Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.13 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I shall extract certain comments from my speech to enable another hon. Member to follow me.

The Bill says relatively little about birth parents, especially where adoption is opposed. I understand that about 60 per cent. of adoption proceedings are opposed by parents. We heard some gruelling accounts from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) of dreadful suffering at the hands of birth parents, and from the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) of repeated unsuccessful attempts to reunite a child with its parents, but they are not typical, and we should be careful not to generalise.

29 Oct 2001 : Column 710

Local authorities are large professional organisations and birth parents are individuals. They are laymen. Under stress conditions, they depend totally on representatives at adoption hearings and their chances of success are poor.

We also hear little about sibling groups and the advisability of keeping them together. I have been very surprised at a case in my constituency. I defer to hon. Members, who obviously have much more expertise in this sector than I have, but there is no presumption in favour of the birth mother up to the point of adoption, even when the problems that led to children being taken into care have been overcome, even if she is now in a stable and established relationship, even if the new partner wants the children back as well and is equally committed, even if the home circumstances have improved and are now suitable for family life, and even where the prospective adoptive parents have rejected one of the sibling group. The children's wishes are to be returned to the mother.

I was surprised to learn that local authorities put more weight on the period, in this case 10 months, which the remaining siblings have spent in the pre-adoption placement. That begs the point that longer periods will influence the outcome of adoption proceedings and that the length of the pre-adoption period is outside the control of the birth parents. If there is a good chance of the reunited family being successful, surely that would be the best outcome for the children: to be with their own siblings and their birth parents.

Clause 44 states that an adoption order will "extinguish" the birth parents' parental responsibility. It is an irrevocable transfer from a child's birth family to the new adoptive family. Adoption should therefore be for only those children who cannot live with their birth families. I should like the Bill to include greater protection for sibling groups, ideally keeping them together, and for the birth parents and their rights when circumstances have changed, before the adoption has been formalised. I suggest that greater protection on both those points would be in the best interests of the child.

9.16 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. Like many other hon. Members I very much welcome the fact that the Government are legislating on adoption. I also acknowledge that the opportunity to legislate on adoption tends to arise only once in a generation. Consequently, it is so important in the most personal sense to thousands of children and adults that we get it right and that the principles on which we base this legislation are sound and founded in common sense and compassion. I think that the Bill certainly meets those criteria.

In the generation since the House last legislated in this area, there have been many human stories not only of hope but of pain and sadness that have arisen from the operation of the United Kingdom's adoption services. Certainly it is right that the welfare of the child throughout its life is at the heart of the Bill. However, as other hon. Members have said, we have to ensure that we maintain the correct balance in what has sometimes been called the eternal triangle, or the holy trinity, of adoption: the child, the adoptive parents and the natural, birth parents. I therefore very much welcome the Secretary of State's

29 Oct 2001 : Column 711

announcement today that a Special Standing Committee will consider the Bill. I also welcome his open mind on adoption by unmarried couples.

In the short time that I have to speak I shall concentrate on only one element of the trinity, the natural or birth parents, whom some hon. Members have already mentioned. I do so because, like probably every other hon. Member I have encountered, as a Member of Parliament, many tragic, heart-rending, human stories of adoption, of couples who are desperate for a child being deemed too old or unsuitable for reasons that are beyond their ken or anyone else's understanding and of children who are lost in care with no hope or love. It is right that the Bill seeks to help them.

One particular case of a constituent of mine whom I first encountered while working for my predecessor has led me to take an interest in the subject and to participate in this debate. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to remember as the Bill is developed and honed that birth parents can be victims too and are sometimes little more than children themselves when they first have to deal with the system.

My constituent's story spans a large part of that generation since the House last legislated comprehensively in this area. She was very young when she had her second child, a girl, in the early 1980s. She was devastated when her daughter although not her older child, her son, was taken into care. At first she thought that it would be a temporary situation caused by her circumstances, but as time went on she was told that as the bond had been broken her daughter would not be returned. Over the years she had three more children, whom she brought up herself, but she always felt terrible anger, guilt and confusion about why her daughter had been taken into care and never returned.

The daughter was in foster care for several years, and eventually placed for adoption. My constituent opposed the adoption, because she still wanted her daughter back, but she felt powerless to oppose the system. She first came to me in the mid-1990s when I was working for my predecessor. By then her daughter had been adopted and was in her teens, but my constituent was still filled with a burning desire to understand what had happened to her.

On behalf of my predecessor, I helped to get hold of what records we could from social services. They contained an unexpected bombshell: before being placed with potential adopters, the daughter had received criminal compensation for having been abused in foster care. This information had never been released to my constituent either when it was discovered or when she contested the adoption in court.

Understandably, my constituent was devastated. Surely, she asked me, social services must have had a duty of care towards her. She felt guilt, anger and betrayal. However, when she took her case to a lawyer, it turned out that things were not that clear. There was no case law to establish that the local authority owed her any duty of care as the parent of a child who had been taken into care and placed for adoption.

At the very least, the Bill should ensure that adoption services owe a duty of care to birth parents as well as to adoptive parents and to children. I would be grateful if

29 Oct 2001 : Column 712

the Minister would comment on that when she sums up. If not, could the idea be considered in the Special Standing Committee?

I welcome the fact that the birth parents are considered in the Bill, and also the introduction of the proposals for special guardianship. In particular, I welcome the fact that under clause 3, adoption services will have to meet the needs of natural parents, and that under clause 4(1), there is a change from the previous version of the Bill in that birth parents are now included in the requirement to carry out assessments of need for adoption support services. However, I am concerned that there is no absolute duty to provide that service, even when a need has been recognised.

In addition, we need to be sure that the Bill does not lead to courts feeling almost compelled to dispense with parental consent even in the most marginal of cases. The House was reminded earlier in the debate that the departmental review of 1992 specifically excluded the paramountcy principle from a decision to make an adoption order without consent. I hope that we shall be able to examine that issue carefully in the Special Standing Committee.

The removal of parental rights is one of the most dramatic possible actions affecting individual rights. It is right that such orders should be made when they are clearly in the interests of the child—but we must ensure that in developing the Bill we do not create an atmosphere in which social services departments and courts feel under almost irresistible pressure to press for adoption even when, with support, a child could remain with its natural family.

I am not talking about allowing a child to be bounced back and forth within the system, as in the example so clearly and eloquently illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). That has happened too often in the past; it should be stopped, and the Bill will go a long way towards doing that. However, when we consider individual cases, we should approach general adoption targets with caution. The welfare of the child demands that the system should be swift, but let us be sure that it is also just.

The Bill would benefit from being strengthened to include opportunities to initiate renewed contact with adopted adults. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some assurance that the Bill will not remove the rights of birth relatives to apply for an order under the Adoption Act 1976, which the Bill replaces, to require the Registrar-General to disclose information. She will know that that concern has been expressed by the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents.

I also hope that my hon. Friend will consider the possibility of strengthening the Bill to create a more active service for those seeking contact in adulthood. Let us not forget that such people are often siblings who have never met their brothers or sisters. I hope that she will tell the House that the Bill will offer something for them.

The point made by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that no one has the right to subject their legal father to a DNA test was especially fatuous. The point is not whether adopted adults should be able to prove that their DNA matches the male name on the original birth certificate, but that they should be able to discover, broadly, their personal story. Perhaps

29 Oct 2001 : Column 713

Liberal Democrats are especially sensitive on that issue, which might explain the illegitimate political tactics that they adopt locally. That is a long way of saying something very short.

Adoption is a subject that touches the lives of our constituents in the most profound and personal ways. It is a subject that raises issues of the deepest human resonance—childhood, family, love, our own sense of belonging and mortality. I have listened to the debate and read the reports of previous debates in Hansard with much admiration for the commitment and expertise that hon. Members on both sides of the House bring to the subject. I hope that on this occasion—perhaps even more than on others—the debate will be studied closely by Ministers and used to improve and enrich this highly commendable Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page