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Baroness Barker: My Lords, I rise to give the weakest support to Amendment No. 88 and the warmest of welcomes to Amendment No. 96A. I do not want to steal the Minister's thunder, but I have to speak now.
Today is a really good day. I thank the Minister and his department for listening to the arguments that we made with a great deal of conviction and with a great deal of information at our disposal from people who have worked to achieve this change for many years. It would not have come about in the right way without the technical input from the department. On behalf of the charities, I thank the department for finding a way to make a good idea work well and, in particular, for coming up with the safeguards for people who are adopted, which are, perhaps, the most important parts
I do not want to cover in great detail the ground that we went over in Grand Committee. However, I believe that people who gave children away for adoption prior to 1976 have suffered from being unable to break through a barrier erected by the state and gather information about people with whom they have a blood relationship. At Second Reading, I said that that was wrong, and I am glad that we have managed to find a way to enable them not to bring about contact but to try to bring about contact.
Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, I have only a couple of questions. I understand why the Chancellor of the Exchequer gets a look-in on this matter, although I stand to be corrected. I have a practical question. How will this be publicised? I have a particular reason for asking that. Noble Lords may remember that, at Second Reading, I talked about birth fathers. I have no doubt that birth mothers will get to hear about the change in the legislation. I do not wish to be sexist in any way, but I imagine that the change will be picked up, in particular, by women's journals and programmes directed at women. However, birth fathers and siblings also have the right, and I am concerned that they should be able to exercise the right to approach an intermediary body.
It has been a strange night. Not only have I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, but I am about to say something that I rarely say. I believe that, in this case, it is right to use regulations to bring the measure into effect. It is right because there is still some uncertainty about how it will work in practice and what best practice will turn out to be when we are dealing with the most complex personal cases. We need the flexibility to change practice if it becomes apparent that that would be best for all concerned.
I offer a suggestion about funding. One of the reasons why many of us lobbied hard for the change was the expensive and Byzantine process that people seeking to make such searches must go through, from adoption agency records to bits of historical information that may be incomplete. The key to the measure is the information held by the registrar-general. That should make the process more efficient, and I wonder whether there will be efficiency savings that could be put towards the cost of the real implementation of the measure. I have no doubt that that will be done by people who care passionately about the subject.
All along, we have said that the measure would not bring about a happy ending for everybody. We cannot guarantee that. We are not here to play God; we are here to make a legislative framework in which people can make their own decisions. However, it is a good move. On behalf of the organisations that have worked for this, I give a heartfelt welcome to Amendment No. 96A. It is a just move.
When the proposal was debated in Grand Committee, my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath acknowledged that it sought to tackle the Government's concerns about opening up information on tens of thousands of past adoptions. As the Bill made its passage through, we argued that adoption agencies should not be burdened with the work, as it would draw away their resources for arranging and supporting adoptions for today's children. That was proposed in the previous amendments.
Many adoptions were arranged privately. In such cases, there were few records other than the report about the placement that the adoption agency may or may not hold. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, is right to say that there will not be a happy outcome in cases for which records simply do not exist. Before 1984, the obligations on adoption agencies to keep and record information were not as comprehensive as they are now. Monitoring and performance management was not as rigorous: I do not think that anyone had heard of monitoring and performance management in the public sector.
If records have been lost or if the adoption was a private one, in which no adoption agency was involved, the only probable source of identifying information is the sensitive information contained in the adopted children register maintained by the registrar-general since the Adoption of Children Act 1926. Clause 77 places a duty on the registrar-general similar to that imposed by Section 50 of the Adoption Act 1976 to maintain the adopted children register and provide certified copies of entries as evidence of adoption. We have already discussed the content of those registers.
Subsection (2) provides that the register itself is not open to public inspection or search. The index is open, but the register itself is not. Opening up access is a radical step and should not be considered lightly. In Grand Committee, we pledged that we would consider the role of adoption support agencies in the disclosure of the information. It is sensitive, but, in cases for which there are no other records, it may be the only way to trace an adopted person to seek their consent for disclosure. We have considered the matter carefully, and we have consulted people involved with adoption. We have decided that, on balance, adoption support agencies should be able to get access to information on past adoptions, provided that there are robust safeguards to ensure that the information is protected and is disclosed only if the informed consent of the adopted adult is forthcoming. Amendment No. 96A builds on Amendments Nos. 87 and 88.
At the weekend, there were stories in the press that the Government's scheme would provide a right for birth parents to make direct contact with the adopted person, even with adopted children. I must reassure
The Government's amendments do not mirror the text of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, but they build on it. Amendment No. 96A inserts a new clause after Clause 96 that amplifies the powers in Clause 9 to make regulations for the disclosure of information about adoptions made before the Bill is enacted. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for saying that the regulation-making power was the right route. We intend to use the regulations to establish a scheme that provides for registered adoption support agencies to operate an intermediary service for contact between adopted adults and their adult birth relatives. On receiving an application from the birth relative, the ASA would establish the identity of the adopted person, seek to trace him and, if he consents, disclose his identity to the birth relative and facilitate contact between them. An adopted adult will be able to ask an ASA to provide the same service if he wants contact with a birth relative. The provision would apply only in cases of adults adopted before the appointed day.
That builds on Amendments Nos. 87 and 88 by enabling a registered ASA to use information from the adopted child register and the adoptive contact register maintained by the registrar-general. But it goes further. It enables the ASA to obtain tracing information and advice from the adoption agency. The three key elements are: first, an ASA can approach an adoption agency or the registrar-general on behalf of the applicant who wishes to have contact with the subject of the application. Secondly, an adoption agency and the registrar-general will have a duty to provide information to the ASA which may be used to trace the subject and to provide counselling to him and inform his consent decision.
Thirdly, the ASA will be prohibited from disclosing any information about the subject of an application to the applicant without the informed consent of the subject. The intention is to set out the details in the regulations after consultation with the adoption stakeholders. That brings me to the first question of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. The regulations will appear some time next year. The consultation period will probably last into 2004. It has to be carried out properly.
Baroness Barker: My Lords, we have recognised throughout the debate that many of the people for whom the measure is particularly important are very old. For them until 2004 may be too long. I therefore ask the Minister whether the department will consider,
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