Special Standing Committee
Tuesday 27 November 2001
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Considerations applying to
the exercise of powers
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in page 2, line 14, leave out `religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural'.—[Mr. Walter.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 19, in page 2, line 14, leave out from `the' to end of line 15 and insert `child'.
No. 24, in page 2, line 15, after `background', insert
`, subject to the proviso that such consideration shall be secondary to the matters to be considered in subsections (2) and (3).'.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I was cut off in full flow and will recap only briefly. Due consideration is important, and it is important also that social services departments have clear guidelines about what that means in practice. A fine balance must be struck between trying one's best to find the best placement and perhaps not succeeding with some of the aspects that might be deemed important. Obviously the greater emphasis on what is right for the child—his being adopted quickly—will come into play.
I challenge the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who said that if a child was a baby, religious background and ethnicity did not really matter. Certainly if the child has been baptised into the Christian faith, the birth parents and others who belong to churches would challenge that most strongly. I cannot answer for other faiths, but I suspect that believers of other faiths would have similarly strong views on the matter. I do not believe that the matter is unimportant.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): Judaism was mentioned previously. A child is of that faith if the mother is of that faith, regardless of whether the child is circumcised. In some ways, the same point that the hon. Lady makes applies in respect of Christianity.
Sandra Gidley: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I had finished my comments, but I felt that I needed to flag that point up.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I tabled amendment No. 19, which is similar to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, but would remove the words after ``child''. My hon. Friend explained his case well. We are trying to simplify the clause. We all know that it is essential to state that the interests of the child are paramount but, as my hon. Friend said, it is a mistake to try to be too specific. We are trying to ensure that common sense prevails. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, clause 1(4)(d) makes it perfectly clear that a child's background and other matters are extremely important.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset was perhaps too polite about the clause, which has too much political correctness in it. I was pleased when the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) said that she was against political correctness creeping into the Bill.
Liz Blackman (Erewash): I emphasise again that that is precisely why I support the wording in the Bill, because it does not give that consideration priority. Ultimately, all the issues involved must be weighed up, balanced and given due consideration. Nevertheless, it is an important issue.
Mr. Bellingham: I agree that the matter should be weighed up and considered. Surely we can be confident and have faith that common sense will prevail, which is why it is a large error to make the clause too prescriptive. We have all heard examples of potential adoptive parents who would be very relieved to have an adopted child of any race or cultural background. The child's interests must be paramount, and if a child of Afro-Caribbean, Asian or Chinese background can be found parents of the same background, that is the ideal solution. However, there may not be adoptive parents available from the same background. I am concerned that children should not remain in foster care if loving parents are available to adopt them, whatever their race or cultural background.
People who have entered the adoption process—I do not intend to talk about my experience; I declared my interest at the beginning of the Committee and said that I may be one of the groups of adoptive parents who may benefit from the Bill—know that such a course is not entered lightly. It takes over one's life and is entered only after making a deep commitment to adopt a child. My wife and I entered the process with a deep commitment to adopt a child, but not a child of a particular race. Many adoptive parents assume the same attitude.
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) asked whether Conservative Members had been contacted by organisations and bodies that were worried about the clause and asked why that matter was not discussed during the witness sittings last week. Such bodies have approached us. The Opposition do not want to cause trouble but we are anxious for Ministers to carefully examine restrictions that might result from the clause.
I tabled amendment No. 19 to make the clause less prescriptive and to try to ensure that common sense prevails, rather than having a wording that could be over-zealously, or wrongly, interpreted.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I may, perhaps, help the Committee by speaking to amendment No. 24, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who cannot be present this afternoon.
We have heard about balance, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) talked of adopting a humane proposition. I agree largely with the points of my hon. Friends. My more balanced amendment echoes the words of the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) on Second Reading on 26 March when my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury raised the matter of the ethnicity and religious considerations in the Bill. The Minister made it clear that people have strong views on this difficult matter, and said:
``Ultimately, however, we have made it very clear that we believe that there should not be unnecessary and unacceptable delay in the process. If that is one of the issues that can give rise to delay, the Bill should address it.''—[Official Report, 26 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 705.]
That is precisely the aim of amendment No. 24. I have taken issue with what we would call the politically correct considerations of subsection (5), and, while keeping them in, have made them subject to the major considerations of paramountcy and delay in subsections (2) and (3).
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): ``Politically correct'' is a term that is bandied about so much that it becomes a term of abuse. Will the hon. Gentleman justify his use of it in this circumstance?
Tim Loughton: I will endeavour, by reading submissions, to give examples of occasions when, in the past, such considerations have been used as politically correct obstacles to various types of adoptions. During the Clinton era in the United States, the law was specifically changed. We all agree that delay is a major problem, and that it needs to be reduced. The average time taken for the adoption of children in care has decreased, but only from two years and 10 months to two years and nine months. It is especially crucial that early years adoptions should be completed as soon as possible, with all due considerations that we have discussed.
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): If the hon. Gentleman is using those figures as a foundation for his argument, it is important to split up the various different age groups. The adoption process for newly born children is generally swift, whereas it takes longer for older children, whom it is much harder to place. If one takes an average, one arrives at the time scale to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, we should consider the detail rather than taking a broad-brush approach.
Tim Loughton: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why we raised concerns earlier, and will continue to do so later, that the Bill contains no fast-tracking facilities for younger children. In fact, I gather that the latest figures show that there has been a decline in the time that it takes for children who are less than one year old to be adopted. That situation has been reversed. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that different applications exist for different types and ages, and for the complexity of problems of the children involved. I just gave the average overall figure that is used in Government research and in the White Paper, and I have applied that to the general principles in subsections (2) and (3).
Part of the problem is that the clause tries to translate section 22(5)(c) of the Children Act 1989, which refers to
``the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.''
The attempt to parrot that in the Bill has led to difficulties. Those difficulties have been emphasised by the Government, because there is no clear prioritisation of the considerations in clause 1. It is an important clause, which cuts at the principle of the Bill. That is why we continue to discuss it in such detail. However, there is no clear interrelation between the paramountcy subsection, the delay subsection and what is referred to, colloquially, as the welfare checklist in subsection (4), and subsection (5), which introduces what we would call politically correct considerations. I am not sure which dominates the other. The amendment is therefore intended to help by specifically identifying that the considerations in subsection (5) should be subservient to those in subsections (2) and (3).
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Is it not clear from subsection (1) that the paramountcy consideration is at the top of the tree? How can his amendment make sense in relation to subsection (2) in insisting that a consideration shall be secondary? How can anything not be secondary if the consideration in subsection (2) is paramount?