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Mr. Dawson: I support every word that my hon. Friend has said. Is he aware of the work that is coming from the Registrar-General's office? In a praiseworthy attempt to

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give people privacy, it would seem to be offering the draconian prospect that in future, people who have been adopted will have a great deal more difficulty in tracing their relatives and birth families over a period of 100 years.

6.45 pm

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I am aware of that, and I am concerned about it. I hope, with my hon. Friend's help, to draw the matter to the Government's attention over the coming weeks and months. What is proposed would be a retrograde step.

People have written to me from all over the United Kingdom, and all over the world. I have received letters from Australia, for example. The issue matters even if the media will not cover it. It has an impact on people's lives. We have the opportunity to end the culture of secrets and lies that has surrounded adoption over the years. This is about justice, compassion and the most fundamental thing of all—family. I hope that the Minister will be able to make some helpful remarks. I also hope that if the issue is not pressed to a vote this evening, there will be further discussion later in another place.

Sandra Gidley: I shall greatly curtail my remarks because I do not want to repeat too much of what has already been said. I support most of the amendments, especially those that seek to provide retrospective permission. The hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) raised the issue in Committee. It seems wrong that someone who is adopted after the Bill is enacted will be able to obtain the information, while someone who was adopted before that will not. However, not everyone thinks in that way.

There is a feeling that if a provision has a retrospective effect, that could be unfair on those who put up a child for adoption before enactment, because they would not have known what the long-term effect would be. Even today, there is a parallel with sperm donation. There was a proposal—I think that it came from Lady Warnock—that in future perhaps it would be beneficial if children born as a result of artificial insemination by donor knew the identity of the sperm donor.

There are other implications, too. I have been struck by the strength of feeling of women—it usually is women, because they live longer—who want to know where they come from. It is important to them to have that information. We are talking about a last chance, and I support the amendments that would provide it.

I am less happy with new clause 4. It is unnecessary and very much a backstop. It is well intentioned, but I would find difficulty in supporting it.

Mr. Walter: I support the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). In an ideal world, the provisions would be unnecessary. However, we do not live in such a world. It is a fundamental right of those who have been adopted, when they reach adulthood, to know what their origins are.

The subject came home to me vividly, as I mentioned in Committee, when I served on the Committee that considered the plight of child migrants in Australia. I am pleased that the Australian Government are now providing

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some assistance. However, the press reports seemed to be wide of the mark in terms of the number of migrants who went to Australia, which was closer to 10,000 than 3,500.

The one thing that all those people wanted to know was where they came from; even in their 50s and 60s, they wanted to know that. Someone who has been adopted, even in the most appalling circumstances of abuse, as those children were, should have a fundamental right to know why they went through that life-shattering experience. I therefore support the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

Jacqui Smith: This subject has provoked considerable debate, both in Committee and on Report, but until now there has been considerable movement by the Government in response to concerns about the disclosure of information. In the remaining ten minutes, I shall concentrate on the main issues raised this evening: information for prospective adopters, the retrospective aspects of the access to information provisions in the legislation, and people's right to know that they are adopted.

We had a lengthy and probably futile debate in Committee about the distinction between "may" and "must". I reiterate my belief that the amendment is not necessary. I made it clear when we debated the issue that the Government intended to introduce regulations covering the provision of information for prospective adopters, and I accept the contention of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that it is crucial to provide that information.

I am sure that hon. Members who served on the Committee will remember that we gave a commitment to introduce regulations to ensure that information is made available at three important points. First, there should be a summary about the child at the linking stage; secondly, there should be a full matching report on the child before the matching recommendation by the adoption panel and the decision by the agency; thirdly, after time to consider the full matching report, the prospective adopters, if they wish to proceed to preparations for the placement, should be provided with a written proposal setting out its terms.

I assure hon. Members that those regulations will oblige agencies to disclose information in prescribed circumstances, as I have spelled out. We shall therefore ensure that the current position is improved; I agree with hon. Members that it is unsatisfactory that potential adopters are not provided with the information that they need.

On retrospection, I accept that the intention of amendments Nos. 25 and 147 is to enable someone to apply for information about a protected adult, irrespective of whether they were adopted before or after the commencement of the relevant provisions. I shall explain the Government's difficulties with those proposals, but I shall also outline the positive steps that we can take to create better opportunities for people to access information, regardless of whether the adoption took place before or after the Bill became law.

If the legislation was retrospective there would be massive problems. In many cases, adoption agencies would be required to trace people who were adopted many years ago, and were thus difficult to trace. There would be a huge volume of potential applications; 875,000 people have been adopted since the Adoption of Children Act 1926.

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I thoroughly concur with the claim by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) that he has pressed extremely hard on that issue. He was one of the first hon. Members to raise the issue and he has been diligent in pursuing it. However, I disagree with my hon. Friend when he suggests that the Government's concern for balancing priorities for adoption agencies is wrong.

In the context of past adoptions, I have every sympathy for the feelings of those who want to open up contact with a birth relative, but our principal policy aim, as many hon. Members have said, is to help the vulnerable and in some cases damaged children who need adoptive parents now. If the proposals were enacted, I would be concerned about the priorities of adoption agencies being shifted, and the possibility that that might draw resources away from our primary aim.

As I said, I am sympathetic, but I do not share the view of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that changing the legislation would necessarily achieve the heartfelt aim that many people seek. There is the dilemma of raising the hopes and expectations of so many siblings and birth parents, and there would be considerable practical difficulties for agencies to face.

Before 1984, the obligations for adoption agencies to keep and record information were not as comprehensive as they are now. Many records exist only in part and others have been lost. Many adoptions were arranged privately, and in those cases there are often very few records, other than the report about the placement, which the adoption agency may or may not hold. I would not want to hold out to people whose wish I understand, a potentially false hope that legislation will be made retrospective.

I now come to the practical steps that we as a Government can take. Stakeholders have acknowledged that under existing regulations, adoption agencies already have wide discretion to disclose information in their records, where that is consistent with their functions. The problem is that existing practice is inconsistent, and guidance on disclosure of information has been criticised by some stakeholders as being ambiguous. In the light of those views, the Government will issue new guidance to encourage adoption agencies to take a more constructive approach to helping both birth parents and adopted people.

There has been criticism of the adoption contact register, which provides scope to bring together adopted people and their relatives. Since the launch of the register there has been only one further attempt to promote it. I undertake to engage in more proactive and frequent promotion of the register through adoption agencies and key stakeholders, and through the media at times of public interest in adoption. We are considering ways to achieve that, and will consult adoption stakeholders.

Hon. Members have referred to the guidance issued by the Department of Health on the role of intermediary services, which can provide sensitive support and counselling to those seeking to make contact with a relative. In August 2000 we issued guidance on the role of intermediary services, and we are actively considering how further to foster best practice among those services. Under section 64 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 we will supply funding from April 2003 for

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one leading provider to act as a national focal point for intermediary services and to offer a resource for adoption agencies.

I hope that in the light of those comments on the difficulties of making clause 59 apply to past adoptions, and my commitment to help improve the current arrangements, hon. Members will not press their amendments.

Finally, in Committee we discussed the right to know, and I expressed my sympathy then for the intention behind a similar amendment. I have no doubt that the adopted person should be informed of his adoption. The essential questions are who is best placed to inform the adopted person, and how and when that should happen.

Once again, there would be considerable practical difficulties in giving an adoption agency a legal duty to trace, track down, make contact with and make arrangements to talk to all adopted people—if it were a legal duty, it would have to cover all adopted people—at the age of 18. But as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, there are practical things that we can do to help—

It being Seven o'clock, Madam Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Order [this day] put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Amendment negatived.

Madam Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Clause 59

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