Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: Although we have tabled no formal amendments to the clause, I should like to comment briefly on it and ask one small question of the Minister. Subsection (2) allows for the possibility of proving to the contrary in the witnessing of documents. It seems curious that subsection (1) does not make similar provision in relation to the far more serious question of whether a person has given consent to such proceedings. Will the Minister deal with that apparent anomaly?

Ms Winterton: Perhaps I should first give some background to the clause. It provides that a document signifying consent, which, according to part I of the Bill, must be witnessed in accordance with rules, is admissible as evidence without further proof of the signature of the person who gave such consent. It also provides that, unless proved to the contrary, a document signifying any witnessed consent is presumed to be so witnessed, and to have been executed on the date and at the place specified in the document.

The provision is intended to ensure that people are not asked to attend court and give evidence about their consent where it has been provided in the standard form. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will recognise that the provision is designed to minimise any distress to birth parents that attending court might cause. The provision is fairly standard and is in fact included in the Adoption Act 1976. According to the provision, people will not have to offer further proof of the document in question. However, I can perhaps reassure the hon. Gentleman by pointing out that the provision will not prevent such a person from attending court to say that they did not sign. It merely states that it is acceptable for such a person not to attend court and not to provide further proof of signature.

I hope that I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's points, and I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 99 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 104

Avoiding delay

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 141, in page 54, line 8, leave out from '(2))—' to end of line 17 and insert—

    '(a) draw up a timetable with a view to disposing of the application without delay; and

    (b) give such directions as it considers appropriate for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that that timetable is adhered to.

    (2) Rules of court may—

    (a) specify periods within which specified steps must be taken in relation to such proceedings; and

    (b) make other provision with respect to such proceedings for the purpose of ensuring, so far as is reasonably practicable, that they are disposed of without delay.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendments Nos. 152, in page 54, line 10, leave out 'without delay' and insert 'within 28 days'.

No. 153, in page 54, line 13, leave out 'may'.

No. 154, in page 54, line 14, leave out from '(a)' to 'and' in line 15 and insert

    'will state that any prescribed steps which must be taken in relation to such proceedings must commence within 60 days'.

No. 155, in page 54, line 16, after '(b)', insert 'may'.

Tim Loughton: The amendments relate to a very important part of the Bill dealing with the whole question of avoiding delay; a term that has featured large in our deliberations since we debated clause 1. Together with the paramount considerations for the welfare of the child, the question of delay is an important consideration on which the whole Bill is based, and we wholly concur with that. It is imperative that we define delay as closely as possible, giving clear guidance to practitioners as to what constitutes delay. ''Without delay'' is a very open-ended term that can be interpreted in a whole host of different ways by legal practitioners and other professionals dealing with adoption.

On amendment No. 141, members of the Committee will recall that we have been concerned throughout our proceedings to reduce the possibility of anomalies between the Bill and the Children Act 1989. The consequence of not doing so is that lawyers in court or parents arguing against an adoption agency will be able to pick and choose between the welfare checklist in the 1989 Act, as opposed to the rather different welfare checklist in the Bill. That can only delay proceedings and not provide for a clear resolution of the future care of the child. The amendment would redraft subsections (1) and (2), using exactly the same language as section 32 of the Children Act. I know that the Minister will say that the Act does not deal specifically with adoption, but it deals with very similar considerations regarding timetables and delay.

Amendment No. 152 addresses the need to put some closer definitions in the Bill. The clause refers merely to drawing up a timetable ''without delay'', which can be open to all sorts of interpretations. The amendment would replace that with ''within 28 days''. We are pleased that the Government appreciate the need for a timetable so that everybody who is party to the adoption knows exactly the time frame in which they are working. If that is not adhered to, due complaint and representations can be made. The amendment would require that the timetable should be drawn up within 28 days.

6.30 pm

Amendment No. 153, which is contingent on amendment No. 155, would omit the word ''may'', which is a word that we never like to see in Bills in any case. The clause says that rules may

    ''prescribe periods in which prescribed steps must be taken in relation to such proceedings''

and then says that rules ''may'' make other provisions with respect to such proceedings, those two are a pair.

In amendment No. 154 we have talked about timetables for when various steps should take place along the adoption track. As the Bill stands, there is no provision for when that timetable should start. We are saying that the clock should start ticking within 60 days of the start of proceedings. These are very closely linked, if slightly confusing, amendments—the bottom line of which is to give some more detailed substance to what delay means and how we can avoid it.

I mentioned that the clause mirrors section 32 of the Children Act 1989, but not exactly; that is what we are trying to rectify. That section provided that rules could be made specifying time periods within which steps in care proceedings must be commenced. No rules have been made under that provision, so the courts—while paying lip service to the principle of reducing delay—have not been under specific time constraints. There is therefore no reason to suppose that any rules will be made under clause 104 either.

Rather quaintly, explanatory note 222, on page 53 of the explanatory notes fails to appreciate this point altogether. It rather glibly states:

    ''Clause 104 is a new provision similar to section 11 of the Children Act 1989 that is intended to avoid delay in the court process. It imposes an obligation on the court, where it is dealing with any matter where the issue of whether a placement or adoption order should be made may arise, to draw up a timetable and give directions that are necessary to ensure that that timetable is adhered to.''

One can only say that clause 104, as drafted, does nothing of the sort. Without specific time limits, the concept of purposeful delay would continue to hold sway in the courts and care and adoption proceedings would continue to drag on for years, as they do now.

What is needed is a specific provision, giving specific time limits for various steps. We have attempted to provide that—quite crudely, I admit—and have drawn up the figures as they appear reasonable on the face of it. However, we are entirely amenable to the Minister's saying that she agrees with us in principle, but using her own definitions and time scale in the Bill.

We are trying to avoid the problem, which happens far too often, of allowing children, particular older children, to get lost in the care system. We have seen that the longer it takes to relocate the child into a new settled, stable and caring family, the more likely the damage on that child, particularly at a younger age. The amendments are a perfectly reasonable attempt to avoid the process being strung out even more by expensive lawyers arguing the toss over what constitutes delay. Certainly the experience of the Children Act 1989 has shown that arguing over that definition has wasted a lot of time. The timetables have not been properly instituted. We are attempting to remedy the problems of that Act which we do not want to be replicated in the Bill.

Mr. Bellingham: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson, for allowing me to comment briefly on the amendments.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that the amendments were a crude attempt to improve things. He does himself down; the amendments have been very well drafted and are well worthy of acceptance. I certainly endorse what he says about trying to avoid delay. That is the essence of the Bill. I draw hon. Members' attention to some of the evidence that has been submitted to the Committee. For example, the memorandum from—ASIST—Adoption Support in Society Today is interesting and well worth reading. It states in column 372 of the other memorandums and letters:

    ''One of ASIST's main concerns centres on clauses in the Bill which could hinder the implementation of its aims. It states in the introduction to the Bill 'Any delay is likely to prejudice the child's welfare' ''.{**W4**}

It refers specifically to the clause, and whether it could be improved.

In other evidence, the Law Society says that it is crucial to avoid delay. It notes clauses 1(3) and 104, which cover that point, and adds:

    ''We would be particularly interested to contribute to consultation on case management rules.''{**W4**}

I hope that the Minister takes that into account and examines case management rules.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the clause needs more teeth and more focus; it must be more precise. Otherwise, we could end up in a lawyers' paradise. If I may say so without sounding patronising, the Minister answered our technical questions very well. In the Committee's spirit of good will, I hope that she will conclude that our amendments have more substance, more bite, and are better worded than the clause. If she will not accept them today, will she reconsider the clause and return to it on Report, or in the other place?

 
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