Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: Amendments Nos. 59 and 138 represent alternatives to one another. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, who said that this was the third most important part of the Bill. Unfortunately, however, the clause is unlikely to retain its importance after the Government have stymied and emasculated it and given it a limited reach.

Amendment No. 139 suggested that changes should be made to keep the doors open to possible alterations to the role of the panel. Amendment No. 59 would simplify a complicated set of rules. The current impact of subsections (1) and (2) is to create a double bar to entry: to qualify, the subject of the appeal to the panel must fall within the clause 9 regulations referred to in subsection (1), and determinations must be qualifying determinations, which are themselves the subject of regulations. The effect of that combination reduces the role of the panel and overly complicates the issue.

The amendment simply suggests that all determinations should be the subject of a possible review before the panel. To understand why that would be the right approach, we need to take a step back and consider why the clause was drafted in the first place. On one hand, the purpose of the Bill is to emphasise the senior importance of the child, who under clause 1 receives paramount status. Hon. Members will recall that, on various occasions, I have queried whether that is actually the case, given the Government's reluctance to give children practical rights in such matters as consent and representation. Under clause 12, the rights of the child are not emphasised as the Bill as a whole suggests should be the case.

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The Government have stated their intention that the panel provisions should apply only to parents turned down as suitable to adopt and in relation to release of information. A child may bring to the panel a request for release or non-release of information. Will the Minister confirm that that is the Government's intention? A child could also have access to the panel to have his or her say on whether individuals are suitable to become his or her adoptive parents. Those issues would seem to fall within the scope of issues that the Government want to include, but the application has not been discussed in the context of the children's rights; the explanatory notes refer to parental rights alone. Children should be included, however, and I would like the Minister to give her comments on that.

The wider point that we are making is that restricting access to the panel under clause 9 and the terms of reference to the panel may be a method for considering the actions of the local authority or institution rather than allowing children and adoptive and natural parents to assert their rights. I reiterate that that is a different question to that of which aspects of the Bill should be included as regards access to the panel.

Clause 12 as it stands acts as a method for restricting which matters may come before the panel. Amendment No. 138 suggests specific issues that might be covered by the panel, but amendment No. 59 simply asks why access to the panel should be restricted at all. If a determination has been made to which the child or adoptive or natural parents object, why should they not have a right to review by the panel? Amendment No. 59 suggests that they should have such a right. Such rights to appeal are now commonplace. Is it to be possible to appeal to a panel in respect of a parking ticket but not of most parts of the adoption process?

If the Committee decides to reject amendment No. 59, it will be saying that the Bill should not provide for all decisions to be capable of appeal to the panel. If that is the Committee's decision, my hon. Friends and I suggest that amendment No. 138 be inserted instead. Confidence in the care system is at low ebb for a wide variety of reasons, not all necessarily related to the subject matter of the Bill.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): The hon. Gentleman says that confidence in the care system is not at its highest. Does he not think that allowing everyone under the sun to go before the panel, which principally relates to prospective adopters, would cause the kind of delays to which the hon. Member for Canterbury referred? That would hardly be in the best interests of the child.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to clarify that point. Amendment No. 59 would not bar the making of regulations on how these matters should be conducted. The regulations could specify limits to the process. I tabled the amendment because adoptive and natural parents should have the right to go to the panel.

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Mr. Brazier: To illustrate this argument, I gave a clear example of the regulations that one could make based on paragraph (f) of amendment No. 138, which refers to

    ''the suitability of a child for adoption with particular prospective adoptive parents''.

If it were the case that no other prospective adoptive parents were allowed, the issue would be not be whether there was a delay but whether the child was adopted. On the question of whether foster parents should be allowed to adopt, a delay might occur if the child was being allocated to other parents. From the child's point of view, adoption by his foster parents would represent an opportunity for continuity rather than another move.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend and agree with him.

I said that confidence in the care system was generally low, but for reasons that are not necessarily related to the subject of the Bill. However, if the Government are to achieve their targets on adoption and achieve a degree of permanence that would increase people's confidence in the system, the system needs to listen to people and must have clarity and transparency. Respect and enthusiasm need to be accorded in greater measure to those who are willing to take children, and we need to take on board what the children want to a greater extent than is suggested.

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For those reasons it is important, first, that the Bill should clearly state who has rights to appeal to the panel. Secondly, it should set out the issues on which a person can appeal. Thirdly, the two issues on which the Government would currently allow an appeal to be made—namely prospective adopters being turned down by adoption panels and access to information—are not adequate.

Amendment No. 138 is intended to identify the issues on which my hon. Friends and I believe there should be a right of appeal. Those should be specified in the Bill. We have not seen the regulations to be made under this part of the Bill, but even if we had, that would not be adequate for reasons of transparency and public confidence in the system. If prospective adoptive parents know how they can legitimately question the system before they become involved in the process, they might have more confidence in it. One often hears horror stories of people being bullied or even humiliated by the authorities; some people complain of being ignored or getting lost in the system. The clause presents us with a chance to say, in the Bill, that those people will be listened to and that they are not irrelevant to the process.

If the purpose of the Bill is to give paramount importance to the rights of the child, it is in some ways even more important that adoptive parents—and, I suggest, natural parents—should have a means of checking decisions. It would be unfortunate indeed if the Bill were to give social workers greater scope for ignoring the wishes or aspirations of other parties to

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the adoption process. Balance and transparency will be required for the Bill to work; the clause currently shows neither.

In setting out the issues that we think should be included as capable of being raised before the panel, I do not intend to argue points that the Committee has previously determined. However, the Committee's failure to agree many previous Opposition amendments has made it more important that access to the panel should be given, so that confidence in the system can be retained.

Proposed paragraph (a) to clause 12(2) reflects proposals that the Government intend to introduce by way of regulation. The explanatory notes state that such proposals deal with the approval of potential adopters only at the formal stage of the adoption process. That is important because I understand that at that stage of the process only 6 per cent. of applicants are turned down. That is because most potential adoptive parents tend to be weeded out at the informal stage of consideration—the ''counselling-out stage''. It has also been brought to my attention that, as things stand, some 90 per cent. of applicants fail to be approved in the early stages, and that only 10 per cent. go forward to the formal stage.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): My understanding is that it may well be that only 10 per cent. of those who initially express an interest go forward, but that is because many people express an interest, go to meetings, decide that it is not for them and do not proceed, rather than are weeded out by social workers.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Lady makes a fair point, from which I do not dissent. However, representations that I have received make it clear that although 90 per cent. of applicants are not ''counselled out'', a significant percentage are lost in the lead-up to the formal stage. Many people feel that their concerns are ignored during that process, but they are as entitled to have their concerns addressed as someone who reaches the formal stage. If people choose to drop out because they honestly decide that they do not want to become adoptive parents, the procedures involving the panel are irrelevant.

The Committee should seriously consider whether the clause unamended, with no proposals for regulations other than those set out in the explanatory notes, will have much effect. It will have an impact only on the 6 per cent. or small minority who reach the formal stage. The majority of disappointed prospective parents will have no redress. That cannot be right, even under the Government's restricted interpretation of who should be eligible to apply to the panel.

Moreover, viewing the procedures cynically, adoption authorities could knock out more applicants than they currently do at the pre-formal stage, giving even fewer people the right to appeal. Clearly, that is not the purpose of the clause. Proposed paragraph (b) attempts to correct matters by making it clear that all prospective adoptive parents should have the right of appeal, whether or not they have reached any

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particular stage of the adoption process. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the proposed regulations will cover all stages of the adoption process.

Proposed paragraph (c) provides that the panel should be able to decide on issues relating to

    ''the supply of information concerning the child to any person including the child''.

In the explanatory notes, the Government propose that there should be a right of appeal to the panel in relation to information defined in clause 54. I assume that that right will apply to adoptive parents, natural parents and children, and possibly to other interested parties. Will the Minister confirm that the regulations will provide for that, and explain why she thinks that it is inappropriate to provide for that basic right in the Bill? That issue is very important, as has been seen in previous discussions in Committee and, presumably, as we shall see in our discussion of clause 54. All parties should know where they stand and what their rights are, and the relevant provisions should be included in the Bill, as paragraph (c) proposes.

Proposed paragraph (d) deals with

    ''the costs and expenses relating to the adoption process''.

Many parts of the process involve costs. The costs of overseas adoptions are greater, but the panel process also involves costs, to which I shall return when we discuss amendment No. 140. The issue of costs needs to be covered in more detail than the Bill currently provides. For example, does the Minister propose that regulations should provide for some sort of process similar to court taxation, so that costs can be justified if required by one of the parties to the adoption?

Proposed paragraph (e) deals with

    ''the movement of the child between successive foster carers''.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury spent some time discussing that issue, and there is a lot of overlap with the Children Act 1989. Why should a child who has been moved from pillar to post in the way that he described so well not have the right to bring his case before a panel that could review the fostering arrangements, or ascertain why headway has not been made in relation to his adoption if that is what he wants? The provision might also be relevant to foster carers who are thinking of adopting a child and who want to object to the removal of that child from their care.

Proposed paragraph (f) is the inverse of proposed paragraphs (a) and (b); all three deal with the suitability to each other of the child and the prospective adoptive parents. We have to cater for the unfortunate but not uncommon cases in which prospective adoptive parents do not share the adoption agency's view on whether a particular child is a correct match for them. That might lead to prospective adoptive parents' access to what they regard as more suitable choices being restricted.

Proposed paragraph (g) aims to give general redress to those involved in what is necessarily a bureaucratic process. I emphasise—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman want to comment?

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