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Lord Astor of Hever moved Amendment No. 79:


The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 79, which would make the provision of the necessary information about a child to prospective adopters obligatory rather than discretionary before they accept a match that the agency suggests. The extent of this problem was demonstrated by Local Authority Circular (98)20, which had to point out to local authorities that,


    "It is unacceptable for adoption agencies to withhold information about a child to the extent that the picture of a child provided to prospective adopters is so lacking in substance as to bear little relation to reality".

If we are to promote stability for adopted children everything must be done to avoid unnecessary moves, including disrupted adoptions. Misinformation, or lack of information, is a factor in disruptions. Amending Clause 53 is an opportunity to strengthen the need for candour on the part of local authorities.

If a prospective adopter is well informed, he or she can be well prepared. That preparation will make all the difference at a difficult and an emotional time. If prospective adopters are to be sensitive to the needs of a child, they must be given as much information as possible about those needs, be they learning or behavioural difficulties, physical disabilities, challenging psychological experiences from a past home environment, or the problems that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, mentioned earlier.

Clause 53 leaves "prescribed circumstance" and "prescribed information" to the regulations to define. The new National Adoption Standards state, in Chapter C2, No. 3, that,


    "agencies should give full information about the child in writing . . . adopters to sign to say they have received this information . . . [and that the] agency should have written guidelines on the information to be provided".

However, the guidelines are not available in advance of the Bill. Therefore, we should like to see some safeguard on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Barker: I rise very briefly to make the case that this is not the customary argument held in Parliament between "may" and "must". This is something more than that, because it imposes a duty on adoption agencies to disclose information. The amendment has arisen because of past experience and practice. It is not isolated experience; it is representative of the experience that adoptive parents have had. The issue which the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, has raised is one that has come increasingly to prominence, particularly over the last 10 years or so. The nature of the children being adopted has changed dramatically and the importance of the history of particular children to adopters has become more important than it ever was previously.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the purpose behind the proposed insertion of this word on the face

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of the Bill is to set an absolute mark against practice and culture within agencies, which has been mentioned previously as being a particular problem. It is not universally a problem but it may be a problem within particular agencies. The adoption standards, to which the noble Lord referred in his opening remarks, bear out the fact that the Government believe this to be best practice and hope to see it become prevalent practice. This is to make sure that the power exists to eradicate bad practice. That is why I believe this is slightly more than our usual knockabout "may" and "must" argument.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I do not disagree—subject to reading it in Hansard—with a word that either the noble Lord, Lord Astor, or the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, have said. I am sorry to have to tell the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that I am afraid I believe I can show her that it is a "may" or "must" issue and it is the kind of "may" or "must" issue with which I have been dealing in this House for nearly 20 years. For 14 of those years, I used to argue that the "may" should be turned into "shall", and for the past five years I have been arguing that it should not. So the Committee will hear the experience of five years rather than the experience of 14 years.

I can give the assurance that is sought. The Government are committed to providing adopters with the information they will need in order to decide whether to adopt a child. We shall bring forward these regulations and we shall consult stakeholders in the adoption field, including groups representing adopters. We have not done so because the consultation has not yet taken place or, at any rate, is not complete. The Government tabled these amendments in Commons Committee precisely to ensure that we have the powers to bring forward regulations.

The regulations will give the powers to ensure that there is full and appropriate information in three stages: first, when a link between a child and prospective adopters is suggested; secondly, when a match is being considered; and, thirdly, in preparation for the placement of the child. Therefore, I assure the Committee that that is not the problem.

What is the problem about "may" and "shall"? We can bring forward the regulations, but Parliament is sovereign and we cannot be sure that the regulations will be acceptable to either this House or the other place. If the regulations were rejected and if we had the word "must" in, the Secretary of State would be given a duty that he could not fulfil. That is the only issue between "may" and "must", and that is why parliamentary counsel insist that we should say "may" and not "must". However, everything that has been said, with which I very much agree, is still true.

Lord Astor of Hever: I welcome the Minister to Grand Committee. We look forward to more of his humour. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for her support. I certainly agree that there have been many bad experiences of information not being given to prospective parents.

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I am glad that the Minister agrees that it is vital that that proper information is provided and that the regulations will ensure that it is provided at the three stages he mentioned.

We wish to consider this matter carefully. We have received strong advice from outside bodies that feel that the provision should be on the face of the Bill, but in the meantime we shall consider it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Clause 53 agreed to.

Clause 54 agreed to.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This is a convenient moment to adjourn our proceedings.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): The Committee stands adjourned until Monday 15th July at 3.30 p.m.

        The Committee adjourned at twenty-nine minutes past seven o'clock.


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