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Mr. Hinchliffe: To be more explicit, I know of situations--I will refer to one in my contribution, if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--in which couples were turned down on the basis of information received in confidence from a medical authority. My point is that when an independent review takes place, will that information be communicated to the family concerned, regardless of the impact on that family?
Mr. Hutton: I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a very difficult issue. I do not want to attempt to provide a definitive answer to that question today--I will have to reflect on what my hon. Friend has said.
Mr. David Davis: This issue has been raised by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, among others. It is not unique to the Bill. For example, since Dunblane, when shotgun licences are applied for, medical information is now available. So there are existing mechanisms that could be considered by the Select Committee.
An independent body appointed by the Secretary of State will convene a review panel to re-examine the evidence and make a fresh recommendation to the agency. The adoption agency must then consider both the new recommendation and the recommendation of the original agency panel before making its final decision. I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield that the decision will remain the responsibility of the adoption agency.
The independent review mechanism will not replace the right of prospective adopters to have the matter referred back to the original agency panel; it will be an alternative. Prospective adopters will be able to choose which method of review they prefer.
The Bill requires each adoption agency, magistrates court, county court and the High Court to give the appropriate Minister general information relating to adoption. That information will be used for statistical and performance management purposes.
The Bill also gives default powers to the appropriate Minister when a local authority has failed, without reasonable excuse, to comply with any of its duties in respect of adoption--a point made by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). It empowers the appropriate Minister to hold an inquiry into any matter connected with the functions of an adoption agency, and provides for a person authorised by the appropriate Minister to inspect any premises where a child placed for adoption is living, and to inspect adoption agencies' records.
Chapter III deals with placing children for adoption and the making of adoption orders. It introduces important new changes to the current process for placing children for adoption through adoption agencies, which flowed from the recommendations of the adoption law review and built on the proposals in the 1996 Bill.
The aim of the new system is to ensure that decisions around whether adoption is the right option for the child, whether the parents consent and, if not, whether their consent should be dispensed with, are made earlier in the adoption process than at present, with court involvement where necessary.
The current process can leave too much to be resolved at the final adoption order stage. The new system is intended to provide greater certainty and stability for children by dealing as far as possible with parental consent before they have been placed with their prospective new family; to reduce the uncertainty for the prospective adopters, who possibly face a contested court hearing at the adoption order stage; and to reduce the extent to which birth families are faced with a fait accompli at the final adoption hearing, if the child has been placed with the prospective adopters for some time. The placement proposals were widely supported in principle in the consultation on the 1996 Bill, produced by the previous Administration, and in the performance and innovation unit report.
There are two routes for placement. Birth parents can give consent to placement for adoption or the adoption agency can secure a placement order from the court. The parents may consent to placement with specific adopters or consent to allow placement with adopters that the agency selects.
Where a child is placed with consent, the birth parents can, at any time until the point that an application for an adoption order has been made, request the return of their child. The agency and the prospective adopters must comply, unless the agency still thinks that the child should be adopted, in which case it must apply for a placement order. However, once an application for an adoption order has been made, the court's consent is required for the removal of the child. Where a parent has consented to placement for adoption, he or she may oppose the final adoption order only with the leave of the court, and the court may give leave only if there has been a change of circumstances since the parents gave their consent.
The Bill also introduces new placement orders. An adoption agency must apply for a placement order where it is satisfied that a child should be adopted but the parents do not consent to placement or have withdrawn consent. Where a child is subject to a care order and the care plan recommends adoption, the local authority may apply for a placement order or, if the parents consent to placement, go down the new route. Where a child is under a care
Placement orders authorise the agency to place a child with any adopters whom it may select. Agencies need not go back to court if an initial placement fails. Placement orders last until an adoption order is made, the child reaches 18 or the order is revoked. The parents may not apply to revoke the order unless a year has passed since it was made, the child has not been placed and the court gives leave. The court may give leave only if the parents' circumstances have changed since the order was made.
The placement provisions will replace the current system of freeing orders, which has been widely criticised, partly because, once made, the orders leave a child without any legal parents. The new placement- with-consent route allows birth parents to agree to their child being placed for adoption, while placement orders can be sought where consent is not forthcoming. In either case, the birth parents remain the child's parents until the final adoption order.
The Bill also allows birth parents to give advance consent to the final adoption order, either at the same time that they give consent to placement or at any time afterwards. That is a means of allowing people to give up their child voluntarily for adoption.
Clauses 34 to 44 set out the process for applying for adoption other than through an agency, the conditions on making adoption orders and the effect of adoption orders. I shall simply highlight the main changes that we intend to make.
Where someone wishes to apply to adopt a child other than through an adoption agency, and it is not a step-parent adoption, the child must have lived with the person for three years before an application may be made, or one year in the case of local authority foster parents. We are not making any changes to who may adopt. As now, single people may adopt and, as the adoption law review recommended, only married couples may adopt jointly. That is absolutely right.
We are changing the law to remove the anomaly by which, for a parent and a step-parent to adopt jointly, the birth parent must first adopt his or her own child. That is frankly ridiculous. Finally, as I described earlier, we are changing the provisions around dispensing with birth parent consent to adoption in line with clause 1.
Clauses 47 to 49 implement our promise in the White Paper to deliver greater consistency of access for adopted people to information about the background to their adoption. All adopted people should have the right to find out about their family history and background when and if they wish to do so. All adoption agencies will be required to keep information on their files in accordance with requirements to be set out in regulations.
The Bill also provides for a package of information to be given to adoptive parents when an adoption order is made in order to help new adoptive parents understand about the child's background. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). Adopted people will, on reaching 18, have the right to receive a copy of the information previously provided to their adoptive parents and to information from their court records.
Sometimes, adopted people and other parties may be refused access to information about themselves for no good reason. Alongside the Bill, therefore, we will ensure that those who are refused access to personal information about themselves that is held in adoption agency files will have the right to apply to the Data Protection Commissioner for a review of that decision.
Clauses 51 to 60 mirror most of the provisions in existing legislation on the legal status of adopted children. Chapter V deals with the Registrar-General's duties concerning maintaining the adopted children register and the adoption contact register. With some minor amendment, it will reaffirm existing provisions.
Chapter VI deals with adoptions with a foreign element. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 made provision for intercountry adoptions. It enables the UK to ratify the Hague convention on protection of children and on co-operation in respect of intercountry adoptions. Most of the provisions of the 1999 Act as regards England and Wales will be incorporated in the Bill--save the sections covering regulations to give effect to the Hague convention and associated measures, which will remain in force.
The House will know that the Government have decided to bring forward the implementation of regulations under section 14 of the 1999 Act. Those will be laid and made this week, and will come into force next month. It will then be an offence for British residents to bring a child from another country into the UK for the purposes of adoption, unless they are already approved adopters in this country. On conviction, the penalty will be imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of up to £5000, or both.
Those provisions are mirrored in the Bill. In addition, we are considering whether it would be appropriate to make other changes to primary legislation to improve the safeguards on intercountry adoptions; we may make further proposals to the House for inclusion in the Bill as it goes through its parliamentary stages.
The key measures in chapter VII cover controls on who may make arrangements for the adoption of children and who may advertise children for adoption. It is essential in the interests of children that only approved adoption agencies or certain individuals are allowed to arrange adoptions. The Bill tackles that by recasting the definition of the Adoption Act 1976--restating what is permitted and by whom and defining what making arrangements actually consists of. Anyone who makes arrangements for adoption but is not authorised to do so will commit an offence. The Bill includes provision for the definition to be modified to take account of future developments so that the legislation can remain up to date.
The chapter also deals with controls on advertising. As we all know, there is a shortage of adopters throughout the country. Advertising for prospective adopters to come forward is often an effective way of encouraging more people to consider adoption. However, that activity must be properly regulated in the interests of the children concerned. We also need to ensure that we cover all emerging technologies where they might be exploited to circumvent the safeguards approved by the House.
The Bill restates and amends the existing restrictions on advertising in the 1976 Act, but it goes further--imposing a new restriction on the distribution of such advertisements and on the publication and distribution of information about how to make arrangements for the adoption of a child. It also makes it explicit--an important point--that printing and distribution include both traditional and electronic media, and should be carried out in a manner compatible with the European Union e-commerce directive. The Bill provides for future developments by giving the Secretary of State a power to make amendments if there are technological developments relating to publishing or distributing information by electronic means.
To support our drive to cut harmful delays in adoption, clause 89 includes a new provision to impose an obligation on courts, where they are dealing with any matter where there may be an issue of whether a placement or adoption order should be made, to draw up a timetable and to give any directions necessary to ensure that that timetable is maintained. That will help to tackle delays in the system. It mirrors similar provisions in the Children Act 1989.
Clauses 96 to 99 provide for the national adoption register, which will be a key means of cutting delay in the adoption process and should help us speed up the matching of children with prospective adopters. We are already working to establish an adoption register for England and Wales under existing legislation. We aim to award the contract in the spring, and the first stage of the register will be operational by July. The Bill will, however, underpin the register and place it on a proper statutory footing, helping it to expand and develop in the future.
The register will provide a national infrastructure for adoption services. It will hold information on children waiting to be adopted and on approved adoptive families from across the country. The information held on the register will be used to suggest families for a child in cases where a local match is either not in the child's best interests, or cannot be found within an agreed period. The register will also be used as a valuable source of national information on the adoption process itself.
Councils will be required to place on the register details of all children waiting to be adopted and of approved adoptive families. We will encourage voluntary adoption agencies to make full use of the register. That will help to ensure that as many children as possible are matched with suitable adoptive families.
Prospective adopters will of course be included on the register only if they have given their consent. Children will also be asked for their consent--subject to their age and understanding--before being placed on the register. However, the register will not be open to public inspection or search. The privacy of adoptive families and children will be our first priority. To ensure that their privacy is respected, the unauthorised release of information held on the register will be made a criminal offence.
The Secretary of State for Health will be able to delegate the establishment and operation of the register to another body. The Bill provides that that may be a public body or a private or voluntary organisation.
We are also making further changes to enable a step-parent to acquire parental responsibility for a child of his spouse without having to go down the route of adoption and to allow courts to extend the duration and enhance the security of residence orders as a means of providing permanence for children who cannot be cared for by their birth parents. Most important, clause 94 amends the 1989 Act to introduce the new special guardianship orders.
Special guardianship is intended to meet the needs of children who cannot return to their birth parents and for whom adoption is not appropriate. That could include older children who are being looked after in long-term foster placements who do not want to be legally separated from their birth parents but who could benefit from greater security and permanence. Adoption might also not be the best option for some children who are cared for on a permanent basis by members of their wider family. Finally, some minority ethnic communities have religious or cultural difficulties with adoption as provided for in English law because it involves the permanent extinction of the legal responsibilities of birth families.
Special guardianship orders are to be made on application to the court by someone who is 18 or over. The Bill sets out who may apply for an order. That includes any guardian of the child, anyone who holds a residence order with respect to the child and anyone with whom the child has lived for three out of the past five years. If the child is in the care of a local authority, anyone may apply with the authority's consent.
Two people can apply jointly for a special guardianship order. They do not have to be married. If an application is made for special guardianship, the local authority must complete a report to the court about the suitability of the applicants to be special guardians. Regulations will prescribe matters to be covered. They will ensure that a proper assessment process is followed for special guardians. A court can also make a special guardianship order in family court proceedings without an application if it thinks it is in the interests of the child's welfare to do so. When a court makes such an order, it must also consider whether a contact order should be made.
A special guardianship order gives the special guardian parental responsibility for the child. It also makes it clear that the special guardian exercises those rights and responsibilities to the exclusion of others with parental responsibility--principally, the birth parents--except in exceptional circumstances when the law requires the consent of all those with parental responsibility, such as certain forms of medical treatment, including the sterilisation of a child.