Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Walter: We have had a useful debate. I hope that both sides can agree that this is a question not of political correctness but of what is best for the interests of the child. Heaven forbid that we get bogged down in debates about what is politically correct, or what that term means. I am often accused of being politically correct because of my views on anti-discrimination measures.

Sandra Gidley: I have just looked ahead and would like the hon. Gentleman to explain why he thinks that the wording is inappropriate, given that the same wording is in new clause 2, to which he has put his name? Is he not being inconsistent?

Mr. Walter: When we reach new clause 2, I hope that we will talk at length about whether that is politically correct. I will talk now about the amendment to clause 1 and I will answer some points that have been raised.

I am sympathetic to the point made by the hon. Member for Romsey about whether the fact that a child had been baptised into the Christian faith should be a factor. I come back to the point that that depends on the child's age. A child who is baptised at an early age—as often happens in the Christian faith—has been given a badge by the parents; the parents' background is reflected rather than the child's wishes and desires, which are unknown at that stage. Many children come from a background of no faith at all. We live in a secular society and when we are considering children for adoption, we should not become hung up on the matter. However, that does not mean that faith should not be taken into consideration for children who are a little older and more mature.

I was sympathetic to the point about the black child bleaching himself white. Certain factors must be considered when a child is placed for adoption into a racial background that is not its own, or into a multi-racial background. But as I mentioned in answer to an earlier intervention, there are many mixed-race marriages and partnerships in which that is simply not a factor. If it is dealt with sympathetically, it should not be a problem. Heaven forbid that people in adoption agencies should consider this matter at length. We can all probably quote examples of people who felt that they had problems in adopting because there was a mixed-race element to their circumstances.

In answer to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—[Interruption.]

He and I sat on the Welsh Grand Committee for three years, so I have no difficulty in remembering his constituency. If a child has already acquired language skills, that should be taken into consideration, but a babe in arms from a Welsh-speaking family who has not yet acquired any language skills should not be denied adoption into an otherwise perfectly suitable family environment simply because those people do not speak Welsh.

I am seeking to prevent the clause from being overly prescriptive. I feel that it should have a lighter touch, lest we develop a checklist mentality. I said at the outset that this was a probing amendment. It is a matter that we should keep in the forefront of our minds. We have had a good discussion. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Chairman: Does the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk wish to get to his feet, because as soon as I ask whether the Committee gives leave for the amendment to be withdrawn, he will not be able to speak to it?

Mr. Bellingham: I want to seek permission to withdraw my amendment, too. I hope that we will return to this on Report. We have had an important debate. I am not particularly happy with everything that the Minister said. She addressed most of the points and she spoke fluently and sincerely about this issue. I should like to pick up on one point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset made. Baptism is not carried out for the convenience of the parents or the family. It is a gift of the Lord. It stays with the child for ever. That is an important point. However, I will be withdrawing my amendment.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman's amendment is not before us. We are debating amendment No. 1.

Tim Loughton: I want to address my amendment, so presumably I should wait.

The Chairman: May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman addresses it now. We are debating amendment No. 1, which is grouped with amendments Nos. 19 and 24. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to press his amendment to a vote, I must take the opinion of the Committee on amendment No. 1 first. If he then wishes to move his amendment formally we can put it before the Committee. That is the correct procedure.

Tim Loughton: Thank you, Mrs. Roe. I will seek to help the Committee and explain why I will not press amendment No. 24 to a vote. I agree with my hon. Friends that this has been an informative debate. We have plunged into baptism and skirted around circumcision, two subjects that are closely related, but one of which is reversible and the other probably is not. However, the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill that was debated in the House of Lords on 26 November may lead us to think otherwise. The Minister has gone some way to addressing our concerns, and until she reached her closing remarks, I thought that she intended to support the amendment, because she seemed to agree with the thrust of my argument that the prioritisation of the first considerations in the subsections of clause 1 needed to be clearer. It certainly needs to be made clear that the considerations in subsection (5) should be considerations, not barriers.

5.30 pm

Amendment No. 24 would achieve a balance, but the Minister's provisions go some way to doing that. It might better inform our discussion if such provisions were made available to the whole Committee.

It is legitimate that the phrasing of the checklist in the explanatory notes is confusing. It is widely referred to as the welfare checklist, but it needs to be dealt with in terms of the paramountcy and delay subsections of clause 1. The debate has helped to clarify some outstanding points. In the circumstances, I would not wish to press the amendment.

Mr. Walter: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 2, line 32, leave out subsection 8(b).

I will be brief, as we need to make more progress. Subsection (8) clarifies the purposes of clause 1:

    ``(a) references to relationships are not confined to legal relationships,

    (b) references to a relative, in relation to a child, include the child's mother and father,

    (c) references to the court making an order include its dispensing with parental consent.''

The amendment would simply remove paragraph (b); if a child's mother and father are not relations, we live in a bizarre world. Whoever drafted that paragraph did so with the right intent. However, I am a great believer in trying to keep statutes as simple and tidy as possible. There is no point in being verbose or legalistic, and the simpler we make the statutes, the better.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) implied that we must live in a bizarre world. We live in a world where it is important for legislation to be accurate and clear about definitions. That is why I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

The amendment would remove the child's mother and father from the definition of a relative in clause 1, with the effect that the court or adoption agency would be under no obligation to consider the child's relationship with its parents, take account of their views or consider their ability and willingness to care for the child when making decisions in relation to the adoption of a child, including whether to make a placement order or an adoption order. That would not be appropriate, right or in the interests of the child.

Children who are adopted today are generally not babies, as we know. The average age of those adopted from care is four years and three months. Whatever the background of the case, those children will have formed a relationship with their parent or parents which, in the child's interest, the court must consider. It cannot be right for the courts not to be obliged to consider the views of the parents in coming to as far-reaching a decision as whether to make an adoption order. That may not have been the intention of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk in moving the amendment, but that would be the effect of passing it.

The hon. Gentleman is probing the definition of ``relative''. The definition in clause 1 must include the child's mother and father in such an explicit way, because the definition of relative in clause 129

    ``means a grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt, whether of the full blood or half-blood or by marriage.''

That definition does not include the child's mother and father, because relative is more narrowly defined in the rest of the Bill, where separate references are made to the parents. For the reasons that I outlined, it would be crucial for the court to consider the relationship with the child's mother and father, which is why we need a specific inclusion in subsection (8)(b). To exemplify a little further, the reason for the different definition is that, in many places—as the hon. Gentleman will note—the Bill refers to parents and to relatives. For example, the restriction in clause 82, does not apply if

    ``the proposed adopters are parents [or] relatives''.

The Bill refers to relatives separately in clause 126 and to parents in chapter 3. ``Relative'' and ``parent'' are defined separately in the Adoption Act 1976, and the need to ensure in clause 1 that the definition of relative includes parents is the reason for the specific wording of subsection (8)(b). I hope that, with that assurance, the hon. Gentleman will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation, and it makes the situation clear. In my eight years at the Bar in which I was working on a certain amount of family law, I cannot remember one example of a court not including mother and father in the definition of relative. In the light of the Minister's concerns that the change would lead to problems, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the bill.

 
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Prepared 27 November 2001