Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Brazier: As I understand it, the Minister is arguing in favour of replacing a primary structure with a regulatory framework that will allow a detailed and sensible approach to be taken. However, she has not explained why she cannot simply table an amendment to allow the Government to make regulations while still providing the stronger primary underpinning of the original clause. What she proposes may be excellent for as long as those regulations are in force, but a future Minister—one who is lobbied by objecting agencies—could strike them out with a statutory instrument. Why not have both the strong primary underpinning and the regulations?

Jacqui Smith: The evidence to which we are responding suggested that there was insufficiently strong primary underpinning, and that the underpinning that it would be possible or appropriate to include in primary legislation could not spell out the procedures in the same amount of detail as could be included in regulations. I do not imagine that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that all the details that I have outlined should be included in the Bill. That would be inappropriate because it would make responding to changes or improving the procedures in future much more difficult.

Mr. Brazier: Will the Minister cover the points made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)? The word ''might'' could be replaced with the word ''shall'' and examples of exemptions could be given so that exemptions are not allowed to blossom in regulations, as so often happens under definitions set out in Bills.

Jacqui Smith: I do not know what the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy thinks, but I thought that I responded fully to his questions. First, on the issue of ''must'', ''shall'' and ''may'', I reinforced points that had previously been made about the wording appropriate for regulations. Secondly, I explained clearly what information, prescribed by regulations, should be provided at various different stages. The hon. Member for Canterbury seems to think that I was talking about information that should not be made available. On the contrary, the prescribed information is information that is to be made available; it is not proscribed information, as in ''a proscribed organisation''.

Apart from the fact that it would have implications for other provisions, there is another problem with the proposal simply to amend clause 57. The clause refers to information that may become available after the adoption order is made. As I explained clearly, the Government and stakeholders are rightly concerned about information made available in the run-up to the making of an adoption order. I have made clear the proposed changes to ensure that prospective adopters receive full information in advance of the adoption order, and that adoption agencies continue to pass on relevant information after the order is made. I therefore hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw the amendment.

Tim Loughton: I am always glad when the Minister describes me as mischievous, as it is usually a euphemism for the fact that she has been caught out,

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as she has been on this occasion. However, it was slightly ungenerous of her to describe me as bad tempered. Perhaps I was somewhat overgenerous in saying that her intentions were in the right direction, even though they did not go far enough.

If I appeared bad tempered, it was because of the Government's distinct lack of courtesy to the Committee in not providing us with the information that we need at the appropriate time. We received the amendments to this part of the Bill at the last minute. They were not available to hon. Members until Monday—the day before the Committee debated the amendments—because they had been tabled at the last moment on a non-sitting Friday. It was discourteous to sneak them in like that. Committee members had minimal time to consider them, and it was too late for us to table further amendments based on the Government's change of heart. Many Committee members and many outside bodies that have lobbied hard on this subject will be justified in feeling angry about the discourteous way in which the Minister has treated the Committee.

Furthermore, such practices are not good for the Committee. There are problems with the wording of the Government amendments, as I have already described. We should be in a position to apprise ourselves of the adequacy of amendments as early as possible. The Minister has offered no apology for how the Committee has been treated and steadfastly refuses to provide full explanatory notes about fundamental changes to the Bill. She said that she spoke at length about clause 7 during the last sitting of the Committee before the recess, but what she said amounted to less than two columns in Hansard. She has now reiterated the contents of the letter sent to us on 13 December, but that is not enough to allay our fears.

On the issue of ''may'', ''must'' and ''shall'', if the Government were happy to use the word ''must'' to emphasise how important it is that certain information should be made available to prospective adopters, why will they not use the word ''must'' in their new clause? That represents a substantial watering down of the requirements on adoption agencies. However strong the intentions behind regulations, ''may require'' does not mean that some less scrupulous adoption agencies and local authorities that want problem children to be adopted as soon as possible might not operate a strict requirement to make all the relevant information available to the prospective adopters at the appropriate time, yet such information gives the best chance of a successful placement.

10.15 am

Jacqui Smith: A favourable interpretation of the hon. Gentleman's harping on about ''must'' and ''may'' is that he has not given a proper context to the use of those words. The unfavourable interpretation is that he is trying to create an issue that does not exist.

The use of the word ''must'' in the clause does not mean ''must produce regulations'' but relates to the phrase

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    ''must disclose to the adopters any of the section 53 information''.

I shall stand corrected if I am wrong, but I believe that nowhere in the Bill is there a clause that says that the Government must produce regulations. The regulations, as secondary legislation, set out the information that must be provided and at what point it must be provided, so it is wrong to suggest that the use of the words ''may produce regulations'' is equivalent to the use of the words

    ''must disclose . . . information''.

Tim Loughton: Part of the problem is that we still have not seen the regulations and shall not see them for many months after the Committee has concluded its proceedings. That is what causes confusion and makes us sceptical that what the Minister says ''may'' be produced will be produced in an adequate form, and that that will achieve what she says it ''may'' achieve. Those things absolutely must be achieved. The measures need to be beefed up.

The more the Minister spoke, the more confused I became about what the end results may be. I do not know how much of a requirement there is to produce the regulations and how forceful those regulations will be in ensuring that adoption agencies provide all the information required at the appropriate time. The point is important and, as the Government did not properly address it in the complete shambles of new clauses and amendments that they tabled before the recess, I ask my colleagues to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 8.

Division No. 7]

Bellingham, Mr. Henry Brazier, Mr. Julian
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan Loughton, Tim

Blackman, Mrs. Liz Brennan, Kevin Dawson, Mr. Hilton Fitzpatrick, Jim
Love, Mr. Andrew Munn, Ms Meg Smith, Jacqui Winterton, Ms Rosie

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Jacqui Smith: I rise to argue that the clause should not stand part of the Bill. It requires adoption agencies to disclose prescribed information to adopters

    ''As soon as practicable after the making of an adoption order''.

We had a significant discussion about the fact that the clause will be replaced by new clause 6, which makes it 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 are to be obliged to provide. Given that we have done that, as outlined in the previous debate, the clause should not stand part of the Bill.

Tim Loughton: I am keen that the clause should remain part of the Bill, even though it has not been amended as Opposition Members wanted. At least the word ''must'' would be retained, and we could return to the provision on Report and beef it up as required.

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The Government have handled the issue badly. If they had made their intentions clear at the start and done us the courtesy of providing the extra information and explanatory notes that we have been going on about, we could have avoided this mess. They are guilty of gross discourtesy to the Committee and, on that basis, we shall vote to retain clause 57 in its entirety, with a view to amending it later.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 8.

Division No. 8]

Bellingham, Mr. Henry Brazier, Mr. Julian
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan Loughton, Tim

Blackman, Mrs. Liz Brennan, Kevin Dawson, Mr. Hilton Fitzpatrick, Jim
Love, Mr. Andrew Munn, Ms Meg Smith, Jacqui Winterton, Ms Rosie

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 57 disagreed to.

Clause 58

Disclosing information to adopted adult

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move amendment No. 204, in page 33, line 10, leave out from 'receive' to 'from' in line 11.

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