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4 Nov 2002 : Column 103—continued

9 pm

There are the changes regarding voluntary adoption agencies, and we have had debates about the incorporation of those bodies. Access to information changes were rightly raised, in the first instance, in Committee by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), and supported by the Opposition. The issues were raised more forcefully on Report. Several adoption agencies were consulted. We were talking about people who had given up children for adoption as far back as 1926 as well as people who had given up children similarly very recently. There was a span of three quarters of a century during which birth relatives, in many instances, had the last opportunity to make

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contact with children given up for adoption, often under duress, in difficult circumstances, especially during post-war years.

The Bill was their last chance. I am pleased to say that almost at the 11th hour the Government have listened to objections from Members, adoption agencies and many individual mothers, who I know have written in and contacted their Member of Parliament. It is a credit to the Government that they have found ways of overcoming real practical problems that the Minister outlined on Report. The problems include agency records that are incomplete and the not inconsiderable extra demands that acquiring information could place on adoption agencies. That is setting aside all the extra work that we are expecting the agencies to do to increase the numbers of people coming forward to adopt. There are difficulties in locating people after many years while using old records. There is, of course, a huge potential demand for the service.

No one pretends that the process will be easy, but the principle was right. If the Government have found a way of putting the principle into effect, I am delighted. More importantly, many thousands of birth mothers over many years—many of them are in their twilight years—will be eternally grateful to all those who have enabled the amendments to be brought about.

Mr. Lansley: I take the opportunity to express my appreciation of the work that my hon. Friend has undertaken on consideration of the Bill. He and I have not agreed on absolutely everything at every stage, but on the great majority of issues I admire the diligence with which he has gone about his task and the improvements that have resulted from his scrutiny and interventions. The access-to-information provisions are a good example of that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend.

Tim Loughton: There we are. The occupants of both Front Benches have now had a love-in, so we are all equal. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have not agreed on absolutely everything, but he has been an assiduous follower of the Bill. He was not a member of the Committee, but he knows about the practicalities of some of the things that we needed to do to improve the adoption support service, regardless of the debate that took place earlier.

The Minister grouped together the amendments relating to advocacy services. It is natural that following the improvements to the complaints procedure, which took up a deal of time of hon. Members in Committee, children's voices need to heard rather more loudly than in the past. Many of us made that point on Report. It is right that there should be a duty on local authorities to make assistance available, and it is right also that it should be publicised. I know from the experience of my district's advocacy service in Adur that excellent work is done. It is often unappreciated and unheard of, but the work is expanding enormously, not least in the areas of health and social services. The work is directed not least to help elderly people who are faced with a barrage of problems relating to access to health care benefits, for example. It is right that these services should be extended and that resources should be made available to deal with children's issues in the context of adoption.

There is no point in being churlish. It is a time to rejoice in many of the great improvements that have been made during the Bill's passage. From the early

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stages when the Committee started its deliberations, improvements have been made. They did not happen immediately, and the Opposition were not necessarily credited with them at the time, but we can all share in the Bill's success and many of the improvements. The amendments are key contributions and I have great pleasure in supporting them.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 25, 27 to 31, and 37 and 38 agreed to.

Clause 82

Restriction On Bringing Children In

Lords amendment: No. 39, in page 45, line 31, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b).

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker: With this, we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 40 and 41, Government amendments (a), (b) and (c) thereto, 58, Government amendment (a) thereto, 59 to 61, Government amendment (a) thereto, 92, 93, Government amendment (a) thereto, 94, 95, 96, Government amendment (a) thereto, 97, 102 and 104.

Jacqui Smith: The group focuses on the application of intercountry adoption provisions to parents, relatives, guardians and step-parents, and provides for the time that the child must live with the adopters before an adoption order can be made.

First, let me deal with the time that the child should live with the adopters. Section 13 of the Adoption Act 1976 provides that, when the applicant is a parent, step-parent or relative of the child, or the child is placed by an adoption agency, or in pursuance of an order of the High Court, the child must be placed with the applicants for 13 weeks before the adoption order can be made. In cases of intercountry adoptions, which are not agency placements, the child must live with the applicants for 12 months. Clause 41 sets out the residence periods in the Bill.

For non-agency placements, for which clause 41 does not provide elsewhere, the residence period is three out of the previous five years. However, clause 82(6)(a) enables regulations to provide that clauses in chapter 3 apply with modifications or do not apply to children who are brought in under clause 82. Hon. Members will remember that, to improve the safeguards for intercountry adoption, we intend to use that power to provide that the child must live with the applicants for six months when the correct procedures have been followed and 12 months when they have not.

When clause 82 does not apply, the standard residence period in clause 41 will apply. However, it is intended that clause 82 will apply to all but a limited group of people. The exceptions are likely to be, for example, parents in prescribed circumstances. Under clause 41, the residence period for parents is 10 weeks.

The amendments are intended to make clear the residence periods that should apply to convention adoptions and to ensure that the same modification powers are available for early implementation of the

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restrictions on intercountry adoption. In summary, whenever the correct procedures have been followed, we intend that the child should live with the adopters for six months. That would ensure that the children had time to adjust and settle with their new families, and that the local authority had been able to monitor the placement satisfactorily before the court made the order.

As I said earlier, when the correct procedures have not been followed, we intend that the child should be required to live with the adopters for a minimum of 12 months to allow the child to settle with the new family and the local authority to assess the family fully in lieu of the checks that should have been made before the child came to live with the family.

I turn now to the amendments that deal with the issue of to whom the provisions on intercountry adoption should apply. Hon. Members will remember the structure of clause 82, which relates to restrictions on such adoptions. In their previous form, the provisions ensured that parents and relatives were excluded from those restrictions. We have received representations from intercountry adoption stakeholder groups expressing concern about intercountry adoption by relatives. They have suggested that, at present, the welfare of the child is not paramount, because these cases are treated predominantly as an immigration issue rather than an adoption matter.

The groups have raised concern about the lack of preparation undertaken by relatives adopting from overseas, and about the fact that relatives do not have their suitability to adopt assessed unless the child's home country requires it. They have made it clear that this means that we cannot be sure that those relatives will provide a safe, secure environment for the child. We have listened carefully to the issues that they have raised, and we believe that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Clauses 82, 84 and 128 of the Bill, the transitional provision in paragraph 10 of schedule 4, and section 56 of the Adoption Act 1976 place restrictions on the circumstances in which children may be brought into the UK or taken out of the UK for the purposes of adoption. At present, those restrictions include the requirement for a person wishing to bring a child into the country for the purpose of adoption to be assessed and approved by an adoption agency, and for a person wishing to take a child out of the country for the purpose of adoption to be in receipt of an order permitting this. However, these safeguards do not apply when the prospective adopters are the child's natural parents, natural relatives, guardians or step-parents.

In the light of the concerns that stakeholders have raised, we have returned to the case for exempting those groups, and come to the conclusion that something should be done to address the issue. The approach that we have taken, through the amendments, is to remove the specific exemption of parents, guardians, relatives and step-parents from the provisions that set out the restrictions. Then, in each case, a regulation-making power has been taken to enable us to prescribe that the provisions setting out restrictions on bringing a child in or removing a child are not to apply—or, in the case of taking the child out of the country for the purposes of adoption, are to apply with modification—to parents, guardians, relatives and step-parents. For example, amendment No. 41 inserts a new clause in the Bill

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containing such regulation-making powers in relation to clauses 82 and 84. This reflects the need to be flexible and to be careful that we do not impose these restrictions inappropriately. Using those regulation-making powers will provide the necessary flexibility to react to changing circumstances. It may become clear through experience and discussions with other countries that it would be inappropriate for certain groups to be included in the restrictions. We intend to consult on who should be exempt from the restrictions, and the use of regulations will allow for the responses to be taken into account.

Amendments Nos. 39 to 41 deal with the position under the Bill. Amendments Nos. 58 to 61 deal with the position under the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978, and amendments Nos. 93 to 96 deal with the position under the Adoption Act 1976. Because the amendments remove the explicit exemption of parents, guardians, relatives and step-parents from the restrictions, this gives us additional powers in relation to residence periods. It means that we will be able to use the regulation-making powers in clause 82 of the Bill, section 50A of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 and new section 56A of the Adoption Act 1976 to make regulations to modify the time a child must live with a parent, relative, guardian or step-parent in intercountry adoption cases.

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