Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: The idea of holding records permanently is self-explanatory. If an organisation closes down, by definition it cannot continue to hold records permanently, so it hands them on to a successor body. That is the point inherent in the amendment. It is slightly unfair of the Minister to pick holes in it.

Jacqui Smith: Heaven forbid that I should be unfair. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point.

Mr. Djanogly: My intervention is on that same point, so I think that the Minister had better hear both before replying. The amendment does not use only the word ''permanent'', but reads, ''on a permanent basis''. That means as though the basis were permanent, not permanent itself.

Jacqui Smith rose—

Mr. Llwyd: Will the Minister give way?

The Chairman: Order. The Minister is replying to an intervention.

Jacqui Smith: I am sure that all hon. Members would want to avoid giving legal experts the opportunity to argue about whether permanence is in conflict with the necessity to transfer records from one agency to another. That is why it is important that, in the regulations, we can state more clearly and flexibly the provisions that need to be made for the long term.

Mr. Llwyd: I can give an objective view of the wording. The words ''on a permanent basis'' mean while the agency exists. If it ceases to exist, the information has to be passed on to a successor agency. That is a belt-and-braces provision. There is nothing wrong with it and no conflict arises from it.

Jacqui Smith: There is disagreement as to whether the amendment produces a conflict. I do not think that the disagreement is helpful, especially as I hope that I have already reassured the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that his points about the need to maintain records and transfer them appropriately will be properly covered in regulation, following consultation that will enable us to consider the details. I cannot promise that the consultation will enable us to have an in-depth consideration of the nature of ''on a permanent basis'', as opposed to ''permanent'' or any other wording that hon. Gentlemen might devise. On

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the basis of those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Bellingham: We do not know what the regulations will contain. We have the Minister's word that they will include provisions to ensure that what I want to achieve is secured. The regulations will be debatable, in theory, but regulations are debated only rarely, as the Committee knows only too well. The pressure of work in this House is such that it is difficult for hon. Members to secure a proper debate on regulations that are laid before the House. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) pointed out, my amendment takes a belt-and-braces approach. It is straightforward and simple and it is churlish of the Minister to turn it down, because it is in no sense a trap with respect to what she is trying to do. I am sure that she is 100 per cent. genuine in her account of her aims and that the regulations will be brought forward. The amendment will complement those and I see no harm in her accepting it.

5.30 pm

Jacqui Smith: As we are going into the detail of the wording of the amendment, may I ask whether there is a danger that it can be interpreted to mean both that all records and other relevant information must be securely held by the relevant adoption agency on a permanent basis and, in addition, that equivalent records must be transferred to a new adoption agency? That is another potential difficulty.

Mr. Bellingham: I do not accept that. However, we are now dealing with important provisions and the Minister has made important concessions today. Being kind hearted, I shall accept her word that the documents, records and other relevant information will be properly stored for 75 years. It would be futile to press the amendment to a vote because too many Labour Members would blindly support the Minister, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 53, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 54

Restrictions on disclosure of protected etc. information

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 196, in page 32, line 6, at end insert—

    '(1A) Any information kept by an adoption agency—

    (a) which is necessary to enable the adopted person to obtain a certified copy of the record of his birth, or

    (b) which is information about an entry relating to the adopted person in the Adoption Contact Register,

    may only be disclosed to a person by the agency in pursuance of this group of sections'.

The Chairman: With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 197 to 200, 206 and 209.

Jacqui Smith: We have a goodly chunk here.

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Tim Loughton: Is that the technical term?

Jacqui Smith: Yes, I believe it is.

The amendments will help to bring about our revised approach to access to birth records. They will change the definition of protected information under the Bill to include the information necessary for an adopted person to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. Previously, the Bill referred to that information as section 76 information and dealt with its disclosure separately from other identifying information held by adoption agencies. As I explained earlier, the Government attended to what was said in the evidence hearings and have decided to continue to provide, through the adoption agency, for an automatic right for adopted people to receive the information necessary to gain access to their birth records—that will be provided through the adoption agency. That provision is to be brought about through changes to clauses 54 and 58.

Amendment No. 196 covers the information needed to gain access to the birth record. It ensures, by way of inserting new subsection (1A), that that will become protected information under clause 54. The rest of the amendments are consequential and delete references to section 76 information. The result is that the adoption agency may disclose the information needed to obtain the birth record only under the arrangement set out in the clauses. Later amendments to clause 58 provide that the agency must disclose the information needed to access the birth record on request to an adopted person once they reach the age of 18, unless the agency seeks a High Court order blocking that release. The amendment also extends the definition of protected information to include any information that the adoption agency may have from the adoption contact register. Any such information may be released only under the arrangements set out by the provisions.

Amendment No. 200 makes consequential amendments to omit the reference in clause 55 to section 76 information. Amendment No. 206 amends clause 58(4) to leave out section 76 information and amendment No. 209 is a consequential amendment to clause 61(6) omitting the reference to clause 59, which is to be omitted to achieve the Government's intentions. The amendments enable us to omit the distinction between the section 76 information and the information that we are now considering and to deliver on our new approach on access to birth records and the disclosure of other information. On that basis, I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Tim Loughton: Again, we welcome the amendments and what the Minister has just referred to as the Government's new approach—actually, we are reverting to what happened 25 years ago. The amendments should achieve what the Minister tells us they will and what the Opposition wanted all along. They should be known as the, ''rest in peace clause 76 group'', because they have certainly put paid to everything that that clause was designed to achieve. In the interests of pushing the Committee along speedily,

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as I know that the Government would like us to finish this evening, I should say that we have no objection to the amendments.

Mr. Bellingham: I have a small point to ask the Minister, because she has confused me. I welcome the bulk of what she has just said, but amendment No. 209 amends clause 61 and I do not understand why it must be discussed under clause 54. Will she explain that? If we are able to discuss amendment No. 209, will the Minister tell the Committee something about the payment of fees in respect of disclosure, in the prescribed circumstances, of the relevant information? Who will set those fees, and will there be an upper limit for them?

Jacqui Smith: Although we now appear to be proceeding in a spirit of co-operation and general welcoming of the Government's approach, I would like to correct the suggestion of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that we are simply reverting to the status quo. As I spelled out at the beginning, we are proposing a new single gateway for access to information through adoption agencies, including the information necessary to access a birth record. That was supported by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering in their evidence. Felicity Collier said

    ''We support the fact that . . . access to birth records should be through adoption agencies''.—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 20 November 2001; c. 67.]

The ADSS evidence to which I referred earlier also backed that change. Stakeholders have recognised the need to modernise and improve the system. We are not simply reverting to the old system. As I said in my introduction, there are now new issues about data protection and human rights in relation to access to information and it is important that the Bill considers them in relation to not only the disclosure of birth records information but the disclosure of other identifying information to adults.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked about amendment No. 209. In my rush to help the Committee, I did not properly outline what the amendment does. It would omit the reference to clause 59 in clause 61. Because we propose to delete clause 59, it is a consequential amendment. It also covers the disclosure of non-birth record identifying information that the Bill terms ''protected''.

As I explained earlier, in light of our change of approach on birth records, we have tabled amendments making new provision for the disclosure of protected information by adoption agencies to ensure that the disclosure of that information is handled in a sensitive manner that ensures that the views of those to be identified are taken into account. For that reason, and because the new clause spells out that new approach, clause 59 will no longer be necessary.

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