Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Dawson: I rise to support my hon. Friend's excellent speech. His pursuit of the issue through Second Reading and Committee has been notable. It would be a considerable tribute to my hon. Friend if the Government tabled a new clause to deal with this important adoption issue. He has swept the legs from under those who want to argue that new Labour is full of drones, in thrall to the Whips and at the mercy of Ministers. He has told us that the Committee is the first on which he has served and what he has done on it is a model of parliamentary work.

Mr. Shaw: Perhaps I can drone for a while. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said that parents often felt pressurised to give up their children. Does he agree that many of them were deceived about what happened to those children? I am thinking especially of child migrants. Between the war and 1967, 10,000 children were shipped to parts of the former empire and the parents were never told what happened to them. Many parents believed that those children were put up for adoption. The sands of time are running out and those people would welcome new regulations.

Mr. Dawson: I agree with my hon. Friend, although I would never use a cliche such as ''the sands of time''. New clause 5 is about reparation—undoing some of the wrongs of the care system. The Government are changing the care system dramatically and we have an opportunity to right wrongs that have been perpetrated in the past.

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If we establish mediation systems through new clause 5 or other provisions, I hope that they will not be needed for many decades. I sincerely hope that the adoption system that the Bill will set up will be open to easy access and full of tremendous knowledge and information. I hope that people will not go through the deceptions, lack of information, secrecy and iniquity that has been present in adoption in the past and that we have a much better, freer and more civilised adoption system. That is plainly needed now.

We cannot say that the rights of birth parents are the same as those of people who have been adopted. I was surprised to hear Professor Triseliotis attempt to strike a balance between the two, because the balance of power needs to be with the person who was adopted. The contribution from that eminent person was otherwise tremendous.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): On that point, does my hon. Friend accept that the quality of the intermediary services will be to recognise that the balance should be with the child, but to enable contact to take place when it is welcomed? Thereby, it will meet the needs of all those involved.

Mr. Dawson: My hon. Friend exemplifies the point that we both tried to make this morning. The process is not bureaucratic, but skilful, careful, intuitive and very human.

I do not want to say more, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West has said everything important. If his new clause is not acceptable for technical or drafting reasons, I sincerely hope that everyone will support the proposals that the Government will eventually make under the clause and, in the process, ensure that the Bill is tremendously improved.

6.30 pm

Jacqui Smith: I shall deal with the issues raised in relation to new clause 5 and then to introduce Government new clause 6.

On new clause 5, there is no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West made a powerful contribution to our discussion and highlighted, as have other hon. Members, the fact that the provision of intermediary services to birth relatives who wish to contact an adopted adult is a complex area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre outlined, it may not be possible to lay down cast-iron rights, especially for birth parents, although I appreciate that that is not proposed in new clause 5.

The Government understand the need of birth parents to know how the lives of their children have progressed. For that reason, we would like agencies to take a positive and compassionate view towards the approaches of birth relatives who wish to trace people from whom they were separated. Last year, with the assistance of the Children's Society, the Government produced good practice guidance on intermediary services for birth relatives. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) concluded the forward by saying

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    ''I would expect an agency's response to a request for intermediary services from a birth relative to be sympathetic and as helpful as possible.''

However, in doing so, adoption agencies must carefully consider and balance the needs of all parties concerned. In particular, they must take account of an adopted person's rights to privacy and to protect the family life created through adoption.

The provision of intermediary services to adopted adults wishing to contact a birth relative is an equally complex area. There are many cases—my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West has ably outlined the examples—where people want help to trace a relative, but others feel strongly that the relative should not be traced or contacted. I have spoken to two people who were adopted between the periods mentioned by my hon. Friend, who said that they would not want to be contacted by their birth parents. One may or may not agree, but we must recognise that some people hold that view, even if they are in a minority.

In the light of conflicting views about intermediary services, it is important to think carefully about what role they should play. My hon. Friend made a powerful argument for the role of intermediary services as part of the adoption support framework that the Government intend to implement. Intermediary services are a support service like other services such as counselling and support groups. As we explored when we discussed clause 3, we have expanded the provisions to ensure that local authorities will have a duty to provide adoption support services and not just for adopted children and their families. As we develop the new framework for adoption support services, it will be possible to consider the provision of intermediary services as part of the debate on the context of that framework and also the provisions of all other forms of adoption support. If, following that consultation, we decide that it would be appropriate to require all local authorities to make arrangements to put intermediary services in place as part of their adoption service, we could make regulations requiring them to do so. To that extent, the new clause is unnecessary, although it has enabled the hon. Gentleman to raise his concerns.

One other important point about the adoption support framework, is that it will enable us to provide support for those adoptions that took place before the provisions of the Bill were implemented. Hon. Members have said, as I have, that the Government new clauses could allow a more proactive approach in ensuring opportunities for contact and the passing of information between adopted adults and their birth relatives; but those provisions will apply to adoptions taking place after the Bill is passed. We have scope within the adoption support provisions to deal with adoptions that happened before the Bill was passed, and for provisions on the disclosure of information after the Bill is passed, which we shall debate later in more detail.

I hope that my hon. Friend realises that I have sympathy with his views, although I would not go as far as him in seeing it as an absolute right. It is one of

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those extremely difficult and sensitive areas and it highlights the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre. It is not about a bureaucratic process or about rights; it is about providing support that enables appropriate contacts to be made. We shall be able to consider that as we take forward the adoption support framework.

Government new clause 6 is designed to respond to the concerns expressed by a number of witnesses during the Committee's evidence sittings about the crucial importance of adopters receiving full and appropriate information about a child during the matching process, and to support the adoptive placement well in advance of the adoption order. A number of witnesses felt that the Bill did not address that clearly enough. They said that the provisions of clause 57 on the providing of information following the adoption order did not spell out the entitlement clearly and that it caused a misunderstanding about what the Government intended to be provided to prospective adopters.

The Government entirely agree that it is crucial that adopters receive full information during matching and to help the placement succeed. Under regulation 12 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983, after making a decision following a panel hearing that a prospective adopter would be a suitable adoptive parent for a particular child, adoption agencies are required to provide written information to the prospective adopter that sets out the child's personal history and background, including his cultural and religious background, his health history and his current state of health, together with the agency's written proposals in respect of the placement.

Our national standards underpin that by making it clear that, before a match is agreed, adopters should be given full written information to help them understand the needs and background of the child and an opportunity to discuss that and the implications for them and their family. It has always been our intention to use the various regulation-making powers under the Bill to provide for that, but in light of what has been said, we think it would be appropriate to amend the Bill to make our intention clear. That is why the amendment removes clause 57. The new clause therefore makes clear that the general regulation-making power under clause 9 may be used to set out the key stages at which adoption agencies are to provide information to prospective adopters and the information that they will be obliged to provide.

As is set out in my letter to the Committee, the Government intend to use that power to make regulations to ensure that a fully comprehensive package of background information should be made available at three stages: where a match is being considered, once a match has been approved and in preparing for the placement of the child.

Let me spell out what we envisage will be included at those three stages. At the linking stage, when the prospective adopters are first visited by the child's social worker and the adoption social worker, there will be a summary report on the child. That will provide information on the child's appearance and

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family circumstances, the part played in his life by his birth parents, his home environment, why he had been taken into care or given up for adoption, his behaviour, how he interacts with other children and relates to adults and his current care status. It should not contain identifying information about anyone other than the child, and the adopters will be asked to agree to keep the information confidential.

At the second stage, after the matching recommendation by the adoption and the decision by the agency decision maker, there will be a full matching report on the child. That will provide the prospective adopters with all the information that they need to decide whether to go ahead with the match. It will include a full description of the child's history, personality and behaviour and of his needs, problems and progress at school and in care. It will be supported by medical, psychiatric, psychological and educational information. The adopters will, again, be asked to agree to keep that information confidential.

If the prospective adopters, having had the time to consider the full matching report, wish to proceed to the preparations for the placement, they will be provided with a written proposal setting out the terms for the placement. That will include details of proposed financial and other support arrangements and of any agreement about contact arrangements. If the child's birth family agrees in writing, life story books, which could include birth certificates, photo albums and other identifying information such as family trees may be passed to the prospective adopters, who will be asked to sign a further undertaking to keep the identifying information confidential.

We intend to consult again with stakeholders in the adoption field to ensure that the regulations and guidance set out an appropriately full range of information to help adopters successfully to care for the child. We shall also ensure through regulations and guidance that, where appropriate, adoption agencies pass on to adopters any relevant information that they obtain after the adoption order has been made.

I hope that Government new clause 6 allays the concern—although unfounded—that was properly represented and expressed at the evidence-gathering sitting, that the Government had not made clear their expectations in relation to the information to be provided for prospective adopters. That is our reason for having tabled new clause 6 and I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 54, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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