Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Winterton: Perhaps I can help to relieve the disappointment and despair felt by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. It is vital for prosecutions to be brought in a timely manner, commensurate with the offences committed. There should be the minimum possible delay in pursuing prosecutions, as delay could jeopardise them, as hon. Gentlemen know. The Bill seeks to maintain momentum in prosecutions but is flexible enough to allow a longer time scale for prosecutions to be brought—up to three years after the commission of the offence where it did not come to light immediately, for example, by an inspection. I hope that that answers the question asked by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. To clarify another point, adoption agency records have to be kept for 75 years. That is outwith the amount of time that is set down in the Bill relating to prosecution.

Most of the cases that will arise under the Bill will be dealt with in the magistrates courts, where the usual time limit is six months after the offence is committed. Therefore, the clause allows a longer time scale for prosecutions to be brought—up to three years after the commission of the offence. That is because offences do not always come to light immediately.

The six-month and three-year periods are the same as those in the Care Standards Act 2000, and already provide for a considerable extension of time allowed compared to the normal six-month limit for the prosecution of offences subject to summary conviction in a magistrates court. The six-month period is also the one that currently applies to offences under the Adoption Act 1976. So the Bill already represents a considerable enhancement in protection.

Not all the offences in the Bill are dealt with only in the magistrates court, which ordinarily track the six-month time limit for prosecution. For example, offences under clauses 80 and 82 are either-way offences: they can be tried in either the magistrates court or the Crown court. Higher penalties are therefore available, including, in the Crown court, imprisonment for 12 months, an unlimited fine or both.

To elaborate, clauses 80 and 82 restrict bringing children into the UK and taking children out of the UK in order to avoid unscrupulous buying and selling and illegal adoptions. Unless a time limit is specified in legislation, as it is in the Bill, there is no set period in which a prosecution must be brought. However, if there is a lengthy delay between an alleged commission and prosecution, the court can stay the proceedings. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 provides that these offences are subject to the six-month and three-year time limits—in contrast to the six-month time limit that applies to all other offences under the 1976 Act. As I have said, the Bill goes further by providing for Crown court prosecution in serious cases to create a greater deterrent effect.

The Government believe that the Bill, as currently drafted, provides the appropriate time limits for summary offences—actually extending the usual period allowed. However, for the more serious offences under the Bill, such as those relating to taking a child out of the UK—I hope that this will address the points that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is raising by tabling his amendments—we will consider, as a means of further enhancing the deterrent effects, whether to remove the time limits for Crown courts. That is aimed at ensuring that offenders cannot escape prosecution simply by lying low for several years. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman that we are prepared to examine his point, particularly with regard to more serious offences, and that in the light of that assurance, he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: We have scored a bit of a result. The Parliamentary Secretary obviously appreciated the thrust behind our amendments, and I am heartened by the importance that she attaches to ensuring that the momentum of prosecutions is promoted in the Bill. I am heartened also by the information about keeping records for 75 years and her point about considering the implications of strengthening the law in the Crown court against offenders who commit offences under the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act and may be lying low out of the reach of justice. On the basis of her heartening and detailed response, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 94 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 95


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

Tim Loughton: I wanted to raise a quick point with the Parliamentary Secretary. The clause is short, deals with appeals and needs only a little elucidation. I return to the problems of differential welfare tests. By tagging the Adoption and Children Bill on to the Children Act 1989 for the purposes of appeals in the magistrates court, there could be confusion about which welfare test should be applied unless it is clearly spelled out or the tests are identical.

I refer the Committee to section 22 of the 1989 Act, where it sets out the checklist. We may call it a checklist in the absence of the Minister of State, who was irritated whenever the word was used and then proceeded to use it several times herself. The checklist in the 1989 Act is different from that set out in clause 1. In an earlier deliberation on clause 1, I raised the fact that when arguing appeals, clever lawyers—it is their job to be clever and, I fear, earn their living expensively in many cases—could draw a distinction between the welfare checklist in the 1989 Act and that set out in the Bill. Will the Parliamentary Secretary briefly address that point and tell the Committee whether she envisages the problems that I have raised both now and earlier?

Ms Winterton: I should first set out the background to clause 95, so that we know what we are discussing.

The clause applies the provisions relating to appeals in magistrates courts in section 94 of the Children Act 1989 to the Bill, and will ensure consistency in the handling of cases involving children. An appeal against the making of an order by a magistrates court in relation to adoption or placement proceedings shall lie to the High Court. Where a magistrates court has power under the Bill or in rules to decline jurisdiction because it considers that the case can conveniently be dealt with by another court, no appeal may lie against the magistrates court in the exercise of that power.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a point about the adoption checklist as opposed to the Children Act checklist. It will help to clarify the situation if I assure him that decisions about appeals are not decisions relating to the adoption of a child, but decisions about where an appeal will go. I understand why the hon. Gentleman wanted clarification, but his point was at a slightly different tangent.

12.30 pm

The clause aligns the appeal process from magistrates courts orders in placement and adoption proceedings to the existing arrangements for appeals against Children Act orders in the magistrates courts from the making of magistrates courts orders or where magistrates decline jurisdiction.

Consultation on the operation of the system for appeals in family cases was undertaken with key stakeholders last year. The hon. Gentleman may be further reassured if I say that we are in discussions with the senior judiciary on the best way forward. Currently, there is no formal time scale, but we are taking the opportunity with the Bill to ensure consistency in the handling of cases. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels able to support the clause.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for that response. She is obviously entirely on top of her brief on the clause, and I am happy for us to move on.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 95 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 96

Proceedings to be in private

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 134, in page 51, line 21, after 'camera', insert

    ', except where the judge deems it to be in the public interest to make all or part of the proceedings public and, in all cases so deemed, the child's identity shall be protected.'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss amendment No. 10, in page 51, line 21, at end add—

    '(2) Notwithstanding subsection (1), any proceedings may be reported subject to the following conditions—

    (a) the name of any adult or child involved in the proceedings must not be reported;

    (b) no place other than that of a local authority may be reported;

    (c) the name of any school or other institution, the naming of which might reasonably be expected to make possible the identification of any adult or child involved in the proceedings, must not be reported.'.

Tim Loughton: I fear that we may not be able to deal with this clause as quickly as we did with clause 95, because Opposition Members are mystified as to why the Government appear to be restricting information about serious cases, rather than providing full access to information when things go wrong.

Amendment No. 134 would make it more likely that the proceedings of a case where there had been infringements against which proceedings had taken place could be made public where a judge defined that that was in the public interest, subject to provisos over identifying the children involved. We assume that the right of access to such information is in the public good and the onus should be on individuals to prove otherwise.

The second amendment was tabled primarily by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who takes a keen interest in the proceedings of the Committee even though he failed to make the grade by becoming a member of it. I am sure that that only emphasises the enormous amount of talent on the Opposition Benches and the interest in the Bill. We very much welcome my hon. Friend's contribution to the Committee.

Let me return to amendment No. 134. We take the view that proceedings should be in private only if, and to the extent that, they relate to a particular child. If an adoption agency or a person running an adoption service contravenes the Act, there is no good reason why their names and behaviour should not be publicly exposed. It may be in the public interest to be aware of unsavoury adoption agencies' activities. A small minority of people who do not have the child's best interests at heart have sought to profit from adoption. The Bill is designed to work against those people. That does not detract from the excellent, necessary, worthwhile and dedicated work of the vast majority of adoption agencies and support services. However, we are debating infringements.

The clause includes a curious feature in line 20 that proceedings in the High Court may be ''disposed of in chambers'', whereas proceedings in the county court must be heard and determined ''in camera'', as set out in line 21. Why does only the High Court have discretion to decide whether to hear proceedings in public? When parties may benefit from obtaining publicity, they will be tempted to take proceedings at greater expense in the High Court. County court judges deal with the vast bulk of adoption work and should have the same discretion.

The Parliamentary Secretary may have the same success as she did previously in assuaging our curiosity and concern. Why are the two types of court treated differently, and why are the Government intent on hiding information about where the service is not functioning properly? Individuals who should not be involved in that service must be named and shamed. The Government are very good at naming and shaming various professionals, so why are they reluctant to name and shame unscrupulous individuals who should not be involved in adoption? Openness is in the public interest. If a judge decides that it is in the public interest, why should he be fettered by the Bill? If people who have escaped the rigours of regulatory inspection, and have been licensed, set up an adoption agency and, as a result of their activities, the welfare of children suffers, details of that crime should be put into the public domain, unless there is a reason for not doing so—for example, because it does not benefit the welfare of the child. Under the amendment, the judge, who has the case in front of him and is best placed to decide whether it is in the public interest to disclose, would have that power.

I am reminded of a notorious and horrific case that happened at the hands of the social services department in the London borough of Richmond, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. A story in The Mail on Sunday strategically revealed the background to the problems of the case. It clearly demonstrates where disclosure of information in the public interest was absolutely right, yet the courts were used to prevent it:

    ''The Mail on Sunday told last year how Richmond social workers went to the home of Roger and Frances Holmes to take away a four-year-old girl, known as Child X, whom they had fostered for nearly two years.

    The couple wanted to adopt her but were rejected by social workers who said she should go to a family in London from her native African country.

    Shortly after Child X was taken away from the couple in September last year, the Government's SSI''

—social services inspectorate—

    ''carried out a review of social services in Richmond as part of its national programme of inspections. Its report''

—published in January—

    ''said the needs of children at risk, in care or with foster parents were not being put first by social workers.

    Most worryingly of all, cases on the child protection register—which should be reviewed at six-monthly intervals—were not being reviewed.

    Richmond had held only 53 per cent of the reviews that it should have done during 1999 and 2000.

    And fewer than half the statutory reviews required for children in family placements were carried out in time—'a significant failing', the report concluded. In some cases there was no evidence to suggest that recent referrals had been dealt with at all.''

The authority then brought an injunction to gag the child's former carers. On behalf of Roger and Frances Holmes, The Mail on Sunday fought the council in the High Court and revealed how child X was taken, sobbing, from the Holmes' west London home. An article in September continues the story:

    ''The four-year-old girl, who lived with them for two years, was taken to a family with the same racial background.

    In spite of a High Court ruling, the Holmeses have been denied access by the council because they spoke up about the case.

    Until last week, they were pinning their hopes on the review carried out by former head of Devon social services Andrew Williamson CBE. The inquiry was announced last December.''

Mrs. Holmes, a registered childminder for 30 years, has received sinister phone calls and death threats, and the Holmes have been banned from fostering in future, despite the fact that they have proved themselves worthy foster parents in the past. Richmond council has subsequently claimed that the couple breached an agreement not to disclose information about child X without its consent.

That ghastly case goes to the heart of the amendment. We are saying that it is in the public interest that misdemeanours be made public. In the example that I gave, the misdemeanours of Richmond council social services department and its failures to carry out its duties as a social services department are very much in the public interest. People who live in Richmond and may be considering going to the social services department in its role as an adoption agency should be fully aware that an inspector has deemed it not to be up to scratch.

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