Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]

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Ann Coffey: Adoption is a stressful process for most would-be adopters. Domestic adoption is stressful enough, but inter-country adoption has additional factors. Although I accept entirely the Minister’s views on the effectiveness of an agency placed in the country from which the child will come, does she not accept that there is also an argument for having agencies in this country to provide specialist help and additional support to would-be adopters? Perhaps people who handle domestic adoption do not accumulate that degree of expertise.

Maria Eagle: I think that my hon. Friend would acknowledge that there are many excellent inter-country adoption charities in the UK that assist people in that way. They can play an important role, but at present I am not convinced that a specialist agency would be the right way forward, given the numbers that we have in this country and the many different countries with which we are dealing—with a small number of cases from most.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a point about the 1967 convention. I can tell him my understanding of the position, which I am confident is the correct one: the convention, which aimed to put common standards in place for adoption, does not require recognition of adoptions. [Interruption.] I am just telling the hon. Gentleman my very strong understanding of the position and I shall say no more than that.

A number of hon. Members have said that if we get this wrong we shall see an increase in private fostering. However, members of the Committee should remember that it will be an offence to bring a child into this country if to do so would be in breach of the special restrictions. Unless, therefore, people are willing to commit criminal offences, we should not see them bringing in children from countries to which special restrictions apply. That should deal with what is, as the hon. Gentleman said and we should all recall, a small problem in a small number of places. We have only one example so far, which is Cambodia, and, as he said, there are only 300 or so cases in a year.

Tim Loughton: On that specific subject, my understanding was that the EU had placed Romania on the banned list, and that that covers adoption into the UK. I asked about the relationship between what is banned by the EU and what is banned in the UK by the Secretary of State.

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Maria Eagle: My understanding was that it was Romania itself that banned adoptions from Romania, rather than that a ban was imposed on it, so that point did not arise. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is my understanding and if I am wrong then no doubt we can take it up outside the Committee.

I have sympathy with the points of substance in the proposed amendments, but the Government do not feel that they are necessary to make sure that the special restrictions operate properly. I welcome the fact that everyone who has spoken has recognised the need for the Government to have power to impose special restrictions in order to safeguard children in certain circumstances–which we all accept will be rare. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing his amendments on the basis of the assistance I have given.

Tim Loughton: I am a bit disappointed, because although the Minister is suffering from the lurgy this morning, she did not address several of the points that I raised, and some of the questions were left hanging in the air.

The Minister gave us a couple of rough examples of why there was a problem with Cambodia. We need to know that a country would not be put on the list for political reasons or political instability. I am not clear, either, how a country would come off the list; the Minister said that it might involve accession to the convention, but that can take some time. Is it just a matter of signing the convention, or is ratification needed? I remind the Minister that when the Adoption and Children Bill was introduced, the United Kingdom Government had signed The Hague convention but had not ratified it, and there was quite a gap between the two events.

11.45 am

I am also still unclear about the relationship between the European list and what the Secretary of State provides. The argument that the Government will not accede to amendments Nos. 41 and 43 because of the possibility of a delay is a red herring. The Minister said that we banned adoptions from Cambodia in June 2004 and that some countries banned it as long ago as 2001. Those things do not happen overnight and can take quite a long time. Admittedly, we need to expedite that process, but I cannot understand the objection to going to a bit of extra trouble by consulting a prescribed list of bodies.

The list should not be Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, but there is enough unanimity among the adoption community that a small group of recognised organisations and representatives of local authorities, for example, could be put together. Such a group could give a rapid response if the Secretary of State wanted to make a decision on a specific country or countries and, equally importantly, could feed back to the Secretary of State if it felt that there were grounds for adding countries to the list that he had not instigated at that stage. The prescribed list is not a cumbersome process and it need not be time consuming. It could speed up proper consultation. I do not understand how it would take more time than referring to those
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bodies that may require regulations to be made or having debates on the matter. I do not buy the Minister’s argument on that one.

Amendment No. 42 would not require reviews to be published every other month, but it would be useful if a decision were reviewed annually as matter of course. If the circumstances were fast moving, it could be reviewed half yearly. Certainly, we are not asking for random reviews every few months. The Secretary of State is, after all, obliged under clause 10 to keep that situation constantly under review. If new evidence comes to light at any stage, we simply ask that the Secretary of State publishes the reasons for his decision changing or not changing as a result.

I started by saying that these were probing amendments. I fear that the Minister has left a lot of questions unanswered. She has certainly left unanswered the large question of whether her opinion or the Foreign Secretary’s opinion takes priority. In the interests of getting the problem sorted out, although not in the interests of enhancing her career, it might be helpful if she and the Foreign Office came up with a standard line. I have had correspondence from people affected by the problem, and I know that she has had correspondence, too, because I have had copies of it. That line needs to be sorted out because there is clearly some confusion.

The key to the problem is that proper information and knowledge should be sought out and made available. Some of us think that we need a national adoption agency that specialises in providing that. That does not mean having individual offices at every one of those 60 countries, such as Azerbaijan, Barbados or Samoa, each of which has yielded one adoptee in the past 10 years. We are asking for it to be taken at arm’s length from the Secretary of State so that he can rely on that body’s expertise to inform him on making the final decision. That decision should be based on the information that it has been able to gather from its experts around the world, which is then integrated with the expertise of British embassies, consulates and high commissions.

At this early stage, I am not going to push the amendment to a vote, although we might like to return to the subject on Report, by which time the Minister can joyfully tell us whether she has resolved her differences with the Foreign Secretary. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a delight to serve on a Committee chaired by you, Mr. Hood, with your customary good sense and wisdom.

There were several references to The Hague convention and the UN convention on the rights of the child. Before we decide to approve the clause, can the Minister confirm that she regards it as fully compliant with our international obligations? Both those conventions recognise that a childhood spent within a family environment is in a child’s best interests when
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compared with a childhood spent in a non-family environment. Inter-country adoption can be a way of realising that aim. For example, article 21 of the UN convention on the rights of the child contains such a reference.

There is no specific recognition in the Bill that inter-country adoption might be in the best interests of the child. There is no requirement that the Government should balance those factors that they are going to take into account in deciding on special restrictions against the welfare of an individual child and the benefits under the convention of an inter-country adoption. Instead, what we have, effectively, is the Secretary of State empowered to react to perceived problems by adopting a blanket ban. There might be some circumstances in which there will be exceptions, which may be drawn to our attention when we get to clause 11, but at the moment nothing is clear.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Joint Committee that considered the draft Bill recommended strongly that it should refer to those international convention obligations. The Government explained why that recommendation was not accepted immediately and concluded, at paragraph 57 of the response, on page 11:

    “We therefore do not accept this recommendation but will give further consideration to how greater clarity may be achieved.”

After that response, the Joint Committee on Human Rights also considered the matter and again repeated the recommendation about putting something in the Bill.

Having given that answer, will the Government give further consideration to how greater clarity can be achieved. Did they conclude their consideration and decide that no greater clarity is required, have they not finished their consideration yet, or have they finished their consideration and decided that there is a need for greater clarity, but that that will not be given in Committee?

Maria Eagle: I first move that the clause stand part of the Bill—

The Chairman: Order. The Chair has moved that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Maria Eagle: Apologies; I am not at my best this morning.

I will try to deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). He asked whether the clauses were fully compliant with The Hague convention and the UN convention on the rights of the child. We believe them to be fully compliant. Clauses have been developed in consultation with the Permanent Bureau at The Hague Conference, which confirmed that they are fully compliant. We also believe them to be entirely compliant with the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Given the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and of the Joint Committee that considered the Bill and our response, which was that we would have another look, my hon. Friend asked
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whether we have done so. Following that undertaking, we have completed our consideration. We have decided that referring to any specific international instrument in the Bill is not appropriate, but we are fully confident that it complies in full with both conventions. I hope that that deals with his points and that he is content that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10


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

Tim Loughton: No amendments have been listed for debate under this clause, although amendment No. 43 to the clause was debated under clause 9.

I touched on the subject of review, and asked the Minister to elaborate on when a final order would be made to ban a country, and whether it would apply to people who had started the adoption process for a child in the then-to-be banned country. I also asked how quickly a decision to remove a country from the list would come into effect. Would someone who had started the adoption process and effectively had to suspend it, but who was prepared to carry on goodness knows how many years later, be able to continue, or would they have to go back to first base and start all over again?

We come back to the lack of detail in the Bill and the accompanying notes on the mechanics of how things should work. I hate to put the Minister on the spot again, given her condition this morning—she is performing bravely—but we need more information, and it was not provided in the other place.

Maria Eagle: I shall do my best to deal with that. Clause 10 provides that the Secretary of State must keep restricted countries under review. If she determines that there is “no longer reason” to believe that the practices that resulted in the introduction of special restrictions are still taking place, she must cancel them. Before she does so, she must consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, as the special restrictions in question would have effect also in Wales and Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the specific process, which is particularly important for those engaged in trying to adopt when special restrictions come into force. I shall try to answer him. We recognise that the introduction of special restrictions will be particularly unfortunate for prospective adopters who are in the process of adopting a child from a restricted country. However, we have to balance their distress and disappointment against whatever concerns led to the special safeguarding restrictions.

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Special restrictions will not impact on cases that have passed a certain point. Although that might vary from country to country, we expect it to be when the prospective adopter has been matched with a child. When special restrictions are declared, cases that are beyond that point will continue—that is the intention—and all adoptions that have not reached that point will be stopped. However, we have made provisions for cases to be allowed to proceed if the prospective adopters can satisfy the Secretary of State that their case should be an exception. The process will allow people to make their point if they believe that their circumstances mean that the adoption that they were in the process of arranging should continue. The same arrangement was provided in the case of Cambodia, and we believe that a similar approach would be the most appropriate way of dealing with the situation whenever special restrictions have to be introduced.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how quickly a decision to remove a country from the restricted list would come into effect. There is no reason why it should not come into effect as soon as the other jurisdictions have been consulted, which should be extremely quick, or even instantaneous. I think that I have answered his questions and hope that he is content that the clause stand part.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

The special restrictions

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

Tim Loughton: Again, I do not want to let the clause pass without trying to get further details out of the Minister. In my comments on the amendments to clause 9, I welcomed the fact that there is a provision for special decisions to be made on individual cases. She just alluded to them—for example, if somebody gets caught by the barrier coming down. Will she give examples of who would be captured by the clause, other than those whom we have just discussed, and of which countries would go on the prescribed list?

12 noon

Who are the beneficiaries of those special exceptions? At what stage will a decision be made to say that those restrictions can be got round? Will that decision be based on some family or friendship contact, or the fact that they come from a part of the country that is not affected? We have lots of definitions of the various bodies mentioned in the clause, but we do not have examples of how widely the Minister anticipates the special restrictions will be introduced and in what circumstances. Some elaboration on how the clause will be used would be helpful.

Jeremy Wright: Following that theme, I, too, would be grateful if the Minister could elaborate, if she can, on subsections (2) and (3), because, as she has already
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mentioned, they make provision for prospective adopters to invite and satisfy the relevant authority that there are other circumstances that should permit the adoption to go ahead. Subsection (3) indicates that the Secretary of State may make regulations that provide for the procedure to be followed in those circumstances, and matters that the appropriate authority may take into account.

Clearly, as I am sure the Minister will accept, those will be important matters for prospective adopters, and I would be grateful if she could give us an indication of the sorts of things that the Secretary of State, or any other appropriate authority, will take into account, when such specialist circumstances arise, and when prospective adopters make representations to the appropriate authority.

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): Although we are well into our first sitting, I should also like to express my pleasure in serving under your chairmanship on this important Bill, Mr. Hood.

As Opposition Members have noted, clause 11 provides for the effect of special restrictions. Where those restrictions have been imposed clearly, the appropriate authority cannot take any further step to bring children, or a child, into the UK from that restricted country. However, the provisions are intended to protect the welfare of the children concerned, not to penalise prospective adopters or to impose blanket restrictions that do not meet the needs of particular children. The provisions are intended to protect particularly vulnerable children in other countries from the abuse of flawed adoption procedures, or other matters of concern.

Clause 11 specifies when there can be exceptions to special restrictions and makes provisions for regulations to specify the procedure by which an exception will be considered. I can give some examples, because I asked the same question myself. From Cambodia, there were 13 cases of children in process, and two were allowed in for special reasons. One had a complexity of health needs that could not have been met in Cambodia, and the other was deaf. For reasons peculiar to those circumstances, the adoption processes of those children were allowed to proceed.

There might be other circumstances in which it would be right to let the adoption process proceed despite the restrictions, such as if a relative were applying to adopt, or if a family had already adopted one child and were in the process of adopting a sibling of that child. There may be concern about the trafficking of very young children or the selling of babies in a particular country, but a child might be of an age that clearly put them outside that category of concern. Once a restriction had been declared and the bar to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred had come down, people who fell below the threshold would be able to apply to the Secretary of State and make a case for their circumstances to be regarded as exceptional.

Those cases will be decided on their merit. They will take into account concerns about the circumstances that led to the restrictions, but most particularly they
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will be concerned with the best interests of the children taken in the round, including the situation in the restricted country: the sort of circumstances that I have outlined.

Subsection (3) provides for the Secretary of State to make regulations laying down the procedure that will be followed by the appropriate authority in determining whether it is satisfied by the prospective adopters that their case should be an exception. The Secretary of State is also empowered to make regulations as to what matters the decision maker will take into account in deciding whether a case should be an exception. However, although those parameters will exist, cases will mostly be decided on their merits and on what is fundamentally in the best interests of the children concerned.

Although the Bill provides a statutory framework for the suspension of adoptions on the grounds of public policy, it is also reasonable to include provisions to make exceptions for individual cases that are demonstrably atypical, or where the circumstances are such that it would not be in the interest of the child not to proceed and to allow such cases to come to fruition. The clause augments the Bill’s flexibility and humanity, and I hope that Members will support its inclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 12

Imposition of extra conditions in certain cases

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

Tim Loughton: Again, I am keen to tease out a bit more detail. Under subsection (3),

    “A person who brings, or causes another to bring, a child into the United Kingdom is guilty of an offence if any condition required to be met by virtue of subsection (1)(b) is not met.”

I want to come back to the subject of private fostering. What would stop a prospective adopter bringing a child into the country on a temporary basis, having not progressed the adoption process in the child’s original country? If that child were allowed out of his host country, what is to stop someone bringing him here on a temporary basis? Would that still constitute an offence, even though the adopter had not gone through the adoption process, which has then been curtailed because the country has been banned?

On the basis that such individuals get through immigration because the thoroughness of checks at the port of entry is left wanting and they then disappear into the ether, the child would effectively be brought up in a private fostering arrangement, because the prospective adopter could not complete the formal adoption arrangements. Alternatively, and more likely, traffickers are bringing children into the country, then placing them with private fosterers or frustrated adoptive parents who were not able to
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complete an adoption from that country. I fear, as I said earlier, that we could be causing another problem by incentivising the promotion of the trafficking of children for private fostering arrangements. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified either that she is happy that that is not the case or, if it is the case, how the Government will prevent it.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is asking what there is to prevent a prospective adopter from bringing a child into the country on a temporary basis and from that ending up as a private fostering arrangement. He did not specify this, but I assume that he means after the special restrictions have been declared.

Tim Loughton indicated assent.

Maria Eagle: Clause 12 makes it an offence, once the special restrictions are in place, to bring a child into the country from the country to which the special restrictions apply. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the host country, as he called it, would agree the departure. The UK, however, would not have provided entry clearance for the child. The hon. Gentleman suggests that there may be some laxity at ports and the child could be brought in. I am not saying that there are no circumstances in which the child might end up in the country because, as he said, there may be a situation in which it is not picked up at a port. None the less, the criminal offence set out in clause 12 would be being committed.

Tim Loughton: I understand what the Minister is saying, but what is to prevent the Cambodian equivalent of Mr. and Mrs. Smith from bringing young Johnny Smith into Britain on a holiday visa and then offloading the child to a private fosterer? This law will not prevent that child from coming into this country, whether or not the other country is on a banned list. It applies only if that is explicitly for the purpose of furthering an adoption. If the people merely arrive, say “We’re on holiday” and disappear, this legislation would not apply. Is my understanding right?

Maria Eagle: I think that the hon. Gentleman is right about that. My officials will throw something at me if I am wrong, but I have not been hit by anything yet. The Bill is not designed to end private fostering arrangements or to end such arrangements in relation to countries to which special restrictions may apply. That is clear. However, the private fostering regulations would require any such arrangement to be notified to the local authority before and on commencement of the arrangement.

I know that some members of the Committee have long-standing concerns about how well private fostering arrangements work, but those arrangements are being strengthened on a voluntary basis, and the idea is that they may be strengthened further if necessary. We can argue about whether that will happen soon enough or whether it should be done now, but there is no doubt that some arrangements designed to regulate private fostering are in force. The Bill is not designed to do that further than the current law does. I hope that that assists the hon. Gentleman
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and that I have answered his question. Clause 12 enables the special restrictions to be enforced by setting out the criminal offences.

Annette Brooke: I return to an earlier point to seek clarification. I appreciate that the Bill does not cover private fostering, but we return to the question whether there will be an unintended consequence. Yes, we are talking about only one country at the moment in relation to the change, but there could be more. Can the Minister address the fear that we might be increasing problems relating to private fostering through some of the restrictions? I suppose that the argument then is that we should deal with private fostering.

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