Special Standing Committee
Thursday 29 November 2001
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): On a point of order, Mrs. Roe. You will know that when the knife came down this morning the Committee had scrutinised four clauses and partly scrutinised another clause and another amendment, which left 22 clauses and 22 amendments completely unscrutinised. However, in the melee of the guillotine, you may not be aware that we were in the middle of debating amendment No. 43, which was tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friends. Mr. Stevenson, who was in your place, brought down the guillotine and put the amendment to the vote.
The Labour Members must have been greatly compelled by the force of my amendment, as nearly all of them voted aye to that amendment. Mr. Stevenson declared, ``The ayes have it, the ayes have it.'' We were content that our amendment had been duly taken and recorded as such. However, Mr. Stevenson subsequently admitted to a little confusion and took the vote again. I wonder whether you could rule on the directions in ``Erskine May'' about rerunning votes that do not go as the Government want them to, and whether Mr. Stevenson was in order.
The Chairman: I understand that there was some confusion over the question relating to amendment No. 43 this morning, which was why Mr. Stevenson decided to put the question a second time, and that was certainly within his power. The amendment was then negatived.
Child to live with adopters before application
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 25, line 20, leave out `ten' and insert `thirteen'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 26, in page 25, line 22, leave out `six months' and insert `thirteen weeks'.
No. 27, in page 25, line 26, leave out `one year' and insert `thirteen weeks'.
No. 28, in page 25, line 29, leave out from `than' to end of line 30 and insert `thirteen weeks'.
Mr. Walter: I hope that there will be no confusion over these amendments, because they seek to remove confusion. I was perturbed to read the clause, because as a reasonably intelligent Member of Parliament, I found it peculiar that different time factors related to different forms of prospective adopters. If I find that confusing and muddling, heaven knows how prospective adopters might find it, especially if they fall into more than one of the categories.
I will discuss amendment No. 25 before turning to the amendments grouped with it, which are all essentially along the same lines and seek to find a way of providing some simplicity for the prospective adopter and to work in the best interests of the children who are being adopted.
Amendment No. 25 applies to line 20, in subsection (2), which states:
``in the case of an application by a married couple, with one or both of them at all times during the period of ten weeks''.
In other words, the child must have lived with one or other partner for 10 weeks during the period preceding the application.
At first, that seemed reasonable, but when I read the rest of the clause, it began to dawn on me that it might not be so reasonable. If the applicant is a step-parent, the period suddenly changes from 10 weeks to six months. It is apparently okay for an application to be made when the applicants are unknown to the child but the child has lived with them for 10 weeks, having been placed there by an adoption agency. On the other hand, that period changes to six months when the applicant is known to the child, as his or her step-parent. The clause continues by stating that if the applicants are foster parents—and therefore well known to the child, unlike the applicants in subsection (2)—they must have the child living with them for a year before they can make an application.
The clause continues until we reach the point dealt with in amendment No. 28, in line 29. Subsection (5) states:
``In any other case, the condition is that the child must have had his home with the applicant or, in the case of an application by a married couple, with one or both of them for not less than three years (whether continuous or not) during the period of five years preceding the application.''
Why do we jump from 10 weeks for one case to six months for another, one year for another, and three years out of five for yet another? Such differing times will lead to a great deal of confusion. The legislation that we make here should be as simple and readily understood as possible.
My amendments are to some extent probing amendments, because there is nothing magic about 13 weeks, just as there is nothing magic about 10 weeks, six months, one year or five years. However, in the case of children's welfare, delay is not something that we should encourage through legislation. In previous sittings, we emphasised the fact that we do not want excessive delay that prevents children from being adopted. Some of those subsections seem to encourage delay and create inconsistency in the treatment of prospective adoptive parents.
The amendments would simply remove confusion from the legislation, avoiding delay and looking after the best interests of the child while enabling an easier understanding of the law by those wishing to adopt. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on my amendments, and, if she is not prepared to accept them as they stand, will redraft them in an alternative form.
Tim Loughton: I shall speak briefly in support of the amendments, which were moved so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter). For reasons mentioned earlier, this is a complex Bill and we need to do all that we can to make it simple, straightforward, logical and understandable. There also needs to be a greater degree of equity in how we deal with the different types of people who qualify to adopt children.
My hon. Friend rightly pointed out the enormous disparity between the qualifying times for different people and the fact that overall it seems to foster delay rather than curtail it. The overriding consideration, subject only to paramountcy, which we discussed on clause 1, is set out in subsection 1(3), which states:
``The court or adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.''
In later clauses, we shall be defining delay and how one can go about curtailing it.
The average periods set out in the Bill are too long. If the Bill is structured properly and if the regulations that eventually accompany it do the job properly, we should be able to speed up the process. One of the main considerations behind the Bill was to speed up the process. The average adoption time is two years and nine months, but although the average adoption time for babies is much shorter it is now beginning to lengthen again. Urgent action is needed.
The other overriding principle behind the Bill is the need to speed up the adoption of children in care; that is particularly relevant for children who are threatened in their current environments. Later clauses deal with the relative merits of whether couples who adopt children should be married. By my calculation in the table of who qualifies and for how long, married couples are given the prime, short time of 10 weeks' scrutiny, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Step-parents have six months, which makes them 2.6 times less suitable to qualify for a quick adoption, yet step-parents form one of the largest part of adoptions.
Many adoptions are not of babies coming to a completely different family—last year, only 200 babies were adopted by new families—but are adoptions by existing step-parents who want to regulate an existing relationship. We then move on to foster parents, who have a year, which makes them five times more vulnerable to scrutiny than married couples. Ultimately, all the others not yet mentioned have three years, which means that they require 15 times more scrutiny.
Those variations are completely out of synch. It behoves the Minister to justify those figures. Perhaps it is existing best practice, which needs to be justified if it is to remain best practice under the Bill. Perhaps new research and new guidance leads the Government to believe that those long times and those differentials are necessary. I support the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument and his reasons for probing the Government. We want ultimately to shorten the time that it takes before children can be properly settled in a stable environment and become the adopted children of whoever the adoptive parents or guardians are to be.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I, too, support the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset. I agree that the times often seem irrational. If a child lived with adult friends who wished to adopt it, but the child was not placed, I believe that the three-year rule would come into play. If it were an older child, those three years could make the process irrelevant in practice. Missing from the provisions is what the child may want. If that older child were to consent to the process, it could be realistic for the three-year rule not to apply. I leave that thought with the Minister.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): I welcome you back to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. This morning's debate was constructive. We now move on to the part of the Bill that deals with the preliminaries to, and the process of, making adoption orders.
Clause 41 sets out the various residence periods—times during which a child has to have lived with the prospective adopters before an application for an adoption order can be made. It is worth pointing out that the provisions are different to those in the Adoption Act 1976. In that Act, the various periods related to the time before an adoption order was made; in the Bill, they refer to the time before the application. We believe that that is an important improvement.
Opposition Members made much of the point that we need to deliver simplicity and consistency. I disagree about the significance of simplicity or complexity; such considerations are not always paramount. As I hope to explain, it is not necessarily in the best interests of children in various circumstances that everything should be the same. One size does not necessarily fit all when talking about the complicated, difficult and serious circumstances of adoption.