Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: I am sorry, Marion, but—[Interruption.] I am sorry, that was terribly rude. My laryngitis has gone to my head as well as to my throat. I hope that you will forgive me, Mrs. Roe; I am not feeling well.

I must ask the Parliamentary Secretary to think about what she has just said, because it surely cannot be right. If the subsection were deleted, other parties would be able to bring prosecutions. The Attorney-General would not come into the equation at all, nor would judicial review.

Ms Winterton: If subsection (1) were removed and we reverted to a situation in which the Crown Prosecution Service, for example, took the decision, the decision would have to be judicially reviewed. At present, a decision of the NCSC not to prosecute is reviewed by the Attorney-General. On top of that, there is a further judicial review if required, but there is no intermediary stage at which the Attorney-General's Office reviews the NCSC decision.

I understand that we need to move on. I hope that, with my assurances, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will accept that the measure ensures that individuals have an opportunity to take action if they feel that regulations have been breached, without compromising their ability to pursue the action further if necessary. The Government believe that the measure will assist individuals and will ensure that adoption agencies are properly monitored by an expert body with the power to prosecute if necessary. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing his amendment.

Tim Loughton: The Parliamentary Secretary tried hard to reverse my disappointment, but I fear that I am still disappointed. She patently fails to consider the intermediate stages, available to individuals and other prosecutory agencies, between the regulatory role of the NCSC, which at some stage becomes a prosecutory role, and the Attorney-General's Office, which under the proposed terms is likely to be flooded with many complaints from individuals.

We are in no way seeking—the Parliamentary Secretary failed to give evidence otherwise—to restrict the powers of the NCSC to prosecute. She prayed in aid the fact that in its regulatory role it will have the powers to inspect adoption agencies every three years. That is a welcome improvement on the current system in which adoption agencies are inspected less often. However, we are talking not only about inspections to reveal sloppy record-keeping, but about those that we hope will reveal serious professional incompetence that had led to children suffering because a job had not been properly done.

Ms Winterton: To clarify, we are talking about breaches of regulations. That is the whole point of the clause, and I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

Tim Loughton: Absolutely—but the NCSC's inspection role is to ensure that the adoption agency is doing its job properly, is properly set up to be a recognised adoption agency and is abiding by the as yet unseen regulations.

The Parliamentary Secretary particularly alarmed me when she said that the agencies would be inspected every three years. Under the Government's proposals in subsection (2)(a), which we want to amend, there is a three-year ceiling. After that period, action can be taken if an offence has been committed. What would happen if a team of inspectors inspected an adoption agency and identified an offence that had been committed just after the previous inspection three years before? By that time, and by the time that the inspectors had got the evidence and their act together to do anything about the offence, the three years would have expired. That is another reason why the second part of the clause is woefully inadequate. The details given by the Parliamentary Secretary about the three-yearly inspection do not remotely reassure me.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Is not the hon. Gentleman searching for something with which to pick a quarrel with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary? The Bill provides people who are not happy with the ultimate regulatory body of care services, and who do not have the means to appeal, to go directly to the Attorney-General, over the heads of the NCSC. My hon. Friend has shown exactly how the clause is in line with a Bill that opens up adoption and gives people many more opportunities to question adoption procedures. The hon. Gentleman makes the case that the NCSC's three-year inspection regime somehow conflicts with the three-year rule under the clause, which is nonsense. The NCSC will intermittently be involved in concerns raised by consumers of the services that they inspect.

Tim Loughton: To pick up the hon. Gentleman's words, the Parliamentary Secretary is the last person with whom I want to pick a fight. I have been struggling to give her every opportunity to elucidate a woefully inadequate clause. I have not been angered or annoyed. I am merely disappointed that she has patently and utterly failed to elucidate the clause, but she has a difficult brief, and the clause is difficult to defend. We are not suggesting anything that would close off any avenues, and do not see why there should be restrictions under the clause. We are not picking holes, but I wish that I had the hon. Gentleman's faith that such regulatory bodies and new organisations, many of which we agree with, will be completely up to their job, will be manned by officials who know exactly what they are doing, and that no problems will arise. In the real world, of course, that does not happen.

Mr. Dawson: Is not the whole point that if those institutions and individuals are not up to their job, powerless individuals in the system can go straight to the top to the Attorney-General—aided, no doubt, by their able Members of Parliament—and have matters dealt with in a way that makes sense to people who are not used to going through legal processes and courts of law?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman has missed the point that we have been trying to make.

We have spent an hour and three quarters debating my probing amendment—the first amendment of the morning. Because of the inadequacy of the Parliamentary Secretary's explanations, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to push the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 9.

Division No. 2]

AYES
Brazier, Mr. Julian Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Loughton, Tim

NOES
Blackman, Mrs. Liz Brennan, Kevin Dawson, Mr. Hilton Gidley, Sandra Love, Mr. Andrew
Moran, Margaret Munn, Ms Meg Smith, Angela Winterton, Ms Rosie
Smith, Jaqui did not vote

Question accordingly negatived.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 148, in page 51, line 10, leave out 'three' and insert 'five'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to debate the following:

Amendment No. 132, in page 51, line 11, leave out 'but, subject to' and insert 'except'

Amendment No. 149, in page 51, line 12, leave out 'six months' and insert 'one year'

Amendment No. 133, in page 51, line 14, after 'knowledge', insert—

    'up to seven years after commission of the offence.'.

Tim Loughton: We proceed to debate the amendment of subsection (2), to which I have alluded. We are seeking to change a number of things in order to give maximum flexibility so that where misdemeanours have occurred they can be discovered in good time and action against them can be taken. Many of the problems can take many years before coming out of the woodwork.

Amendment No. 148 refers to paragraph (a), under which at the moment the Government stipulate that proceedings have a three year-limit. I made the exceedingly pertinent point—the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) did not concur with it—about three-yearly inspections, which may be the device by which problems are brought up, although, hopefully, matters would not just rely on such inspections. I am genuinely trying to probe the Government's thinking behind their choice of various time spans. We suggest widening the time from three to five years after the offence has been committed except, under amendment No. 132, when the evidence is brought within a period of time that the Government propose should be six months. Amendment No. 149 would extend that to one year

    ''from the date on which evidence sufficient in the opinion of the prosecutor to warrant the proceedings came to his knowledge.''

Again, I do not see what the rush is. Given that we are dealing with very complicated matters and with children—evidence may not come out until a later stage for a whole manner of reasons, of which we are all well aware; Members on both sides of the Committee have given examples of complicated cases—why is the provision time limited at all?

Amendment No. 133 would mean that proceedings could be brought concerning sufficient evidence coming to light for up to seven years only after the commission of the offence. We might ask why that should be time limited, but it is reasonable to define a time to focus people's minds on how long such a device applies and for how long people need to keep records. Evidence must be available for seven years, not indefinitely; the provision should not be open-ended. I shall not go back over old ground, but the proposal refers to offences under clauses 9 and 56, about which we expressed our dissatisfaction with the level of fines and everything that went with it. In tabling the amendments, we are probing the Government on their reason for what appear to be arbitrary time scales.

12.15 pm

Mr. Djanogly: I support the amendments. The explanatory notes on clause 94 state:

    ''All prosecutions of offences under this Bill are to be brought within six months from the date the prosecutor has sufficient evidence to do so''.

The implication is that if evidence exists, prosecutions must be brought. However, clause 94(2)(b) states:

    ''Proceedings for an offence by virtue of this Act . . .

    (b) may be brought''.

There appears to be an inconsistency between the Government's intention that prosecutions should be brought and the Bill's wording that they may be brought. I should appreciate hearing the Parliamentary Secretary's explanation.

I concur with my hon. Friend that six months seems a bizarrely short period in which the prosecution may or must be brought. It can take a lot of time to put together evidence and to make inquiries; 12 months is much more appropriate.

It is wise to have some finality and I therefore support the proposal for a prosecution to be brought within seven years after commission of the offence.

 
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