Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I support my hon. Friend's amendments. Foster parents adopt many foreign children, especially in inner-city areas with a high proportion of asylum seekers. I have seen plane loads of children arriving unaccompanied in this country, their passports having been destroyed. They will be put straight into care homes. Early adoption may be suitable. For those placed with foster parents, the provision could provide problems on the best course of action, so I support the proposed addition.

Clause 82 states that its provisions do not apply if

    ''the proposed adopters are parents, relatives or guardians of the child (or one of them is)''.

There should be an ''or'' after that; otherwise it would imply that all the conditions had to be fulfilled in order to qualify.

2.45 pm

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) suggested that the Government were not sufficiently concerned about support for intercountry adoption, or about its complexity. We acknowledge that intercountry adoption can be an extremely valuable placement choice for some children. It is in line with international conventions to which we are a signatory. However, in line with international law, we believe that children should be protected to the same extent on intercountry adoptions as on domestic ones.

That brings us to the problem of the hon. Gentleman's amendments. In some ways, they almost represent a misunderstanding of what clauses 80 and 82 try to achieve. They place restrictions on the movement of children in the context of intercountry adoption, ensure that the safeguards are met and allow exceptions to those restrictions.

Mr. Djanogly: If a child who is habitually resident in another country comes to this country as an asylum seeker, is he therefore no longer habitually resident in another country? Would he be resident in this country?

Jacqui Smith: I suspect—I will clarify it with the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong—that the position of a child who sought asylum in this country would partly be determined by whether he was accompanied by his parents and, if not, the extent to which he was covered by the Children Act 1989. If he became a looked-after child, the provisions on his domestic adoption would be those that we discussed earlier. If an asylum-seeking child was unaccompanied on entering the country, the foster parent would not have brought him into the United Kingdom. Therefore, the facilities to enable the foster parent to adopt the child would be those that we discussed under parts of the Bill relating to domestic adoptions.

Clauses 80 and 82 deal with restrictions on movement of children out of or into the country in relation to intercountry adoption. The provisions that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham aims to amend are the exceptions to those restrictions. We have clarified the groups of people to whom it would not be appropriate to apply the restrictions in the clauses, which are designed to provide safeguards. I hope that I can show the hon. Gentleman why it is appropriate to apply the restrictions to step-parents.

Clause 80 requires prescribed conditions to be met by those habitually resident in the UK before they adopt a child habitually resident outside the British islands. Clause 82 prevents the removal from the UK of children who are Commonwealth citizens or habitually resident in the UK for the purpose of adoption outside the British islands, unless certain conditions are met.

In both cases, the restrictions do not apply where at least one of the proposed adopters is the parent, relative or guardian of the child or a step-parent of the child. That is consistent with current law, and recognises the links and relationships between the child and any prospective adopter who falls into one of those categories. It would be seen as unreasonable to restrict the ability of a close relative or guardian of the child to take him out of or bring him into the country.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham would extend the exemption to the restrictions to include foster parents. That would mean that any foster parent could remove a child from the UK and adopt him outside the British islands. Also, anyone habitually resident in the UK who fostered a child in the child's state of origin could bring him back to the UK after adopting him in his state of origin or with the intention of adopting him in the UK without penalty. For a number of reasons, I do not believe that to be appropriate.

If the amendment were made, there would be no distinction between the foster carer who had looked after a child for a significant period, and the one who had had care of the child for only a few days. That would open a large loophole in the restrictions that we are trying to put in place to protect vulnerable children. Some foster carers should not be prevented from being positively encouraged to adopt the children in their care, given the time scales and conditions that we discussed last week, but that has to be within the restrictions that relate to domestic adoptions.

The amendment would mean that the unscrupulous—unfortunately, we know that some people may be unscrupulous in their approach to intercountry adoption—could avoid having to be assessed and approved as suitable to adopt, as a child habitually resident outside the UK could be placed with them in a foster placement overseas before adoption. Such people could travel abroad and undertake some sort of foster placement that would enable them, if there were not a restriction, to bring the child back into the country in order to adopt. That would undermine our attempts to ensure that those who wish to adopt children from outside the British islands do so only where, as a minimum, the same safeguards as in domestic adoptions have been applied.

If the amendment were made, it might be possible to foster a child overseas, where the meaning and legal standing of foster care might be quite different to that in UK law, and return to the UK with that child with the intention of adopting him. That would mean that children resident in the UK might be removed from the country for adoption by a foster parent with whom they had been resident for only a short time. That would be despite the fact that the foster parent would have no right to apply for adoption in the UK without the agreement of the local authority given that the child had been resident with him for less than a year. We discussed such issues last week.

There would also be a definitional problem on foster placements made by overseas agencies. In the UK, only placements made through local authorities would allow an individual to be recognised as a foster carer. Placements made by the parents are considered to be private fostering arrangements and the carers to be private foster carers. A range of practices exists in other countries, including placements by parents and a range of organisations. That would cause serious difficulties in identifying whether an individual could legitimately claim to be a foster parent to a child, and therefore exempt from the clauses.

The amendments do not take into account who has parental responsibility for the child and whether that person consents to the child being removed. In the case of a child resident in the UK, we would want to ensure that the birth parents and the local authority had an opportunity to consider and have their views heard on any potential adoption or move outside the British islands. Schedule 2 of the Children Act 1989 states:

    ''A local authority may only arrange for...any child...to live outside England and Wales with the approval of the court'',

    ''with the approval of every person who has parental responsibility for the child''.

The proposals would undermine the role of foster parents and the trust that they can engender in children and their families and social workers. After all, most foster carers aim to provide care and support to children on a short-term basis, so that those children can return to their birth families.

Each year, thousands of children are successfully rehabilitated with their families after short periods in foster care. If it were possible for a foster family to remove a child from the United Kingdom and adopt them outside the British islands, the effective use of foster placements would be reduced, and the suspicion would increase that a child in that situation would not return to his own family. If the amendments stood, they would have an impact on voluntarily accommodated children and could increase the number of contested care proceedings.

I understand the concern of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that throughout the Bill we should recognise that it is often beneficial to the child that foster parents are able to adopt the children for whom they are caring. However, that should be allowed only within the conditions in the clauses that we debated last week—not as an avoidance of those conditions through the intercountry adoptions to which the amendments might lead.

With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister. The amendments are relatively minor probing amendments, and the Minister went into enormous detail to refute them. Having achieved our intention that foster parents should not be regarded as non-persons, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 156, in page 43, line 30, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 157, in page 43, line 38, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Tim Loughton: These are also probing amendments, which relate to the thorny problem of ''shall'' and ''may'' and the even thornier problem of the detailed regulations that apply to the Bill.

The Government produced an enormous set of draft regulations entitled Implementing the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which is available only on the Department of Health website, and not in hard copy. Those regulations are in draft form alone, and we do not know how they apply to this clause. It seems strange that those regulations do not form a statutory part of a requirement; they are only a ''may'' part of the requirement, although we are going to the trouble of introducing those regulations and legislating for them in advance. Will the Minister give us an explanation for that?

I am glad to see the hon. Lady wielding a hard copy of those documents, because her Department said when my office inquired about obtaining them that they were available only on the internet. Perhaps they should be more widely available to those without access to the internet or those who risk using up enormous quantities of ink from their printer.

However, these are only probing amendments, and I am sure that the Minister will allay our fears in a detailed manner, as she usually does.

3 pm

 
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