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Lord Adonis: I would never defend from the Dispatch Box measures that I regarded as ethically unacceptable. We do not see this as a matter of ethics, except in so far as there might be implications for those who cannot afford charges and we are protecting them fully. We see this essentially as a matter of priorities. We fully recognise that intercountry adoption is not a cheap undertaking and the decision to charge has not been taken lightly. But the service in question is a personal service and we believe that the money the taxpayer currently contributes to provide it, about £300,000 a year at the latest estimate, could be better directed at frontline children's services.
Lord Adonis: I fully accept that, but it is none the less a cost. It is £300,000. The question is whether, for Government priorities, it is better to spend that amount on subsidising intercountry adopters who can afford to pay, or whether it is better spent on providing exactly the sort of placements to which the noble Baroness referred. Of course, once the child is resident in the UK, he or she will access the whole range of children's services, all funded by the taxpayer, including adoption support, Sure Start, nursery provision and so on. It is only in respect of this service to the adopter that we are making this charge.
It is always more popular not to make a charge. However, we are in the difficult business of weighing priorities and we believe that it is absolutely ethically justified that adopters who can afford to pay for this
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personal service should do so, thereby enabling us to defray other burdens on the children's budget which we believe are more deserving of this expenditure.
Earl Howe: It is very difficult to argue with what the Minister has said because the Government are in the business of weighing priorities. I can only say that it is a shame that this priority has fallen down the tree in the way that it has. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, is absolutely right. The processes and procedures that are in place for intercountry adoptions are not only there to protect children; they are in fulfilment of our international obligations. My question is: since when has it been thought right to transfer the cost of meeting such obligations from the public purse to private citizens? I simply do not accept that this is a case of subsidising a personal service, and that is where we disagree. But there is no profit in continuing the discussion. I think that each side has probably noted the other's case and it is time to move on.
Page 14, line 30, after "adoption)" insert ", or corresponding functions by virtue of regulations under section 1 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 (regulations to give effect to Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption)"
"( ) In section 85 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (restriction on taking children out) in subsection (2) after "section 84" add
"(b) the High Court has given leave for the child to leave the United Kingdom to be placed with the prospective adopters pending the issue of an application under section 84 (giving parental responsibility prior to adoption abroad)."
The noble Baroness said: At this late hour, I apologise for taking the time of the Committee on what must be the most "anoraky" of amendments that we have dealt with throughout the passage of the Bill, but it is incredibly important. It deals with a very small issue which affects a very small number of childrenthat is, children in this country for whom it is determined that it is in their best interests to be adopted abroad; that is, where the receiving country is not the United Kingdom. There are very few children in that category but they exist.
The amendmentit is very technical, for which I apologiseseeks to extend the power of the High Court to enable it, if appropriate, to make an order permitting a child to live abroad with prospective adopters for a trial period. Noble Lords who have discussed intercountry adoption will know that it is a requirement that the child should liveusually in this country when this country is the receiving countryfor a trial period with the prospective adopters. My amendment deals with the reverse situation. Where it has been determined by a court that it is in the best interests of a child to be adopted by people who live
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abroad, the court would be given the power to waive the 10-week period during which the child normally has to live with the adoptive parents in this country because that might well disrupt the adopters' lives or jobs or whatever. We are talking about a very small and tightly defined group of children. We are not talking about anything that would open up loopholes for trafficking or anything of that nature. I emphasise that the amendment would give the power to the High Court to make an order only in appropriate circumstances. If insufficient safeguards were in place, the court could decline to make such an order. I beg to move.
Lord Adonis: The noble Baroness need not apologise for raising this issue. The welfare of children taken out of the United Kingdom for the purpose of intercountry adoption is of paramount importance to us in deciding their future. This is an unusual situation because the noble Baroness is calling for us to regulate less than we do at present. I fear that I am in the position of saying that we think that the public interest requires us to keep this regulation in place. We accept that the number of cases is small and that this will appear burdensome to some individuals who are clearly very suitable to take on the role of adopter in the way that the noble Baroness described. I shall explain our thinking on this matter.
Our position on intercountry adoption is consistent with our obligations under international law; that is, that intercountry adoption should occur only where it is in the best interests of the child. Intercountry adoption must never be the first or only option considered for children who can no longer live with their birth parents.
Rigorous procedures are undertaken before children are placed for adoption within the UK with which we are all familiar. In the case of adoption outside the UK, we need to have constant regard to the fact that, once a child has left the UK, he no longer has the protection of the authorities in this country. If an intercountry adoptive placement does not proceed as planned in the other country, we can imagine that the consequences for the child would be very serious. Moreover, there is also a strong possibility that we in the United Kingdom would not know that such an unfortunate situation has occurred. So in deciding to authorise a person to remove a child from the United Kingdom, the court needs to be completely satisfied that the prospective adopter is able to meet the child's needs throughout childhood and beyond.
When the Adoption and Children Act 2002 comes into force on 30 December this year, it will require that the prospective adopter obtains an order of the High Court in the way that the noble Baroness described. An application for such an order cannot be made until the child has lived with the prospective adopter in this country for at least 10 weeks. I know that the noble Baroness thinks that this duration may be burdensome, but the law currently in forcewhich is pursuant to the Adoption Act 1976 and will be repealed by the 2002 Act when it comes into force in Decemberrequires the child to have had his home
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with the prospective adopters for six months, so there is already a significant move in the direction that the noble Baroness wishes.
We believe that to reduce this important period further still would hinder the availability of relevant information to the courts when they make their decision on adoption. This amendment, if agreed to, would effectively remove the requirement for any trial period if the High Court were to give leave. I fully accept that whether to do so would be the decision of the court, as the noble Baroness has said, but we think that that would be a deregulation too far. It could create a substantial obstacle in how the courts properly determine that giving leave is appropriate and in the child's best interests, because it would mean there was an absence of meaningful information about the proposed arrangement.
We fully accept that some of these cases we are discussing involve relatives adopting a member of their extended family. Indeed, in some, but by no means all, cases, a relative may have had more regular contact with the child than the parent. However, as the Committee will appreciate, contact with a related child, no matter how frequent, is very different from being that child's legal parent for the rest of his life. Such a change in situation must continue to be subject to appropriate scrutiny before it is cemented by law or by circumstances. Therefore, we believe that the continuation of the degree of regulation that will come into force in December remains appropriate.
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