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I shall start where the noble Earl, Lord Howe, finished his remarks on his amendment. There is nothing that divides us on the urgency and sensitivity of the issue. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. In Committee, we discussed the critical nature of the early weeks for the bonding of child and mother and carer. We discussed the implications for the child's development of providing a secure, safe and certain home, as soon as possible. I assure noble Lords that that is the intention of the Bill.
We take the point about sending an explicit signal about speed. It is not appropriate for the Bill, but we will consider giving a special emphasis in regulations and guidance to that point. Indeed, our amendments deal with some of the issues, by flagging up the urgent need to return the child to the parent in cases in which there is consent. The training and support available to young mothers are issues for the next stage of implementation. I assure the House that we will not neglect those issues.
We want to make as speedy a provision for very small and vulnerable children as possible. I know that the noble Earl has taken on board some of the points that were made with regard to his earlier amendments. We are grateful for that. The new amendment brings forward other issues. The noble Earl's intention is to provide for the speedy placement of infants, if the parents consent, but also to make clear that the parents can withdraw their consent and have the child returned to them. I hope that I can convince the noble Earl that the Bill, with our amendments, will achieve the aim that the baby should be placed for adoption as soon as is practicable.
There is nothing in the Bill to stop a mother giving consent directly after birth, after which the baby will be placed as soon as possible. In such an instance, we fully expect that the young mother will have the best advice available to her, so that she can make the right decision. As I said, we will consult on that.
For all the reasons that we set out at length in Committee, the mother must be given six weeks to recover from the birth and make the proper decision. That is why she is not required to consent formally in that six-week period. She must formally re-affirm her consent after six weeks. That will be the valid basis for the making of an adoption order.
The need for speed and for extensive and sympathetic counselling is absolutely clear. The national adoption standards emphasise the importance of speedy decision-making. There is a period of three months to match a child under six months with suitable parents. The national standards also state that, if a baby is to be relinquished voluntarily,
The noble Earl's amendment also stresses the importance of ensuring that parents can change their minds and I wholly agree with that. Under the Bill's provisions, where placement is by consent parents are free to withdraw their consent at any point up to the time when they make the actual application to adopt. When they withdraw their request and ask for their child to be returned, the agency must do so within a set time period.
We have decided to make that clear on the face of the Bill. In cases where the child is under six weeks, our amendments spell out that he must be returned from the prospective adopter within seven days and as soon as that has happened he must be returned by the agency to the mother. That provision is contained in Amendments Nos. 36 to 38 to Clause 31. The only exception to the obligation to return the child is where the agency is a local authority and it has applied for a placement order. But in any event, it must make that application within the seven or 14-day period.
The noble Earl's second objective is that where the parents do not agree that the child shall be placed, it should be possible for the court to authorise a placement. I heard what he said about the Committee stage, but we believe that this is an unnecessary complication because it will introduce delays. There is no barrier to a local authority applying for a placement order in respect of a baby under six weeks where it is satisfied that adoption is in the best interests and where the child is at risk of significant harm. We believe that the process of authorisation, and going back to the court for a placement order, would present an unnecessary complication. Given the noble Earl's concern about delays, we cannot agree with the proposal.
In order to remove potential confusion that such a placement order might not be a valid basis for a final adoption order, the Government have introduced Amendment No. 60 to Clause 47, which makes it clear that, where a child is less than six weeks old, a placement order can be a valid basis on which to make a later adoption order. Speed will be equally important in these cases and we will be working with the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Finally, the noble Earl addressed the question of the fate of young orphans and the need to find a new family urgently. His amendment to subsection (3)(a) is intended to ensure that a court can make an order authorising the placement of young orphans without the significant harm threshold needing to be met. I can tell him that the contingency for that is provided for in Clause 21(2)(c) which ensures that the court may make a placement order in respect of a child of any age where the child has no parent. To make that even clearer, our Amendment No. 59 to Clause 47 provides that the conditions for making final adoption orders under Clause 47 do not apply where the child has no parent. In those cases, the court may make an order on application, provided that it is satisfied that it is in the child's best interest and consistent with the obligations placed on the court by Clause 1. Again, therefore, we are in total agreement.
I hope that I have reassured the noble Earl in each case in terms of the speed of obtaining consent and proceeding with the placement order, in moving towards final adoption, in strengthening the rights of the birth parent and in meeting the needs of orphan children. We have tried to meet him more than half way and we will continue to do so, given the concern that is shared around the House about these young babies.
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply. It is heartening to hear her reiterate her support for the spirit of my amendment. I am also grateful to her for having tabled the government amendments and for speaking to them so clearly.
I welcome those amendments, but my overall reaction to them is a little luke warm. They are good as far as they go, but we do not see an explicit encouragement to ensure a fast-track adoption system for babies in appropriate cases. However, I was
The government amendments to Clause 47 allow for placement orders on children under six weeks to be a valid basis for later adoption orders. That is fine, but, as the Minister appreciates, my amendment is designed to encourage adoption agencies to undertake some forward planning when a baby adoption is seen to be in prospect. It should ensure that in those circumstances it places babies with the people who are likely eventually to become the adopters.
I am grateful to the Minister. She was unable to elaborate fully on counselling and training, which I realise is a complex issue. If she felt able to write to me on that subject, I should be grateful.
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. It is a worry to many people, as she will appreciate. We need to banish unhelpful and negative attitudes among social services staff and to ensure that they have the necessary skills to offer advice, support and encouragement to those who need it. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 27, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 28 to 30 and to Amendment No. 159 standing in the name of the noble Earl. The amendments concern the provisions in Clause 26 concerning contact where an adoption agency is authorised to place a child for adoption. They address a concern that was raised in Grand Committee by the noble Earl, Lord Howe.
Perhaps I may briefly explain the thinking behind the approach we have taken. Placement is a "step change", a phrased used earlier today. The Government believe that it is entirely appropriate that existing contact arrangements be revisited. That is why the clause provides that existing formal contact arrangementsfor example, orders under the Children Actcease to have effect.
Our preferred approach is that the adoption agency, the prospective adopters and the parent should review existing arrangements and agree between themselves what contact arrangements are now appropriate. However, because informal agreement may not always be possible, this clause provides for the court to make an order for contact on the application from, for example, the child, the birth parents, the adoption agency and a range of others listed in Clause 26(3),
In Committee, the noble Earl suggested that we add siblings to the list in subsection (3) of those people who would not need the leave of the court to apply for a placement contact order. That is the effect of his Amendment No. 28. Amendment No. 159 is consequential and provides a definition of the term "sibling" for use in the Bill.
In Committee, in support of his case, the noble Earl emphasised the particular importance of contact between siblings whom it had not been possible to place for adoption together. We entirely share that concern. Indeed, we were swayed by the case made and undertook to consider the matter further. We have indeed done so and our Amendments Nos. 27 and 29 are the result. We have decided to accept all that the noble Earl suggested and more. We agree that the potential importance of contact between siblings in adoption justifies their inclusion in subsection (3). Furthermore, we think it wise to provide for wider family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, to be able to apply for contact orders without needing the leave of the court. The noble Earl set us on the right path and we were happy to follow it.
In addition, in Amendment No. 29 we have provided that people who held Children Act contact orders before the child was placed for adoption should also be included in the list in subsection (3) and be able to apply for a placement contact order without needing the leave of the court.
Amendment No. 30 is a minor correction. Subsection (3)(c) provides that, where someone held a residence order in respect of that child immediately before the child was placed for adoption with consent or under a placement order, the former residence-order holder does not need the leave of the court to apply for a placement contact order. The amendment ensures that the same position applies where the child is a baby placed for adoption under six weeks.
As the amendments make clear, we are committed to promoting links between siblings and adoption and our national standards make that clear. We would expect adoption agencies to make appropriate arrangements for siblings and other relatives. If there were any obstacles to that, we have now provided for those people to apply to the court for a contact order without needing to seek the leave of the court.