Adoption and Children Bill

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Kevin Brennan: I agree that the hon. Gentleman has mixed up views. I am afraid that I appear to have convinced the wrong Front Bencher on some of the issues. For information, I understand that the Labour MP Phillip Whitehead, in giving testimony about his own experiences of adoption, persuaded the House to make the provisions retrospective.

Tim Loughton: I said not that my views were mixed up but that they were mixed; nor do I think that I am the wrong Front Bencher. Indeed, it would have been good earlier if the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues had had more influence over their Front Benchers and sorted out some of the discrepancies and confusion.

When I asked the simple question why, the Minister cited three reasons for not extending the provisions. She said first that it would be too costly. I challenge her to explain why that would be so, as there is of course a fee involved. Many, if not most, birth parents who launch a search are prepared to pay a fee. For those who cannot, there are adoption agencies that are charities. They have, or are prepared to make available, a charitable facility to cover that cost.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman has chosen to use the issue of cost as the first of the matters that I raised. I think that I said that it would be costly but that I did not consider that to be the most significant issue.

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Tim Loughton: I referred to three reasons. I should be interested to know which is the most significant and which are minor considerations that, if overcome by some of the suggestions that I have made, would no longer be barriers. If cost is not a big bar, that is fine.

The Minister said secondly that people might be difficult to trace because of the way in which records were kept in the past. If the information is no longer available because the records of certain agencies have not been as good as they might have been, that is the end of the matter. However, in the many cases for which there are records, there is not a problem. Nobody is asking for something that no longer exists. It is a different matter if all proper efforts are made to get hold of the information but people are thwarted by lack of disclosure.

The third point—perhaps the Minister thinks that it is the most important, and if so I have a degree of sympathy with her, which is why I said that there should be some balance and why it is crucial that there be a proper, balanced intermediate service provider, making careful judgments—was that such provision might be a disruptive intrusion into people's lives many years after adoption. That might be a legitimate consideration. I am trying to establish what the Minister's objections really are. How thoroughly have the Government looked into the issues? How does she rate them on a scale ranging from completely insurmountable to might be surmountable with discussion and other arrangements?

From our correspondence and discussions with people involved in adoption, we know that many have waited years for a system that makes it easier, or possible where it is now impossible, for them to gain information that may re-establish a link between an adopted child and a birth parent. As the evidence produced by Professor Triseliotis and others showed, in the vast majority of cases that opportunity proves extremely welcome.

Of course it is right that the paramountcy principle of the interest of the child is the focal point of the Bill. However, many people are involved in adoption other than the adopted children, as there are many birth parents and siblings as well. Again, it may be necessary to revisit these issues on Report or table some new clauses, as the Bill has gaps related to the ability of siblings to make contact. At the moment, there is a distinct lack of intermediary services whereby siblings could meet, and I cannot see how that will be greatly improved by some of the provisions in the Bill. We await the outcome of the consultation process on that as well. Those are my concerns.

We welcome the changes that lead on from the change of heart on access to information that we have debated. We will not oppose the clause but, before we can go along with the extent of what the Government suggest, we need to know for sure—as do, more importantly, many thousands of people who have been waiting a long time—why the terms of the Bill cannot be extended retrospectively rather than merely applying to the future. It would be fine if the Government could provide a watertight case for that, having reconsidered what happened in the mid-70s

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and proven that there was some legal agreement at the time, but up to now such a case has not been made clear. I will need more convincing. The Minister should be far clearer than she has been, not only for my sake, but more importantly for that of the many people who have been involved in the process.

Kevin Brennan: I hope that I have not bored hon. Members by banging on about this subject in Committee and on Second Reading, but I would like to pursue it again a little further, in the spirit of exploration that the Minister described.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—perhaps—change position slightly on the issue. Any movement down the road has been passionately opposed from the Conservative Back Benches by the hon. Member for Huntingdon, who talked about the past deal or agreement in the triangle of adoption, which he suggested it would be wrong to destabilise. I respect his sincerity in suggesting that, but it is interesting how those views have changed a little as we have discussed the Bill.

New clause 7 is welcome, but it ought to apply retrospectively. I welcome it because it probably is not always helpful to talk about rights, as the Minister rightly said this morning. The new clause provides an opportunity.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that much of the difference between him and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham could be met in the middle if new clause 7 were retrospective but new clause 8 were not? One affects adults only, and the other affects children.

Kevin Brennan: It is not my intention to argue that new clause 8 should be retrospective. I am trying to make a special case for new clause 7. I do so because it provides opportunities rather than rights. I want to persuade the Minister that that is what we are trying to do rather than enshrining rights in legislation.

When the Bill becomes law, the clause will apply to no one. It will have an effect only once adoptions take place after that time. If we are to provide opportunities, we should do so in the spirit of providing equal opportunities. Birth relatives have been my particular concern throughout the Bill and should be given equal opportunities to access services and get hold of information.

I emphasise the needs of women whose children were adopted prior to 1975. There was a different cultural setting then, and adoptions were often what we would regard as coerced, with babies almost taken off those women. There were great pressures on women who had babies when they were unmarried to give up their babies for adoption. Those women are a special group because they have been left with a hole in their lives and with a great longing to know what happened to their children. They are now very elderly, and time is running out for them. They would be aided by making new clause 7 retrospective.

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The Minister said that the question of whether adoptions at that time were made on an agreed basis perhaps raised a point of principle, which it would be wrong to breach. However, I do not think that we can talk of a principle, because events in the mid-70s blew the issue wide open for ever. The Government's moves in the mid-1970s retrospectively to change the basis on which adoptions could be considered in England and Wales influenced Commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia to follow a similar path and to take matters a step further than I suggest. Those countries could provide us with empirical evidence because they have taken the path that I suggest, and without significant problems. That said, I understand the Minister's concern about the impact of such measures on adopted adults.

It is, of course, possible that misery will be visited on an adopted adult if the new clause is accepted—I think that that was the Minister's point. However, that is a possible consequence of anything that we do. Burke was mentioned this morning, and I could perhaps mention Jeremy Bentham. Should we not concentrate on the greatest happiness for the greatest number? The utility that we would create by making the new clause retrospective and giving birth parents from an earlier era the opportunity to seek information would far outweigh what all the evidence suggests would be the very small number of cases in which approaches would be unwelcome and where even the knowledge that someone was seeking information might be unwelcome. The happiness—for want of a better expression—that such an approach would create for those birth parents would far outweigh the problems. I am not making that statement blindly; the evidence suggests that it is true. I shall not repeat the statistics that I gave the Committee before Christmas, but they show overwhelmingly that a retrospective provision would be welcome.

I appreciate the Minister's point that such a provision would be complicated and costly, although she did not say that cost would be the main problem. The provision may well be complicated, but it may not be as costly as she believes. The fear might be that there will be a flood of applications for information if we were to make the clause retrospective. That would, however, prove my point entirely and show that there was a powerful demand on the part of those affected. We would deny them the opportunity to exercise that demand if we did not make the clause retrospective. This is one of those opportunities that come along once in a generation. We should take it now, because it will be the last opportunity for the generation of people who have suffered this cruel and unusual punishment. To do so would be one way towards righting a historical injustice, particularly against women.

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