Special Standing Committee
Tuesday 18 December 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. You may be aware that the knife came down viciously again at the end of our previous sitting, leaving 10 clauses completely undebated, and the debate on one only partly finished. We were completely unable to consider with the part of the review panel that deals with the adoption register, and many other important areas.
This afternoon, we are starting on a completely different part of the Bill, for which the Government appear to be ill-equipped, given that many of their amendments are starred. Is there no way, within the terms of the programme resolution, that extra time could be given to those important parts of the Bill that we have had no opportunity to debate before we move to a part of the Bill on which the Government have performed a major U-turn at the 11th hour, so that they are not ready for their own amendments?
The Chairman: Whether the Government are prepared to present their case to the satisfaction of a Committee of the House is entirely a matter for them. I am advised that there is no scope to reconsider the programme resolution, and therefore I must consider the matter closed.
Information to be kept about a person's adoption
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move amendment No. 193, in 53, page 31, line 32, at beginning insert
'In relation to an adopted person'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 194 and 195.
Jacqui Smith: We move to the parts of the Bill that deal with access to information. Clause 53 introduces the access to information provisions, setting out the information that adoption agencies must keep and the regulation-making powers around transfer. It would perhaps be helpful if I were to set out the intention behind the clauses that relate to access to information and the amendments that we have tabled to them and, for the benefit of our discussions of these amendments and others, worth while to compare the new provisions with the current legislation.
The Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 provide that an adoption agency may disclose information in its possession as it thinks fit for the purposes of
Column Number: 690
carrying out its functions as an agency. Adoption agencies may, for example, disclose information to an adopted person about his background, although guidance is that such information should not include the information recorded on his birth certificate, as provision for such disclosure is made separately in the Adoption Act 1976. Information about the adopted child's progress may be provided to birth parents. The guidance makes it clear that the child's new identity and whereabouts should not be disclosed.
The adoption agency regulations give adoption agencies wide discretion, but practice is varied and inconsistent. Often, the provisions work well, but in some cases they do not. Agencies have passed on sensitive identifying information without consulting the person who would be identified. People involved in adoption, including children and birth relatives, have been traced and contacted against their wishes. That may be disturbing and could disrupt the adoptive placement; in a small number cases, there is a risk of physical harm.
Access to information in the context of adoption is a sensitive matter. Nowadays, many adoptions include some element of contact between the adoptive and the birth familiesoften involving an exchange of information about the child's progress through letterbox contact, but in some cases the two families may meet. The majority of adopted children are adopted after infancy and know that their birth families have information about them. However, in some circumstances it may not be appropriate to share identifying information, especially if a placement could be disrupted or the child's welfare affected.
The measures in the Bill that provide for safeguards on the disclosure of identifying information are intended to balance the interests of all parties. Striking the right balance has been difficult. Information that identifies people is potentially sensitive; we need to consider how to safeguard it in some circumstances and how to provide access to it in others. We have tried to ensure that the system is fair and balanced and that it provides some flexibility.
We set out to develop the provisions with the following aims in mind. We want to ensure consistency of adopted people's access to information about the background to their adoption, which is a commitment the Government made in the adoption White Paper. When identifying information might be provided, we aim to give every individual involved in a person's adoption a right to express his or her wishes. We want to give adoption agencies some discretion, supported by guidance, to determine whether to withhold or disclose identifying information. We want also to balance an agency's exercise of discretion by providing a right for an independent review of its adoption determination.
The Government made it clear when introducing the Bill in October that the access to information provisions were new; we also outlined the fact in our memorandum of evidence to the Committee's evidence sittings. Continuing our consultative approach to the Bill, we also made it clear that we would welcome views on whether we had struck the
Column Number: 691
right balance. [Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] Opposition Members mock the notion that Governments might consult and listen to people. That may have not have happened during the 18 years of Conservative Government, but it is what the Labour Government are doing.
Tim Loughton: If the Minister is so proud of her record on consultation, why did it take a month from the pre-scrutiny witness sittings, at which every witness threw up their hands in horror and every document presented in evidence expressed horror at the changes that the Government were suggesting? It took the Minister until the 11th hour on Thursdayher very last opportunityto table the amendments. She did not have the courtesy to tell the Committee that she was doing it, let alone inform those members of the Committee who had tabled their own amendments to the same effect.
Jacqui Smith: As I have said, this is a complicated area of policy. It is right that the Government took the time to reflect on the evidence taken in the evidence sittings; we wanted to ensure that we got it right. I wrote to all members of the Committee last Thursday afternoon outlining the proposals that the Government intended to bring forward. I made our intentions clear. I thought that that was appropriate. According to the programme motion, we have at least three sittings to discuss the matter, so I feel sure that hon. Members will have ample opportunity to probe the Government on their amendments and to table their own.
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I am grateful to the Minister for telling us that the amendments are the result of the Government's desire to consult. However, when the Bill was presented the Government said that its original provisions were there because of the danger that those who had been adopted might go back and be violent toward or attack their birth parents. Will she explain which consultation exercise led her to believe that that was a danger?
Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware if he has read my letter and looked carefully at the amendments, the Government still consider that it might be appropriate, in a small number of cases, for adoption agencies to exercise discretion over the release of information that will enable people to access their birth records, although we have made a significant change in the proposals.
Although I accept that there was disagreement at the evidence-gathering sittings about the Government's approach to birth records, some of the evidence given then, and subsequently, suggested concern about such disclosure. The Government have changed their position in the light of representations under the Special Standing Committee procedure. We could have decided just to convenedare I say ita bog standard Standing Committee. However, we did not; we took evidence and we acted on that evidence.
Column Number: 692
Tim Loughton: The Minister has referred to evidence that backs up the Government's decision to amend the Bill. First, will she tell us what that evidence is? We were not made aware of it by any witness during the evidence-gathering sittings. Secondly, will she tell us exactly when the Government changed their mind, given that last Thursday morning her Department was busy briefing Radio 4's ''Woman's Hour'' that there would be no changes and telling that programme why the Bill had to stay in its original form? When did that damascene conversion happen?
Jacqui Smith: The idea that it is appropriate for a Government Department to brief a news programme about a proposal before it presents it to Parliament is rich coming from the Opposition.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Perhaps my hon. Friend would note that although Opposition Members constantly bleat about lack of time, when they do have some time, they waste it on fatuous arguments. Will she accept my sincere congratulations, as someone who raised serious objections to these clauses at the very welcome evidence sittings, on having listened to the evidence that was presented to her and making the appropriate changes? Perhaps we can now move on to the serious business.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman takes the words out of my mouth. Since I have been in the Chair, I have heard no fatuous contributions from any hon. Member on this Committee, for which I am eternally grateful. Can we now return to the terms of the Government amendments?