|Adoption and Children Bill
Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the provision marks a significant break with the Children Act? It means that an adoptive parent, or the local authority, will acquire a share in the parental responsibility without going through a court process.
Jacqui Smith: That could happen only if the parents consent to it. That brings me to the restrictions and the safeguards that we need to place around the consent process, and the important matter of sharing parental responsibility.
When there is consent to placement for adoption, parental responsibility is given to the adoption agency and shared with the prospective adopters once the child is placed. However, in contrast to freeing orders, the birth parents will retain parental responsibility up to the final adoption order, although their ability to exercise it may be limited. I shall state what I believe are the justifiable reasons for that proposal in clause 24.
The sharing of parental responsibility once the child is placed will help the management of the placement by making it clear that the agency and the adopters have responsibility for the child and can make day-to-day decisions. It is appropriate for the adoption agency, which has overall responsibility for managing the placement, to be able to determine the extent to which the birth parents may exercise parental responsibility. However, I emphasise that parental responsibility has not been transferred but shared in such cases.
My hon. Friend also raised the important case of a child who is voluntarily accommodated, and spoke of his concerns about the removal provisions. We must be clear that a child who is voluntarily accommodated cannot be deemed to be placed for adoption with, for example, foster carers without the consent of the parents. When considering the 14-day removal period, we must remember the direction of travel. If a child is voluntarily accommodated to provide respite or support for the family, or to enable rehabilitation, it is right that the parents have their child returned directly to them when they ask for that voluntary accommodation to end.
However, it is different when the direction of travel is towards adoption. In such cases, the child would probably have been spoken to when they were first accommodated and prepared for leaving their original mother and father for a new family. The birth parents would still have the right to remove their consent for the placement, but if they did, the local authority would have 14 days either to return the child to the birth parents or consider whether it wanted to go through the placement order process. In that situation, 14 days would be reasonable, given that everything that the child would have experienced before that would have been geared towards adoption. It does not seem unreasonable to have a period of time within which that child could then be prepared to return to their parents. That is qualitatively different from voluntary accommodation with the intention that the child will be returned to their family.
Mr. Djanogly: Are there circumstances in which a child could be adopted in less than 14 days after a placement order?
Jacqui Smith: I think not, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong. Given that we have made provision for three months between notice of intention to adopt and the application, I suspect that it would be impossible for there to be less than 14 days. Those three months are important, because they provide the birth parent with the ability to exercise their right to have their child returned to them, notwithstanding the 14 days' maximum removal period.
To summarise, the local authority cannot get a share of the parental responsibility unless the parent has given consent or the authority goes through a placement order court case. We will deal with the detail of consent, because it is important to be clear about safeguards and the process of granting and withdrawing consent. I emphasise that the forms for consent to placement and withdrawal will be prescribed to show clearly the full implications of what is involved. An independent Children and Family Court Advisory Service officer will witness consent to ensure that it is properly given. That will involve talking through the implications to ensure that the type of situation mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), in which someone is rushed or bamboozled into giving consent, could not happen. Placement with consent is intended to be a voluntary process. Birth parents can withdraw their consent at any point up to an application for an adoption order.
Mr. Dawson: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is very difficult to have these discussions when one has not seen the detail of the regulations? In fact, the witnessing of the consent agreement by a CAFCASS officer is a very important provision. Members of the Committee need to be aware of such regulations when discussing the issues covered by the Bill.
Jacqui Smith: I should make it clear that the provision on witnessing by a CAFCASS officer is in clause 97. The point that we discuss legislation and then perhaps need to look at the details afterwards is frequently made, although the same process was used for the Children Act. It seems sensible and logical to set out the principles in legislation and then provide the opportunity to discuss concerns, which may then need to be represented in regulations. It is also necessary to enable wide and full consultation on the regulations to ensure that the issues raised, as well as any others on the detail of the regulations, are taken into consideration.
Mr. Djanogly: Will someone who is going to give consent be entitled to legal representation? Will they get legal aid for that representation?
Jacqui Smith: I do not believe that that would be appropriate. As I have spelled out, they will have the independent support and witness of a CAFCASS officer. That is an important assurance. The nature, form and withdrawal of the consent will also be designed in such a way that it will be very clear to that person what they are and are not consenting to when undergoing the process.
The clause strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of the birth parents and stability and security for the child and the prospective adopters where consent to placement has been given.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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