Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: I appreciate the hon. Lady's experience of the matter, and her remarks. I remind her that the new clause refers to video or audio. While video may be an encumbrance or an intrusion and as such make such an interview more difficult, I should have thought that taking an audio recording would not pose that sort of problem. The reasons that the hon. Lady has just stated—that children will say different things to different people in different circumstances—surely make it essential that there should be a proper record, which can be referred back to, of multiple interviews. If what children say varies, would such a record not be better than relying on the impression of the person who conducts the interviews, which may differ from one interview to the next and cannot necessarily be substantiated?

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Ms Munn: I was about to say that the CAFCASS officer is there to consider the child's needs. Officers see the child in different circumstances and base their conclusions on observation of the child in a number of situations. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that, in addition to everything else that the CAFCASS officer has to take into account, such as ensuring that they develop a relationship with a child and that they interview them in appropriate circumstances, they should also become an expert on audio equipment? Is he suggesting that they should carry that equipment around with them, so that at some point someone is able to play back everything that the child has said and make a judgment on the conclusion reached by the CAFCASS officer? The courts generally have a great deal confidence in the CAFCASS officer and usually respect the fact that they have reflected on what the child has said and the circumstances in which they said it.

It is beyond belief that anyone could think that the new clause provides an answer. The issue is enormously important, and it is difficult to get it right. However, experienced court officers are expected to set out in their reports the tensions and difficulties—especially in the case the older children whom we have been discussing—of what the child is trying to express, as well as how they have reached their view and the circumstances in which they have spoken to the child.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight may be ubiquitous, and seems fairly ambitious. He may be proposing the measure with certain situations in mind, but people should reconsider it, because it is not sensible.

Jacqui Smith: Following the excellent contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, it is hardly worth my while standing up.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about records not being able to be disclosed without leave of the court. That is true; it and is designed to protect the privacy of the child and the other parties. The parties can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out, apply to the court for permission to disclose and that is important, because information disclosed in court may affect other people who also have the right to have their privacy respected.

On the substantive point of the new clause, it is worth noting that audio and video recording are not routinely used or thought necessary by CAFCASS, local authorities or adoption agencies. The Government have not had representations about that from children's organisations or other stakeholders. The court may already consider applications by parties to the case for specific evidence, including video or audio evidence, to be lodged in the proceedings. The child's views may be taken into account in several ways in adoption and placement proceedings, including the presence of CAFCASS officers and solicitors to represent children's best interests.

If there is concern about the extent to which the evidence represents the views of the child, the court process provides the opportunity for statements to be challenged. All children are interviewed sensitively,

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taking into account the circumstances of the individual case and the age and understanding of the child. I agree that we need to ask why children should be subjected to the additional pressure of having their views recorded, when, incidentally, that would not be required of adults. The clause would not apply equally to all children. It could not do so, practically, because some children might be too young to be interviewed.

While the use of recorded evidence is common in criminal proceedings—and my hon. Friend pointed out the reasons for that—there is no such requirement about giving evidence in family proceedings. Children of sufficient age and understanding can be made a party to the proceedings and speak directly to the court.

If the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is mainly concerned about how to represent the voice of the child in the proceedings, my response is that we have gone into that issue at length in Committee. Hon. Members may fear that he is making a misguided attempt to force on to children the recording of their views, and I hope that on his behalf the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will feel able to withdraw the new clause.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight will, I am sure, be disappointed, if not wounded, particularly by the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, and the Minister's remarks about his being misguided. I remind the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley that the new clause was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and that she should not attempt to shoot the messenger. If my hon. Friend is not sufficiently wounded by the power of Labour Members' comments, he may seek to table a version of the new clause on Report, at which point the hon. Lady can target her ire on him directly. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New clause 4

Extension of the Convention to

Northern Ireland

    '(1) Her Majesty may by Order in Council provide for giving effect to the Convention in Northern Ireland.

    (2) An Order in Council under subsection (1) in respect of Northern Ireland may, in particular, make any provision corresponding to provision which in relation to any part of Great Britain is made by the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 or may be made by regulations under section 1 of that Act.'.—[Mr. Walter.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Walter: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause may be technical, but it is important. It relates to our earlier deliberations about intercountry adoptions and our references to the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which the House rightly passed to implement the Hague convention. I was delighted when the Minister told us that the United Kingdom plans to ratify the Hague convention in the summer. With that in mind, and as a matter of public policy, I feel that I should draw the

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Committee's attention to the final clause of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. Clause 18(4) states:

    ''Subject to subsection (5), this Act extends to Great Britain only.''

Earlier in our deliberations, we agreed to provisions enabling the Government to extend, by Order in Council, the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 to any of the British overseas territories. We shall, eventually, have implemented the Hague convention in Great Britain and the British overseas territories but not in Northern Ireland.

The Government might pray in support of their position the fact that the summary of the explanatory notes to the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 states:

    ''Northern Ireland intends to introduce legislation at a later date to give effect to the Convention''.

It is my understanding that Northern Ireland has not yet done that. I know that the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it has been in session, has had other things on its mind. I congratulated the Minister on the decision that the United Kingdom would ratify the convention, but I hesitate over that now, because I do not believe that it would be possible for us to ratify it if one part of the United Kingdom had not implemented the legislation to put the convention into effect.

The matter is particularly important because Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that has a land frontier with a foreign country. That probably makes it the part of the United Kingdom most vulnerable to abuse of the Hague convention. That is not to suggest that the Republic of Ireland is not also a signatory to the Hague convention, although I understand that it has not yet ratified it. None the less, it is a point of vulnerability.

I hope that the Committee will react favourably when I say that the act does not cover the United Kingdom—England and Wales and Scotland have passed the necessary legislation but Northern Ireland has not—the Act should be extended by Order in Council not only to British overseas territories but to Northern Ireland.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman has explained what he hopes to achieve through the new clause and I have no disagreement with the objective. However, I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the new clause is not necessary. It would enable an Order in Council to be made to give effect to the Hague convention in Northern Ireland. However, that is not necessary, because the Northern Ireland Assembly passed legislation in 2001 enabling it to make provision for Hague convention adoptions. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act (Northern Ireland) 2001 received Royal Assent in July 2001 and the Assembly can now make the necessary regulations, which will, in turn, enable the United Kingdom to ratify the convention later this year.

I think that when the hon. Gentleman referred to explanatory notes he was alluding to those for the 1999 Act, because, of course, when they were published Northern Ireland had not introduced its Bill. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999

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provides a statutory basis for the regulation of intercountry adoption so that children living abroad are afforded maximum protection in adoption processes. The 1999 Act and the Adoption (Intercountry Aspect) (Northern Ireland) Act 2001 enable the United Kingdom to ratify the Hague convention on protection of children and co-operation in respect of intercountry adoption, and introduce sanctions against those who bring children into the UK without following proper procedures. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the new clause.

4.30 pm

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