forward on Report any amendments that may be necessary to enable the provisions to come into force before 2004.

We intend to introduce provisions covering improved adoption support for new adoptive families from April 2003. As we know, that will be a key means of encouraging more families to adopt, to enable us to meet the public services agreement target to increase the number of adoptions by 40 to 50 per cent. by the end of 2004–05. We are already seeing improvements in those services on the ground, as we heard in our evidence-gathering sittings, and we want to maintain the momentum. We intend to consult on our proposals for a new framework for adoption support in the spring. On that basis, we shall develop regulations for further consultation to enable us to make final regulations, which we may have in place for April 2003.

A key element in our strategy to attract more adopters is to build the confidence of prospective adopters in the system of adopter assessment and approval. As the Committee knows, we made a commitment in the White Paper to conduct a fundamental review of adopter assessment this year.

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We made a commitment to provide an independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who are dissatisfied when they learn that they may be turned down, which will also apply to decisions relating to access to information. I propose to introduce an amendment on Report to allow the independent review mechanism to operate in respect of adopter assessment in 2003.

In response to the question put by the hon. Member for North Dorset, I can inform the Committee that this summer we plan to complete the process of ratifying the Hague convention. There are strong arguments for introducing at the same time the new restrictions in clause 80 on bringing children into the United Kingdom. The Government ordered an urgent review of the law in January, following the Kilshaw case, and it would not be right to wait until 2004 to introduce those new measures.

As part of that package of measures, and alongside the ratification of the Hague convention, we plan to begin the process of reviewing the system for automatic recognition of overseas adoptions. We do not know how long that process will take or what complex issues will emerge. Nevertheless, I propose to table an amendment on Report that will allow us to set in place the new arrangements in 2003, should we be in a position to do so.

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We believe that the new restrictions on electronic adoption advertising are important, and should not wait until 2004. Again, we shall introduce on Report an amendment to section 58of the Adoption Act 1976 to make it clear that the restriction applies both off-line and on-line. We intend to bring that into effect this year.

I hope that hon. Members agree that the approach that I outlined is in the best interests of children and will allow those responsible for the new systems time to adjust. I hope, too, that the Committee agrees that we have identified important priority areas for early action to ensure that key improvements are made and that new elements are put in place as soon as practicable.

Tim Loughton: I am sure that the Opposition will go along with the Minister as far as we can comprehend in the absence of a comprehensive flow chart, which in this case would need to be a chronological flow chart. The Minister successfully got her teeth around the technical amendments.

We welcome the news that the Government urgently want to introduce the measures that gained cross-Committee support, especially with regard to adoption support services, which should come into force next year provided that the Bill sails through the rest of its parliamentary stages. The ratification of the Hague convention in the summer is another move that we welcome. In respect of intercountry adoption, I especially welcome the Minister's comments about clamping down on internet advertising, which is a menace that needs to be dealt with. There are many loopholes in that system, and new measures cannot come soon enough.

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The Government amendments largely relate to the parts of the British isles outside England. What are the differences between Scotland and England in respect of adoption? Is there a fundamentally different approach between the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Government? What soundings has she taken with her colleagues in Scotland?

New clause 17 includes the phrase

    ''appear to the Scottish Ministers''.

Does that mean that Scottish Ministers have a different view on overseas adoption and what constitutes overseas adoption in respect of the adoption law that will come into force in Scotland? I hope that England will not be included in their definition of overseas adoption, and that the fragmentation of the United Kingdom under this Government has not gone so far that England is regarded as overseas when it is only on the other side of Hadrian's wall. Will she set our minds to rest on that point?

Will the Minister also tell us when the Bill will come into force in Scotland? As it will have to go through extra processes in the Scottish Parliament, will it have a later start date there? Will the provisions that she said were likely to come into force at an earlier date in England come into force early in Scotland as well? Early in these proceedings, we made the point that, when the last Adoption Act came into force, it took a full seven years before all of its terms came into play. That was far too long, and that would be wholly unacceptable this time round. Given the constraints that are now on us to seek the approval of other legislative bodies in the United Kingdom, will the Minister assure us that all the work by her Department and by this Committee to promote the Bill will result in its coming into force as soon as possible in all parts of the United Kingdom and as extensively as in England and Wales?

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