Adoption and Children Bill

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Jacqui Smith: The amendment would add a new subsection to clause 54 to ensure that a local authority would not be able to provide birth parents with any information relating to an adopted adult or child unless it did so under a contact order made under section 25. The amendment appears to suggest that the courts should authorise all exchanges of information concerning an adopted person.

The first point to note is that the amendment applies only to local authorities. It would not cover adoptions arranged through registered adoption societies. More substantially, it would mark a considerable change from the current position by requiring the courts to regulate all exchanges of information of any sort concerning an adopted person. At present, adoption agencies have discretion under regulation 15 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 to disclose information for the purposes of their functions as an adoption agency, and the accompanying guidance makes it clear that agencies can use that discretion—for example, to give a birth parent information about a child's progress without disclosing his new identity or his whereabouts. The amendment would require a court order before that could take place.

The Government believe that it is right, subject to appropriate regulations and guidance, that adoption agencies should take the lead in planning and managing contact arrangements. The key principle here is that in considering arrangements for contact, links and the passing of information the central concern must at all times be what is in the interests of the child. Our national adoption standards and the accompanying draft practice guidance are emphatic on that point. Agencies must plan contact arrangements from the child's point of view, and discuss proposed arrangements fully with the prospective adopters and the birth family. The standards and the accompanying draft practice guidance also make it clear that agencies should

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provide on-going support to adoptive parents and birth relatives in managing and maintaining contact arrangements that have been agreed in the interests of the child.

I do not think that the answer is to burden the courts with providing for every arrangement for the exchange of information concerning adoptions.

Mr. Djanogly: Will the Minister take the opportunity to explain new clause 7? It will not be possible for the Government to move it today as it is a starred amendment. What route do the Government intend to take on that issue?

Jacqui Smith: The amendment was starred because I was aware of the need to ensure that amendments were tabled in plenty of time; although we are unlikely to discuss them until after the Christmas holidays, all hon. Members would still have had plenty of time to consider the implications. Nevertheless, I shall outline in a moment how the proposed system should work and explain the distinction between the proposals in new clause 7(2) on providing information to adults and those in new clause 8 on providing information to children.

As I said, the answer is not to burden the courts. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, there has been an increase in open adoptions, and that is set to continue. It may not be the intention, but the amendment could place a considerable burden on the courts—and on the affected parties, who would need to pay all the associated costs. In addition, a child's needs and wishes in respect of contact may change over time and, under the amendment, any substantial change would presumably require a further court order.

The Government's view is that the contact provisions under the Bill for children placed for adoption, or under the Children Act 1989 for contact with children once they have been adopted, should be used when it has not been possible to arrive at a satisfactory arrangement through the offices of the adoption agency, and not as a first resort.

On identifying information about adopted adults, again we acknowledge that it is important that the disclosure of such information is handled sensitively and that the views of the adopted person are sought whenever they can be found. That is why, as I set out earlier, we have tabled new clauses 7 and 8, providing for the disclosure of such information in a way that ensures that the adopted person's views are taken into account. Again, we believe that this is a task primarily for an adoption agency with the necessary skills and expertise operating within the proper framework of regulations and guidance, and not a task for the court.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's question, let me say that it is the intention in relation to new clauses 7 and 8 that the disclosure of identifying information about adults will operate as follows. On receipt of the request, the agency would make an initial decision about whether or not to proceed with the application. We anticipate that where the agency is not minded to proceed with the application, there would be access to the independent review mechanism. If it decided to

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proceed, it would be under a duty to take all reasonable efforts to seek the views of the persons who would be identified and to establish their views, including whether they consented to the release of the information.

Once it has obtained the person's views, the agency must decide whether to disclose the information. Where there is consent, information will normally be disclosed, and the regulations and guidance will be slanted in that direction. However, the agency will be allowed to withhold the information when, for example, its direct contact with the applicant means that it has concerns about the disclosure of which the identified person was not aware.

As I outlined earlier to the hon. Gentleman, we anticipate providing access to the independent review where access is blocked in that manner. Where consent cannot be obtained, the agency will have the ability to release the information in appropriate circumstances.

A different approach is necessary to requests for information about a child. Although the process would be similar, we would not make it a condition that the agency had to approach the adoptive family. Where the agency decided to proceed, it would be under a duty to make all reasonable efforts to contact the adoptive parents to find out their views and establish whether they would consent. The agency can also seek the views of the child if it considers it appropriate to do so, having regard to the child's age and understanding.

We will no doubt go into the matter in more detail when we discuss the new clauses. There will be a higher level of protection with regard to disclosing information about a child, certainly in terms of making contact for the purposes of seeking consent to disclose such information, than there will be in the case of an adult. The Government believe that to be appropriate. Where a request is made for information that could identify both a child and an adult, the principle of the paramountcy of the child's welfare, which is also included in new clause 8, must be applied to the decision.

I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some guidance on the Government's approach to the new clauses and that on that basis he feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank the Minister for that explanation. It was helpful, but not adequate. The position needs to be fleshed out, and the Minister admitted as much herself. I hope that, over the Christmas recess, the Government will think about how to do that.

The Minister's point on the technicalities of the amendment placing further burdens on the courts was fair. However, that was not my actual point. When the amendment was tabled, it was intended to represent the elegant middle ground in contrast to the Government's brutal approach. I shall not pander to certain Labour Back-Benchers who want to make out that the amendment represents an unusual or nonsensical approach, because it makes more sense than their Government's approach.

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However, I appreciate that the ground has shifted and that new amendments have been tabled, although they are not available for debate today. The Minister referred to seeking the views of the child before contact. What if the child does not know that he or she is adopted before the views are sought? That should be considered. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to debate the following: New clause 5—Intermediary services—

    (1) Regulations may require adoption agencies to provide an intermediary service at the request of an adopted person, or a birth relative of an adopted person.

    (2) Where the intermediary service is requested by a birth relative of an adopted person, the regulations may provide that the Adoption Agency shall use such information as is available to it to contact the adopted person, and notify them of the request of the birth relative to receive identifying information about the adopted person.

    But regulations made by virtue of subsection (2) shall provide that information as to the identity of the adopted person shall only be given to the birth relative with the consent of the adopted person.'.

Government new clause 6—Disclosing information during adoption process.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned the word ''lacuna'' and it was my view when I tabled new clause 5 that that word was applicable. There was a gap on access to information for birth parents. My new clause may be flawed and may not go far enough, but it is my view that birth parents whose children were adopted pre-1975 should have the right to obtain identifying information about their children. The new clause provides both the opportunity for debate on the issue and a statutory basis for birth relatives to have means of showing a desire to contact adopted persons when they reach adulthood. I welcome the Government's effort, in new clause 7, to deal with the issues to which I refer. We may need to cogitate further on the matter and digest it over the Christmas period, but I am glad that the gap has been recognised.

Why do we need to legislate for intermediary services for birth relatives? We rehearsed some points earlier in interventions when the hon. Member for Huntingdon spoke to his amendment. First, there is a postcode lottery across the country as regards the provision of intermediary services from adoption agencies and local authorities. Whether those services are provided depends on where one lives. There is no requirement to provide those services but, as they are provided throughout the country to an increasing extent, it is right that they should appear in the Bill and have a statutory basis.

We need the reference to intermediary services to address past injustices. Every day in this country someone—usually an elderly woman—wakes up and thinks about the child that she gave up many years ago

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for adoption. Prior to 1975, many birth mothers gave up their children when they felt that they had no choice, because they lived in a very different society from the one in which we live today. Many still consider that they were pressurised into the decision and have had to live with it throughout their lives. In considering this aspect of the Bill, we should consider their position and show some humanity in debating it. All people affected by adoption must be given opportunities to access knowledge and exchange information with the appropriate consent. Birth parents should at least be able to express the desire to do so.

6.15 pm

The research shows clearly that 90 per cent. of non-searching adoptive people who are informed of the birth relatives' inquiry agree to have some form of contact. Only 6 per cent. do not agree that adopted adults should be informed of a birth relative's interest. Apparently, 75 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults have never even heard of the adoption contact register, while 74 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults did not feel comfortable asking their adoptive parents for information about their birth family and background. One does not need a great deal of imagination to understand the clear benefits in allowing birth relatives to initiate that contact.

Research also states that 80 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults thought about their birth parents while they were growing up, and 80 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults said that the contact with a birth relative answered important questions about their origins and background. Five years after the first contact was made, 55 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults were still in contact with their birth relatives. That is a human success story on which we should build. Statistics are only statistics, but behind them are real human stories that we should consider when we debate the Bill.

I referred to a constituent of mine who believes, rightly or wrongly, that her adopted child was abused by her birth mother when in fact the abuse took place when the child was in the care of the local authority and the child received criminal compensation. The hon. Member for Canterbury referred to cases when disclosure of information may have had a catastrophic effect on an adopted child, and I accept that the example that he gave of a 15-year-old girl from his constituency fell into that category. However, I am proposing not to enable such cases to occur but to allow birth parents the right at least to signal their desire to contact adopted persons in adulthood. I do not propose that they should be able to do that while the adopted child is growing up or going through a difficult development after, perhaps, a difficult adoption.

I can cite cases to counter that given by the hon. Gentleman. The Children's Society gave me some information on the matter. I withhold from criticising the society's decision to withdraw from its work in Wales, because it does good work in general. It

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provided an example of a young man called Anthony, whose adoptive parents contacted the society when he was 17 years old, because he wanted access to information. They were told at that time that Anthony could not receive the information until he was 18 years old. A few years later, when nothing happened with his case, he committed suicide. Afterwards, the Children's Society realised that Anthony's birth parents had contacted the society when he was 15 to say that they were interested in his progress and would like to know more about him, and would like him to know that they were interested in his progress. I am not saying that that was the cause of his suicide, as these matters are complicated, but my proposals address that kind of dysfunction and misunderstanding.

I refer, too, to the case of George who, in 1994, wanted background information about his origins, which were held on the Children's Society's adoption records. He thought that he might begin a search for his birth mother. She had written to the society three years earlier to say that she would be pleased to hear from him, but the letter was received when the Children's Society did not have the proactive policy that I propose. When George found out about the letter, he was delighted that his mother had written; through the Children's Society, he contacted the last known address, sadly to discover that his birth mother had died six months earlier. We should try to avoid those scenarios and legislate against the possibility of them happening.

I shall mention one other case, of someone who takes close interest in the Bill. In fact, without wishing to breach protocol, I can say that Irene takes very close interest in our proceedings today. She is a birth mother aged 76, who tried to locate her daughter, Anna, whom she had relinquished for adoption 50 years ago. The agency that held the adoption records did not provide intermediary services for birth relatives. Her search lasted for more than 10 years. Eventually the information was obtained and Irene learned that her daughter had died 39 years ago, aged 11. She had to rebuild her hopes and dreams in the light of that information, but for 10 years she had been left looking for it. It should have been provided to her much earlier. I recognise that Opposition Members have also acknowledged that such cases should not continue to occur.

Several times in our sittings, the hon. Member for Huntingdon has spoken about a pre-1975 deal that would be broken if we allowed birth parents access to information or if we permitted them actively to signal to adopted persons in adulthood that they wanted to contact them. That deal has already been broken. It was broken when adopted persons were given the right to seek identifying information about themselves and to find their origins. In addition, the hon. Gentleman's objection ignores the changes that have happened in society. I do not know whether he has seen the fine British feature film, directed by Mike Leigh, called ''Secrets and Lies'', but his attitude perpetuates the culture of secrets and lies. We should be trying to get away from that in legislating for adoption in this day and age. I hope that he will rethink his position over

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Christmas and return, suitably reformed—[Interruption.]—or modernised, if hon. Members prefer to say that.

I think that hon. Members have received copies of the personal statement of Pam Hodgkins MBE, the founder of NORCAP. In that statement, remembering the time when she began her work, she says:

    ''I naively believed that the adopted person had no voice in the original proceedings whilst the birth mother had made a choice. I therefore considered that the balance of the law from the 1976 Act was correct. I quickly learned that whilst the adopted person had no voice fear, shame and the pressure of family and society silenced the voice of birth mothers.''

It is for that very reason that many Commonwealth countries, following the lead taken in the 1976 Act, dealt with the matter of birth parents receiving information. Pam Hodgkins says:

    ''I was also learning from my practice that there were benefits to all parties when a birth relative was the person offering renewed communication . . . Everything demonstrates the need for change I am advocating now. There is no evidence whatsoever that making these changes would be problematic or harmful. The aged birth relatives uppermost in my mind are mothers in their 70s and 80s who parted with babies who are now 30 to 60 years old and the siblings of the babies adopted in the war years and beyond.''

Without the changes for which I argue, the Bill will uphold a dubious principle and perpetuate a cruel and unusual punishment—the psychological punishment of a life sentence of uncertainty about what happened to one's child. We should bring to an end that injustice, before it is too late for the generation who gave up their children.

 
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