Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for her reply. I understand her logic exactly. However, I have some suggestions. The first relates to property rights. Inheritance rights might be an issue—property might be entailed—or other rights under intestacy law might be involved, but surely it would be simple to draft another subsection to prevent the rights of adopted children in those matters being compromised or jeopardised. Such a provision in the Bill would surely override other law, or operate alongside it. If the Parliamentary Secretary's legal advisers tell her that it would not be acceptable to the courts to put those rights of adoptive children in the Bill, perhaps other legislation should be changed. If the background inheritance and intestacy law is relevant, surely we can change it in statute.

I take on board the Parliamentary Secretary's point about single people who adopt and the way in which the rights of children of those adopters need to be protected. Putting that to one side, we could still leave out the phrase

    ''if the person had been born''

so that the clause would read:

    ''An adopted person is to be treated in law . . . where the adopters are a married couple, as a child of the marriage''.

We could then insert a subsection to protect children's rights with respect to inheritance and intestacy. Will the Parliamentary Secretary comment on that specific recommendation? Could we return to the matter on Report, after she has discussed it with the Lord Chancellor and other legal brains?

Ms Winterton: It would be unwise for me to engage in a discussion of what might or might not work. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, it is important first to consult our legal advisers and talk to parliamentary counsel about what is possible. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to search for wording that meets the objectives that we have discussed. It is not that efforts have not been made, but because of certain constraints and the need to protect adopted children in law, we have so far been unable to find anything satisfactory. The hon. Gentleman's comments are on the record and can be examined. I am prepared to write to him about his specific suggestion about inserting another subsection. I hope that, with that assurance, he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: I seek one more assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary: we will be able to return to the matter on Report. Sometimes it is difficult to fit everything in on Report, but I understand that if Ministers are keen for a subject to be revisited then, there is a much greater chance of it being debated.

The Chairman: Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that what is discussed on Report is a decision for Mr. Speaker and not for the Parliamentary Secretary.

Mr. Bellingham: I certainly take that on board.

The Chairman: Do you wish to withdraw the amendment?

Mr. Bellingham: I would like to have a further comfort from the Parliamentary Secretary, in my determination to continue to address the issue.

Ms Winterton: I shall have to take your advice, Mr. Hood. As you said, it depends on the Speaker's ruling. I have said that we will examine the matter and try to find something better. I cannot guarantee that we will find anything better, but I will take on board the hon. Gentleman's suggestions and write to him about the particular suggestion that he has made. It would be foolish to make any commitments about proceedings on Report without first knowing that there was something better.

Mr. Bellingham: The Minister has been fair and understanding. In light of her remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 64 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 66

Rules of interpretation for instruments concerning property

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

Mr. Bellingham: The clause is fairly complicated, and much of it will be covered in appendices, but what is the situation as regards entailed property? I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary's colleagues in the Box can shed some light on that, although she may know the answer herself.

Subsection (2) refers to dates of adoption. What is the crucial factor in deciding the inheritance of property that is left to the eldest of two adopted children of a marriage—their dates of birth or the dates on which they were adopted? That would affect not only large inheritances, but the inheritance of, for example, a small, modest house in one of our constituencies. I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary could consider those two points.

Ms Winterton: I should set out a little of the background to the clause. As the hon. Gentleman said, it sets out the rules of interpretation for any instrument concerning the disposition of property. It puts in place a clear system that endeavours to put the adopted child and any natural children in the adoptive family on as equal a footing as possible in respect of inheritance issues.

The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen if two or more children had been adopted. Where a disposition depends on the date of birth of a child of an adoptive parent, an adopted person is to be treated as having been born on the date on which the adoption order was made. Where two or more children are adopted on the same date, they will be treated as if they were both born on that date, but in the order of their births. That general principle does not prejudice an interest vested in possession in the adopted child before the adoption or any interest that is expectant on such an interest.

The clause assists in the disposition of property where no express position has been made in any legal instrument or will. It is, however, open to any person who leaves property to make their own provision as to how an adopted child should be dealt with. For example, if the adoptive parents die intestate, the adopted child will be able to benefit in the same way as any natural children.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk spoke of there being two or more children. Where there is a question about who is the eldest, the adopted child will be treated under the clause as having been born on the date of the adoption. A family might have two natural children aged five and three and an adopted child aged seven. For the purpose of any will that specifies that property should go to the eldest child, the five-year-old natural child would inherit the property.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Parliamentary Secretary not feel that that is slightly unfair? We have been talking about inclusion and how such children, when they understand that they are adopted, should nevertheless feel part of the adopted family. We have said all along that they should have exactly the same rights as natural children, yet they do not on this important point.

10 am

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman might quarrel with the clause, but it replaces section 42 of the 1976 Act and follows the system that has been in place since 1976. We should accept that that system has been seen to operate fairly. We have to think about the balance of rights for natural and adopted children. Experience has shown that the previous Act has worked well, so the decision has been made to repeat the provision. I hope that that reassures him.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 67 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 68

Property devolving with peerages etc.

Mr. Bellingham: I beg to move amendment No. 129, in page 38, line 29, leave out 'not'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 130, in page 38, line 31, leave out 'not'.

Mr. Bellingham: The amendments, put simply, will give adopted children the right to inherit titles and other inherited honours. We have spoken at length about the paramount importance of inclusivity and the integration of adopted children into new families and homes. Adopted children rightly enjoy almost all the same rights as natural children, although we have been considering some important rights under inheritance and intestacy that they do not enjoy.

We have spoken too about how vital it is for adopted children to have certain rights under inheritance and intestacy law, and a moment ago, the Parliamentary Secretary said that they should have those rights. They have the names of adopted families and many such rights. In terms of esteem and the attitude of families towards the children who are adopted into them, it is essential that they be considered part of such families. That is fundamental.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Do I detect some republican sympathies in the hon. Gentleman's comments? I am sympathetic to the point that he makes about the rights of the adopted child, but would not the clause as amended be a fundamental breach of the hereditary principle—and what would be its effect on the succession to the monarchy?

Mr. Bellingham: I shall address that point shortly. The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. I am no republican—[Interruption.] However, I feel strongly that adopted children should have the same rights as natural children.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): The hon. Gentleman places the child's welfare and needs at a high level. Does he really believe that becoming the seventh earl of Kinglassie, or wherever, would be as important to a child as having loving parents?

Mr. Bellingham: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the most important thing is the love that a family can give the child. In a moment, I shall give an example that illustrates clearly that although the parents may love the adopted child, the child's life may be made more difficult as a result of the state of affairs that we are debating.

One surprising restriction remains: adopted children cannot inherit titles of honour. For instance, they cannot inherit property—it may not be a large farm but a small house—that is entailed to a title. Furthermore, although it may not interest Labour Members, adopted children cannot use courtesy titles. Labour Members may be 100 per cent. against hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords, and they may even want to introduce legislation to stop people using titles, although I do not know how one could do that in a democracy.

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Prepared 6 December 2001