Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: I tried to develop a consensus, but clearly I have failed. What does the hon. Gentleman think about the point that I made semi-facetiously, but that may be significant in terms of legislation, about ascertaining the views of a baby?

Tim Loughton: When ascertaining the views of a baby, one would use common sense to determine how the interview is to take place. Whether a conversation or a physical assessment, it could not take place without the person responsible for leading on the making of recommendations having seen the child himself. That is the point. Whether a conversation is on the level of a six-month-old baby or involves sitting down with a 10 or 14-year-old, who will have firmer views and will express them more effectively, is not the point. The Minister still has not made the case as to why there is a downside to stipulating that the child should be sought in person.

Mr. Brazier: To pick up on the Minister's intervention, the Opposition are not trying to produce beautifully crafted amendments; the Government have a range of expert legal draftsmen to do that. If the Minister feels that the words in parentheses afterwards do not properly cover the eventuality of a baby, who obviously cannot be consulted, there is nothing to prevent the Government from tabling an amendment. The Opposition are not wedded to the particular wording. The issue is whether the Government are willing to put direct consultation with the child into the Bill.

Tim Loughton: That is the point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing it. The Minister tried to reassure us by saying that there was a positive legal obligation to ascertain. That is clear, it is in the Bill and no one disputes that. The intention behind the amendment is to establish what the ascertaining bit amounts to.

I will not accept a vague assurance that regulations of which we have no knowledge will close a small potential loophole with which lawyers could have a field day if it turned out that a child had not been seen in person. I am not reassured at all by the Minister. At the beginning, I was happy to accept some assurances, but I fear that things became worse as the debate proceeded. In those circumstances, I urge my colleagues to vote in favour of my amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division No. 1]

Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Gidley, Sandra
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Loughton, Tim
Walter, Mr. Robert

Blackman, Liz
Brennan, Kevin
Dawson, Mr. Hilton
Love, Mr. Andrew
Moran, Margaret
Shaw, Mr. Jonathan R.
Smith, Angela
Smith, Jacqui
Winterton, Ms Rosie

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I beg to move amendment No. 74, in page 1, line 15, after `understanding', insert

    `which, for children of the age of 10 or older shall include the consent of the child concerned being required for adoption.'.

One of the matters that will be hotly debated throughout is the extent to which children should be consulted, the extent of their rights, and how those rights should best be protected. It is generally agreed that correct consultation is important and that children's views should be actively sought. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) mentioned the need for representation and he will have noted that I have proposed an amendment to deal with that important issue.

The question of consent frequently arises. Another issue that arose frequently during the taking of evidence was the extent to which the age of the child should be a relevant consideration. The age of 10, being the age of criminal liability for a child, was mentioned. On the whole, those who gave evidence confirmed that, at that age, children knew the difference between right and wrong. Under the amendment, when a child has reached the age of 10, consent to adoption would be necessary.

I acknowledge that it is not a straightforward issue because of the question of whether a child is of sane mind at the age of 10, but that problem could be taken into account. The Bill should expressly specify that a child of 10 has the right to say no to adoption. If acknowledgement of children's rights is an important part of the Bill—

Mr. Dawson: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, but what he said is different from the amendment, which talks about the child's consent ``being required for adoption''. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the child's right to say no, which is not the same. Will he clarify what he means?

Mr. Djanogly: I apologise. The wording of the amendment is correct. The Bill should recognise that at the age of 10—I am open to discussing whether another particular age would be more appropriate—a child has the right to consent to adoption. It does not appear in the Bill now, but it should.

Mr. Shaw: The Committee may already be fed up with me referring to hard-and-fast rules, but I am going to repeat that specifying an age in the Bill is inappropriate and will not encourage best practice. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) says that he is prepared to discuss what age is most appropriate. No age is appropriate. However, where a child can express a view, they should be consulted. No one would deviate from that, but it is inappropriate to say that they should be consulted at age 10, 11 or 12. It is important to bear it in mind that the likely relationship is between the social services department, social workers, other agencies and an older child for whom the department is considering long-term permanency plans, of which adoption is the first option.

11.45 am

It is likely that a department or a family will have known the child for several years. There should be continual in-care reviews if that child is placed with foster carers. A review should include the plan for permanency. The child, depending on their nature and age, will be involved in the review in its most appropriate form. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about the need to talk to the child as well as various professionals.

Mr. Djanogly: Can the hon. Gentleman foresee any circumstances in real-life placement in which a 10-year-old child who did not want to be adopted would be placed?

Mr. Shaw: Yes, I can. If the department has a care order, it has parental responsibility. Parents frequently have to make decisions for children with which they do not agree. That is parental responsibility. The court would have to be satisfied, an assessment on the child would have to be carried out, and the guardian ad litem would have to see the child. The child might want not to move on from foster care, but to stay there for ever and a day. However, the foster carers might not be offering that, because they do not provide that service for the department. In that case, a decision would be made that the child's needs were best met by permanent placement in an adoptive family. That might be against the child's wishes, but it happens all the time, and may be entirely appropriate in certain circumstances.

We cannot have the mindset that, if a child wants to do something, that is exactly what we do. A social services department has parental responsibility.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman was right to remind us that, if a child is in foster care, that should only be temporary. I also accept that the authority is in loco parentis. However, if the child is 10 years old and can think for himself, no matter what the local authority thinks is best for him, if he does not want to be adopted it is inconceivable that he could be. Alternative circumstances would have to be agreed.

Mr. Shaw: I do not agree at all. We heard in the compelling evidence, particularly from the academic witnesses, that children's lives are far more successful if they are placed with an adoptive family. The consequence of the hon. Gentleman's proposition would be to move the child to another foster carer. How long for? Would he then go to another foster carer? He would be allowed to drift in care. We have compelling evidence. If an assessment is made on a child who says that he does not want to be adopted and all the evidence is that it is in his best interests to be adopted, it is the local authority's responsibility to take that decision. We cannot set our face by a 10-year-old saying that that is what he wants, with people having parental responsibility accepting everything that he says, particularly on an issue as crucial as this. Therefore, I cannot support the amendment. To set an age in the Bill would be to set rules that are too hard and fast, and would not be in the best interests of children for whom we are seeking permanent homes.

Mr. Llwyd: The amendment has been tabled for the best possible motives and with the best possible thinking behind it, but I say to the hon. Member for Huntingdon with the greatest respect that his heart is ruling his head. I fully appreciate his reason for tabling the amendment and the sincere way that he argued his case, but I know of children of 10 who are not mature enough to give a straight answer to anything. Whereas my children ran rings around their mother and me at the age of 10—perhaps I am na—ve—there are obvious differences.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the local authority will be in loco parentis. It will have the welfare of the child as a paramount consideration. If all other things are equal, it will be bound to carry on with the placement and ultimately the adoption. That is probably a correct interpretation of the law. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that in each case we should ask the child, regardless of his age, whether he wishes to be adopted, I would agree that that would be appropriate. However, it would not be appropriate for the veto to lie with the child. The child's wishes should be one factor in the whole process. I understand the argument behind the amendment, but it is deficient as currently drafted.

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