Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for Romsey identified her amendments as probing the decision-making process leading up to placement, which the clause does not cover. The clause makes it clear that adoption agencies may place a child for adoption only if they have the consent of the parents or if the child is under a placement order. The decision-making process for adoption agencies will be set out in regulations, as it is in current regulations under the 1976 Act.

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The current process provides that, if after a review a local authority considers adoption for a child, it must refer the case to the adoption panel. In its role as an adoption agency, the panel makes a recommendation to the authority about whether adoption is in the child's best interests. The authority must then decide whether to accept the recommendation and, if it does, that means that it is satisfied that a child should be placed for adoption. The new regulations will set out a similar process. In the Bill, the decision that the agency is satisfied that the child should be placed for adoption should be made before a child is placed with the consent of the birth parents. That covers some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

My hon. Friend also asked about the maximum period of time—it is important to remember that—after parents have withdrawn consent within which either the child should be returned to them or the voluntary adoption agency, which under the Bill can no longer apply for a placement order, should be given the opportunity to refer the case to a local authority for a decision whether a placement order should be applied for. That is another important reason for the 14 days' notice, which as my hon. Friend pointed out we will have the opportunity to examine in more detail.

My hon. Friend mentioned the point at which parental responsibility is transferred. The Bill changes the law on parental responsibility in a way that has been widely welcomed by many stakeholders. However, we will have the opportunity to consider parental responsibility, where it is vested and the points at which it is transferred, when debating other clauses in this part of the Bill. My hon. Friend asked why there was not a placement order in all cases. Given our discussions about delays and the need to put the child at the centre of the process, it would not help to reduce delays or put the child at the centre to include possibly unnecessary court cases when parents have given their consent for the adoption of the child.

My hon. Friend may have misunderstood our proposals for restrictions on removal and parental responsibility without a court order. His demand was that there should be on-going discussion with stakeholders, the Family Rights Group and others. I assure him that, immediately after the evidence-gathering sittings last week and subsequently, discussions continued within the Department and with stakeholders to ensure that we got the provisions absolutely right. I hope to alleviate some of my hon. Friend's concerns when we deal with later parts of the Bill.

At the point in the process at which clause 17 kicks in, new regulations will include requirements to consult the child directly throughout the decision-making process, record their views and ensure that they are taken into account in, for example, panel decisions. The provisions in clause 1, which state that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration, the duty to bear in mind the harmful effects of delay in decision-making, and the welfare checklist will all apply to the agency decision-making process. If, as a result of the process, the authority is satisfied that the child should be placed for adoption but the parents do not consent and the agency considers that the significant harm threshold has been reached, the authority will be obliged by clause 21(1) to apply for a placement order.

Clause 21(1) and (2) impose a duty on the local authority to apply for a placement order if it is satisfied that a child should be placed for adoption. As I said, we intend to introduce regulations that will set out the process leading to the decision that a child should be placed for adoption. In the context of the Bill, the process must be followed before a child is placed with the consent of the birth parents. The duty to apply for a placement order kicks in only if the local authority is not authorised to place the child for adoption and the conditions to do with the significant harm threshold in section 31(2) of the Children Act are met.

With the assurance that we are, in many ways, replicating in the regulations the position under the 1976 Act, I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Sandra Gidley: This is a probing amendment, and it has been useful to hear what the intentions are. As always, the problem is that so much seems to be devolved to regulations; sometimes, the full impact of the Bill is not clear. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Placing children with parental consent

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 40, in page 12, line 35, after ``of'', insert—

    ``or other persons holding parental responsibility for''.

Again, the amendments are probing amendments, and I hope that we can get clarification from the Minister. The British Association of Social Workers raised the issue of identification, and we subsequently proposed amendment No. 41, which would add the words ``(directly or indirectly'') after ``identified''. The BASW pointed out that it was not clear whether the present arrangement, whereby a parent might consent to adoption by specific adopters whose identity is protected by a serial number, could be continued. It appears from the clause that the word ``identified'' means named. Will it still be possible for a parent to agree to adoption by unnamed specific adopters, about whom he or she has received specific information? It will be important in some cases to protect the identity and location of an adopter.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman should be speaking to amendment No. 40.

Tim Loughton: In that case, I must be using an old selection list on which amendment No. 41 is listed first. I will revert to amendment No. 40, and the Minister can then respond to my response before I have made it, although I have not, in this case. [Laughter.]

Let us deal with amendment No. 41. [Hon. Members: ``No. 40.''] Let us deal with amendment No. 40—it has been a long day—which deals with parental responsibility. The amendment is probing and deals with a potential anomaly that appears several times in the Bill. We would add:

    ``or other persons holding parental responsibility intended for''

after ``parent or guardian of'', because the glossary refers to section 3 of the Children Act 1989, which defines parental responsibility. Surely, more than just the parent or guardian can have parental responsibility, and it is not clear in section 3 of the 1989 Act how that relates to the definition of ``guardian''. I refer specifically to clause 107 and the role of the step-parent who may acquire parental responsibility.

The amendment probes whether all avenues are covered. People in a position of parental responsibility may not be covered by the reference to ``parent or guardian'' in the definitions and related explanatory notes. I ask the Minister to respond specifically to the question of step-parents who acquire parental responsibility.

The Law Society raised the issue of what happens to fathers without parental responsibility whose birth child may be adopted, and made a suggestion—supported in some quarters—that all fathers should automatically receive notice of a placement for adoption or adoption proceedings. Such notice would include a get-out clause if the court decided it was necessary—for example, if there was a threat of violence from the person who had necessitated the child's removal in the first place. Will the Minister clarify who has parental responsibility and whether the definition includes step-parents with parental responsibility under the parental and guardian terminology? If she cannot, will she accept our amendment to ensure that all avenues are covered?

Jacqui Smith: The provisions for consent to placement follow the model of the consent to adoption provisions in the Adoption Act 1976. ``Parent'' means a person with parental responsibility. Clause 129 provides that ``guardian'' ``includes a special guardian''. The special guardian is the child's primary carer who takes day-to-day decisions on the child's upbringing. It is right that the guardians, as well as the child's parents, should consent to adoption.

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Under the amendment, others with parental responsibility would need to consent to placement for adoption. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's specific points, only a birth parent with parental responsibility consents to adoption. Unless they adopt, step-parents do not, even if given parental responsibility under clause 107.

Unmarried fathers are also relevant. Under the 1976 Act, a father has parental responsibility only if he marries the mother. He can acquire it by agreement or court order under section 4 of the Children Act 1989. Clause 106 provides that an unmarried father automatically acquires parental responsibility.

Mr. Bellingham: What would happen if both parents were tragically killed and no other family member could act as guardian?

Jacqui Smith: I do not know, but I can find out now or let the hon. Gentleman know later.

If the amendment was intended simply to ask a question, I hope that I have answered it.

Mr. Walter: I am now a little more confused. Is the Minister saying that the unmarried, natural father of the child has rights, but that a stepfather who adopts a child does not?

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Prepared 27 November 2001