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6.30 pm

This is a poorly researched area of adoption. We lack detailed information about the extent of sibling separations involved in adoptions, and sibling group placement patterns are, typically, not monitored. Surely, however, there is even more justification to give them greater legal standing to try to establish contact with other adopted siblings on an equal basis. That is our case behind new clause 1. This is an important area, and there are many hundreds and thousands of people who have been affected by adoptions in the past for whom the Bill will have no beneficial effect whatever, as it is not retrospective.

New clause 4 deals with an issue for which there was sympathy on both sides of the Committee. It is an issue of great principle, and the new clause is simple and self-explanatory. It is a fundamental right of individuals to be told that they are adopted if they have not been given that information by the time they become adults at 18. Usually, adopted children should have been told that information before they reach the age of 18, sensitively and at an appropriate time, by their adopted parents.

The new clause deals only with a very small percentage of adoptions as, increasingly, the Bill will be dealing with older children who obviously know that their adopted families are not their birth parents as they were not babies when they were taken away. Most of the Bill targets such children. Many hundreds of babies will still be adopted each year, however, and will have no knowledge of their origins unless they are told when they are old enough to understand. We want to protect them from all the angst and complications of such a

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bombshell coming later in life when they eventually find out that they are adopted, having had no clue, inkling or suggestion for many years.

We have heard of cases, through our research for this Bill, of people who found out that they were adopted only at a very advanced age—in their 60s and 70s—and, in many cases, only after their birth parents had died. Often, that is the trigger to their finding out the information, by which time, of course, they have lost any chance of making contact with their birth parents. It is a fundamental human right for everyone to be told of his or her origins. If that information is not provided by the adoptive parents, the state has a duty to make it available to the adopted person on reaching maturity, through placing a requirement on the appropriate adoption agency. The state, after all, gives legal legitimacy to the status of adoption—a status that is manufactured, for want of a better word—and it therefore has a duty.

Mr. Dawson: In Committee I described the new clause as ghastly, but not because of the intention behind it, which I acknowledge is good. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that the issue of informing adopted young people about their origins should play a large part in social work training and in the assessment of potential adoptive applicants. I am sure he intends the proposal to lie at the back of everything to ensure good practice from authorities. Is not it too crude to say that the state will tell people this information at the age of 18? Should there not be better ways of approaching this issue than the one he suggests?

Tim Loughton: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I recall the word "ghastly" being flung around the Committee Room when we discussed a similar subject. This is a last resort provision. As I think I have said—and as I want to finish by saying—it is a revelation that needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. People do not want to receive—I think this was the analogy that I used—on their 18th birthday, along with a tax return and a congratulations card from their MP, a letter in an anonymous brown envelope saying, "Dear Mr. Smith, by the way, you're adopted. Congratulations." Obviously, that is not the way we want to proceed. The best way must be for the adoptive parent to give that information when he or she deems it most appropriate.

When that does not happen, as a last resort the 18-year-old is entitled to be told that information. The state has a duty of care to ensure that the manufactured relationship of adoption is maintained in everyone's best interest. It is not a question of the state sticking its nose in. We are talking about the state monitoring something that it has created through the legal resources of the adoption process.

The Minister and other Government Members raised practical problems about the keeping of records. The measure is not retrospective and it is not intended to be. Given all the other requirements that are being placed on adoption agencies in the Bill—keeping proper records, providing proper information for potential reunions, the adoption contact register and the need for ongoing monitoring of adoption to gauge the need for adoption support services—if an agency cannot go to the trouble of keeping track of an adoptee's 18th birthday, it is not discharging its many other responsibilities effectively.

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The issue has other serious implications. For example, adopted 18-year-olds need the information to avoid incestuous contact with siblings who may be brought up in the same area unbeknown to them. I fully appreciate the argument of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). Much better mechanisms could be used and the issue must be handled sensitively. It is up to the agencies to devise appropriate ways to impart the information. Hopefully, the knowledge that the revelation about adoption will take place at some stage around the adopted person's 18th birthday should encourage adoptive parents to give information to their adopted son or daughter in the fulness of time, at an appropriate moment of their choosing.

In Committee, the Minister said that she was sympathetic and promised to consider the matter in more detail. Indeed, on 21 March she wrote us a useful and detailed letter, saying that she had taken the point on board and was minded to change regulations as a point of best practice to encourage prospective adoptive parents to sign a form of contract saying that they would impart the information to their children at the most appropriate time. I am encouraged by that and welcome it.

New clause 4 is still necessary, however, because the Minister's letter and explanation gave no indication of how that process would be monitored. Also, as the letter says, no provision has been made for any legal enforcement process. That is why we are revisiting the matter in the new clause today. It is too important to leave aside. We cannot take the risk that certain adoptive parents, for whatever strange reason, will choose not to give that information to their adopted son or daughter. I am not convinced that the monitoring processes are in place. Certainly, the new recommendations lack teeth as they cannot be legally enforced.

I am talking about a fundamental human right. If the adopted person is not informed and they find out at an inappropriate time later in life, it could have the most damaging consequences. That is what the new clause attempts to avoid.

In this group, the Opposition have tabled three amendments and two new clauses, which are well intentioned, and which build on some of the responses that the Minister rightly made to many of the issues that we raised in Committee—I am glad that she has made some positive moves. We want to crystallise those moves and put them more clearly on the face of the Bill to send out the message that that information is an important part of the adoption process.

Kevin Brennan: I will keep my remarks brief, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) having taken up 23 of the 44 minutes available.

I remind the House that amendment No. 147, which I tabled, relates to something that I raised on Second Reading—and I note the conversion of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen who have taken up the issue and tabled amendments to the same effect. I welcome that. I hope to persuade the Government to undergo a similar conversion, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. I will also comment on Government amendments Nos. 50 and 52.

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In addition to raising the matter on Second Reading, I moved a new clause in Committee on 18 December 2001 and spoke on the Government new clause introduced in Committee on 10 January, which is now clause 59. I met the Minister in February, along with representatives of agencies, and subsequently corresponded with her on the issue. The Government's position has shifted, which I welcome, because the Bill now contains clause 59, which allows for a mechanism whereby information on adoption can be disclosed to a birth relative when someone reaches adulthood. However, that will affect only adoptions that take place after the Bill comes into effect. So the day that it comes into law, it will apply to and benefit precisely no one, and will not benefit anyone directly for many years.

If it is right to allow people to have that opportunity in the future, why is it not right to give it to people who have been adopted before the Bill comes into effect, and their relatives? The Government have conceded that legislation can be retrospective. Indeed, that was the case in the 1970s when the original right was given to adopted persons to seek out their birth records. The Government have also conceded that contact is usually welcomed when it has occurred under current provisions.

My amendment would mean only that people would be asked whether they wanted contact rather than having that contact forced on them. The Minister made it clear to me in meetings and discussions that the provision would divert resources and attention away from the Bill's main purpose. Today we debated one part of the Bill that will get a great deal of attention, but the aspect that I am raising—the problem with birth relatives—has not received enough attention.

I remind my hon. Friend about Government guidelines issued by the Department of Health on intermediary services for birth relatives. In the context of Government amendments Nos. 50 and 52, is she minded to introduce regulations that would give statutory force to the good practice guidance? That would be welcome, but the intention is not clear. Although I think that that should be stipulated in the Bill, I am still interested to know whether it is in part the reason for the amendments. We have to consider why we are doing something in clause 59 which, because of the nature of modern adoption, will benefit a tiny number of people in 20 years' time, rather than helping people now. If the Bill works properly, we will not need the clause for future adoptions.

Hon. Members will know that about a year ago the National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents successfully reunited three triplets, Gillian, David and Helena. It had to go to court to do so. Yesterday it issued a press release, which will not be covered by the media because in the glare of perhaps more glamorous events, no one is interested in the issue. However, it is fundamental and serious, and the media should focus attention on it.

The triplets were reunited because they were allowed to gain the information that they needed to find out about their identity. Mr. Justice Sumner, in his judgment on that case, said:

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