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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) highlighted some worrying cases from his own experience, but other hon. Members reinforced the Government's position on the amendments. It is clearwe have widespread support for thisthat clause 1 ensures that foremost among the principles that govern decisions on adoption is the welfare of the child throughout their life. That should be the paramount consideration. It is not to say, however, that the interests of siblings and, in particular, the relationship that adopted children have with their relatives should not be considered.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) said, subsection (4)(f) explicitly states that courts and adoption agencies are obliged when considering a child's welfare, to consider the relationship that he or she has with relatives and any other relevant person. The definition of relatives makes it clear that that
Government amendment No. 163 suggests that estrangement is a function of delay and should be taken into consideration. The Bill sets out important safeguards to ensure that delay does not happen. In relation to bearing down on delay, it is clear in clause 1 that courts must have regard to delay and welfare. Clause 105 introduces for the first time timetables in court to avoid delay.
The hon. Gentleman suggested that when children have been placed for a long time, the decision is, in effect, a fait accompli when they get to court. The point of the placement provisions is to bring forward either the time when parents consent to their children being placed for adoption or the time when that is determined by a placement order so that it happens much earlier in the process. In that way, we expect to avoid the problems that the hon. Gentleman identified.
On amendment No. 1, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned delay. We rightly debated that at length in Committee. I share his concern and desire to eradicate delay from the process wherever possible. However, clause 1 sets out the general principles that apply across the adoption provisions. Subsection (3) places a duty on courts and adoption agencies to bear it in mind at all times that any delay in reaching a decision is in general likely to prejudice the welfare of the child. Subsection (5) places an obligation on the adoption agency, when placing a child for adoption, to give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. It is the interaction of those two subsections that is the focus of amendment No. 1.
The starting point in considering the issue has to be that the subsections need to be read together. That is their legal effect. Subsection (5) cannot override the obligation in subsection (3) to have regard to possible harmful effects of delay. That overarching provision applies across all decisions relating to the adoption of a child, including the placement decision. However, during the debate in Committee and in interventions today, my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) and for Sheffield, Heeley made the important point that we must give due weight during the adoption process to the factors set out in subsection (5) that could have a significant impact on lifelong issues of identityfor example, the child's racial and cultural background.
The clause ensures that that will happen and that there is appropriate consideration. However, the Government share the concerns that have been expressed about eradicating unnecessary delay from the system. We are determined to bear down on that delay. That is why our new national adoption standards make it completely clear that while a child's ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language should be recognised, we need also to target our recruitment efforts to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of people wishing to adopt to enable children to be placed with families that reflect these factors.
The standards are equally clear on the harmful effects of delay. They provide explicitlyalmost in the words that the hon. Member for Canterbury usedthat children will not be kept waiting indefinitely for a perfect family. They set challenging time scales for matching children. They state that a plan for permanence must be made once a child has been in care for four months. That plan must have clear, monitored time scales. We have issued binding statutory guidance to local authorities to enforce that.
Mr. Brazier: I am well aware of the circulars. The Minister will know how many local authorities ignore these binding instructions. Many children did not have care plans for many years after such plans became a statutory requirement, for example. Why will the Minister not put such provisions into the Bill so that the court rather than the social services department will recognise its duty?
Jacqui Smith: There is delay before we get to the court. The importance of adoption standards, and the statutory basis for them, is that we ensure that adoption agencies bear down on delay. The standards are not optional extras, which seems to have been suggested. They are statutory guidance, and they will be expected to be in place from April 2003. We have already begun to focus on eradicating delay from the system so that we might make some progress. The average time for which a child is looked after before being adopted has fallen from three years and four months in 199697 to two years and nine months in 200001.
That is still too long, and that is why we are taking actionwe began to do so after we debated these matters in Committeeto set a challenging new time scale to our adoption PSA target. Our aim will be to ensure that nationally by 2004 95 per cent. of children should be placed for adoption within 12 months of the decision being taken that adoption is in their best interests. That is a further signal of our determination to tackle harmful delay.
Through legislation and through the wider action that the Government are taking, there has been progress in reducing delay. We shall monitor progress and we shall ensure that continued progress is made to tackle harmful delay. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Andrew Turner: I am happy to withdraw amendment No. 159 on the basis of the Minister's response. The hon. Lady's response to amendment No. 162, and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, illustrates a simple difference of opinion. She and my hon. Friend believe that the interests of one child should be paramount over those of another child. I believe that the interests of two children should be equal and should be considered as such. However, I realise that perhaps this is not the time to press the issue. I hope that it will be considered in another place. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: We have not missed the opportunity to vote on amendment No. 1. We take amendments in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to vote on his amendment in due course.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Amendments and new clauses are debated in certain groupings, but they are voted on in a different order. Amendment No. 1, on which the hon. Gentleman wishes to vote, will be dealt with after we have debated Government amendment No. 26 and Government new clause 6. He will then have an opportunity to vote.
'(within the meaning of the Children Act 1989)'.
Ms Winterton: I am pleased to move the amendment and to discuss the new clause, which I believe will assist in tackling the scourge of domestic violence and the terrible effect that it can have on children. One woman in four experiences domestic violence at some point in her lifetime. A survey undertaken in 2001 showed that one in five applications for contact with children involved allegations of serious domestic violence. We know also that 70 per cent. of children in care are likely to have experienced violence at home at some point.
I thank in particular the Women's Aid Federation of England, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo's and the NCH for the candid and constructive way in which they have entered into discussions with me and officials from the Lord Chancellor's Department on this important subject.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley), who have all campaigned for greater protection for the victims of domestic violence.
As a result of the campaigning and our own research, the Government are acutely aware of the concerns that have been raised. We believe, as many organisations have made clear, that it is right that the interests of the child are protected and are paramount in the court process. That is why we want to clarify the provisions in clause 1, which set out the key principles that are to apply throughout the adoption provisions.
Clause 1(4) sets out a checklist of factors to which courts and adoption agencies must have regard in considering the welfare of the child. Government amendment No. 26 makes it clear that the meaning of
During the proceedings of the Special Standing Committee, a number of children's charities and organisations, which I have already mentioned, expressed concern that not enough account was being taken of the impact on children of domestic violence. On 17 January, in Committee, I made it clear that the Government were seriously considering how these concerns could be met. First, the Government considered the approach in Northern Ireland, which seeks to ensure that domestic violence is considered in all applications for contact or residence. However, we want to go further and ensure that the impact on children of witnessing abuse is considered in all proceedings under the Children Act when the welfare checklist is used, in both public and private law. As I said, Government amendment No. 26 would extend that to adoption proceedings.
At present, a court, when deciding whether to grant contact between a parent and child, has to take into account the welfare checklist in the Children Act, which includes considering whether a child has suffered or is at risk of suffering any harm. New clause 6 amends the definition of harm in the checklist to include a harm that a child has suffered or is at risk of suffering as the result of witnessing the abuse of others, including domestic violence and violence which, while not domestic, may nevertheless have affected the child, such as a parent continually being harassed or intimidated or a parent harassing or intimidating others.
The definition of ill-treatment is already provided for in the Children Act; it is broader than physical violence, and includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment that are not physical. However, the Government recognise that amendments to primary legislation are not enough on their own; I certainly accept concerns that existing provisions in primary legislation are not being applied consistently. We therefore have in hand a broad programme of work that will provide more effective protection for children and victims of violence. I pay tribute to the president of the family division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, who has done a lot of work to ensure that it is aware of action that courts should take.
We hope to take a number of steps, such as amending court application forms to include specific questions about violence or ill-treatment of children. We shall also amend court rules to oblige courts to determine whether violence or ill-treatment has taken place if an allegation has been made and, if so, what impact that has or is likely to have on the child. We are also looking at the way in which we can disseminate more effectively the guidelines on parental contact with children in cases of domestic violence, which were produced by the Children Act sub-committee of the Lord Chancellor's advisory board on family law.