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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Special Standing Committee Debates

Adoption and Children Bill

Special Standing Committee

Thursday 6 December 2001


[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Adoption and Children Bill

2.30 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. The worthy woman whom I sought for the benefit of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) was Aelia Pulcheria, who was proclaimed augusta in 414, her nephew being only seven years old, and who ran the Roman empire officially for seven years and continued for many years after he had technically come of age.

The Chairman: That is not a point of order. However, I am sure that Committee members will be very pleased to have that additional piece of information from this morning's debate, which I am sorry to have missed.

Clause 80

Restriction on bringing children in

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I beg to move amendment No. 159, in page 43, line 16, leave out 'six months' and insert 'one year'.

Having been greatly enriched by that piece of information, I turn to more mundane matters. The Bill makes it an offence to bring any child into the United Kingdom for whom an overseas adoption order has been granted during the previous six months if the required UK procedures have not been complied with. I am trying to find out why the period decided on was six months.

Intercountry adopters frequently have to remain in the overseas country for three or more months—sometimes, in exceptional circumstances, up to a year—usually in order to comply with the overseas requirements. In practice, the provision would rarely be invoked, but if it is meant as a deterrent to people trying to circumvent the system, would it not be better to extend the period from six months to one year? That time frame would be in line with the usual one-year qualification for children to be admitted to the UK as de facto dependents when they have been adopted by UK nationals while living overseas. There appears to be a slight inconsistency between the two provisions.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. I am pleased to back in Committee following the sterling work of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).

We have moved to the part of the Bill that deals with the protections and additional safeguards that the Government have introduced in relation to intercountry adoption. The clause is an important part of a package of measures to ensure that intercountry adoption takes place only where the same minimum safeguards as those for domestic adoptions have been applied.

The clause re-enacts the restrictions in section 56A of the Adoption Act 1976, which was inserted by section 14 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 and brought into force on 30 April 2001. It makes it a criminal offence for a British resident to bring a child into the UK for the purposes of adoption—if they are intending to adopt them in the UK—unless they comply with the prescribed requirements.

The Adoption of Children from Overseas Regulations 2001 make it a requirement that prospective adopters apply to a local authority or voluntary adoption agency through procedures similar to those followed in domestic adoptions. The adopters then receive a certificate of eligibility, issued by the Secretary of State. The clause also extends the restrictions—this relates to the issue in hon. Lady's amendment—to British residents who bring into the UK a child whom they adopted outside the British islands within the previous six months and whom they do not intend to adopt in the UK. They might choose to do that because the adoption order is recognised under UK law or because they are content to have an adoption order just from the child's state of origin and do not want the arrangement recognised in the UK.

In reviewing the law on intercountry adoption earlier this year, the Government concluded that the restrictions on bringing children into the UK for the purposes of adoption alone were insufficient because they did not catch those who returned to the UK with a child whom they had adopted overseas but did not intend to adopt in the UK. Clause 80 attempts to redress that situation by requiring British residents who bring into the UK children whom they adopted outside the British islands to comply with prescribed procedures and conditions. Those will be the same as the procedures and conditions for British residents who want to bring a child into the UK for the purpose of adoption.

The Bill requires anyone who returns with a child who is less than six months old and for whom they have an adoption order made in a country outside the British islands to comply with prescribed procedures and conditions to avoid committing an offence. The amendment would extend the length of time to a year. I understand that the hon. Lady is using the amendment to ask why we chose six months.

The hon. Lady mentioned the period for which someone might need to remain overseas before the adoption order was made. The Bill provides for a six-month period that begins after the adoption order is made, and the period will be longer for someone in an overseas country if we take into account the length of time up to that point.

In drafting subsection (1)(b), we carefully considered the time limit. We were keen to ensure that we caught those who lived in the UK and adopted a child who was habitually resident outside the British islands. However, we were also keen not to catch those who lived and perhaps worked outside the British islands and who might still be considered to be habitually resident in the UK, but who—because they, effectively, lived in the country where the adoption process took place—legitimately wished to adopt through the procedures in that country.

We decided that six months seemed a reasonable length of time. It is long enough to catch unscrupulous individuals who, to avoid committing an offence, take a short leave of absence to live outside the British islands and adopt through the procedures of the country in which they live. However, it is also short enough not to catch those who live and work overseas. I hope that I have made it clear that the six-month qualifying period commences only once an adoption order has been granted.

The hon. Lady referred to the time period. In considering it, we looked carefully at immigration service arrangements for deciding whether to grant entry clearance. Each case is determined on its merits and there is no set time limit, but the immigration service will usually treat favourably applications for entry clearance for children who are de facto dependents, where the child has lived with the family for a minimum of six months and the family has lived overseas for about 12 months. That shows that there is equivalence—to the extent that it is possible to achieve equivalence given the discretion over immigration clearance.

Extending the period to 12 months would not increase our chances of catching those leaving the country for a short period in order to adopt. However, it would increase our chances of catching those who legitimately choose to go through the adoption procedures in the country where they live. I hope that my clarification will lead the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

Sandra Gidley: That was helpful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I beg to move amendment No. 160, in page 43, line 23, after 'step-parent', insert 'or foster parent'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 163, in page 45, line 3, after 'step-parent', insert 'or foster parent'.

Tim Loughton: Welcome back to our proceedings, Mrs. Roe. I would recommend a glance at the Hansard of this morning's events, which were educational and illuminative. I shall also recommend that when the Bill reaches the other place their lordships glance over our proceedings on clause 68, as the provision is particularly relevant to them.

Having had insufficient time this morning to discuss the clutch of clauses before the Committee under the stringent programme resolution, we now move to another part of the Bill. We were unable this morning to discuss an issue even thornier than aristocratic sperm—that of incest, which left many questions unanswered.

Clause 80, on restrictions on bringing children into the country, addresses the complex subject of intercountry adoption. By way of introduction, I should say that many of the professional and voluntary bodies that made representations to the Committee raised concerns about the real meaning and intent behind the clauses in chapter 6 because they seem to leave unanswered many questions about the Government's attitude to intercountry adoption. The amendments are probing, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that our concerns have been taken into account. Amendment No. 160 would add to the list of people to whom clause 80 applies the status of foster parent. Amendment No. 163 would do the same with clause 82, which deals with people wishing to take children out of the country.

The Bill seems to make foster parents non-people in the adoption process. Those covered in the two clauses are adopters, prospective adopters, parents, relatives, guardians and step-parents, but nowhere does it specifically mention foster parents. It is essential to protect the rights of foster parents as current guardians of children and as prospective adopters. The Minister may believe that their specific role is covered, but as they are not mentioned in the clause, it would be useful to have that on record. We have heard that many foster parents become adoptive parents, that it is a beneficial part of the adoptive process flow chart and that it can also speed up that flow chart because they are already recognised and have the necessary experience.


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Prepared 6 December 2001