Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Walter: I am grateful to the Minister for running through the possible exceptions. She described them several times as reasonable payments. I referred to clause 11. Fees would be reasonable payments, but surely there should be a requirement for transparency. Adoptive parents should not feel in danger of being hit with a bill for what some official or adoption agency thinks is a reasonable payment, but which is totally unexpected and which they might find difficult to pay. Within the context of the clause, I suggest that the

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Secretary of State or the adoption societies should be required to give potential adoptive parents some idea of the likely costs under the clause.

Jacqui Smith: There are two problems, which I addressed previously. First, there is no power for the Secretary of State to prescribe the level of excepted fees under clause 92. The hon. Gentleman has not proposed an amendment to alter that, so it remains the position. More significantly, to return to a point that we discussed at length in relation to earlier clauses, councils and voluntary adoption agencies are and will continue to be able to charge prospective overseas adopters a fee to cover expenses reasonably incurred.

For the reasons that I have spelled out, it is not appropriate for the fee to be set nationally; it is more appropriate for it to be set locally, because each agency's costs will be different and its fees should be able to reflect them. A nationally set fee would lead to some agencies receiving more than their costs while others did not cover their costs, which might discourage them from making the assessments.

I explained when we discussed transparency that it is important that fees are made clear to prospective adopters. In addition, we went through the redress that would be available to prospective adopters through the complaints procedure if they felt that an agency had breached the condition that it should not recover more than its costs. We have covered those points. The hon. Gentleman is trying to reopen a previous debate, rather than focusing on the clause, which does not include the power to do what he proposes, even if—in policy terms—it were considered to be appropriate. I do not think that it is, for the reasons that I have given.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 92 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 93 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 113

Restriction on advertisements etc.

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move, amendment No. 261, in page 63, line 38, after '88(2)' insert—

    '( ) a person other than an adoption agency is willing to receive a child handed over to him with a view to the child's adoption by him or another'.

We are, as I said earlier, moving on to a clause that covers not only restrictions on advertisements on the internet, but wider restrictions on advertising.

The new subsection provides that the restriction on advertising in clause 113 that I shall spell out will apply also to advertisements that indicate that someone other than an adoption agency is willing to receive a child handed over to him with a view to the adoption of that child by him or by another person. It seeks to ensure that there are adequate safeguards in place to protect vulnerable children. It is, as we have discussed, essential that the welfare and needs of children be safeguarded.

There are those who are prepared to engage in the buying and selling of children for adoption. Even if money does not change hands, nobody should be permitted to arrange private adoptions that are not

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subject to the provisions, safeguards and quality standards that are applied to the processes of adoption that we have discussed. Only local authorities and registered adoption societies should make arrangements for adoption, and restrictions on advertising are an essential part of the Bill's safeguards to prevent the exploitation of children and protect their welfare.

Clause 113 restates, with amendments, section 58 of the Adoption Act 1976, which restricts the publication of advertisements indicating that persons other than adoption agencies are willing to make arrangements for the adoption of a child, and makes it an offence for parents or prospective adoptive parents to advertise their desire for adoption. There is a broad consensus on the necessity for the current restrictions on advertising, but clause 113 goes further. It is a UK-wide provision that imposes a new restriction on the distribution of such advertisements, on advertisements that a person is willing to remove a child from the UK for the purpose of adoption, and on the publication and distribution of information about how to make arrangements for the adoption of a child.

In addition, the clause also makes an explicit reference to the internet so that there cannot be any doubt that the Bill covers this new medium. The internet is providing agencies with a new and growing medium for reaching out to prospective adopters. That is appropriate, but it opens up the risk that some individuals will try to advertise illicit adoptions in this country. We do not want websites to advertise children for adoption in this country unless the advertisements are placed by adoption agencies.

Adoption agencies are increasingly and rightly looking to the broadcast media to help them recruit prospective adopters. A number of television programmes featuring children available for adoption have been transmitted in co-operation with adoption agencies. The example of the BBC shows how it is possible, when the advertisement is placed by an adoption agency, to ensure that children's interests are safeguarded.

The BBC has broadcast two programmes on adoption, both under the theme of ''A Family of My Own''. In January 2000 the programme featured single children and sibling groups available for adoption; more than 24,000 calls were received by the adoption agencies involved in the programme, and most of the children have since been placed for adoption. Another programme followed in April 2001, featuring successful adoptions. It featured adoptive families and told of their experiences and feelings about their adopted child.

Television and other media can be powerful tools for recruiting adopters, but such recruitment must involve an adoption agency to ensure that the welfare of any child is protected if, for example, a television programme advertises a helpline that gives personal details of a child to callers, or initiates an adoption agreement. The involvement of the adoption agency will ensure that there is no disclosure of confidential information and that the best interests of the children are maintained in the placing of what, in the BBC's case, was an appropriate and useful advertisement.

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The provision places restrictions on advertising by third parties, permitting them to be placed only by or on behalf of an adoption agency. It does not prevent third parties from providing general information about adoption, promoting adoption as a positive option, or passing to prospective adopters interested in a particular child the contact details of the child's adoption agency. However, any attempt by a third party to pass on information about an individual child, including their contact details, would be caught by clause 88(2). Nothing in the clause prevents any organisation from spelling out the benefits of adoption, but there are, rightly, restrictions on the extent to which the arrangements for individual adoptions and information about individual children can be disclosed.

Subsection (4) provides for a penalty on conviction of up to three months in prison, or a fine up to level 5—currently set at £5,000—or both.

With the addition of amendment No. 261, clause 113 safeguards children's welfare through the careful imposition of restrictions on advertising while ensuring that the appropriate use of advertising for the recruitment of adopters is still possible.

Amendment agreed to.

11.45 am

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

Tim Loughton: We fully support the amendment that the Committee has just approved, and the Minister's reasons for placing restrictions on advertisements. My only concern is to ensure that the provisions are watertight. I appreciate how difficult it must be to marshal all the new electronic forms of communicating and placing advertisements, such as through the internet. We all know that people have used loopholes to do that. However, my interpretation of the clause and the Minister's comments on amendment No. 261 lead me to suspect that some perfectly legitimate ways of distributing information may fall foul of the provisions, although I appreciate that the Secretary of State is given fairly wide discretion to make amendments.

In the ''Challenge Aneka'' programme some years ago, Aneka Rice was challenged to smarten up a Romanian orphanage. I remember watching the programme. Aneka Rice, a BBC crew and all sorts of other people went out to Romania and came across this orphanage in the most appalling state, where children of all ages were housed in terrible conditions. Those people did a great job of trying to repair the accommodation.

I believe that the programme was one reason for the enormous flood of interest in adopting children from Romania. It had publicised the appalling conditions that many children suffer in such orphanages. Enough personal details were given about those children to identify them. Hand in hand with that was the assumption that people could help not only by donating money to the various charitable works being undertaken to improve conditions for those children but, implicitly, by offering to adopt. Because

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of the lack of potential adopters in Romania and because the country was in a state—it was only a few years after the iron curtain came down—that programme implied that adoptive parents would be sought from outside Romania.

On my understanding, that programme could be thought to have distributed information to promote adoption and unwittingly, but possibly under the terms of the legislation, given information about children who could do with a better home and for whom adoptive parents could be found in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. It was a long time ago, but I believe that that was done without the obvious co-operation of a recognised adoption agency.

No one could say that there was anything malicious or underhand about the programme. Indeed, what it achieved was laudatory. Strictly speaking, however, a programme maker who sought to make a follow-up programme or an equivalent modern version of it could be prevented from doing so, which might be a bad thing. We do not want such examples as that programme to be caught by these otherwise necessary clauses.

On the same score, the Minister might like to say why Romanian adoptions have dried up since a moratorium was placed on them in July 2001. I gather that it has a lot to do with an extraordinary campaign by Emma Nicholson, a Member of the European Parliament who, on rather scant information, has brought to an end adoptions from Romania, although the state of childcare in that country leaves an awful lot to be desired. Many children still live in appalling conditions in orphanages, and adoption by supportive adoptive parents in the UK or elsewhere in the European Union where there is now a moratorium is greatly to be recommended.

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