Examination of Witnesses

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Mrs. Maureen Crank and Ms Lynn Charlton, After Adoption; and Susanna Cheal, Chief Executive, and Jenny Robson, Director of Development, Who Cares? Trust, called in and examined.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

I welcome colleagues to this final part of the morning. I thank our witnesses for their co-operation with the inquiry. Could you each briefly introduce yourselves to the Committee?

Susanna Cheal (Who Cares? Trust):

I am chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, which was founded in 1992 to work towards improving public care for children and young people. We have campaigned for many of the changes going forward for the public care system at central Government level. We aim to improve practice in local authorities with innovative programmes to encourage aspirations and opportunities for children and to raise expectations of them. We are linked to 31,000 children through our magazine Who Cares?, copies of which we have provided, and our new interactive online services that we are developing for them.

Jenny Robson (Who Cares? Trust):

I am director of development at the Who Cares? Trust, with special responsibility for the telephone linkline, which is a support and information service for children who are in the public care system.

Ms Lynn Charlton (After Adoption): I am UK development director for After Adoption. My role is to develop partnerships with local authorities to provide adoption support services within the context of our organisation. My background is in social work. I have specialised in adoption since 1987.

Mrs. Maureen Crank (After Adoption):

I am the chief executive of After Adoption. We were established in 1990 and now work in partnership with 52 local authorities across England and Wales. We have some national projects, one of which is a young people's freephone helpline called ``Talk Adoption'', and we have 200 to 300 calls a week from young adopted people.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

May we return to adoption support services? I think that you sat in on previous sittings, so you heard our discussions. We take it from your submissions that you are strongly in favour of post-adoption support services. Can you give us an idea of how you think the Bill should be strengthened to make such services a statutory duty or meaningful, and of how they relate to the assessment procedure?

Mrs. Crank:

I certainly feel that the Bill has been strengthened. It could be strengthened further to create an entitlement, but we come in at a much higher point than that: we think that support services should start from the point of placement. That would make it much easier for families and children to access them. With support services, we are talking about access to a helpline so that people can ask where they can buy a particular book, or find out about groups where adopted children can go along and have fun with other adopted children without necessarily talking about adoption all the time. We are talking about a helpline that young people can ring to talk about things with which they are struggling.

We see the services much further up the process, so that if people need an assessment on a difficult issue at that point, it is easy for them to access it. That may avoid the need for services much further down the line, because they have already been hooked in. There should be someone who can access services from a wide range of places—be they health, education or child and adolescent mental health services—and bring them together when an issue arises.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is largely information dissemination before support services are involved. You are saying that if there is better information, access to helplines, support groups and so on, support services may not be required.

Mrs. Crank:

No, an assessment service for a problem. The assessment relates to a difficulty or a problem. If support services are there, there will still be problems and issues, but people will be much more able to access those services right from the beginning, before the problems become huge.

Let me give the example of a child from Manchester who is being placed in Cornwall. At the point at which a support service plan is put together, the child is statemented. How can we pull in the education and psychiatric services that the child may need? It is a question of making people aware that they may need to provide a service for the child and that a named person will access those services for the family. As a result of the register, children will often be placed far and wide, although hopefully not all the time. This is about ensuring that services are there at the beginning and that people have access to services, not just to information.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Do you agree with previous witnesses that one of the primary services that needs to be provided relates to education and is that of an educational psychologist? Do you think that the emphasis will be on that or on other aspects?

Mrs. Crank:

I think that it might be easier than that, because many local authorities already have psychologists seconded to them. It is a question of ensuring that people pick up on adoption issues and on the fact that a child needs the service at the point of placement, or may need it somewhere further down the line.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Who should be the responsible person when it comes to transborder adoptions?

Mrs. Crank:

I have said that there should be a named person, as there is in the child protection service. People living in, say, Devon should be able to know that they can go to a named person there and say, ``We've adopted a child and we need a service.'' People may also proactively get to know that there is such a service.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is the responsibility of the host authority, rather than the placing authority.

Mrs. Crank:

That has to be decided by the Bill. Who takes that responsibility needs to be argued out and made clear.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Ms Charlton, do you wish to comment?

Ms Charlton:

I want to highlight the fact that, from our experience, hooking families into post-placement support and then post-adoption support very early on is very important. We must remember that many adoptive parents do not have contact with social services departments beforehand or with any of the mechanisms around social care. Therefore, they are quite often reluctant to seek help or admit that there is a problem. That may be for a number of reasons--perhaps they have relinquished their decision making around parenthood in the past in order to become adoptive parents.

It is important to listen to children. Last week, a group was running in one of our centres. One of the young people was asked to make some comments for this Committee. His comment was: ``You can talk about things here so that they do not become problems.'' That is the point. We have to hook people into the services early on so that they have proactive services that are not problem based.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

On communicating and sharing information between different local authorities, do you believe, Ms Charlton, that it is important that a lead authority takes responsibility so that a child does not easily fall between two stools?

Ms Charlton:

That is what happens at the moment. There is an ongoing argument about where responsibility lies. The Bill needs to go further in defining the issue—

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

So would you like a named lead authority and a named person within it specifically identified and clarified? Is that what you are saying?

Ms Charlton:

Yes.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I just wanted to tease that out. You are saying that the Bill should go further, but I wondered what model you thought would be successful in tackling the problem.

Ms Charlton:

We recognise the need for further debate about it. That is the first point. Secondly, if there is nobody to take responsibility—no named person—it becomes a faceless process.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

So one of the authorities should be named as the lead authority and a person or persons within that authority should also be named.

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

The support services that we are talking about, which are heavily dependent on a relationship building up, were mentioned previously by Sonia Jackson. She spoke about doing the work rather than assessing situations. Such services would be important to, and valued by, every child living away from home and every carer in every circumstance. Do you see these services being developed distinctly for adopted children or would they be appropriate more generally for children in residential care, whether fostered, adopted or whatever?

Mrs. Crank:

For me, those services could be developed for children who are separated from their families of birth. We are actually paid by local authorities to provide them for post-adoption. It is easy to see where the split lies. Interestingly enough, we provide them for local authorities from the point of placement. We provide them for residence and adoption orders, the numbers of which have been shooting up. At one point, people were saying, ``People will not come to you. They will not want your services. Doctors and the people going through residence orders will want to go home.''

In the first year, 78 residence orders were made in the particular authority and we had 100 per cent. take-up. People were asking for a newsletter and wanted us to keep in touch. They asked us to give them a ring to find out how they were getting on. There was something like a 70 per cent. take-up on our groups. It is a myth that people did not want to be involved. If you started off in a non-stigmatising way, people accepted the services. The authority had a high percentage of breakdown between placement and adoption. In the three years that we have been operating under QP money, we have had 100 per cent. success. Families have moved more quickly to adoption because they know that the support is there.

Mrs. Crank:

Quality protects money in three local authorities. There are now approximately 150 placements.

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

Is that funded by the Government by any chance, Minister?

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

Is it the potential isolation of adoptive parents and the adopted children that you are countering?

Mrs. Crank:

I think it is the difference. When they come to the groups, children say, ``What is the difference between these groups and a youth club? It's OK to say I'm adopted here, not that I say it very often, but I can say it. When I say it at school, sometimes people go off and whisper and say, `She doesn't live with her real mum and dad.' I can say it here because we're all the same. I can talk about it.'' That is the difference. We learnt that from adults, so when we designed the services we talked to children and to families and asked them what they wanted.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Yesterday and, briefly, today, the matter of regulation of voluntary groups involved in adoption services was raised. When self-help groups of adopted people are running things in their own houses, do you think it is right to make them register?

Mrs. Crank:

I do not think that those sorts of groups need to be registered, but people providing professional services, and engaged in services as we are, desperately need to be registered. We are a registered adoption agency and all our staff are police checked because of the safety issues.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

May we turn to the access to information issue? Presumably, all the witnesses heard the exchanges in the previous sittings. After Adoption's evidence stated:

``We would be extremely concerned if the intention of the Bill was to diminish existing rights of adopted people.''

Is that concern shared by the witnesses from the Who Cares? Trust. What are your views on why the change has taken place? We have been trying to establish the background to the matter and there are different views about the extent of the problems that have occurred. Are you aware of difficulties?

Susanna Cheal:

Given that a lot worse things happen to children in care than being told the truth, we have no idea.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Ms Robson, do you concur?

Jenny Robson:

We have no idea at all. We hope that children have access to their records, and all the information that they need.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Do you see any merit in the two-fold argument that the Department put to us yesterday? First, that with the changing nature of adoption more adopted children may have problems in relation to their birth parents, so are more likely to be a danger to their birth parents if they are given access to their birth certificates.

Susanna Cheal:

We cannot see that. We have to speak on the basis of what we have learned from children and young people, that whatever they ask for, they are incredibly modest and very pleased if they can just get a result from a question. We certainly should not overturn everything that has happened before.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Presumably, you deal with birth parents, too.

Jenny Robson:

Very rarely. Occasionally, birth families will call us on the helpline but we usually refer them to the Family Rights Group. If it is a matter pertaining to their child being in public care, we will advise and guide them, and give them information as best we can.

Ms Charlton: There are two points: first, we work with birth parents who are losing their children through the care system and have done for a number of years. We have written and researched the whole area. The assumption that I keep hearing is that, because children are removed from their families and adoptions are made in more difficult circumstances, there will be a problem, a threat or risk to those children. Surely, the very fact that the state has intervened to say that the child cannot live with the family does something to minimise that risk.

Secondly, many of these children have already established a relationship with their parents and therefore know things about their parents and their birth relatives. That is not the issue in relation to closing down the record, as written in the Bill.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

May I press you on the point about birth parents' access to information about adopted children when they reach adulthood? What are your views on Professor Triseliotis' proposal that birth parents should have the right to contact their natural children who have been adopted when they reach adulthood? Is that the best approach or should birth parents have the right at least to know that their desire to contact their children has been passed on through a third party?

Mrs. Crank:

We have been operating in this way for probably eight years on behalf of about 30 local authorities and have had absolutely no difficulties whatsoever. We also operate panels where birth parents, birth siblings and adopters who want to open past adoptions, write or ring and say, ``This is what we need''. We sit down and tell them that this is something that we want to do. We deal with about 120 of these cases per month and we have had no problems whatsoever.

A lot of children come back, and I will give you an example. One young girl was adopted by her grandmother, and her sister who had disabilities was adopted by a stranger family. The girl dreamed that her sister had died. She knew that her sister had a disability, but they had no contact with each other because the grandmother still had contact with the birth family and there were safety issues.

There was a lot of discussion, but we opened that adoption for that child and she was right, her sister had died on her way to Disneyland with a bunch of disabled children. She had read it in the newspaper and had dreamed about it. It would be easy to say, ``No, no, come back when you are 18'', but you feel like you need to deal with these cases humanely and appropriately.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd 12:30, 21 Tachwedd 2001

Should the Bill contain a clause that would either grant birth parents the right to contact adopted children in adulthood, or create an opportunity for them to signal their desire for contact?

Mrs. Crank:

Our view would be that we would like both or either. We want that because we have been working in that way as intermediary services.

Jenny Robson:

We would agree.

Susanna Cheal:

With the rider that that would depend on how the child was removed in the first place.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Could you make it clear what you believe?

Jenny Robson:

It is, but we have a practice model that deals with these matters which has been worked out in conjunction with the local authorities.

Susanna Cheal:

I think that the child, having had the most major challenge to overcome, has some rights here—far more than the adoptive parents. The child is dealing with two things: the memories of the past and present, and a new challenge that is like climbing a mountain.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Are you agreeing with my first or my second suggestion?

Jenny Robson:

I am saying that it should be qualified—when the child is ready.

Jenny Robson:

Yes.

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

Mrs. Crank, you run a service to enable birth families to contact their children who have been adopted. People have to use your organisation to do that. Is that right?

Mrs. Crank:

They have to come via our organisation and whichever local authority holds their records. We would have a panel to discuss that. For example, if a child were at risk, we would clearly say no, but we would write to the birth parent and tell them why we were saying no. We have done that in the past when someone who had abused their child was due to come out of prison. We would say ``at this point, no, but we can tell you that the child is well and happy''.

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

That is a long way from the current position for adults who have been adopted. They can obtain their birth records and make inquiries to locate their parents.

Ms Charlton:

The bit that we are talking about is a mechanism for dealing with the risk. We would also say that people need to have access to their birth records as a right.

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

Of course, I agree. However, you are not saying that birth parents can have access as a right to information about their adult children who have been adopted.

Ms Charlton:

They can signal an interest.

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

May I ask the question about consent that I asked previously? If a child is of sufficient age and understanding, would you support their right when appearing in court to be able to veto a proposal that they be adopted?

Susanna Cheal:

Yes, we would.

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

Do you think that a child should be able to give active consent to their adoption?

Jenny Robson:

Yes, we do. Some evidence has been presented from the linkline. A small number--I emphasise that it is small--of young people have called us about adoption. In most cases, we pass them on to another helpline that deals specifically with adoption, but from time to time we deal with cases ourselves. Young people talk clearly about the feeling that they had no say in whether they would be adopted. I am talking about children who were adopted from five years plus. It is clear that they had valuable things to say and useful information about why they did or did not want to be adopted.

If I could return to a previous matter concerning support, it is clear to me and the trust from the few children we hear on the helpline talking about adoption that young people should have some way of signalling that they need post-adoption support. There is a lot of emphasis in the Bill about the adopted parents being able to signal for support and I stress that the trust does not want mountains of time being spent on assessment. We know clearly from young people, particularly when they enter adolescence--it is a turbulent time for all adolescents, but especially for an adopted child--that they are seeking their identity about themselves and trying to deal with their identity as adopted children.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

So you think the Bill needs strengthening.

Susanna Cheal:

Yes.

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

May I go back to the question about ascertaining the child's wishes and consent? The Committee is discussing best practice and how we want the system to develop, but we are also discussing the legal rights and conditions that will or will not be included in the legislation. There is probably not much disagreement around the table on the importance of taking the child's wishes into consideration. That is why it is at the top of the checklist in clause 1. We can talk about how to do that most effectively, but the question on which I suspect we shall have some discussion, and which was raised yesterday--I think that this is what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) was asking, but I am not sure about the answer--is whether you think that under the law a child of a certain age must consent to the adoption before it proceeds. BAAF said yesterday that that should not be the position because of the pressure that it may put on the child. Can you answer in relation not to what would be good practice, but to whether you think that should be in the law?

Mrs. Crank:

We asked the young people in one of our groups last week how they felt about that. They said things such as, ``Yes, we should be asked. We would still have wanted to be adopted, but we feel we should have been asked. I was 10 and my sister was 10''--they were twins. Many of them said clearly that they should have been asked.

Susanna Cheal:

I think that the age is important and the implication is putting too much of a burden on the child for the future. I think there has to be a mechanism in ascertaining the wishes of a child and that it is taken seriously if a child says no. We must look at what ``no'' means. It might mean ``delay'' or ``not ready'' or a whole range of things. I find myself in quite a lot of difficulty in answering that point, because it depends on individual cases and the age of the child. I think we do children a disservice by not taking on board the fact that with the right kind of help and support they can understand these things very early. Advocacy around this would be very helpful in getting the child's wishes on to the table.

I think if a child instinctively and over a period of time says no to people, we should listen to that. It is quite the vogue now in social services for children to be interviewing members of staff. They make very good decisions. They interview the Prime Minister. They do all sorts of things. They are very good at making judgments, and I do not see why they would not know if there had been a wrong match of themselves without being able to use all the flurry of words that adults can.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

My question is almost an exact echo of the Minister's. I return for a moment to the original wording used by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. He did not ask whether you think that the child should be consulted—we are all 100 per cent. agreed that much more consultation is required—but whether they should have an absolute veto. The Minister's question, which, legally, went even further, was whether the child should have to consent formally to the adoption. We are in danger of making bad law if we go as far as saying that. Would you reflect once more on what exactly you are saying that we as parliamentarians should legislate for? Are you really going as far as saying that there should be a legal requirement for the child to sign on the dotted line?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

As I understood it, Mrs. Crank said yes.

Mrs. Crank:

I said if a child is of age, reason and understanding.

Jenny Robson:

Yes, with qualifications around the child's understanding. I am not interested in age. It is about the child's conceptual understanding of what they are saying yes or no to. That is a very important point.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

How on earth do you define that in a way that will not be challenged out of court by lawyers?

Jenny Robson:

I have no idea. I am not a lawyer.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The age of 10 is the age of criminal liability. Do you place any particular weight on that, for example as a starting point, or can you not go on numerical ages at all?

Jenny Robson:

Bearing in mind the background of some children who come into care and their development—intellectual, social, moral and the rest of it—I think that 10 is okay, but I am going to stay with the view that it depends on the child's level of understanding about what they are agreeing to and not agreeing to. I think we have to be clear about that.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Trying to frame legislation in the light of what you are suggesting is a minefield.

I come back to the point that you made earlier about children being able to call for support services. We are tossing about that great term, but what does it actually mean? How can one filter out not a maliciously vexatious but a whimsical call by a child who falls below your benchmark for being responsible enough to know what a support service is? Can you define the sort of support services that you think that children should be able to call for?

Ms Charlton:

The youngest ever caller on our helpline, TALKadoption, which is the UK helpline for young people, was aged five. That was an assisted call by an adoptive parent to help the child know about the service. Other children in the middle age range—say, eight to 13—call our helpline. They do not ask adult questions. They ask things like, ``What does adoption mean—it was talked about once?'' They do not always contact us about a problem; sometimes they just want to tell somebody, ``I am adopted'', then start engaging in conversation about that or ring at another time.

In a sense, we are looking with adult views at what children need. What children want from support is to be able to access it. We put a quote in our evidence from a child who said, ``We need something 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year; we need to be able to call it if we need to or want to.'' That is the point. Children need to be able to access services pitched at their level and that are responded to appropriately and sensibly by adults on the other end of the phone.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

You still have not said what that support is. I have a five-year-old child who is perfectly confident of ringing up emergency services, usually when you do not want them, and she could be minded to ask for support because she has been told that she will not get the latest Barbie doll for Christmas. What do you mean by support services that a child as young as five could realistically call for, and be realistically given?

Ms Charlton:

The example that I gave of a five-year-old was an adoptive child facilitating that information for the future. The word ``adoption'' has not been heard and periodically, children need to talk to someone about what adoption means to them. We have children ringing up about specific problems on the helpline and they receive much more in-depth counselling. A number of callers have rung up over a period of time.

We are talking about an 0800 number, which will not show on a phone bill, that children are able to call, perhaps when their parents are not home or are busy cooking tea. Broad accessibility is required. Children could use that number without anybody knowing. All of our helpline information is publicised at the end of TV programmes that children watch in which the issue of adoption has come up. It is important to let people know about things. We need people who can respond by having just a chat—perhaps by giving information on what adoption means and the difference that it brings to your life—by dealing with deeper problems about adoption there and then or by referring them on if the problem concerns something else. We do not get many of the silly calls that you talk about.

Susanna Cheal:

We must not think of information being given to children as a one-off exercise. It is something that goes on because children understand meanings at different levels. If you pay attention to the different development stages of children, they keep coming back to things. At a certain age—five or seven, perhaps—they may know that they are adopted but not quite know what that means; they hear about someone else in the playground and want to ask. It is their right to ask because they are facing a different set of circumstances to the adoptive parents. We would support what the previous speaker said.

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

On the issue of whether a child should give their consent, the idea that has entered my mind is some sort of tick box. Best practice says that life story work, a matching process and an introduction should happen. In the main, that does happen. Any panel worth its salt would want to know how the child has been prepared. The idea that we go down a road where a child has not signed off for the adoption process is for the birds. This is not a case for a tick box.

The theme throughout the evidence has been that good quality assessments are required for people to make good judgments. The relationship between the social worker, the child and the prospective adopter is the basis on which one makes a judgment on a child having made a decision; it is not a yes or a no. Would you agree with that?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

By the way, he used to be a social worker.

Susanna Cheal:

May I just put a question referring to those circumstances? Could you be absolutely sure in every case that a child knew that he or she was adopted? I do not know that you could.

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

We do not live in a black and white world. These are people, not equations.

Susanna Cheal:

The child has a right to know that a big thing has happened in their life and that their status has changed. They may have a new surname or a new identity, but they are still carrying memories from the past. Some configuration of circumstances must signify that the child has understood that this has happened and is willing to go ahead with it.

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

Life story work and questions to the social worker panel would presumably answer that question.

Mrs. Crank:

You are surmising that there is good practice everywhere, when the reality is that there is not always; sometimes things do not work out. I can think of a recent case where there were two children being adopted by foster carers. They were adopting the younger child and had had the older child for a longer period of time. They said, ``Would you like to be adopted, too?''. She said, ``Yes.'' The guardian ad litem came along. She had lived in this family for eight years. When she actually got to the court, the judge saw the two children on their own and the family were in a panic because the child was in for one hour. When they came out, the judge said, ``We have a problem''; he told the guardian that the girl was saying, ``I don't want to be adopted''.

That was a horrendous position to get to. Throughout all of that, nobody had actually stopped and said, ``Do you want to be adopted?'' She did not want to change her situation, and what she was saying to the judge was, ``I don't want to change my name.''

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)

On the issue of children's rights, I tabled an amendment to the Family Law Act 1996 to allow children's wishes to be heard in the divorce process on which parent they saw their future lying with, and so on. However, giving a child what is almost an ultimate veto is fraught with problems. Some children develop emotionally quickly and others slowly; you cannot have a rule of thumb about the age of 10 or 12.

Some children might feel—wrongly, of course—rather guilty about being adopted. They might not want to say that they are leaving their birth parents, and for various reasons they might have attachments to them, even when they have been abused. That will play on their mind. Surely it is better to rely on the checklist to say that the children's wishes must carefully—not in a tick box way—be taken into account in any assessment. The idea of a veto for a child, who might often be immature and persuaded either way by various extraneous factors, might make bad law and bad practice.

Susanna Cheal:

The developmental stages of a child are important, and an older child really may not wish to be adopted. The child will be able to handle the ambiguity of knowing that it cannot live at home but does not want to change identity. In those cases, I think that the child should be able to say, ``I don't want this'', and for that to go further. Otherwise, the adoption will break down.

Susanna Cheal:

In the best practice way, of course. But we do not witness that all the time.

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

That is why that matter is related to clause 1.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

We must finish by 1 o'clock, but can we turn to unmarried couples and adoption? We had exchanges earlier on this.

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

I would like to get a view on this. We are especially interested in hearing children's voices on this point, if it has ever come up. From their perspective, do they have a view, for example, about being adopted only by one parent and not by two?

Mrs. Crank:

There are four or five children in the group of 16 with whom we have discussed this. Those have been adopted into a same-sex couple. That couple have four children in total, and one other child is with another same-sex couple. Those children said, ``I waited five years for a family'' and, ``They have given us a family and we love them. It doesn't matter what they are like.'' It did not matter whether they were the same sex. I think that they were clear that what they needed was for the family to match and be right for them.

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

Do you think that there is more likelihood of breakdown if a couple is unmarried or married? Do you have any evidence on that?

Ms Charlton:

I cannot comment on the evidence overall, but I can say that, certainly with same-sex couples coming forward, the commitment that they show is often to the older children who are more difficult to place, or to the more damaged children. They are also more open to support. We are seeing that as a growing pattern across our organisation.

In terms of couples living together who are not the same sex, the issues are for the children. The children know very clearly who their parenting parents are, and that is borne out in all the research on divorce and so on. But they also need both parents to be able to give equal commitment. The family that Mrs. Crank describes are in an awful situation because the younger children are adopted by the younger partner and the older children are adopted by the older partner. What happens if that family falls apart? Do you then divide that sibling group into two? What do you do about that, because, in law, there is not equal status? We have to put such issues on the table. If we are talking about wanting to increase the stock of potential adoptive parents for these children who wait, we need to be more realistic about what our society is composed of.

Susanna Cheal: We can only comment on what children ask for all the time; ``Someone to be there for me and someone to love me all my life.'' It does not really matter what the configuration of the people is. It is the quality of the relationship with the prospective parents that matters.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

There are two issues; adoption by unmarried couples and adoption by same-sex couples. In the instances that you referred to, are we talking about male or female same-sex relationships?

Mrs. Crank:

They were female same-sex relationships.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

Can you envisage circumstances where you would entertain male same-sex relationships, or where such relationships would provide any benefit to children?

Mrs. Crank:

It is probably the same, really. It is a question of the needs of that particular child. We have single males who have been openly saying that they are homosexual but who have not got a partner, but who have actually adopted. But that has been what is right for that child.

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

We have heard a lot of national statistics, but surely you are exploring crucial issues of stability and people's commitments and attachments via their assessment as adoptive applicants. There are marriages that, sadly, break down, and there are cohabitations, whether heterosexual or homosexual, that last permanently. Surely you are trying to find the best adopters, rather than to engage in social engineering.

Ms Charlton:

Yes, absolutely. We would endorse that.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

I thank all our witnesses for a very helpful sitting; I am most grateful to you.

The witnesses withdrew.

Adjourned at three minutes to One o'clock till this day at fifteen minutes to Four o'clock.