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As I was saying, the amendments are intended to give rights of information to those involved in adoption before the Bill comes into force. They would give rights to siblings of adopted people to make approaches to an adoption agency with a view to establishing contact with a long-since adopted brother or sister, and would provide a fundamental right for people to know by the age of 18 that they were adopted if they had not already been told. These subjects were all discussed in Committee, but I think that the Minister may have further comments to make.
Amendment No. 8 would change a single word in clause 52 from "may" to "must". That may seem like a little amendment, but we spent much time in Committee discussing when a "may" should be a "must". That does not make this "may" any less important, although some of the debates in Committee were extremely exasperating.
We have made the case that it is essential for a successful adoption that the provision of as much information as possible is made upfront to prospective adopters to make sure that they are going into the adoption process with both eyes wide open, that they make a fully informed decision that the prospective adoptee is the right choice and that they stand a good chance of being able to provide a stable and successful home environment. That is especially important if the child to be adopted has complex needslearning or behavioural difficulties, educational problems, challenging psychological experiences from a past home environment or physical disabilities. It is no good finding out about those things after the adoption has been formalised and the court processes have taken placeby that time it is too late.
It is also necessary to be able to cope with the special needs of those children after the adoption has taken place. During the witness stages of the Special Standing Committee, Professor Triseliotis told us of children who showed extremely strange behaviour at bath time. It turned out that in their previous family existence sexual abuse had taken place at bath time, so it was engrained on their psyche. There were many other examples that showed the importance of knowing all the information.
The original clause 57 referred to the provision of appropriate information as soon as practicable after the making of an adoption order. To give the Government and Ministers credit, after pressure from the Opposition they rewrote the clause but I still cannot understand why the matter has been left for regulations that would, in effect, make optional the type and nature of the disclosure of relevant information by adoption agencies to prospective adopters. No proper explanation was given in Committee, so we are revisiting that provision. That is why we want to change the word "may" to "must".
The adoption agencies have given us many examples that show the necessity for that change. For example, Barnardo's was effectively challenged in the courts for not providing enough information before an adoption. In other cases, a family's medical history has serious implications for an adopted person later in lifeas regards genetic disclosures and so on. It is essential that a full medical history is available at the outset to adoptive parents so that suitable precautionary medical treatment or checks can be undertaken if there is a problem later.
There must be a clear commitment that agencies must provide all the necessary information at the time of adoption. That is a legitimate reason for our amendment. We are still not satisfied with the provisions in respect of information for prospective adopters.
I want to move on to a much meatier and more important subjecta matter that touched me and many other members of the Committee when we heard representations on it. Amendment No. 25 would add to clause 59 the words:
The clause deals with the disclosure of protected information about adults and was much amended in Committeethank goodness. For some extraordinary reason, which we have still not fathomed, the Government actually proposed a retrogressive step: to deny people the right of access to information to which they have been entitled since 1976 under the Adoption Act 1976. No one could understand the reason for that. None of the witnesses who appeared before the Special Standing Committee could understand it. None of the representations that we received could explain it. The proposal caused great distress, but I am glad that againalbeit at the 11th hourthe Government had a change of heart and we achieved some improvements in the Bill.
It is right that we are putting in place new structures for the future. We need to overhaul the whole process to improve the adoption system and the chances of children in care now and in the future to get a proper start in life, but we must also have some regard to the fall-out from some of the past mistakes and problems in the adoption system. That is what the amendment addresses.
In my involvement with the Bill and the subject of adoption, I have been particularly touched by the approaches from older women especially, including those in my constituency who gave up their children for adoption in very difficult circumstancesoften with a high degree of pressure, verging on coercionto people such as those with whom we are dealing in the Bill.
In effect, we are talking about a past generation who lived under very different social standards. Many people were worried about the original Bill, which would have prevented the contact between adopted children and their birth parents in the future. As I have said, the Government did a U-turn on that, but we need to apply the Bill to the forgotten generation of birth mothers from the post-war years especially.
Many mothers were forced to give up their children for adoption because of social stigma, and adoptive parents were encouraged to pass off the child as their own genetic son or daughter. In many cases, the Bill represents the very last chance for those people, in their twilight years, to establish contact with sons and daughters who were given away for adoption, often reluctantly. However, we contend that contact should be established sensitively, and only with all the proper controls and balances through an intermediary third party and only if the adopted adult agrees. Those must be the absolute minimum requirements, but the demand is there.
We have only to consider the fact that, since section 26 of the Children Act 1975 came into force, 70,000-plus adopted adults in England and Wales have received their birth records, enabling them to establish links with their birth parents if they so wish. Some 90 per cent. of non-searching adopted people agree to have some form of contact with the birth parent who initiates an inquiry.
I fully appreciate that, in practice, all this will be fraught with problems, not least the deficiencies in past record keeping. We will obviously need to prescribe limitations on the level of search undertaken, but such searches are becoming easier all the time, with far greater access to computerised information, electoral registers going online and so on. I contend that, whatever the mechanical problems, the principle is right. I hope that the Government will accept the principle. I should be happy to withdraw the amendment if the Government want to go away and introduce something that may be more workable in practice.
So long as we have a proper balance of rights in favour of those adoptees who do not wish to be found, I cannot understand the objections to the amendment. What we are seeking to do, after all, is to give those women the same rights as those enjoyed by women in Canada, New Zealand and, now, Australiaall of which allowed access to birth records in the 1980s and 1990s. I hope that we can use some of the good practice guidance and continue to apply it to future adoptions.
That is the crux of amendment No. 25, but if the Government are not prepared to adopt that suggestion, we have provided an alternative: new clause 1, which deals with siblings. We suggest that siblings should be given rather greater powers to be able to approach adoption agencies with a view to establishing contact with their brothers and sisters from whom they were parted at an early age. Siblings are often forgotten in the adoption process.
Many people argue about whether birth parents were right to give up children for adoption, or whether they had any choice and how much they may have been coerced. Siblings, in all cases, have played no part in the decision-making process, but they have just as much right to make contact with a lost brother or sister, whether they were taken away for adoption while they remained in the family context, or whether children collectively were placed in care and later broken up and adopted individually.
Siblings in care tend to have more complex families than other children. Research reveals a particular lack of contact with paternal siblings. There are placement problems for sibling groups especiallytaking on a whole group of brothers and sisters is a much taller order, and they tended to be split up or to stay in care or in separate foster placements. Research shows that, according to self-reports, the loss of a sibling can involve the loss of a lifetime's close and loving relationship, the loss of support in adversity, the loss of a shared history, the loss of a sense of kinship and the loss of a resource for the individual's development of identity.