Examination of Witnesses

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 21 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Naomi Angell, Network for Intercountry Adoption; Jacky Gordon, Head of Family Placement Services, Norwood Ravenswood; Vivienne Reed, Operations Manager for the Register, Norwood Ravenswood; Margaret Dight and Marion Hundleby, Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham; and Jim Richards, Director of the Catholic Children's Society, Diocese of Westminster, called in and examined.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Good morning, colleagues. I welcome everyone to the sitting. I welcome, in particular, the witnesses and wish to thank them for their co-operation and willingness to come here today. I ask them to introduce themselves briefly to the Committee.

Marion Hundleby (Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham):

I am currently the post-adoption specialist at the Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham. I have a background in research consultancy and social work practice.

Margaret Dight (Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham):

I am the director of the Catholic Children's Society, Nottingham, the same agency at which Marion Hundleby is employed. I have been with the agency for 20 years, pioneering in inter-agency placement for children from the public care system. A decade ago, I developed the first post-adoption specialist service remit within a small voluntary adoption agency.

Jim Richards (Director of the Catholic Children's Society, Diocese of Westminster):

We are a separate agency from Nottingham. We are a broad-based child care agency. One of our specialisms is adoption.

Jacky Gordon (Norwood Ravenswood):

I manage the adoption service for Norwood Ravenswood. We are involved in both domestic and inter-country adoption.

Naomi Angell (Network for Inter County Adoption):

I am a solicitor, specialising in domestic and inter-country adoption. I am a member of NICA—the Network for Inter Country Adoption—and the inter-country adoption lawyers group. I am also legal adviser to the Norwood adoption panel and an inter-country adopter.

Vivienne Reed (Operations Manager for the Register, Norwood Ravenswood):

I have just become the operations manager for the adoption register, administered by Norwood Ravenswood. I have a background in child care social work. Before that, I managed the guardian ad litem service for Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

The sitting is time limited, which causes us difficulties. I hope that my colleagues will be brief when asking questions and that witnesses will also be brief and to the point in their answers. I ask everyone to speak up as people are not easy to hear in this large room.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I wish to ask the representatives of the two branches of the Catholic Children's Society and Norwood Ravenswood about adoption support services. The provision of support services is an important part of the Bill, and one of its clauses deals with assessment. We have expressed our interest in whether the assessments are necessary. Surely support services are far more essential at an early stage. Will the witnesses give brief descriptions of the support services in which they are involved and explain their relationships with local authorities?

Jim Richards:

There are several issues. As the Bill stands, there is a duty to assess, but we are concerned about what might flow from that. It is not clear whether the needs that are assessed will necessarily be delivered. We face another problem, particularly as voluntary organisations. We will support adoptions, but we are involved in situations when a child will be in local authority A, but placed in local authority B. We receive services in local authority A, but have to work very hard and, sometimes unsuccessfully, to transfer those services. There is not only the issue of support services from social services, but of health and education. The Bill is unclear about that.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

What are your solutions? What would you do about trans-border services and inter-agency working?

Jim Richards:

We would like a much clearer duty to be placed on local authorities to provide those support services alongside assessing the need.

Jacky Gordon:

One of our difficulties in inter-country adoption is the monitoring and review role. At present, local authorities have a welfare supervision role in inter-country adoption. We would like the regulations to reflect an expectation on local authorities to allow us to do that work and to fund it as well, because we have difficulty with supervising if we do not have any funding. Under the current regulations, it is not possible for us to charge applicants for that supervisory role.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Can you elaborate a little on working with local authorities? The Catholic Children's Society stresses the importance of voluntary agencies in the whole process. If anything, that needs to be talked up in the Bill. You have cited your adoption and quality option research. How will that develop under the new legislation? I am particularly keen to get to the bottom of the issue. There is a lot about assessment and the right to assessment. If adopters cry for help, they usually need help. There are few cases when it is not required. You now have a right to an assessment process. You will be told that you can have an assessment in a few weeks' time. The assessment will take place and at the end of it you might receive a recommendation, but there is no guarantee that the support services are coming through. Will not all the work of those in social services, in which there are many vacancies, be concentrated on carrying out the assessment rather than supplying the services that are so desperately need? Will that work?

Margaret Dight:

There are two main issues here; you are quite right. Any child being placed for adoption now in this climate will definitely need post-adoption support; there is no question about that. The assessment of need should be taken as right. What we are saying is that local authorities should ensure that their post-adoption assessment support services are developed and informed through close collaboration with the voluntary adoption agencies, which have spearheaded a great deal of the post-adoption support work over the past 20 years in this country.

It is essential that those services are provided in tandem. It is equally essential that local authorities have a clear budgetary mandate for post-adoption support services. One of the issues that we have found extremely difficult in our 20 years of providing adoption and post-adoption services for children adopted out of the public care system is that there can be a recognition of need and potential need at the time of placement, but there is a blurring of the issue of funding through the local authority.

The voluntary agency carries out an efficient and effective brokerage service, making a clear assessment of need. That assessment of need is often on a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency level, involving health, education, legal support and advice for adoptive parents. That will break down if the necessary ring-fenced funding is not made available through the local authority. I would ask my colleague Marion Hundelby, who has done significant research on this, to respond also.

Marion Hundleby:

I endorse the fact that assessment is not just about what the children and families need, but about what services are out there that can be brought to bear on a situation. As Margaret Dight mentioned, this can be an interdisciplinary response. In many ways, having that point of gate-keeping at the beginning and understanding what is needed hopefully directs people most quickly to the appropriate services. That may not necessarily be social services; it may be support groups that volunteers run, for instance, or it may be initiatives that come from corporate parenting in which local authorities have included adopted children.

While I take your point about the resource issues, we are also looking at the right routes to support families that have these very, very damaged children. I think that we have to keep coming back to the point that an adoption order is not a magic wand; it does not make things better, in the sense that these children continue to be extremely vulnerable, and if we do not get the services right and the assessment right, and they come out of adoptive homes because they return to the care system at whatever stage, it means that their problems are only compounded.

Assessment is important, and as a former researcher, I would also say that assessment is important in terms of ensuring standardisation of service, and—if we are looking at what is delivered to people—ensuring that if people wish to make representational complaint, there is a standard against which they can do that.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am interested in what Mr. Richards said earlier. He said that even after needs assessments, some needs will not be met. Those are large questions in a fairly substantial subject. In a few words, could you elaborate on that, please?

Jim Richards:

In the voluntary sector, we are conscious of the issue of resources in local authorities. We are not merely saying, ``Come on, local authorities, cough up.'' I have worked in local authorities and have been an elected member in a local authority, so I know what the resource issues are, but if you are spending enormous resources on recruiting adopters and then placing severely damaged children with those adopters, the local authorities need to realise that resources have to stay with that child. Just as resources were being expended on that child while that child was in care, so resources need to be carried through when that child is placed.

Naomi Angell:

From the family's point of view, there is concern about the delay that will be engendered if, first of all, there has to be an assessment. After that, they will have to wait for a decision to be made as to whether there will be a supply of services. It may be too late by then; the family are actually stating their need at the time that they ask for the assessment. If they then have to wait for a considerable time for discretion to be exercised as to whether there will be supply, it just could be too late.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

What will be the effect of the extension of local authorities' duties to carry out assessments? What difference will that make in practice? Is it simply a matter of resources?

Margaret Dight:

It is a resource issue, certainly, but it is also dependent upon an accurate assessment of need. That assessment has to be made by individuals who are fully informed on issues around the adoption process, the implications of a child's background and life experiences and how that will impact on the child in placement and the on-going needs of the family. So, it is an assessment that can be made in the here and now with information that is based on the child's past and current needs, but also has to have a dynamic that recognises the level of support that may be needed for some considerable time ahead. So, we are looking at detailed, skilled, professional assessments, which need to be done rapidly and take cognisance of the skills and knowledge in different disciplines and different organisations. Again, I place emphasis on the need for effective collaboration between local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies in this issue.

Jim Richards:

We must not have prolonged, protracted assessments that take up an awful lot of time. The best assessors of needs will be the adopters, and we must listen to them very carefully and quickly and get the resources in. I can see the prospect of a huge assessment industry being set up, which diverts resources from the actual helping of the adopters.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

You mentioned that, currently, the role of voluntary organisations is often to broker the resources that are available from local authorities, and that the situation becomes more difficult if a child is on the books of one local authority but placed with another. However, you must also be aware, in your line of work, that some local authorities have better practice than others. I am interested in the differences that we keep seeing in the figures between the practices of local authorities. What have you learned about the best performing local authorities, in terms of providing appropriate and swift support when it is needed?

Margaret Dight:

What it is based on is our experience of inter-agency places. You are quite right. We realised that the levels of practice across the country varied hugely, which led us to our research project ``Adoption—A Quality Option'', because we wanted to find out what it was that made one local authority able to offer an effective adoption service while another with a comparable budget offered a less effective one. We found that it was important that agencies had an integrated approach to adoption; that, if you like, adoption was in the hearts and minds of everyone within the organisation before it ever became part of the decision making process. For very long, adoption was seen at as a satellite service in many statutory, and some voluntary, organisations. But we found that the successful delivery of adoption services occurred where there was a very clear, integrated, committed and well resourced adoption service within that statutory environment.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Will the Bill's framework and the taskforce be helpful in achieving a more integrated approach across all authorities?

Margaret Dight:

My agency very much welcome the Bill. There are aspects of the Bill that we feel extremely positive about. It raises issues that needed to be raised. It looks clearly at the on-going needs of children for adoption, as my colleague said, and it moves away from the concept of the adoption order being some magic wand that will solve all ills. We welcome that very warmly.

My concern is, as I have entered in my submission, that there is insufficient recognition of the need for effective collaboration between the voluntary sector and the statutory authorities. That is essential. I actually included figures, which you will be aware of, to inform the panel of the numbers of children involved and the £3.5 million invested through voluntary agencies to meet effectively the needs of children in adoption and post-adoption services. That has a huge impact on informing best practice in adoption and I would feel happier if there was a tacit recognition in the Bill of the need to offer a comprehensive, fully informed, operative adoption service. It is essential that statutory agencies inform and provide their services through close collaboration with voluntary adoption agencies in their environment and beyond.

Jacky Gordon:

The on-going nature of adoption support is sometimes lacking with our colleagues in local authority social service departments. We are funded for post-adoption for just one year, and it is likely that post-adoption support will be needed far beyond that. The first year may be the most straightforward for some children, and our adoptive parents would be asking for post-adoption support many years into the placement.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

According to the evidence that we have, an aspect of the Bill that has caused some anxiety relates to access to birth certificates. Mr. Richards, your evidence suggests that you have reservations about the changes that have been made. Why do you believe that those changes have been made? Presumably the Government have experienced some difficulties with the current system. Are you aware of those problems?

Jim Richards:

I do not know why that change has been made in the Bill, and some of us have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out why it has been put in. Our universal practice experience in the voluntary sector is that people welcome the information-giving process. Yes, there can be tears and tribulations, but if there is an intermediary service—that is, well placed social workers acting as intermediaries between the parties—we can cope. That evidence comes not just from practice experience, but from very good research. I refer particularly to the work of Julia Feast, from the Church of England Children's Society, and of David Howe. It is well attested, and we just do not understand why this measure has been included. Why cannot adult adoptees get hold of their original birth certificate? That seems to me a fundamental right.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Presumably in expressing that anxiety you are speaking on behalf of other agencies to which you have spoken.

Jim Richards:

I know of no voluntary adoption agency that has a different view from mine.

Marion Hundleby:

The workability of what is being suggested would have to be considered extremely carefully. In my extensive experience of providing counselling in these situations, the majority of children coming into adoption now are older and know a lot of this information anyway, so I question the workability of what is suggested in the Bill. Children often contact family members—other siblings, for instance—who may have different experiences of the birth family and will be sources of information. So as well as endorsing Mr. Richards' comments about the success of this section to date, in over 25 years, I question whether it is viable as it is described.

Naomi Angell:

This also applies to children adopted from overseas, who are dislocated from their country and their birth families by geographic boundaries. The adoptive parents will in most cases hold the majority of the information about the birth family. They may have met the birth mother in the country of origin. However, the agency and the central authority will also hold information, and it is important that it should be an independent right of the child in a child-centred adoption service that the child should have that right of information.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I have a great deal of sympathy with all the points that have been made. However, do you believe—I am playing devil's advocate—that a compromise might be reached whereby people have access to that information on condition that they do not make contact, as one agency suggested in evidence to us?

Marion Hundleby:

I understand what you are suggesting. I would suggest, however, that that is just about impossible to police. As it is, an awful lot of contact takes place that bypasses adoption agencies. We are in the age of the internet, and people can find each other quickly. We need to provide user-friendly services in which people do not feel that their needs and feelings are misunderstood or blocked because of legislation that I can only describe as unhelpful, in the way that is drafted in the Bill. We need to be approachable and to support people in their quest for information. Frankly, what you are suggesting would happen anyway through other means.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

So you think that people would bypass and circumvent the system anyway?

Marion Hundleby:

Yes. They would try to do that.

Jim Richards:

I am not sure that I entirely agree with that. It is our practice experience that, when we are working with people and saying, ``Look, birth mother does not want to see you,'' because of the nature of the relationship between us and the adult adoptee, and the explanations that we give, that is respected. It is far better to get people into the office and to discuss these things, than to have people floating off on their own and using private agencies that have no base in adoption.

Marion Hundleby:

My point is that bringing people into the office is the crucial factor. Once we are working with people, we can establish the relationships that help the most productive things to happen.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

That is a very interesting point. Can you envisage a situation in which it would be either inappropriate or dangerous for an adopted adult to be able directly to contact their birth parents?

Marion Hundleby:

Yes.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

So what could we do to prevent that?

Jacky Gordon:

I would say that what people need in those situations is counselling. Adult adoptees who have been obliged to have counselling have approached the situation in a much more prepared way, because they have been advised not just to make immediate contact, but, for instance, to use the agency in an intermediary role.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

But is it not the case that, at the moment, you would not have to use an agency, because you could access your birth certificate without going through an adoption agency?

Jacky Gordon:

Yes, you could do that, at the moment.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

So, it would not be possible to institute the sort of system that you are talking about—and which you think might be the best way to deal with a very small number of cases where there might be a problem—if people could bypass the adoption agency and obtain their birth certificate in a different way?

Jacky Gordon:

With some counselling help and support.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

Yes, but is it not the case that they would only get counselling if they came to an adoption agency?

Jacky Gordon:

Yes, at the moment.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

So, it would be possible for them not to come to an adoption agency, and to get that information in a different way?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Do you agree with that, Ms Gordon? We need your answer to be on the record.

Jacky Gordon:

Yes.

Jim Richards:

My point is, why pick on adoption? There are all sorts of difficult situations between children and their parents that can be of some danger, so why are we flagging up adoption?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

I wish to follow up that point by playing devil's advocate slightly. You are asking, why should somebody who has been adopted not have the right to contact their parent, whatever the background of their case? However, because of the nature of adoption these days, you are likely to be dealing with a higher proportion of damaged individuals—and many of them might have been damaged by their parents. Therefore, to play devil's advocate, is there any merit at all in the proposal to give further protection to birth parents, as is envisaged in the Bill?

Jacky Gordon:

In our experience, it has been more beneficial for adoptees to receive the information that they have received. Only a very small number of adoptees have had difficulties, where there has been a negative outcome.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Do you think that the proportions are likely to rise because of the nature of adoption these days, compared with when the previous legislation was introduced 25 years ago?

Jacky Gordon:

I suppose that that is a possibility, but I think that the benefits of adoptees getting more information—which might even lead to a meeting with their birth parent—can be quite a healing process.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I was going to make a similar point to that which was made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). It is always possible to hire a private eye to find out information, and that has been done. However, we must look at the statutory format, rather than at what people could get up to, and I would be interested to hear your views about situations in which people are asked to sign pieces of paper that say that they will not make contact—even, perhaps, in limited circumstances. Even though it is not binding, when push came to shove it would give the recipient of the piece of paper something with which to go to the court and obtain a non-contract injunction of some sort, which would make that process easier. What do you think about that?

Marion Hundleby:

I wonder if that is where adoption agencies should be focusing their work. The role of adoption agencies is very much to act as counsellors and intermediaries, and, if necessary, to work with parties other than the one who is presenting the issue. Our agency occasionally works with people who have serious mental health problems, when that sort of thing might apply, and we would endeavour to put in place a service for other parties and build in protection in that way, because, frankly, I am not hopeful that what you are suggesting would make a substantial difference.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

What if people do not want to be counselled? You are assuming that people will want to contact each other, which the statistics show is normally the case. However, what is the position when they do not want to do so?

Marion Hundleby:

Obviously, yes, counselling is a voluntary arrangement, but we also do some level of risk assessment, and if we feel that another party is at risk we would endeavour to work with that other party.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Do you think that that should be your decision?

Marion Hundleby:

Well, our decision in the sense that we are in possession of certain information. We will be informed by our medical and legal advisers, who are part of our adoption agency work. The way in which we would approach it is to try to assess any risk to an individual that may come out of a contact. I believe that that would be a stronger way forward than signatures.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

But at the moment there is no statutory obligation for the adoption agency to contact both parties to see if they are happy with information being released. Do you think that there should be such an obligation?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Margaret Dight, would you like to say something?

Margaret Dight:

May I take us back from where we are at the moment, and look at the move, because it is pertinent to the question that you are raising. It needs to be seen in a global sense rather than as a tunnel issue.

The whole area of adoption has grown in openness over the last decade. We are encouraging adopters, children and everyone who is part of and party to the adoption process, including foster carers, to develop a more open way of working. Several voluntary adoption agencies have pioneered very effective services of mediation to birth parents, particularly those whose children are being lost through the public care system. That will more than likely be through the courts, so there is an adversarial notion, and voluntary agencies can meet that need. Many councils are taking up and purchasing that service.

Given the layering of work that is being done, which started over a decade ago and is carrying on increasingly, with appropriate funding allowing more and more voluntary agencies to do that work more effectively we will significantly reduce the number of occasions when the extreme situation that was suggested would occur. There will not be the sense of myth, secrecy and lack of knowledge that would have existed before.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

No, but at the same time if the amount of adoption increases, it is likely that the number of problem cases will significantly increase.

Margaret Dight:

I do not agree. Children with significant problems are being placed for adoption. Because those problems and the need for post-placement and post-adoption support services are being recognised, adoptive families are not being encouraged to walk off into the sunset after the granting of an adoption order. They now recognise the need for significant support and work throughout that child's life into young adulthood. While the problems may be more evident because we know more about them, we are, likewise, addressing them, and with the right resources and funding we are able to address them satisfactorily. So I still believe that it is less likely for those situations to which you refer to be made possible.

As my colleague said, we have our own experience of individuals with serious mental health problems. To me, that begs the question of making adoption a much more widely held knowledge. The discipline of adoption and adoption practice needs to be taken on board by different disciplines, instead of just being seen in the arena of social services. The medical, health and legal professions need to be aware of those adoption issues.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

The process of people being adopted and tracing their birth relatives is bound to be full of emotion, anxiety and difficulties. It is obvious from the evidence given yesterday that there is no evidence for including the proposal in this part of the Bill. From your extensive experience in this respect; are you aware of a single instance in which an adopted person has committed a criminal offence against a birth parent?

Margaret Dight:

We had a client with a serious mental health problem and we felt that it was our obligation to ensure that all parties with whom he made contact were aware of their vulnerability. That is the only situation that I can recall.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

You are therefore saying that structures are already in place to deal with those issues.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I want to pose the question again in respect of inter-country adoptions, where there are difficulties because of the distances involved. Mr. Hinchliffe, you and I took part in an inquiry three years ago on the largest living cohort of intercountry adoptees, the child migrants to Australia, who spent many years trying to trace their roots. Should we consider providing more assistance to those who are subject to inter-country adoption to trace their birth records?

Naomi Angell:

There needs to be a contact register for inter-country adoptive families. It is extremely difficult for birth families to know where to go to get information on their birth children and often they are told when they hand over their child for adoption that that is it; the story ends there for them.

For the adopted children there are, as I said, geographical difficulties. There should be a contact register based either on the existing contact register for inter-country adoptive families, or alternatively, which might be more appropriate, in the central authority when it is established with The Hague convention, which will have all the information. Everything will go through that. It seems the easiest place for people abroad to contact and also for the children. I hope that the Bill will enable that to be established.

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

I am a little confused. All of you seem to recognise that there are, or could be, occasions when it would not be appropriate to put the adopted person in contact with their birth family. Although that has been disputed, it was not disputed yesterday. There has been an increase in relationship difficulties in the past 25 years. What would your organisation, or other groups, suggest to deal with the small number of difficult cases? Does anyone have any views on that issue? I am still not clear about it.

Marion Hundleby:

From our agency's point of view, the way we work at the moment is satisfactory. The risk of that happening is so slight that I would not wish to see changes to a piece of legislation that has been tried and tested over a quarter of a century and has been welcomed generally by all members of the adoption triangle. We are not just talking about adopted people, but their birth families too and often their adoptive parents. I would wish to see this continuing as it is. I bring you back to the point made earlier, that policing this in any way will be extremely difficult. Thinking forward, children from the care system will have had access to their records and their information and, as my colleague said, will often have been in contact with their families. A lot of resources would be spent trying to make this work and, frankly, it would end up being abandoned.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

Can you estimate the impact upon individuals who have been adopted but are prevented from having this basic information about their origins?

Margaret Dight:

Absolutely devastating. I cannot emphasise that too strongly.

Naomi Angell:

I offer this solution as a lawyer, that in the very few extreme cases there are civil, legal remedies of applying for injunctions in cases of harassment and so on which could provide some remedy so that you do not have to have the far-reaching new provision.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I agree, but would it not be easier to get the injunction on the basis of a piece of paper if someone has broken an agreement not to make contact?

Naomi Angell:

Possibly, but I think that is unnecessary. The means would not justify the ends.

Naomi Angell:

If there were a risk to the individual, they could seek a civil remedy, as other people could. That could be completely separate from the adoption framework.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Let us move on to a slightly different issue.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The evidence from the Catholic Children's Society says that before a placement, adopters need to have information about the child that will be placed with them to help them to plan and decide. Likewise, the Adoption Forum says that one of the root causes of disruption in a placement is a lack of information about the child's history. Do you feel that adoptive families should have access to information about their child's history?

Margaret Dight: I do. I feel very strongly about this. Over the years, I have seen confused children, who have had very difficult life experiences, placed with adoptive parents who have little or no active knowledge about those children's backgrounds, life experiences and, most important, the impact of those experiences on the children. Providing information after the granting of an adoption order is absolutely and fundamentally unacceptable. Let me make an analogy. None of us would enter into a permanent relationship with a total stranger. We certainly would not marry someone to whom we had been introduced that morning. That would be very unusual—[Interruption.] I take that back; perhaps some of us would.

Margaret Dight:

Absolutely.

Children are no different when it comes to knowledge. Given the difficulties that have been experienced by the children whom we place for adoption, it is vital that they know, if they are of an age, that their new parents know about them, warts and all. Many young children who have suffered severe abuse still carry the stigma that they were to blame. For some children, it is incredibly freeing to know that their new parents know everything that has happened to them, including their darkest and innermost secrets, and they are still loved and welcomed.

From a parental point of view, if people are not given full information about a child, how can they possibly parent them? Their hands are tied behind their backs. For many children who have suffered horrendous abuse, memories can be triggered in all sorts of situations. For instance, many such children have been abused around bathtime, but adoptive parents do not know that. They prepare a bath early in the placement. One does not need much of an imagination to appreciate the fear and terror that may be created in a child by that simple family activity.

Let us consider the agency perspective. Agencies are extremely vulnerable if they have not been in a position to acquire accurate and full information, make an assessment on that information and pass it to the family with whom they are working. Agencies are very vulnerable—there have been test cases—when families subsequently learn of life experiences, particularly sexual abuse, that may have made the child whom they are parenting vulnerable and also, sometimes, abusers of the parents' birth children or other adopted children.

A gamut of information firmly indicates that it is essential for adoptive parents to have full, accurate and factual information, and an assessment based on it as to the impact on the child in placement before the match is made at an adoption panel and before the parents indicate a willingness to go ahead with the adoption.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

Are you arguing that the Bill should go further than it does?

Margaret Dight:

Absolutely. The Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 stated that information should be provided to every family adopting a child as soon as possible after that child's placement. Those regulations went some way, but did not go far enough, because it is essential that information be provided to families before they make a decision about parenting a child.

What often happens in agencies at the moment, as you may be aware, is that there are professional forms called form E and form F. Form E is a descriptive professional narrative of a child's care career that is presented to an adoption panel. It is often—I believe, erroneously—passed on to adoptive parents as the background information. It is inadequate. It is a chronology of circumstance. It bears no real and true assessment of the impact of that child's life experiences and how they will affect that child in family placement. I would certainly like to see the Bill making it quite clear that it is an expectation that before making any agreement to pursue the link with the child, adoptive parents have access to clear, full and evidenced information from the placing agency.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

You put the point so well. We raised this yesterday and, in the interests of time, I will not pursue it further, except to say that we need to change this point. Having this opportunity makes the whole Special Standing Committee process worth while.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

The Minister asked the exact question that I was going to ask. I became involved with the Bill on Second Reading because of the experience of a couple in my constituency who came up against inaccurate and very thin information, which led to a dreadful experience. They felt themselves to be a failure for asking for the information. There are implications in terms of good and up-to-date record-keeping in this process.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Can we move on to inter-country adoptions?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

May I ask Naomi Angell to tell us about her organisation and what it does?

Naomi Angell:

NICA, which started as the British Association of Inter-Country Adoptions, started in 1990 as a multidisciplinary forum, bringing together a unique group of diverse interest groups in inter-country adoption, including social workers from local authorities and voluntary agencies, guardians ad litem, representatives of the legal and medical profession, parents groups and organisations involved in international social services who deal regularly with inquiries from local authorities and individuals trying to obtain information from abroad. The objective is to discuss the issues and to try to promote better practice in inter-country adoption. We meet regularly and have responded to the whole range of policy initiatives.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

You obviously will be aware of the interest provoked by one case in the media. Does your organisation support the provisions in the Bill that make it an offence to bring into the UK a child adopted abroad in the previous six months if the prescribed conditions have not been met?

Naomi Angell:

We broadly welcome the provisions that would tackle that issue. We do not totally understand the six-month time limit. As I understand it from the Second Reading debate, it is hoped that this figure will not catch people living abroad but will catch those who are abroad just to adopt. My feeling is that it is the correct figure. I know that most of the states in Australia have similar provisions. There is an additional one. If it is felt that the period is too short, it could be combined with a provision that would catch people who were staying abroad purely to get round the provisions of the Bill.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

You are saying that there is an additional clause.

Naomi Angell:

There certainly is in the state of Australia where I have had some recent contact. There is a period of time, plus an additional provision. If the people are staying abroad specifically to get round the provisions, they could be caught.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

It would be an additional improvement.

Naomi Angell:

Yes, but I think that six months is the right time period.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Does your organisation support the proposals to clarify the criteria by which countries will be included on a designated list of countries where adoption goes through proper processes?

Naomi Angell:

We certainly welcome the reform of the designated list, which has needed attention for a very long time. We do not know the criteria that will be used to determine whether a country will be on the designated list. We have seen the draft regulations and guidance that were published last week by the Department of Health, but that is only draft, and I understand that it is not definite at this stage. I think we need more information about the framework. We certainly feel that it needs to be looked at.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

On the relationship between voluntary agencies and local authorities when people's home studies are done and approved, and the subsequent monitoring when a child first comes into the country, what does your organisation feel about the current arrangements? Should they change?

Naomi Angell:

With regard to pre-adoption procedures, we are concerned that it is difficult to get a home study at the moment. There are considerable time delays, and we are concerned that the duty to provide an inter-country adoption service should be a real duty that is fulfilled. At the moment, the voluntary adoption agencies have quite long waiting lists, and local authorities are saying the same. Local authorities are tackling that problem by setting up consortiums. There is one in west London and one in north London, and one hopes that those will tackle some of the issues. However, I think that there are real problems at the moment in terms of obtaining a home study and juggling that against the increased duties on local authorities with regard to domestic adoption assessment and the time limits under the standards. That needs to be looked at.

In terms of the position afterwards, the regulations will enable voluntary agencies to be able to charge for post-placement reports. That will certainly be necessary; Jacky Gordon raised earlier the point that the voluntary agencies will be in difficulty in terms of resources if they cannot obtain finance for post-placement duties.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Are there any other issues about inter-country adoption that you do not feel have been tackled by the proposals?

Naomi Angell:

There is the issue in clause 12 of the proposed review of decisions made by the agency decision-maker. We feel that there also needs to be a review process of central authority decision-making. As it stands, the home study report goes to the Department of Health after decisions made by the agency decision-maker, which then has a decision-making role in relation to that. The criteria that they use to make that decision are not clear, and there is no review process other than judicial review, which is expensive, time-consuming and inaccessible. We feel that there needs to be transparency and accountability.

Naomi Angell:

To bring that into line. Another issue is the registration of overseas adoptions. It will be possible, under schedule 1, to register overseas adoptions—designated country adoptions—on the adopted children's register. That will enable people to get the equivalent of a birth certificate; a document that a child can produce throughout their adult life whenever they are asked for a birth certificate. At the moment, it is not possible for those adoptions to be registered. It will be fine for children adopted after the Act, but it should have a retrospective effect. For example, in a family that has two adopted children from China, one of whom was adopted before the Act and the other after it, those two children will have two different records. It is very difficult to have to produce a record or a birth certificate, or whatever one is asked for officially, that states that an individual is abandoned or parentless, or that is just based on the Chinese information. That can be very difficult for the child.

There is also the general issue about the facilitation of inter-country adoption. There are certainly welcome provisions that introduce controls against cases such as the Kilshaw case. Facilitation, encouragement and help should be given to people so that they can adopt properly. At the moment, it is very difficult for families to do that. They may be able to obtain a home study report from a voluntary agency or a local authority, but after that they are on their own. They have to make contact with the foreign country, seek information on that country, and meet all the legal procedures in their country and in the child's country. They must ensure that the child is eligible for adoption. Many of the best-organised countries will not deal with British families, because they prefer to deal with linking agencies rather than individuals who are learning the system for the first time. There are no linking or full-service agencies in this country. British families use American full-service agencies, adding another complex component to an already complex situation.

British families need to be put on a level playing field. We need funding to start up linking, mediation and full-service inter-country adoption agencies to ensure fairness for British families. At the moment, the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 allows a country to register an inter-country adoption agency only if it is also registered as a domestic adoption agency. That gives quite a difficult set of procedures for them to achieve, particularly if they are attempting to set up a smaller operation, although we totally accept that it has to be properly regulated.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

We have two other areas to cover before we conclude, but there is another question from Mr. Bellingham.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

May I go back to the pre-adoption situation? You mentioned home studies. I have been briefed in detail by the director of social services in Norfolk, whose department experiences a great deal of pressure on resources, manning and so on. Taking over home studies in the country of adoption would be an additional strain. On the one hand, there is that situation; on the other hand, there are independent, experienced social workers, who have been doing private home studies. How do you harness that resource? Do you do it through a voluntary agency, through a consortium, or do the social workers work for local authorities? Are they licensed by local authorities? Would you comment on that?

Naomi Angell:

My experience is that local authorities and voluntary agencies use self-employed social workers to do the work. They do it for the agency and, as the agencies are able to charge fees for the reports, it should not result in a financial loss to the agency. That gives flexibility in providing services to the agency.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Do you agree with the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering regarding placement orders? It has said that if the parents do not consent, the Bill should use the words

``adoption would be so significantly better for the child than any other option as to justify overriding the parents' wishes.''

Will the Bill make it too easy for placement orders to be made against parents' wishes?

Jim Richards:

I agree that there must be a higher threshold than just the welfare of the child. It has been argued that if you go through the steps in clause 1 of the Bill, it will ensure that the various thresholds will have been jumped over. However, I would still point to that and urge the need to look at a phrase such as ``is significantly better.''

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

During any court appearance surrounding placement orders, should children of sufficient age and understanding have the ability to refuse consent to adoption?

Jim Richards:

The Bill says that the wishes and feelings of the child, given the age and understanding of the child, should be taken into consideration. That is sufficient, as long as it is clearly recorded in any reports going to the court, and as long as the child is properly represented, which means having a good children's guardian service and legal representation. It is too much to expect a child to take on the burden of making the decision, ``Yes, I want to be adopted'' or ``No, I do not''. We are talking about children and there needs to be a legitimate amount of paternalism and maternalism in looking after a child. We should take the child's views and record them, but take into account age and understanding.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate Norwood Ravenswood on gaining the contract to run the national register. It is good news that an experienced voluntary adoption agency has won that contract. Is the organisation satisfied that the Bill has a sufficient element of compulsion to ensure that it creates a true national register? Some local authorities—I do not want to pick out individual ones—have a poor adoption record.

Vivienne Reed:

There have been meetings with local authorities throughout the country in the last two months. The feedback that we received is that all local authorities and agencies feel able to comply with the register. There is no evidence to say that any local authorities will not comply.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Are you satisfied that authorities will give you all the names that they should, and that children will not be lost in the system? Parents who have passed may not be pushed forward. Often, agencies have a financial interest in keeping parents to themselves in order to take an expensive child off their hands.

Vivienne Reed:

The feedback that we have had is that some local authorities may feel that it is yet another burden on them to have to do that, but I have no feedback to say that they will not do it. They have embraced the concept of the register.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Thank you. I move on to another subject that all three groups may want to comment on. Yesterday, we had a long session with the Local Government Association and Department of Health officials to discuss the regulation of small self-help groups, which several of us are concerned about. Do you have any views on that? Margaret Dight mentioned the idea of sending people for counselling to a self-help group run by doctors. The Bill will regulate all but a small group of people who are active in the adoption field. Can we exempt from legislation groups that are wholly or mainly run by doctors?

Margaret Dight:

There are two slightly separate issues here that overlap. Anyone who provides a professional service in the adoption arena and is seen by prospective recipients of those services as being a professional body should definitely be the subject of regulation. I have no hesitation in saying that whatsoever. There are a number of support groups that are often established and through agencies—buddy networks, friendship groups—that are less formal, and give support when individuals require it. There is less need to make that sort of organisation subject to regulation. That is a very heavy-handed method of regulating something that, in a sense, cannot be regulated because it is about meeting the needs of particular individuals at the particular time that they approach a particular group. For professional services, yes, absolutely; for non-professional, friendship services, no. That is too heavy.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

That is clear. My final question is for Mr. Richards. You expressed some strong views in your memorandum on the possibility of extending adoption to unmarried couples. Do you want to say something about that?

Jim Richards:

I support the Bill as it stands, in that only married couples or single people should be able to apply for an adoption order. Obviously, I have read the Second Reading debate and I am aware of the discussion around this issue. My feeling is that there is a qualitatively different nature to cohabitation and marriage. That is borne out by figures of higher breakdown of cohabitation as opposed to marriage. The other thing, of course, is the nature of marriage and the need for the state to uphold marriage because we see it as a demonstrable good, and that needs to go forward.

If you turn it round and say that cohabiting couples are going to be allowed to adopt, there will be a whole range of issues that those assessing the cohabiting couple will have to take on board. We have to look on the grim side, if you like. What happens if one of the cohabiting couple dies, or if they split up? There are issues of pensions, legacies, the house, and whether there is a cohabitation contract. I would certainly argue, if we are going to go down that road, that the assessing social workers will have to have a level of intrusion into the financial and other background of the family and obtain the necessary documentary evidence, such that couples may even say that it is easier to get married.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

I put it to you, Mr. Richards, that there could be a situation in which the child welfare principle, which Parliament has long accepted, is best served by the adoption of that child by an unmarried couple. Is that not a factor?

Jim Richards:

Of course, it is a factor.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

You would accept that that could happen, which presumably contradicts your view.

Jim Richards:

What we are expecting of adopters is a lifelong, public commitment to that child. Why not therefore expect of adopters themselves a lifelong public commitment to each other, which is marriage? That is the point I am making.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

This is quite a contentious area and we have only a few minutes left. I appeal to my colleagues and the witnesses to be brief.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford

To paraphrase what you said regarding placement orders, is putting marriage at a higher threshold than the child's interest the right thing to do? From what we heard yesterday, it is important to compare like with like. Your figures on the differing levels of break ups between cohabiting and married couples are one thing, but we should look at those who are being assessed for adoption, which is a different situation.

You could be assessing a married couple who might have split up or divorced half a dozen times, and a couple who have been cohabiting for 10, 11, 12 or 13 years. We have heard a lot about quality assessment this morning; the assessment must be based on stability of the relationship. Those, rather than a piece of paper, are the issues for a social worker. Do you not agree?

Jim Richards:

Marriage is not a piece of paper; there is a distinct difference. We might possibly look at a married couple coming forward who have had six previous marriages, but I am not sure that we would. In framing legislation, we are sending out a signal. The signal that we are sending out with the Bill as it is, is that we as a country value marriage and see it as important. If we turn it round—as perhaps you are suggesting, I am not sure—and allow cohabiting couples to adopt, we are then saying that marriage, as it were, does not matter. We undermine marriage, and by undermining marriage we then make it more likely that many more children will be in rocky situations. What we have to realise is that cohabitation is far less stable than marriage.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

We could debate this all day, as you will appreciate.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I shall be brief and give an example. A child is placed with foster parents who are not married. That placement becomes stable, and adoption is deemed to be in the long-term interest of the child. The adoption is by both parents in order to ensure a legal relationship to both parents. Under current practice, one parent would adopt the child and the other would seek parental responsibility. At the moment, people effectively go round the law to achieve the desired outcome for the child. Would it not be more honest to allow people a proper legal route?

Marion Hundleby:

Our views are somewhat at variance with Mr. Richards on this. We have been considering the child's best interests first and taking into account the many and varied patterns that do not, of themselves, preclude people from adopting. We try to look at it holistically and put the child's interest first.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

It is interesting to hear the differences.

Margaret Dight:

May I briefly provide some information for the panel? Several Catholic children's societies in the country are completely autonomous. They have their own ethos and work according to the same policy and procedures suggested by their own philosophy. I support my colleague's comments in so far as the Catholic Children's Society in Nottingham currently has a policy of working with married applications, but that is currently under review in order to establish that we are promoting the best interests of children, rather than protecting and promoting the institution of marriage.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

That is helpful. Hilton, do you wish to intervene?

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

No, I am happy. I rest my case.

Naomi Angell:

One small point is that looking at the matter from the point of view of the child's interest happens at the moment, and frequently. If one is looking for permanence, the child's relationship with one of those parents will last for ever, whereas the relationship with the other resident parent will end at 18. It seems that it is the children's right to have equality of legal status with both people who are bringing them up.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Are there are further points from my colleagues? If not, I thank the witnesses for a most helpful session. We are grateful to you all. Thank you very much.

The witnesses withdrew.