Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: There is something of an issue of principle here. The amendments would remove the right to paternity leave for adoption for those who adopt from overseas, and I hope that the Committee agrees that that would be wrong. It is true that I have argued the economic case, but that is not the be all and end all. We believe in the important principle that all children, whether adopted from overseas or in the United Kingdom, deserve the chance to spend time with, and build relationships with, their new families. Just like children in the UK who come into care, children from overseas have often led fractured and disrupted lives, and a new family and home provide an opportunity to enjoy better life chances.

Mrs. Humble: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the only way in which people in this country from certain minority ethnic groups can adopt a child from a background similar to their own is to go to another country and obtain a child through adoption processes in that country? At the same time, however, they are vetted for suitability in this country. If we deny them paternity leave that would enable them to look after the child on returning to this country, we will deny them the right of all parents to bond with and spend time with their child. The opportunity to bond is necessary to developing a relationship that will help the child grow to maturity.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, of which I was not aware, and it is helpful to have in Committee someone who is well versed in these issues. In such circumstances, adopting from overseas is the only option.

Mr. Hammond: I am aware that the Minister does not have departmental responsibility for this matter, but the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood has raised an interesting and perhaps controversial point. The Minister will be aware that a history of controversy surrounds the issue of adoption and race. The hon. Lady appears to suggest that the Government should encourage and facilitate people in seeking to adopt only from a particular ethnic group. Is it not Government policy, however, to encourage cross-ethnic adoption where it is appropriate for the child?

Alan Johnson: Yes, it is, but my hon. Friend was simply saying something else. I shall allow her to clarify matters.

Mrs. Humble: I do not want the Committee to misinterpret my comments. In the several years that I spent as a member of Lancashire county council adoption panel—I should perhaps declare that interest—certain people sought to adopt a child from another country because they were conscious of their identity as members of certain minority ethnic groups. The Government have never laid down absolute rules, and there have been many successful cross-racial and cross-religious adoptions. The important point is the qualities that the adoptive parents bring to the process and the love and affection that they give to the child. I hope that the Minister agrees that our responsibility is to encourage the nurturing and fostering of that relationship to the benefit of the child. We should do

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that whether the child comes to this country from abroad or was born here.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend touches on the central theme of my argument. We should allow paternity leave for adoptive parents whether they adopt from within the UK or abroad. Very few adoptions—around 300—take place each year in which the children involved are not British nationals. That is not the issue, but it is important to put the point on the record. It is also important to make it clear that we recognise that the process of adoption in other countries is not always as tightly controlled as it is in this country. However, although some parents act irresponsibly, most follow the approved process.

I assure members of the Committee that safeguards will be in place to ensure that paternity and adoption leave and pay will be available only to parents who have followed the approved process, including going through an approved UK adoption agency. Arrangements for intercountry adoptions can vary considerably from those in the UK and from country to country. In particular, the concept of a placement for adoption that is used in the Bill may not apply to overseas adoptions. Therefore, for practical reasons, there will be slight differences between some elements of the provisions for domestic and overseas adoptions.

The Adoption and Children Bill clearly marks the Government's commitment to modernise the entire legal framework for domestic and intercountry adoptions. We are determined to improve the performance of the adoption service and to promote greater use of adoption. With that in mind, the Department of Trade and Industry will continue to work closely with the Department of Health and in consultation with key stakeholders, who have all approved the proposals, to ensure that we get the regulations concerning paternity pay and adoption pay in relation to intercountry adoptions absolutely right.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment. We must ensure that there is not one set of rules for adoptive parents adopting children domestically and a different one for those who adopt from overseas.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I simply want to stress that the introduction of paternity leave is very much in the interests of children, and it should apply equally to children adopted abroad and to children adopted in this country. That will help parents, especially fathers, to be good parents. The amendment is unhelpful and I would not wish to support it.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Perhaps I can elucidate the question of overseas adoption for the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. I have a constituent whose sister lives in the Indian sub-continent. She is dying of AIDS, from which her late husband died, and her life expectancy is limited. Her brother asked me about the possibility of adopting their two young children, because there are no other relatives in that part of the world under the age of 60 who could do so. He wants to adopt, not because he would adopt children only of a certain

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ethnic background, but because they are his own flesh and blood.

Mr. Hammond: I suspect that in that case the Bill would not apply. The Government have been careful to tell us that it covers arm's-length adoptions—that is, cases involving a genuine new placement and the need for time for bedding in—and not adoptions within a family or a foster relationship. Perhaps someone will correct me if I am wrong.

Rob Marris: I stand to be corrected, but I had not understood that to be the situation.

Alan Johnson: I do not know. The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) shows that we need to be careful to ensure that we get it right when we draft regulations. I am not sure whether that would be classed as an adoption. The Kilshaws, who gained much publicity, would not qualify because they brought into this country children who had been adopted abroad. The provisions apply differently to domestic adoptions and to placements that happen abroad. I am not sure whether family ties preclude the normal adoption procedure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised a good point. We should not accept the amendment on the basis that parents who adopt domestically will have the opportunity of help from the social services in this country and may not have that if they choose to adopt from overseas. My hon. Friend's contribution showed that that would be a difficult principle, and I do not think that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge wants to go down that road. I hope that he will withdraw the amendments.

Mr. Hammond: I am delighted to have the opportunity to clarify my purpose. The Minister referred to having one rule for adopters of children domestically and another for those adopting overseas. However, I am principally concerned to establish one rule for Ministers. When they create an argument in support of their actions, they should create one that applies to everything that they are doing, and not to selective bits. It is no good for the Minister to tell us one day that the good thing about making payments and giving financial and other support to those who are adopting is that it makes economic sense because the cost of keeping children in care is high, and the next, after someone has discovered a bit of the Bill that does not fit, to say that that is not the most important argument after all. I want the Minister to acknowledge that what he told the Committee the other day does not embrace what is provided for in this new subsection. I am happy to acknowledge other good reasons for including the new subsection.

Our exchanges have been useful. It was never my intention that the Minister would accept the amendments, but I wanted to hear about the safeguards that will be in place and an acknowledgement that different motives and agendas existed besides those that he recently outlined to the Committee. I am pleased to have heard the Minister's reassurance that safeguards will be in place and that, although there will be no placement in an overseas

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adoption, adoption leave and pay will apply to cases only where there has been an engagement with a recognised UK agency and where the adoption process has been vetted in the UK. That addresses most of the concerns of Conservative Members and deals with much of the scope for abuse of the system.

I may have inadvertently misled the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West with my intervention. The explanatory notes state:

    ''Regulation will provide that adoption leave will apply only where the child is newly placed with an adoptive parent—it will not apply to step-family adoptions or adoptions by a child's existing foster carers.''

Regulations will detail requirements under the arm's-length principle. I do not suppose that that explanatory note is exhaustive so it will not be clear whether the adoption of a niece or nephew would give rise to an entitlement to adoption leave, paternity leave related to adoption or associated payments.

Perhaps it will be more convenient to ask the Minister about that later when we discuss adoption. Other hon. Members have dealt with ethnic minorities, adoption and overseas adoption in ethnic minority communities, so that question is appropriate. The extended family was once common in our society, but now exists more in some parts of the community than in others. It may be necessary to think differently in different cases about whether the adoption of a niece or nephew should be regarded as an arm's-length adoption and about how it should be treated. I am speaking off the top of my head, but it might be more appropriate to have a subjective rather than an objective test of how close a previous relationship has been to ascertain whether it is an arm's-length adoption. In that case, the adoption of a niece and nephew who live thousands of miles away and may not have had contact would be seen as a genuine arm's-length adoption, whereas the adoption of a niece and nephew living as part of the same extended family group should not be seen as an arm's-length adoption giving rights to leave and pay. I leave that thought with the Minister; I shall not ask him to reply now. When we come to the adoption section, we might usefully debate that point.

Having probed the Minister and apparently irritated him, although that was not my intention, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10.15 am

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