Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]

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Ann Coffey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the difficulty lies with countries whose Governments are not making a huge effort to create robust systems to deal with trafficking in the country—where parents are offered money in exchange for children—or to reunite abandoned children with their parents? We agree that information from those countries for the Department of Health is important, which is why, as he said, having specialist UK adoption agencies that are in contact with agencies in other countries is an important way forward.

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is clear that we must have as much specialist information as possible that is properly gathered, interpreted and passed on to the relevant authorities—in this case the Secretary of State.

The Government could do a lot by working with social services in other countries—there are international social services—particularly when dealing with west African children. The majority of private fostering arrangements in this country appear to be made with Nigeria and Sierra Leone. We have had the problem in my constituency of girls from those two countries arriving at Gatwick airport as minor asylum seekers and going into the care of social services having been trafficked by people who have threatened them with voodoo curses and all sorts. They were placed with foster parents by social services but were then whisked away by what were, in effect, pimps, and many of the girls ended up in the sex trade in northern Italy—in Milan, for example.

Fortunately, the problem went away for a time, because a lot of work was done by the Home Office, Sussex police and West Sussex social services to attack the problem at the entry port, Gatwick airport. However, it has not gone away completely; it has just moved location. If more work was done with people in the country from which the children came in the first place to determine whether they were being trafficked or were genuinely being adopted, there would be fewer problems.

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The proposals in amendments Nos. 41 and 43 would require the Government to consult stakeholders before making the decision to impose special restrictions, as recommended in the report of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, as the hon. Member for Stockport will remember.

There is some confusion about how the Bill will affect those countries that have signed and ratified the convention and those that have not. There is a discrepancy between the Minister and her right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. In reply to a written question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Minister said:

    “The 1967 European Convention on the Adoption of Children aims to harmonise the laws in contracting states to promote the welfare of children who are adopted. However, the convention does not provide for international recognition of adoptions made in the UK, or in any other country.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 11 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 450W.]

In a letter dated 1 April 2005 to Felicity Collier, who until recently was chief executive of British Association for Adoption and Fostering, the Foreign Secretary stated that his officials had checked with the

    “Council of Europe who confirmed our understanding that adoption orders are fully recognised between member states that have ratified the European Convention on the Adoption of Children.”

There seems to be a discrepancy about the status of adoptions in respect of countries that have or have not ratified the convention.

What will be the status of the provision for decisions made by the Secretary of State in the context of decisions made by the European Union? When Romania was suspended from adoptions, the decision was made by the EU and presumably we were obliged to follow it. Does the EU list override our list? Does our list automatically form part of the EU list? Will the Minister clarify the countries that may be trapped in that respect? Will we be subject to bans on countries with which we, but not European countries, have a healthy and long-standing adoption relationship—Commonwealth countries, for example? Some European countries may once or twice have fallen foul of instances of child trafficking in other countries and therefore sought to add them to the list. Again, that could lead to a conflict of interest.

At what stage will a potential adopter be forced to abort the adoption process for a child coming from a country that then goes on to the list? If they have started the process of getting the entitlements cleared in this country and are still going through the international reporting mechanisms with a specialist social worker, or whatever, and the other country is banned, will those prospective adopters still be allowed to adopt, will they be thwarted and have to wait for however many years until that country is taken off the list, or will they have to start again with another country?

There are some serious concerns for people who are trying to adopt from another country or are looking to do so. I would appreciate some more detail, because there is not a lot of detail in this part of the Bill and much will be left to regulations. The Minister would
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help enormously if she gave much clearer and more detailed examples of how this legislation is likely to work.

Finally, Mr. Hood, I want to touch on why it is disappointing—not to argue with your decision—that our amendment on private fostering was not selected. I fear that if people are thwarted in adopting somebody in a banned country, they may go down the private fostering route. If that is so, the child will be brought to the UK on a temporary permit, or whatever, and placed with distant relatives or with people of no connection at all as part of a private fostering arrangement, particularly through Nigeria and Sierra Leone, as happened in the Victoria Climbié case.

If a legitimate route of adoption is closed off, people may seek to exploit a private adoption route, which cannot be in the interests of that child if it then disappears from the radar. Many hon. Members are concerned about those children, who may number in excess of 10,000; but that is only an estimate because they are off the radar. As high-profile cases have shown, those children are potentially the most vulnerable to abuse and violence. They need to be found, identified and scrutinised, and all the support of local children’s services must be brought to bear to ensure that they are in genuine relationships and genuinely harmless surroundings. Some of us believe that the only way to achieve that is to make private fostering a fully regulated activity, with penalties for people who fail such children. Many Labour Members have expressed their support for that and many professionals and organisations involved have supported it for a long time. I fear that the clause could give rise to private fostering arrangements that most of us want to see clamped down on, if not eradicated, so it is unfortunate that we will not have the opportunity to replace it with a new clause.

The amendments are helpful and aim to ensure that the Secretary of State does his job with as much information as possible and that, when he makes a decision to place a country on the banned list for good reasons, it is kept under review. That provision is allowed for in clause 10—

    “The Secretary of State must keep under review . . . whether it should continue to be a restricted country”—

but he needs to report on that review. He may look at a country and say, “We don’t need to make any changes”, but he needs to make a statement, annually, or whatever it takes, about whether it should remain on the banned list because certain conditions have not been met that were set out at the time it was included on the list, or because certain improvements in the way children, who can be spirited away from their homes, are looked after have still not been addressed. He needs to report on what assistance the British Government are providing, through him and the Secretary of State for International Development, to Governments in such countries to spruce up their act, because it is not in the interests of their citizens that children are being adopted, or trafficked, in less than satisfactory circumstances.

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The amendments are helpful and I hope that the Minister will respond to them constructively.

11.15 am

Annette Brooke: I broadly support the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in particular his well made points about calling for wider consultation and independent scrutiny of decisions. We need to achieve the right balance. We are all concerned about child trafficking and other unethical practices, but we need to think about the plight of children in some countries in the developing world and focus throughout on the welfare of the child.

I shall briefly comment on something and promise that I will not raise it again. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill and the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the Bill should require the Secretary of State to have particular regard to the convention on the rights of the child. There is a strong case for including something so that we get the right balance. Of course we want the protection, but we wish to focus on the child throughout.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned private fostering, which we debated at great length in discussions on another Bill, and the points were made well in the other place. I draw the Minister’s attention to Lord Adonis’s comment on private fostering. He said:

    “the first statistics from the new monitoring arrangements”

of the notification

    “will be available at the end of this month.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 944.]

If those statistics were available, it might give us some direction on how necessary it is to push the registration of private fostering at this stage. The case is as strong as ever. Various reports have been put to us at meetings in the House and there is widespread support for registration now, rather than waiting for it. I recall that our argument was that, if it is a good idea in future, it has to be a good idea now.

I emphasise those points on private fostering, because they tie in with the overall issue of adoption. We are closing one loophole but might be opening another, leading to unintended consequences.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood?

I want briefly to support amendments Nos. 41 and 43 and to highlight a few points in relation to them. I accept the need for the Government to restrict inter-country adoption in certain circumstances, as I am sure all Committee members do. I have no doubt that there will be no dispute about that. It is also right that we should recollect and keep it in mind that it is possible to do that in the right circumstances. However, it is important, as the amendments indicate, that the Government take into account as much available information as they can and keep the situation under regular review, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said.

Amendments Nos. 41 and 43 propose that the Government should take into account information from those who know most about the situation on the
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ground. There are two reasons why that is important. First, those operating within the charitable sector, or non-governmental organisations working either directly with international adoption or on broader child welfare issues, are likely to know a great deal more about the fast-changing situation on the ground in those countries. They will perhaps have that information more quickly than the Government and in more detail. It would therefore be sensible for the Government to take that information into account as quickly as it becomes available in order to make an up-to-date decision.

Secondly, the information coming from NGOs in particular may be of use because it is possible that they can gather information that the Government find it difficult to gather. They will be able to establish relationships with delivery organisations in countries where the Governments are not willing to communicate with our Government.

I simply want to endorse what has been said about amendments Nos. 41 and 43, and commend them to the Committee.

Maria Eagle: I congratulate hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. We have had a wide-ranging discussion. I will deal with some of the points that have been raised, but want to set out what we think the amendments do and the Government’s response to them.

As has been said, amendments Nos. 41 and 43 are similar, although they relate to different jurisdictions. They both require the Secretary of State to consult prescribed adoption organisations—we can assume the usual list of local authorities, voluntary agencies and stakeholder groups—before making a declaration of special restrictions on adoptions from a particular country.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested that the situation that arose in Cambodia in 2004 might be a good example. It is, of course, the only one at present that we can use to inform the debate on what would be useful in terms of process. The Minister for Children suspended inter-country adoptions from Cambodia on 22 June 2004, partly because of concerns about what was going on in respect of adoption which went much wider than the organisations that I assume would be on the proposed prescribed lists. There was evidence on the systematic falsification of official documents relating to adoption and on the extent of the involvement of adoption facilitators in the adoption procedures in Cambodia, even though those were expressly forbidden in Cambodian law.

There was also evidence relating to the procurement of children for inter-country adoption by facilitators, including the use of coercion and concerns about the prevalence of children trafficking and corruption generally. It was not just in this country that those views were taken; there is a list of countries that have taken a similar view about the good sense or otherwise of allowing inter-country adoption from Cambodia. Many countries suspended the process before we did—
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some as early as 2001—so there was widespread concern throughout the world about what was happening there.

I agree absolutely that it is important that the powers that clauses 9 to 12 give to the Secretary of State are not used without due process and without proper consideration of the effect. There is no doubt about that. If I say a little about the evidence gathering that took place prior to that decision it may assist both the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also has a long-standing interest in the matter and made reference to it.

Such decisions will not be made on a whim. There clearly needs to be information and evidence for the Secretary of State to be able to make a decision about special restrictions. On the Cambodian example, evidence was gathered by the British embassy from other countries, some of which had already suspended adoptions from Cambodia by the time the decision was taken to do so in Britain, and from NGOs, particularly the kind of organisation that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth mentioned. For the reasons that he set out, such organisations can have better intelligence about precisely what is going on, and perhaps pick up concerns ahead even of the embassy. I hesitate to say that, because the Foreign Office has already been cited and our embassies have good information about what is going on in the countries in which they are located. Evidence is also taken, of course, from human rights organisations.

My slight concern about the idea of a prescribed list is that organisations with relevant knowledge may vary from country to country. There are certain circumstances in which a list of whom we would have to consult would not be wide enough to cover everybody.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I am pleased to serve on the Committee, Mr. Hood.

On the Minister’s point, there is no right of appeal for those countries where we decide to restrict adoptions. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be more consultation and transparency in the process to ensure that the reasons why a country has been excluded are clear to all concerned?

Maria Eagle: I am coming to that. We need a balance; the purpose of having such powers is the safeguarding of children. We must ensure that, in seeking to be fair and clear, that step is taken and we do not compromise the safety of children in any way. Simply because children may be coming from other countries does not mean that our standards of safeguarding their well-being should be any lower. There is always a balance to be struck between the length of time for which one considers information, the extent to which one wishes to consult and the extent to which one needs to take action to safeguard children, which is an important issue and must be at the forefront of our minds.

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Clause 9 requires the Secretary of State to consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland before making a declaration of special restrictions. That is because adoption is a devolved policy area. The requirement is entirely appropriate in view of the fact that such a declaration will have a direct effect on those countries and jurisdictions. Such consultations are undertaken relatively often and do not cause delay. They represent good inter-governmental administrative practice, and civil servants across Whitehall know how best to make such consultations. The provision is not specifically about the wider consultations but about good governance between the different jurisdictions in the UK.

Although I fully understand the desire of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and other members of the Committee to offer consultation to a wider group of stakeholders, we must consider the safeguarding of children. The primary focus must be the protection of the children involved. There may be situations in which a requirement to consult widely among stakeholders outside the Government could have unfortunate implications for the welfare of children, through a delay in introducing special restrictions or by triggering a rush to adopt before such restrictions are introduced. We must ensure that we have sufficient leeway to make the restrictions work. That is not to say that I disagree with the idea that we should take into account what is going on on the ground and talk to those involved in the way that I have described. We did that in respect of Cambodia and would intend to do so in any other situation that were to arise.

Tim Loughton: I am listening to the hon. Lady, but why would ringing up or sending an e-mail to BAAF, as I have done, or to the specialist officer at the Local Government Association to ask their opinion on inter-country adoption take any longer than going through the whole rigmarole of consulting the National Assembly for Wales and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland? The delay argument does not wash.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman’s amendment suggests that we include a requirement for a list of prescribed organisations that should be consulted. It sounds bureaucratic to me. He says that it might mean an e-mail or a phone call, but I can think of few organisations consulted by the Government which would accept that that counts as consultation. Our views on the practicalities are not widely separated. We recognise that there are situations in which it would be possible to consult the relevant stakeholders and, as I have tried to illustrate in respect of the Cambodia case, we searched for sources for information. Some information sources gave rise to concerns that led to the decision being made. We wish to work without compromising the welfare of children.

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11.30 am

Jeremy Wright: What the Minister says may be contradictory. She cannot have it both ways: either our proposals would be far too onerous and bureaucratic, or the Government are already implementing them. It cannot be both.

Maria Eagle: If the proposals of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham were absolutely clear, I might be able to agree with him. He suggested that there may just be an e-mail, whereas his amendment sounds like a bureaucratic list of prescribed organisations. A list of prescribed organisations that must be consulted rarely suggests to me as a relatively junior Minister, although of some experience these days, that consultation could be done quickly and without a certain amount of bureaucracy.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth makes a lawyer’s point—that is another lawyer saying that to him, so I hope he will forgive me. To be fair to him, arguably there has been a lack of clarity from Opposition and Government Members. I am being kind this morning. In practice, we are probably not saying much that is terribly different. The Government are not suggesting that the Secretary of State should get up one morning and on a whim prescribe that there be no more inter-country adoptions from a certain country. That will not happen in practice.

Although I accept the concerns that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and his amendments display about properly taking into account the understandings of those who are active in this field in the country concerned, that does not require us to accept an amendment that would create potentially onerous obligations concerning prescribed lists.

Amendment No. 42 tries to ensure that the Secretary of State publishes regular reviews of why special restrictions should continue to apply to a particular country. Clause 10 provides for reviewing whether countries should continue to be restricted, and, where appropriate, for removing those restrictions. It is an important provision, and we intend to be responsive to events and changes in the countries concerned.

Clause 9 requires the Secretary of State to publish her reasons for placing a country on the restricted list. The hon. Gentleman confirmed that his amendment’s intention is to require publications of subsequent reviews of each restricted country. Where there are substantial obstacles to the proper operation of a child-focused adoption system in a restricted country, the special restrictions might need to remain in place for a significant period. For example, we have not seen much progress in Cambodia in the 20 months since the restrictions were placed on it.

Although the hon. Gentleman is right that where there is a material change we should ensure that we notify interested parties and provide clear and accessible information about the latest position of countries under special restriction, it would not be flexible to require periodic reviews after pre-determined lengths of time. We expect that before the situation in Cambodia can change, there needs to be a
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significant development, such as new adoption legislation or accession to The Hague convention. Although we have kept in touch with the situation in Cambodia via the embassy, no significant changes to date have warranted a review.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about ensuring that those with an interest know what is happening about any special restrictions that apply. We would not necessarily want reviews every few months, because that might be overly ambitious in countries where serious changes need to be made. It might take some time, but when there is a material change, it will certainly be the Government’s intention to make available information about restricted countries. If Cambodia were suddenly to accede to the convention or to make changes to the law that would make a difference to the restrictions on adoption from that country, we would certainly tell those people with an interest that it had happened.

Mrs. Miller: Part of the reason why we are debating part 2 first is that it might have been felt in the other place to have had insufficient debate, because it came at the end of proceedings. I should like to raise a further point with the Minister. It was acknowledged in Committee in the other place that in the vast majority of cases the agreed international criteria of the UN convention on the rights of the child and The Hague convention would be followed. When does the Minister envisage that they would not be? Lord Adonis said that they would be followed in the vast majority of cases. Will the Minister take a moment to clarify that for me? I should be most interested in her response.

Maria Eagle: I suspect that my noble Friend was seeking to ensure that he did not place any unthought-of fetter on the Secretary of State’s discretion. We could all think of some circumstances in which it might be the case that that would not cover all eventualities, but at this moment I am struggling to find out what they would be—[Interruption.]

Tim Loughton: There is one example coming.

Maria Eagle: It is not an awful lot of help; it merely says that we have had only one example so far, which we all know. I suspect that my noble Friend was using careful Minister-speak to ensure that he did not fetter the Secretary of State’s potential future discretion.

I want to make one or two further points, as I seem to have been on my feet for rather too long. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked me some questions when moving his amendment, and I shall deal with one or two of them. I cannot remember now whether it was him or the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, but my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport also made a point about specialist international adoption agencies, and it is worth saying a word about them.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the number of inter-country adoptions in Britain is relatively low—about 350 a year. They
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involve many different countries—about 60 or so at the last count. The effectiveness of an inter-country adoption agency is at its best when it has an office in the country where the adoptions are made. By saying that 350 adoptions are made from 60 different countries, I hope that I have shown the Committee the potential difficulty. Should the agency have 60 officers? It is not necessarily the best way to deal with a small number of cases from a great number of countries. Obviously, that would be most likely to have some impact in China, but China recognises only Governments, not agencies.

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