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Special Standing Committee
Thursday 10 January 2002
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
The Chairman: Good afternoon. I wish you all a happy new year, and I hope that you had a good, relaxing Christmas.
Disclosing information to adopted adult
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 235, in page 33, line 23, at end add
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Good afternoon, Mrs. Roe, and a happy new year to you. I trust that you have had a restful recess, and that you are ready to throw yourself into the remaining stages of the Billthere is light at the end of the tunnel at last. Before you arrived this afternoon, we were discussing the intricacies of the Slater family from EastEnders''. I was about to launch into the subject of incest, on which the Minister touched unwittingly when she took us down a strange lane, but we will come back to it later.
The amendment provides that people should have the right to be told that they were adopted when they reach the age of 18, if they have not already been given that information. The amendment is fairly harmless, but the principle it reflects is an important one, and it seems to have opened up several issues. Earlier, the Minister changed from using the word difficult'' to talking about some sympathy'', and I hope that she has had time over lunch to acquaint herself fully with the implications of the amendment. That is only a few hours less than than we were given to consider some Government amendments before the recess, and she has the benefit of having at her disposal a fleet of officials who are experts on the subject.
The Minister's point, which was taken up by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), is not really compensatory. She said that guidance has been issued stating that everyone is entitled to a copy of their birth certificate at 18. That is fine and we all agree with it, but that entitlement is not the same as an entitlement to the information necessary to know that one needs to see one's birth certificate. It is all very well to say that anyone can ask
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for his birth certificate at the age of 18, but if a person has no reason to doubt his birth parents, he has no cause to seek his birth certificate at that time.
How will the Government publicise the entitlement? If the Minister holds it up as an example of access to information, it should be widely publicised. I assume that the publicity will not take the same form as that for winter fuel payments, for example, whereby pensioners will be bombarded with information on how to claim it, if they are so entitled. What do the Government propose to do to publicise the fact that anyone may be entitled to see his birth certificate at the age of 18?
The Minister may want to consider further the point that I made shortly before we adjourned for lunch. Private families who have never had any involvement with the legal process or been part of any adoption process, whose children are blood related to the parents with whom they live, are clearly different from families who have adopted children and that relationship has been legitimised by the state through the legal system.
I agree with the Minister that we do not want the state to stick its nose into private families' business. Perhaps that is a Burkean principle, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) claims. It would certainly be contrary to many human rights treaties to which we have alluded. However, we are not talking about the state doing that; we are discussing a situation that the state has manufacturedfor want of a better wordthrough the adoption process. The state has a duty of care to ensure that the manufactured relationship is maintained in everyone's best interests. I dispute the Minister's assertion that we are talking about the state sticking its nose in where it has no business. We are talking about the state monitoring something that it has created by the legal recourses of the adoption process.
The Minister said that she thought that the amendment might place onerous duties on adoption agencies. That is rubbish, nonsense, and a red herring.
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the practical implications of the amendment are difficult, whatever its principle might be? To contact a young person when he reaches the age of 18, the adoption agency would have to know where he lives, so adoptive parents would be required to notify the adoption agency every time they move. It would be a little strange to expect them to do something so out of the ordinary.
Tim Loughton: I do not agree. If adoption agencies are to perform their role in the adoption process, ensuring that it works and ensuring that the relevant adoption support services are available for as long as they are required, and if we expect adoption agencies to keep full records that will enable adopted people who seek their parentageor, in some cases, birth parents who seek previously adopted children; the Bill still has many shortcomings on that issueto do so successfully, it is not a tall order to require them to keep records on when people will reach 18 and to have an idea of where those people are. Furthermore, at the
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age of 14, 15, 16 or 17, a person may have problems in his adoptive family and have recourse to a social services department outside the area in which he was originally adopted. If so, it would be helpful if that department were to have recourse to the original social services department, which could cast more light on that family's problems.
I do not see what all the fuss is about, especially given the register system. If the hon. Lady would prefer, some means could be used to enact the principle other than the adoption agencies mentioned in the not entirely adequate, but not ghastly, amendment. It is not so onerous a burden whatever bodyperhaps an adoption agencyis used, so the fuss is unnecessary. To be told that one is adopted if one has not been told already is a fundamental right.
We might return to the incest angle in debate on other parts of the Bill; new clauses might be required. If a person who has turned 18 and become an adult still has no knowledge of the fact that he or she is adopted, there is a possibilitya slim one, although not as slim as one might thinkthat he or she will strike up a relationship with a young woman or man of similar age living in the area, and for the two of them to turn out to be brother and sister. That is not entirely fanciful. The Committee has received communications from certain people who expressed such fears as mothers. There was one person in particular whose son had been adopted and whose daughter had just turned 18 and was starting to go out with boys of a similar age. The family had not moved away from their original area, and there was a strong chance that the son was still in the area. It is difficult enough getting the information, if it can be acquired, about where a sibling is now residing, but young adults being left to their own devices after they turn 18, not knowing that they are adopted and so being unable to keep at the back of their mind that somebody might just be related to them, opens up all sorts of ghastly possibilities of their unwittingly committing acts that are still offences under the Sexual Offences Act 1956.
That is an important aspect and yet another reason why it is essentialand a fundamental rightthat people who have not been told before they reach the age of 18 that they were adopted should automatically be told when they reach that age. Of course, the imparting of that information should be accompanied by all the necessary considerations and counselling.
The amendment is not probing; it reflects an important principle. The Government's response has been interestingthe Minister has asked for more time to consider the matter, and I hope that she will. On that basis, I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. I hope that the Minister is serious about her undertaking to consider the matter properly, and that she will either make proposals of her own, perhaps on Report, or give solid reasons why our suggestion would not work, perhaps by citing ramifications that have not emerged in our debates. If she repeats her undertakingsthe phrases she used ranged from difficult'', to some sympathy'', to consider further'',
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to a bit of a problem''I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. None the less, we have had a useful discussion and opened up important new issues relating to some of the Bill's fundamental principles.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): Welcome back Mrs. Roe.
I am happy to repeat the undertaking that I gave only three or four hours ago to consider the amendment in detail and to come back either with proposals or with further thoughts about the difficulties surrounding the issue. Our debate been conducted in a spirit of exploring ideas, which is appropriate to a Special Standing Committee. I hope that I do not sound irritated when I say that it is interesting that some people choose to treat my willingness to consider the various surrounding issues as a vehicle for criticism.
I shall not be oversensitive. I repeat my undertaking that the Government will consider the matter in more detail. There are issues and difficulties in terms of both principle and practicality, but I shall, as I said this morning, ensure that before Report and Third Reading, members of the Committee are clear about our views and intentions.
Tim Loughton: I should be relieved that I have not been accused of being mischievous, bad tempered, or even churlish. I am grateful for the Minister's comments. It was not clear from this morning's debate whether she would respond on this matter, but she has now made it absolutely clear that she will. There is no further need to pursue it, so 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.