Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Djanogly: As my hon. Friend said, there are relatively few cases of babies being adopted, and in the majority of adoptions, the children know who their parents are. However, babies are still adopted and the Bill may encourage that, as my hon. Friend also said. It is important that people should be informed of their adopted status when they reach the age of 18. That will do something to prevent people from experiencing the life-changing moment—we have discussed this several times—of finding out that they were adopted, and all the attendant emotions and problems.

However, I hope that the provision will not apply retrospectively because that could create a host of unintended problems. It would be very unfortunate if hundreds of 70, 80 and 90-year-olds were suddenly to receive letters informing them of their adoptive status. That said, I support the amendment and note that it is drafted using the future tense, so I presume that it will not have retrospective effect.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the amendment is pretty ghastly, but the principle behind it is sound. Although I do not expect that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to accept it, I hope that the Government will recognise the fundamental right of people to know that they were adopted.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I certainly support the amendment because it is vital that any child who is adopted knows so at the earliest possible stage. If they are not told by their adoptive parents, they should be told when they reach the age of 18. It is unthinkable today that any adopted child should not be told at an early age, gradually, slowly and in an appropriate framework, that they are adopted. We hope that more very young babies will be adopted as a result of the legislation, so will the Minister say what the Government intend to do to improve the education and training of adoptive parents to ensure that they fully understand how important it is that adopted children are told the facts at an early age? How they are told is obviously also very important, although that is a side issue. However, some parents may not be able to cope and may find the matter too difficult to explain, so a few children may slip through the net. That is where the amendment would come in.

Mr. Llwyd: I also fully agree with what has been said. It is a fundamental human right to know that one has been adopted, and such a provision should be in the Bill. I have followed the arguments; clearly the communication must be conducted sensitively. The

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scenario of letters arriving suddenly on people's 18th birthdays is rather ghastly. I am sure that the proposal is not meant in that way, although given the current state of the postal services, people might be considerably older than 18 by the time the letter arrives. [Laughter.] To be serious, the amendment is important. The wording might not find favour, but the principle is sound and I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly.

Jacqui Smith: In fact, the principle is a difficult one—[Interruption.] That is not to say that I do not have a lot of sympathy with what has been said and that I am not willing to consider the matter further. However, I think that I should spell out what I see as the difficulties, not only with the amendment but with the principle.

The amendment would make it a duty for the adoption agency to inform the adopted person when he became an adult that he was adopted. The hon. Member for Huntingdon used the words ''best practice'' in relation to amendment No. 191, and many points that have been made on this amendment have related not to what should be an absolute statutory duty but to what all of us would agree is best practice.

Nowadays, the majority of children will know that they have been adopted. Under our adoption standards, where adoption is the plan for a child, he or she will be given clear explanations and information about adoption and will be prepared before joining a new family. Adoption plans will include details of the arrangements for maintaining links, including contact, with birth parents, wider birth family members and other people who are significant to the child.

If a child does not know that he has been adopted, our guidance to adopters emphasises that it is better if the adoptive parents explain that to him. It encourages them to be ready to do so when the child starts to take an interest in his origins. It states that openness is more likely to promote a secure relationship between the child and his adoptive parents.

The guidance also points out that when the adopted person reaches the age of 18, he will be entitled to a copy of his original birth certificate, as provided for by amendment No. 205. The adopted adult will also be entitled to access the prescribed information that was given by the agency to his adopters as part of the adoption process—although the hon. Member for Canterbury is right that that presupposes that the person knows that he is adopted.

However, I have a problem with the sometimes rather slick way in which people try to define a fundamental human right. I ask the Committee to consider the situation in which somebody was brought up by people who were not his parents, but who believed that they were. We need only to stretch our mind to soap operas to come up with such situations, but I am sure that they exist in reality as well. In those circumstances, there is not a fundamental human right to know that the people who are bringing up the child and who the child believes to be their parents are not their parents. It is not as easy as to say that it is a fundamental right to know who one's birth parents

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are; life is not that simple. It could be that the nature of adoption is different and that we should consider whether people should know that they are adopted. I would be willing to think about that.

There is another problem with the amendment, as it would make it a duty for adoption agencies to intervene in a matter that we could argue is best left to the family to decide, and to the adopted adult to pursue, should he want to do so. We should remember that, when a child is adopted, he moves into a new family that should have the right to make decisions about him of the type that I would expect to make about my children. Hon. Members should be aware that providing such a duty or right—however we want to phrase it—would effectively be an intervention into family life, affecting decisions that some would argue should be most appropriately made by the family.

As I have pointed out, our guidance clearly encourages adoptive parents to be open with their adopted child about his origins, when they consider that he is ready. They will know that their child will be entitled to discover the facts for himself, should he want to when he becomes an adult.

Mr. Llwyd: I follow what the Minister has said, but guidance to adoptive parents does not mean much because the parents may opt not to tell the child. As the hon. Member for Canterbury suggested, the words ''at his request'' in the clause clearly presuppose knowledge of adoption. The clause fails adopted children, as in many circumstances they will not know that they have been adopted. In some circumstances, alas, adoptive parents will not follow the Minister's guidelines. In that case, we are undermining an important principle. Further thought should be given to the issue.

Jacqui Smith: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; there will not necessarily be many cases in which children do not know that they have been adopted. In a small number of cases, children may not know that they have been adopted because the adoptive parents have especially decided not to tell them. Which of us know what the circumstances might be in such a case? The implication of the proposal is that we overrule the decision taken by the adoptive parents not to tell their adopted child. The issue is more complicated than a blithe assertion about fundamental human rights. It will need careful consideration.

Mr. Dawson: Will my hon. Friend consider whether adoptive parents have the right to withhold such crucial information from their adopted child? Might a large part of the assessment of people as possible adopters be whether they are willing to allow such openness and honesty within the family so that the information could be made available at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way?

Jacqui Smith: I very much agree with my hon. Friend's second point. On his first point, I have a right not to inform my children about many things. That may be bad practice on my part, but it is my right as a parent.

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I cannot envisage a situation in which it would not be appropriate for someone to know that he was adopted, or for an adoptive family to tell its child that he was adopted. The amendment and the arguments for it made by some hon. Members suggest that every adopted person in all circumstances, regardless of any decisions made, should be told at the age of 18 that they had been adopted, not that it would be good practice in almost every circumstance.

Mr. Llwyd: If the Minister argues that she can conceive of no situation that would justify denying the adopted child the knowledge that they were adopted, that guidance should surely have the force of law behind it. Either we should accept the amendment, or every adoptive parent should, as a matter of common practice, disclose to the child at an appropriate time and in the most sensitive way that they were adopted. The Minister is confusing the issue. She says that she can conceive of no reason to deny the child the knowledge that they were adopted, but then says that the amendment is no use because it gives a blanket right to obtain that knowledge. I cannot reconcile those two standpoints.

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Jacqui Smith: The point that I was trying to make was that I agreed with hon. Members about what was likely to be best practice. However, I am also raising concerns about the extent to which such practice can be a right. I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he suggested that the Government should produce statutory legal guidance on how parents should relate to their children. That is a little problematic, and I am attempting to exemplify some of the problems with moving in the direction in which hon. Members are pushing me. I am not saying that I absolutely oppose the proposed measures, and I am willing go give them further consideration, but some of the assertions that have been made—I have not even got to the practicalities—suggest that hon. Members rather blithely believe that it is possible or desirable for the state to intervene in family life or in the relationship between parents and their children.

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