Examination of Witnesses

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:52 pm ar 21 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Pauline Dancyger, Deputy Director, The Adoption Forum; Philly Morrall, Director, Adoption UK; Pam Hodgkins, National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents; Sue Gourvish, Head of Services, Fostering Network; and Robert Tapsfield, Chief Executive, Family Rights Group, called in and examined.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

I welcome colleagues to this sitting and, in particular, I welcome our witnesses. I should point out that our proceedings could be interrupted by Divisions of the House. If the Division Bell rings, we will adjourn immediately for 15 minutes. If there is a second Division straight away, our adjournment will last a further 15 minutes. In that event, I ask the witnesses to remain and, hopefully, the Members will return at some point. We are time-limited, so I am hoping that my colleagues will be fairly sharp in their questioning; we would appreciate reasonably brief answers. May I also ask everyone to speak up, as it is not particularly easy to hear people in here?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We have had an almost universally favourable response to the extension of support services to people involved in adoption. There is the question of how much goes into assessment, as opposed to how much goes into providing the services for which people are assessed. What is your reaction to the necessity to impose a duty on local authorities in respect of support services, rather than assessment, and what should those services involve in practical terms?

Philly Morrall (Director, Adoption UK): Support services are absolutely essential to ensure that adoptions stick, given the range of children who are placed. The sort of support we are talking about is not just social work support, although that is essential. One thing that needs to be clarified most quickly is whose responsibility it is to provide support, particularly in the case of interagency placements when children are placed from one area to another. We have many examples of families who are struggling to find support—not that there is necessarily any dispute about the need for it, but there is always a problem about who will pay for it. Independent peer support is crucial to many adoptive families. We need a visible presence in every authority for people to go back to in order to obtain the support that they want.

The whole issue of support really starts from the moment that adoption is thought about. People should not have to wait until they are in crisis. If we could have a visible presence and a clear road to independent, peer group support, it would be much easier for people to access it. The most crucial thing is getting different agencies to work together. In particular, education, child mental health services, adoption services and social work organisations need to be helped and encouraged, and perhaps have a duty placed upon them to work together to provide those services. It really is incredibly difficult for families to access those services, and we get different agencies playing one off against another as to who should pay. That just does not work. It just does not help.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

On the point about assessment as opposed to support, a lot of emphasis is placed on the right to, or duty for, assessment. If that is taken too far, there is a danger of existing short-staffed social work departments and people involved in child care matters concentrating their time on assessments and not being available to organise the support that is deemed to be needed. Do you think the assessment needs to be simplified, and should there be a time limit on applying for an assessment, obtaining it and then getting the goods at the end of it, for example?

Philly Morrall: In our view, no child should be placed for adoption without a full assessment of their emotional, physical and educational needs. That should happen as a matter of course at the moment a child agrees that he or she should be placed for adoption.

I do not think I have any more to say about that. I just think it is essential that the assessment is made and that the child should not be placed without a full assessment. Whatever is deemed to be the need should be there.

Pam Hodgkins (NORCAP): If a family comes back asking for assistance, it is generally in crisis at the moment it asks for assistance, so any delay is likely to exacerbate the situation. If a great deal of time is spent on a very thorough assessment and if the family is getting no help alongside that assessment, the situation may deteriorate further to the point of disruption, which, clearly, is not in the interests of the child or the family. There needs to be an emphasis on a speedy and appropriate response and ensuring that some key services can be provided without delay if problems are to be diminished and the family healed and able to continue.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We also heard evidence this morning that children as young as five should be able to instigate adoption support services. Do you have any views on that?

Pam Hodgkins: If they have a question, they need an answer. Why not is probably the simple answer, but there must be a different level of approach. A five-year-old would not be expected to go to the phone book and find the social services number. However, if a child wants help with an issue relating to their adoption, they most definitely need to be given that help.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

What are we talking about in practical terms? I do not refute what you say, but, practically, what sort of support should be made available, even to children of that age?

Pam Hodgkins: Simply underpinning the services that are provided and enabling them to be made more extensively available would be a help. There is a national telephone service for children called TALKadoption. Clearly, if that number were far more widely publicised, so children who were adopted were as aware of it as children in general are of the ChildLine number and it had the same capacity to take calls, that would be a support for children affected by adoption.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 4:00, 21 Tachwedd 2001

Could I finally ask about support services provided by voluntary bodies, such as small, informal family-oriented groups? Are you concerned that the regulatory requirements that are placed on them might regulate them out of sight?

Pam Hodgkins: At the moment, we are being asked to take everything on trust, because we do not know what will be in the regulations. The principle of anyone working in such a sensitive field as adoption being subject to inspection and regulation is something that I and, I am sure, all my colleagues welcome, because we realise just how much damage can be done by inappropriate or dangerous people engaging in it.

Clearly, agencies that are faced with a burden of regulation will need financial support and assistance to enable them to cope with that and probably some resources to provide training and additional infrastructures that are needed to meet the requirements. However, as I say, we do not yet know what those requirements will be. In principle, they are welcome.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

One of the aspects of the Bill that struck me was that it allows for health assessments, among other kinds of assessments, but it contains no provision for giving any help that is identified as necessary. The unseemly haggling that goes on between departments has already been mentioned. What would you like to be put in place to ensure that once all the needs of an adopted child have been identified, the necessary help is provided?

Philly Morrall: Children need to be able to access appropriate therapeutic help if that is deemed to be needed. In many cases it is, because some of these children have tremendous histories of neglect and abuse. We hear an awful lot about health in terms of physical health, but there does not seem to be a huge recognition of the long-term emotional damage that can be caused to a child and the long-term impact of that on the new adoptive family.

The sorts of support services that families have found helpful have provided therapeutic help that understands the level of damage that the early abuse and neglect have caused. It is those sorts of things that we need quick access to. When people get referred to child and family guidance, there is very often a long waiting list and it is not terribly appropriate because that does not necessarily deal with the sorts of families that we are talking about. There are some small pockets of expertise around the country that perhaps we need to mirror in other places.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

Would it be fair to say that the sort of help that you are describing falls between two stools? The help is not immediately recognisable as ``health'', although many of us would probably agree that it is, and it is not immediately recognisable as ``social services''. It falls somewhere between the two.

Philly Morrall: Probably. I think it is mostly a question of mental health in the end, but there are not enough people around who seem to be able to help appropriately.

Pam Hodgkins: The mental health issue is one that clearly needs to be addressed. It goes right through life and it can affect all the parties to adoption. The mental health needs of parents who relinquished babies for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the mental health of families losing children to adoption nowadays, is something that has not been addressed and is rarely seen as a key issue to be addressed. All the symptoms that are present are tackled in a piecemeal way, but the fundamental thing is the profound loss that has impacted on the adopted child and, in many cases, on the adopters. The adopters have experienced loss: the loss of an ideal, the loss of hopes and the loss of expectations. That theme runs through.

The Committee needs to be aware that the incidence of suicide and accidental death—accidental in the sense of ``When is an accident not an accident?''—among young men who have been adopted is frightening. There is only anecdotal evidence to date because collecting the statistics is extremely difficult. In practice, it is a worrying finding.

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

Adoption is obviously a challenging and anxiety-provoking aspect of life, but perhaps the worst thing is adoption breakdown. How can we minimise the distressingly high number of adoption breakdowns?

Pauline Dancyger (Deputy Director, The Adoption Forum): Could I respond to that and add something about post-placement support? I have two perspectives in my current post. I am working as a post-adoption adviser and I have many families coming back to me to request post-adoption support. I have come to understand that what is essential for families is that they have that information at the point of placement; it is not always directly a service for the child. That is where my other perspective comes in. I have begun to understand, as a result of working with the Adoption Forum, that it is as much about the families—the adults—in this situation knowing where to get access to support at the right time. You need to equip people at the beginning of the placement, rather than waiting for them to be at a point of crisis when it is often too late.

Philly Morrall: On adoption breakdown, almost every bit of evidence that I hear about a disruption meeting following an adoption breakdown points to the fact that the adoptive parents did not have enough information about that child prior to placement. I think that information prior to placement is really important. Having a package of information at time of the adoption order, or when the child is 18, is too late. You need the information before you make the decision. You need it at the point of matching. As a prospective adopter, you need to have full information about that child. You are making a life-long commitment to that child. You would not get married to somebody without knowing a lot about them; you would not make that decision after 24 hours or less. The form Es on children are just not broad enough. They were created for a different purpose, and they are not adequate. It is the lack of information that often leads to adoption disruption. I think that that is proof incontrovertible as to why we need the information prior to placement.

Sue Gourvish (Head of Services, Fostering Network): Long-term foster care provides a model for the kind of support packages that need to be put in place. Children in that position must have a package of care in place that goes on over a number of years. There are standards by which local authorities must abide in order to deliver services to children and their foster carers. That probably deserves further recognition because the best practice in long-term foster care certainly provides a model for what could happen in support services for adoption.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

To a degree, Sue Gourvish has just answered my question. I was going to ask whether there are good models of post-adoption support currently in practice, but certain local authorities in certain areas must be better than others. You must have drawn some conclusions about what works. Would like to share them with us?

Sue Gourvish: There are. I suppose that I started off speaking about foster care, which is our particular area of expertise. Certainly, there are models of good practice known to the Department of Health. There is a whole range of research studies and standards, and there will be an inspection against the standards from next April, as you know. That will also provide data about the level and nature of support that is being provided to foster carers and hopefully that will, in turn, become a usable, working model for adoption. Of course, among post-adoption services, there are good models of practice too, but the most important thing to remember is that support for foster carers has been funded—I am not sure that it has been properly funded, but it has been funded. The situation for post-adoption support is a different kettle of fish in terms of the resource available.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

In the field of adoption, as opposed to fostering, are there good working models that are practised well at the moment? Can you say that one area is definitely ahead of another in the way in which it structures support and works? Does anyone have a take on that?

Robert Tapsfield (Chief Executive, Family Rights Group): We have not talked about the support services for birth parents. There are certainly examples, although they are very few and far between, of effective, usually self-help groups for birth parents who have lost children to adoption.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I was speaking about children and adopters. I am sure that we will discuss birth parents, but my question related to adopters and adopted children.

Pauline Dancyger: Yes, is the answer, but they are extremely variable and that is the difficulty that we struggle with. What is not recognised is that it is a lifelong commitment on the part of the family and, indeed, of the child. Although there are certainly good models where agencies will commit to funding a package of post-adoption support for a year or two, it needs to go beyond that and there needs to be recognition that a child is for life.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

But we can learn a great deal from those good models.

Pauline Dancyger: That is where we can begin to learn, yes. Fundamentally, there is some good practice around.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Can we turn to the issue of the child's access to their birth certificate and information about themselves? It is interesting to see some distinction between the witnesses who have been before us today. I would like to start with you, Miss Gourvish. Fostering Network's evidence says:

``The rights of the child and the adult should be finely balanced. In some circumstances it may be important for the identity of the birth parents to remain undisclosed.''

I think that NORCAP may take a different view, so I am interested as to how you came to your view.

Sue Gourvish: I am afraid that I am going to disappoint you. We are going to backtrack on that.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

This is the second time that that has happened today, which is interesting. Go ahead and backtrack.

Sue Gourvish: In fact, the backtrack is pretty final and in reverse. We would like to say that we believe that all adopted children have a right to see their original birth certificate. We feel that strongly, and I am sorry about the way that it came out in the evidence. We are also anxious about some of the arrangements that have recently been introduced into the Bill to limit the right of access to birth records. We wonder why it is not possible to put the onus on the person who is anxious to preserve their privacy. They have, after all, until the child is 18 to think about their position. It seems to us that the onus should be put upon them to approach the adoption agency and say, ``Various things have happened in my life. It would not be desirable for me to be known to this child who was adopted.''

It seems that there could not be a worse time for someone to decide whether they need privacy or not than after a child has been placed for adoption. All sorts of emotions must be there and to decide that is not a good idea. Things will happen, too, as part of developments during the years until the child is 18, that will enable the birth parents and birth relations of the child to decide whether it is a good idea for them to retain their privacy or not and come to some conclusions as to why.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield 4:15, 21 Tachwedd 2001

Miss Hodgkins, I am interested to learn your views on what you have just heard and on why there has been a change in the Government's approach in this key area.

Pam Hodgkins: In relation to why there has been a change, I wish that you could tell me because I have absolutely no idea. I was one of the people who gave evidence to the Select Committee in April or May. There was also a comment in a judgment from a High Court judge, there has been a lot of publicity, and there is practice evidence and research evidence. All of that is pushing the direction of access to information in the opposite direction: it is pushing towards more openness and more opportunities. For a Bill to be produced this autumn that takes us back to where we were pre-1975, I am absolutely taken aback. I just wish I knew where it had come from because I cannot see where it has come from. If it is based on any representations, they must be ones that the Department has not disclosed, because it is not in anything that we have been able to read and it is definitely not in any statistical information that came out from previous deliberations. So I cannot help you with that.

In terms of what the Fostering Network has said, we would not want anyone vetoing release of information at the time of adoption. That is a very bad time for anyone to be making decisions about what will happen in the future. We do not consider it necessary for anyone to be able to deprive the adopted child of the identity of their birth mother, which will definitely be known, nor of their father, where that is known.

We do accept that there may well be circumstances and situations where the birth parent may not wish to be contacted, and we think that there are very useful models in a number of jurisdictions overseas where people are entitled to the information but it is conditional on their accepting that they must not use it to make contact. That we would consider to be an appropriate step forward, if that is what a number of people have made representations about. But there are two pieces of information that are so profound that no third party should be able to deprive a person of it. For the adopted person it is the identity of their birth parents, and for the birth parents it is the information of whether their son or daughter is alive or dead.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

We have a number of people wanting to come in.

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

I want to pursue the model that Miss Gourvish seemed to be suggesting was appropriate. Am I right that you were saying that you could see a position in which it would be right for an adoption agency, perhaps within some appeal framework, to decide that it would not be appropriate for the adopted person to be able to identify their birth parents, and that the adoption agency might have a role there?

Pam Hodgkins: No.

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

I am sorry, I was not asking you.

Miss Gourvish: First of all, I should say that our view would be that adopted people have a right to all information about them. I was suggesting a compromise position, I suppose. In very rare cases—people paint them as being very rare cases—I cannot imagine the circumstances, I have to say, but maybe there are some, where the privacy of birth parents or a birth parent should be preserved.

If that is the case, I think the proposals currently in this Bill are the wrong way round, in that if there were to be a suggestion; if a birth parent says, ``I wish to retain my privacy: I do not wish this child to know who I am'', just after an adoption order, I think that is a bad thing: they have until the child is 18 to decide that that is the case. I think that birth parents should know when their children are adopted that there is a presumption that all children have a right to access their birth records. If something happens in the birth parent's life which means that that becomes a problem for them, then before that child is 18—perhaps one should say within a year of their being 18; I have to say that I have not thought this through fully—they should approach the adoption agency and say, ``I believe that things have happened to me which mean that my privacy should be protected and that this child should not get access to their birth records''. Then the process that is outlined in the Bill and the way that the adoption agency then goes about it and the possibility of independent review will be the same.

I have to say, though, that that is a compromise position as far as we are concerned.

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 the model of giving the information on conviction that the birth parent is not contacted. I am not sure how it works. Is there any research to show the number of times that contact breaks down where it is made? What sanctions, if any, exist if that agreement is broken?

Pam Hodgkins: I do not know what the precise sanctions are, but my professional experience is of its operating in British Columbia. It has been operational there for about three years. There have been no complaints of a request for no contact being broken. We do know that in New Zealand there were vetoes on actual gaining of information for a number of years, but in fact on many occasions those vetoes were broken and again, no complaints were received. I understand that the sanctions available are similar to those for contempt of court. The weight of the undertaking given by the person receiving the information in those circumstances is that onerous. But I do not know exactly what they would be.

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

I would like to ask both Fostering Network and NORCAP whether, had the Government not made these proposals on access to information, they would have made these suggestions.

Pam Hodgkins: No. Our suggestions are very different and I think we have included them in our evidence.

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

Are you trying to ameliorate a piece of proposed legislation?

Pam Hodgkins: I am absolutely horrified by it, as are people within the organisation. We just cannot see—we have had 25 years of something working extremely well and we thought we were moving forward from that point. It never in our darkest nightmare occurred to us that we would move back.

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

So there is no evidence and no reason whatever to change the situation that has prevailed since 1975?

Pam Hodgkins: No.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I, too, was slightly disturbed when I read the Fostering Network's submission and I am delighted that its representatives have backtracked on it. I am still concerned about the line that they appear to be taking to meet what is in the Bill. I have two questions: the first concerns the sheer practicality of the procedure whereby the parent of a child approaching 18 is still in the loop with the agency. Bearing it in mind that typically 14 or 15 years will have elapsed since the adoption, that person will be able to answer the question or to make the election. Secondly, if that person elects to have no contact with the child, the child will nevertheless have access to the records. Perhaps not at the age of 18 but certainly by the age of 25 or 26, such children will have the resources to seek out their natural parents. There is no way to prevent them from doing that. Would it not be better to be open, up-front and transparent from the beginning, and to enshrine that in law?

Sue Gourvish: I think that is such a draconian proposal. The new proposals in the Bill about contact have been introduced so rapidly, and we feel such a sense of surprise that this has happened, that is actually quite hard to marshal oneself in relation to the proposals. It is very draconian that, directly after the granting of an adoption order, somebody should be able to require privacy for themselves in a way that stands all the way through until the time at which the child asks for that information, and there is perhaps no way of confirming it. And then the other proposals about independent reviews come in, where you are not entirely sure what will happen.

My proposal was a way of ameliorating what seemed to us to be the draconian proposals currently in the Bill. I underline again that we do not believe that the situation as enshrined in the 1975 legislation should be changed at all.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

So you would not want change? You propose a compromise?

Sue Gourvish: Yes, I emphasise that.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

I am sorry to ask a question so soon after coming in, but we are in the right area, and I did give you prior notice, Mr. Hinchliffe, of the reason for my absence.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

What is the view of the witnesses on the proposal made this morning by one of our expert witnesses that birth parents should have the right to contact their adopted children in adulthood? What is their view of the alternative proposal that birth parents should have the right for their desire to contact their adopted children in adulthood directly to be signalled through an intermediary to that adopted adult?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Can I bring in Mr. Tapsfield on that, because he has not yet commented on that.

Robert Tapsfield:

We are very clear that we would like to see both parents have the right for their wish to have contact passed to a child who has been adopted and is now an adult. That is not the same—it is certainly different—from having the right to contact. Certainly, our experience from many birth parents and relatives who contact us is that they are extremely concerned and distressed that they have no way of getting that information to their adopted son or daughter. We would support that completely.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Is that the view of the other witnesses?

Philly Morrall: We agree with that. I would also like to make the point that issue about the lack of information to get your original birth certificate would be a major problem for adopters as well. It is all tied up in the same thing. If you were trying to bring up your son or daughter, knowing all the time that their birth parent was not prepared to be identified, you would have a hell of a lot more of a difficult job helping them grow and develop with an understanding of who they really were if you knew there was never going to be a chance to get to their original birth certificate. It is a very, very retrograde step.

Pam Hodgkins: Going back to the question arising from evidence heard this morning, NORCAP would actually support the opportunity for birth relatives to be entitled to receive information, because we believe that birth parents would handle that information as responsibly as adopted adults have over the past 25 years. There is substantial evidence that shows that is the case, because a lot of birth parents actually do have identifying information and they do handle it extremely responsibly.

We are aware that there may be concerns, particularly about the history of some recently adopted children—why for some people that may seem like a step too far. We do think that, at the very least, the right to an intermediary service is of paramount importance in this piece of legislation. If it is not included in this piece of legislation, then you can be reasonably confident that you will not face that problem again, because the bulk of birth parents who relinquished babies for adoption in the 1950s and 1960s will be dead before you come to look at this legislation again. They will not be around to bother you, but they are people who have waited. They have waited 30 or more years in many cases, and they need provisions now. We really did anticipate that there would be statutory provision in this piece of legislation, and the fact that there is not causes us and them enormous distress.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon 4:30, 21 Tachwedd 2001

You say, very importantly, that we are talking about a time in history, essentially from 1926 to 1976. When the adoptions were made, the deal clearly was that people would not have information. Between 1926 and 1976, there was no question that people would be given information.

Pam Hodgkins: Actually, can I point out that that in fact is a myth, because up until 1950 everyone whose child was adopted knew who adopted that child? There were no serial numbers on either side.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Yes, but the presumption was anonymity.

Pam Hodgkins: No. There was a presumption that there would not be contact or communication. That is what I am saying. The history has shown us that that was respected.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The system changed from 1976, quite rightly. In effect, you are saying that people who entered into adoption at a certain time—they did so under a certain set of rules, including the rights of adopted parents—and who would have adopted on a certain basis should be overlooked.

Pam Hodgkins: Not overlooked—taken into proper account, but just as in 1975 when the right was given to adopted people, because it was seen as the appropriate thing to do because of the society—

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

It is the right of social workers.

Pam Hodgkins: It was not social workers. It was birth parents who had to accommodate the fact that what they had perhaps presumed to be the situation was being changed. They accommodated that—they, in fact, in large numbers welcomed it. Now we are saying that adopted people and their families should make a similar accommodation. There could be all sorts of safeguards built into a provision about providing information. You could put age limits on it, you could put time scales on it, and you could make it subject to the other person having not requested that the information is not released. Any of those would be a step forward, but whilst you leave it on the basis that only if the person comes forward and asks for it will it be released, we are not getting anywhere.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

With respect, you have made a series of important qualifications that were not mentioned beforehand, and I am pleased that you have.

Pam Hodgkins: They are in our evidence.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I want to go back to the point that you made earlier about the adopted children receiving information. You talked about a compromise. Would the system not cater for everyone's feelings as it would allow parents the right to hold their anonymity, for whatever reason? Should we not respect that right? Are you saying that, ideally, that right should not exist?

Pam Hodgkins: No, I would not support that level of compromise. The compromise NORCAP proposed was not a release—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield 4:49, 21 Tachwedd 2001

Before we start again, I draw attention to the fact that there will be several more Divisions in the House. I suggest that we adjourn for each Division, but that hon. Members return as soon as possible so that we can resume when we are quorate. I hope that that is acceptable.

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 should like to take Miss Hodgkins back to what she said about the draconian nature of the law pre and post-1976. A consensus is building—we have not heard many dissenting voices—on the question of a child's right to know its parents' identity. I want to play devil's advocate for a second. The British Columbia model was mentioned. In essence, what is the difference between the draconian measure, with the message, ``You cannot'', and the British Columbia model, with the message, ``You can, but you cannot contact''?

Pam Hodgkins: There is a tremendous difference, to do with simply knowing who you are. You have a name, and with that name comes a degree of history. You can appreciate that in British Columbia you could perhaps identify from your name the area where your forebears originated. The same is true in the UK. Just not to have a name means you are faceless.

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

It seems to me that allowing the birth parent to be told if the adopted person has died is just fundamental humanity. I do not know whether you want to expand on that.

Pam Hodgkins: Simply, it seems inhumane that someone cannot know. Most of us, hearing of a tragedy such as Hillsborough, know within hours either that the worst has happened or that we can be relieved that no one close to us is involved. A birth parent whose son or daughter is of an age to be a football fan, perhaps, would not know—they might be one of those 89 names. Then another tragedy happens, such as at King's Cross. Birth parents go through the same thing every time. It is no wonder that such people have mental health problems. Their life is never normal again because there is no closure.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

I want to ask Mr. Tapsfield about his point of view. We have heard concerns that what is proposed is a radical change from that in force since the 1970s. From your perspective, have the arrangements since the 1970s worked, or would you want changes?

Robert Tapsfield: No; I think that we are clear that they have worked. To add to what Pam has said, we believe that there should be an obligation on adopters to inform the agency if the child dies. The message that we hear from birth parents is that they go on thinking about the child even though they are not looking after them, whether or not they are getting information about them from a letterbox scheme. They go on thinking about them at birthdays and Christmas. It seems to us a basic human right that they should be informed if their child dies and that we should make that an obligation on adopters. It might be difficult to enforce that, but it would be important as a message that if you adopt someone else's child you should, if the child dies, at least inform the birth parents, who will otherwise go on assuming that the child is living and will have no information.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I faced those decisions when I chaired a social services committee, and the problem is not in deciding to release the information about the death, which is the humanitarian thing to do. The problem arises when the birth parent wants to visit the grave. That involves releasing the name of the deceased, which would be the adoptive name, and that often occasions a desire in the birth parent to see the adoptive parents. We are considering a period of history, so the people concerned are now very old and have operated under a certain set of rules for many years. We are talking about something that can be very disturbing and emotive for people in their 80s and 90s.

Robert Tapsfield:

We have to look at the evidence and also have some trust. We often hear from birth parents who are now losing their children—often birth parents who are now losing their children in contested situations—that, ``I am not allowed to know where they are, but I do know. I am not going to do anything about it, but I do know.'' So there are now birth parents who have information that perhaps they should not have or have found out because they saw it on a letter heading or elsewhere, but they are not abusing the situation. It seems to me that if one is a birth parent, it is a basic right to know if one's child has died.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Can we turn to intercountry adoptions and the provisions in that respect?

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

How effective in the agencies' experience are the support services that are offered by local authorities in relation to intercountry adoptions?

Pauline Dancyger: I am also, in my professional life, involved in the work of intercountry adoption in the authority in which I work. It is almost impossible to offer any real support to families who choose to adopt from overseas. We are able only to offer a very peremptory service, which is a matter of completing home studies and offering advice and guidance. Beyond that, it is extremely difficult.

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

Do you have a view as to whether, when a family has adopted from abroad and the child comes here, the initial supervision should be done by voluntary agencies rather than by local authorities?

Pauline Dancyger: Going by my experience, I think that it would sit better with the voluntary agencies than it would with local authorities.

Philly Morrall: I would imagine that adopters would find that more comfortable, because they have often had a lot of negative vibes from the local authority about their wish to adopt from overseas. In terms of the need for support if they are having difficulties, they need the same level of therapeutic help or educational advice as any other adoptive family. Sadly, because the preparation that they receive is not always equal to that which they might have had had they adopted in this country, they might not have such easy access to that help, and that is a major problem.

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

Do you feel that there should be anything specifically in the Bill requiring a local authority—either itself or through arrangements—to provide any of those services?

Philly Morrall: It would be wise, if we are talking about trying to prevent disruptions and breakdowns. The families covered by the authorities that I know that have well-defined processes for prospective intercountry adopters do feel much more supported and they have a line of access to support if they need it. I echo everybody's feeling that if one understands what one is taking on—and hopefully that has come out in the preparation and assessment time of a prospective adopter—one is going to want to be in touch with the right people in order to get support later. A lot of people do not have such good preparation so that that is built in in the first place.

Pam Hodgkins: Intercountry adopters need as much support as any other adopters just in bringing up their children, and those children are likely to need at least as much if not more support, because they have more profound issues of identity and origins than children who are adopted—children who are adopted in the UK today are far more likely to benefit from letterbox contact or direct contact. If you are adopted through intercountry procedures the chances are you will not have that level of communication. For many children who are subject to intercountry adoption there is nothing in terms of information that is going to take them beyond a particular institution's gates at any time. Actually coming to terms with that is very, very hard. We see it ourselves in this country among people who were abandoned babies. They are the people—the only people—who can identify with the abandoned babies from, say, China, where there is no information. The loss of the sense of self should never be underestimated.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield 5:00, 21 Tachwedd 2001

Mr. Paton, for those who do not know him, is from the Department of Health. He has not just wandered in off the streets—he is actually here on business. Would you like to comment?

James Paton (Department of Health): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have just a very short point for the Committee's information: the adoption support provisions cover people who adopt from abroad as well as from the UK.

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

Do any of the agencies have any comments about the provisions in the Bill to try to tighten up on countries from which children can come, which are designed to avoid some of the difficulties experienced with the recent high profile case from America?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Does anyone wish to comment on that?

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

If you do not, that is fine. I am just making sure.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Do any other colleagues want to speak about the intercountry aspects? In that case, I would like us to look at placement orders. I gather that, since submitting evidence, the Family Rights Group has had something of a rethink on the issue. Do you want to lead us into the discussion with your thoughts, Mr. Tapsfield, because you have slightly revised your thinking, have you not?

Robert Tapsfield:

Some of our thinking is apparent in our first submission. The more thinking we have done—and talking—the more we are extremely concerned about placement orders and the way that they are defined in the Bill. I ought to say that we wholeheartedly agree with the principle of a placement order. We think that a placement hearing that enables a court at an early stage to consider whether adoption is an appropriate plan is a good idea, and we support that. So we are not in disagreement with the notion that there should be a placement order. However, we think that the provisions as they are defined now are unnecessarily complicated, inconsistent with the Children Act in a range of ways that I will explain, and could be simplified to good effect.

We are concerned that the provisions contradict the Children Act, supporting some of BAAF's evidence about that—particularly about the legal status and children who are treated as if they are accommodated as opposed to being accommodated or looked after. We are concerned about the arrangements for discharging and for parents discharging children who are not even necessarily placed for adoption but where there has been a placement order. So we are concerned that they may be in conflict with areas of the Children Act.

We think and would propose that actually there should be a placement order in all cases where children are placed or it is proposed to place children for adoption, but the placement order should simply give permission to place. It should, if you like, authorise the placement of a child for adoption, so it would deal with the issue of consent where there is disagreement. I may say more about that in a minute. The child's legal status would remain unchanged, so an accommodated child under section 20 would remain under section 20—unless it was a contested placement, in which case if the threshold for section 31 were met, then a care order would be made. A child on a care order would remain on a care order.

The advantages would be that for some children they are not placed for adoption—there is a decision to place, but actually they remain in foster care for a long time. Those children would therefore remain subject to the planning and review provisions of local authorities and could remain with their long-term foster parents. The placement order would simply give permission for the local authority but would not require it. It would not always, therefore, be necessary to go back.

We believe that the placement orders as they are currently construed are going to pose unnecessary complications. Also, it entails new provisions for contact. We do not see why contact needs to be dealt with separately under a placement order and outside the Children Act. We would prefer to see contact dealt with under the arrangements for dealing with contact under the Children Act, and do not see the advantages of having a different and separate system. I can deal with the issues of consent separately.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Do any other witnesses have thoughts on what was said? Obviously, you have not had the chance to give the matter prior thought. Are there any immediate responses to Mr. Tapsfield's suggestions?

Philly Morrall: In principle, it sounds like a good start. I found the whole concept—not the concept of a placement order or the process of placement—very complex. We have been struggling with how it will help in terms of the delay issue, which we have all been trying to get over. Is this the beginning of a discussion to avoid that?

The one thing that I did think about placement orders from the point of view of adoptive parents, which are the ones whom I am representing, was that there is a point in the process, which I cannot quite remember because I do not have the chart in front of me, where the adopters have more parental rights up to the point of the adoption order. That is a help because, at the moment, they are very much in limbo between the time of placement and the time of adoption, and that is a difficult time. I realise that we need to get that balance right.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

We do not have quite the right heading for this matter, although it is probably the nearest that there is.

The testimony of the Adoption Forum cites a particularly harrowing case of adoptive parents seeking to adopt the older 13-year-old half sister of a boy whom they successfully adopted. That example threw up two matters about the placing of children. If I may, I shall pursue this with Pauline Dancyger, although others may wish to comment.

First, I address the matter of race. The Committee debated whether the Bill is confusing by prioritising between delay and finding a suitable ethnic placement. Can we deal with that first, and then come on to the other point that arises from that? Do you think that the Bill strikes the right balance by having ethnic and other considerations up in the first clause, and on a par with delay? Is the balance right or wrong?

Pauline Dancyger: It is probably too high—that is my immediate response. In terms of practice within my own authority, we have always tried to balance those needs together. This was a particularly harrowing case but, I have to say, it is not a terribly unusual example. I could quote a number of other very similar cases. I think that we gave this as a particular example because it quite clearly illustrates where common sense did not play a part, but where, perhaps, political and other attitudes rather took the forefront.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am just thinking about the next stage of the Bill, and a number of hon. Members of all parties made a suggestion on Second Reading. Clause 1(5) states:

``In placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.''

However, we need to add words such as ``except in so far as that conflicts with subsection 3'', which relates to the matter of delay. Would you welcome that wording?

Pauline Dancyger: Yes.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does anyone else want to comment on that?

Pam Hodgkins: We move away from giving an appropriate weighting to a child's background and the whole plethora of things that make up a child's background at the cost of the child. You live with your identity for the whole of your life. Expediency about placement for adoption needs to be very carefully balanced with obtaining the right placement, because if it is not the right placement, it will not last into adulthood.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Most do not get a placement at all at the moment.

Pam Hodgkins: I would dispute that. A lot of balancing has been done, and a lot more finding appropriate mitigating steps, shall we say, in making placements has been occurring in social work practice, particularly over the past two or three years, which has probably not yet fed through into the statistics. The moment that we diminish a child's heritage by putting riders on it, there is a risk of it being overlooked, and we would be back to the situation in which love is all you need—and we know jolly well that love alone is not enough.

Pauline Dancyger: I do not think that it is a matter of diminishing anything. What I am saying is that they are equal considerations. There has to be a limit, if there is to be a limit at all, on the question of delay of placement of a child.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Right. Thank you.

The second aspect, which seems to come from the same story—indeed, the main reason that you raised it—is determinations. In our previous sitting, Mr. Paton suggested that, although clause 12 does not specify which determinations will be able to go to appeal and which will not, and getting a place on the adoption register is likely to be a determination that can be appealed against, it is unlikely that it will ever be possible to appeal against individual matchings. Would you like to comment on that?

Pauline Dancyger: One of the matters that we highlighted in our submission is that there are currently very few means by which adopters can appeal, throughout the adoption system. That is one of the very real concerns that the Adoption Forum wants to highlight.

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

I should like to return to the issue that Mr. Tapsfield raised, because I was not clear exactly what he was saying. You generally welcome the idea of placement orders in that it moves us away from freeing orders, but you believe that it is incompatible with the Children Act in relation to children accommodated under section 20.

Robert Tapsfield: The provisions for discharge for children placed for adoption are not compatible. There are different time limits. That is one way in which the provision is not compatible with the Children Act. It is confusing in terms of the legal status of children.

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

So you are saying that a child who has been accommodated because the parents want the child to be adopted could not remove the child, whereas the parent of a child who is accommodated with a placement order could do so.

Robert Tapsfield: Yes.

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

And you see no value in that protection in planning for the child.

Robert Tapsfield: We are concerned that the current provisions make arrangements for a child who is placed with the parent's consent such that if they then change their mind, even if the child is not placed for adoption, they are not allowed to have the child return to them. That is inconsistent with the Children Act.

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

But if someone says, ``I want my child to be adopted'' and the child is accommodated on the basis that that is the plan, do you not see a value in a change in the amount of time in which a parent could subsequently change their mind and remove the child?

Robert Tapsfield: I accept that. Our view would be that in all cases in which there will be a placement for adoption, whether with consent or without, there should be a placement order that is an order of the court. That could be an order obtained with consent, not necessarily an order about which there was a dispute. But it would, importantly, address one of the issues of concern. At the moment, the practice of local authorities in seeking placements with relatives is varied. Once you get to the final adoption hearing it is frequently too late to do anything about that. Local authorities do now sometimes have to take decisions about whether to seek to contact relatives or not. If they decide not to do so it is then very difficult for the relatives to do anything about the placement order even with the consent of the birth parent.

At the hearing, the provisions currently in the Bill would ensure that the court considered whether there will be other arrangements for the child such as a family placement. For example, it would allow for a hearing at that stage for a local authority to say that it was not sure whether it should be contacting the father or not—a father without parental responsibility—and it would allow for that issue to be addressed in court. We do think that there should be a placement order even when there is consent, and that clearly in respect of a child who is placed following a placement order there would need to be restrictions on removal.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley 5:15, 21 Tachwedd 2001

So that is the issue of consent to which you wanted to return?

Robert Tapsfield: The different issue about dispensing with consent.

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

Before we come to that, are you saying that there are other areas in which the Bill is incompatible with the Children Act?

Robert Tapsfield: It is mainly the contact issues. We are not convinced that it is sensible to have different arrangements for contact that are outside the Children Act and we would prefer to see contact within the Children Act.

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

What do you mean by that in terms of how legislation works in practice?

Robert Tapsfield: We do not see that there needs to be a separate provision under placement orders for contact. We think that contact issues can be dealt with as an order under the Children Act.

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

So you would deal with that as a contact order under section 8 rather than as an issue under the placement order?

Robert Tapsfield: Yes.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I may have completely missed the point here. In the case of a child who was temporarily placed with, say, a foster parent who may be about to adopt, the Children Act does not have the degree of protection in terms of secrecy that might be desirable for a potential adoption. Surely the difference between these provisions and the Children Act arrangements is the element of secrecy.

Robert Tapsfield: Under the Children Act, a child who is voluntarily placed in accommodation can be discharged by their parent. That was an important provision that was introduced in the Children Act. It is not a provision that has been misused and local authorities work satisfactorily with it every day.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Mr. Paton is back with us again. It might be helpful if he gave his views on what has been said. Before that, will you explain about dispensing with consent, Mr. Tapsfield, so that we understand exactly where you are coming from? Mr. Paton can then respond to all the points.

Robert Tapsfield: There are two issues about consent. We are extremely concerned at the threshold for dispensing with parents' consent, because the threshold is set but the test is the welfare of the child. Effectively, that means that there is no test for dispensing with the parents' consent. The grounds for making an adoption order are that the welfare of the child essentially requires it, so the grounds for dispensing with consent are the same. In effect, that means that whether the parent consents or not makes no difference to the decision about an adoption—it will not affect it one way or the other.

In our view, the decision about whether to make an adoption order is such a serious and irrevocable decision—it is hard to imagine a more serious decision for the state to make about a child—that on balance making an adoption order has to be significantly better than making any other order. It is not just about comparing one order among a number of orders. Making an adoption is permanent and irrevocable and has lifelong implications for all concerned. We would like to support the recommendation that was originally in the report to Ministers that adoption should be so significantly better that it justifies overruling a parent's consent.

The second issue about consent is that we are concerned that currently, where a parent contests adoption and their consent is dispensed with at the placement order hearing, effectively they will not be heard at the adoption order. We are concerned that the placement hearing is to consider whether, in principle, this child should be placed for adoption and whether the parents' consent should be dispensed with. At the adoption hearing, the court is not considering an ``in principle'' decision, but whether this placement should be made for this child at this time.

We would argue that that is a decision about which a parent has a right to be heard. Under these arrangements, they are unlikely to be heard and they will not get legal aid so are unlikely to be present or to be heard at the hearing. That is important because of the issues that the court will have to consider at the adoption order, under schedule 1—about their family, background and relationships—and it will not have access to what the parent says about that. It will have access only to what the adopters or agency say, and not to what the parents say.

It is important to recognise that the making of an adoption order, in itself, is separate from the decision about a placement. Our view is that this may fall foul of the Human Rights Act 1998 as it refers to articles 6 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. There may be a further issue if parents are not allowed to be heard on the making of an order in that situation and at that time.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Mr. Paton, you have heard a number of thoughts and we would be interested to hear yours.

James Paton: Obviously, we will consider in detail the evidence from the Family Rights Group, which we have not yet had a chance to see.

A number of points have been raised—first, that which deals with where a local authority is authorised to place children for adoption, either under a placement order or through consent to placement. The point was made that it would be important for them still to be subject to the local authority's planning and review systems. The Bill provides for that by making a placed child, through either route, a looked-after child. The intention is to ensure that they are integrated with the planning and review system and that the placement is properly monitored.

The second point was about the parents' ability to request the return of a child when a child is placed for adoption with consent. I think that the position may be slightly different from that described in that, when a child is placed with consent, the Bill provides for that consent to be withdrawn at any point up to the point at which an application for an adoption order has been made, and then the child can be returned to the parent within a period of time.

The only exception to that is where a child is placed with a local authority for adoption by consent and when the consent is withdrawn the local authority considers that the child should still be placed for adoption and considers the significant harm threshold is likely to have been met. In that case, it is under a duty to apply for a placement order. What the provisions say is that, in the meantime, the child is not to be returned until the placement order hearing has determined what should happen. Unless the local authority is under a duty to apply for a placement order, a child who is placed for adoption with consent, which the parents withdraw, is provided for under the Bill to be returned to them. We think that it is philosophically consistent with the Children Act even if the provisions do not run identically.

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

On that point, if a child were in care under section 20, and the parents wanted him removed and the local authority wanted to oppose that, would they apply for an emergency protection order or care order?

James Paton: They would, for an emergency protection order, yes.

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

So, run me through the parallel. Are you saying that they would choose a placement order in such circumstances if the child had been placed for adoption?

James Paton: That would be one option.

The first thing to say is that the child's legal status changes and that is where we have the join-up between this legislation and the Children Act. If a child is voluntarily accommodated, and the parents then consent to placement for adoption, it ceases to be a section 20 child and becomes a child who is placed with consent under the Adoption and Children Act, as it will be. The removal provisions under the Bill would then apply. The parents would consent to placement for adoption and would give that consent in the prescribed form which clearly explains what it means. That is witnessed by an independent CAFCASS officer, who ensures that they understand what they are consenting to. After that, the agency is authorised to place the child for adoption. From that point on, the parents may revoke their consent to placement. When they do that, the Bill provides that the child must be returned to them. There is a number of time periods depending on whether the child has already been placed for adoption, in which case the adopters must return the child to the agency and the agency returns the child to the parents. In essence, that is the philosophy.

Placement by consent is a voluntary process, apart from when a local authority is authorised to place a child for adoption, the consent is withdrawn, and the authority considers that the child should still be placed for adoption and further considers that the significant harm threshold is likely to be met, in which case the authority is then under an obligation to apply for a placement order if it still thinks that placement for adoption is the correct plan for that child. In the meantime, the Bill provides that the child is not returned to the parents and remains the responsibility of the local authority until the placement order hearing happens and the issue is determined one way or another. Is that okay?

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

What happens if a child is placed under clause 20 and during the course of that placement the parents decide that they would like the child to be adopted?

James Paton: As soon as they have consented under the provisions of the Bill, the legal status of the child comes under the adoption legislation and the various removal provisions in the Bill apply.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

To return to the comments of Mr. Tapsfield on the issue of dispensing with consent, we have heard conflicting evidence from various people who have appeared in front of us. Some have agreed with you that there should be some indication of significant betterment of the welfare of the child for consent to be dispensed with. Others have said that that would represent a significant obstacle to the intention of the Bill, which is to prevent some of the blockages that we have seen in the adoption system. That is an area in which there is some difficulty. I understand the point that you are making, which I think is that because of the way in which the Bill is drafted, there might be an impetus, when it is not clear whether it would definitely be in the interests or the welfare of the child, still to press for adoption. I understand that; perhaps we need to think about it and find out how to get round it.

You are the first person who I have heard say that the parents' voice should continue to be heard at the adoption order stage; that is a new proposal. Is there not a danger in that--I am playing devil's advocate for a moment--because it would prolong the pain for the birth parent and perhaps be an invitation to rehearse the arguments that were dispensed with when the placement order was made? Is that not a slightly cruel and unusual punishment, or is there real reason why the birth parent's voice needs to be heard at that stage? What is the essence of your argument?

Robert Tapsfield: There are real reasons and I shall give two of them. It is at the adoption hearing that we would like consideration of whether there is contact or what the arrangements are for the birth parent or other relatives to remain in contact with the child. We think that it is important that the birth parent can be heard about those when they want that. Certainly, there is evidence—and one of the reasons why we would support the placement order--that birth parents, having lost the placement order hearing, can themselves move on and begin to accept that their child will be adopted. It may be that their view about contact has matured since the placement order when they were in contest with the local authority. There are reasons to think that it may be helpful to the process and to them for them to be able to be heard at the adoption order hearing about issues of contact, for example, that they are primarily concerned with.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Is it possible to bring in one or two other witnesses who were listening to that exchange?

Philly Morrall: I wanted to add something to what Robert Tapsfield has been saying about the business of the birth parents and the contact issue. I am quite concerned about an aspect of the Bill—I cannot remember which bit it is—where there seems still to be this problem for adopters that the contact arrangements are set in tablets of stone before adopters even become involved, possibly even before the match. Robert Tapsfield's idea was that the whole issue of contact can be addressed at the adoption order.

I can think of all sorts of other stresses and strains about that time which would make it quite difficult, but the point about that is that the child will have been placed with the adopters for some time at that stage. The adopters will have much more of an idea of why some degree of contact or some means by which they can maintain links with their birth family would be realistic and could be manageable, because they will have lived with it by then. There is, therefore, much more chance that they can make a realistic arrangement between themselves. It might not need a contact order, because they will have had a chance to communicate with each other without too many social workers in between, which makes things a lot easier quite often—[Interruption.] There is a big problem for adopters about being faced with a whole plan about contact when they have absolutely no idea whether it is right or wrong, because they have never had any chance to live it. That aspect of what Robert Tapsfield is saying might have some favour with the adopters.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield 5:30, 21 Tachwedd 2001

Can questions be brief, as we have spent some time on the subject?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

On the contact issue, to what extent should the children be involved at the placement hearing or, indeed, the adoption order hearing?

Robert Tapsfield: That depends on the age of the child.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

What if the child has something to contribute?

Robert Tapsfield: I would hope that, in all decisions about adoption, we are hearing from the child and listening to what they say. I think it is absolutely essential that the voice of the child is heard loudly in decisions about adoption.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Would that become more important after the child had lived with the adopted parents and, therefore, at the adoption order stage rather than the placement stage?

Robert Tapsfield: It is much better to take decisions about contact when there has been a chance for people to meet—hopefully—and to see how the arrangements work. It is much better to take decisions about contact when, from the adopters' point of view, the likelihood of a decision being overturned on that adoption has diminished so that they are not seriously, significantly worried about the making of an adoption order, but simply looking at what those arrangements are.

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

I am a little concerned about the idea that contact arrangements might be finalised only at the adoption hearing. Adopters might feel unable to go ahead if they did not know what the expectations on them were. I have much sympathy with what Ms Morrall said about not necessarily setting out a clear plan right at the start. I have recently studied adoption, and my experience was that it was more helpful to give general indications about the type of contact that would benefit a child rather than to say that this, this and this must happen, because circumstances change over time. There might be problems at the adoption hearing if the birth parents believed that they could have more contact than the adopters were willing to accept.

Robert Tapsfield: A key issue about contact—and what we know about contact—is that the child's need for it is likely to vary over time. One of the difficulties we have is how one makes arrangements when a child is very young that may be appropriate as they grow older. We want to find ways where at all possible—this goes back to the very beginning about how the parties are supported—to provide help for the channels to be open between adopters and members of the birth family. That is not just birth parents; it is often grandparents. We hear regularly from grandparents who are mystified why they are stopped from seeing their grandchildren when they are adopted and who, from our contacts, it seems could offer nothing but helpful support, but who are routinely stopped. So, we think that it is essential that the court has an opportunity to look fully at what those arrangements are—accepting that you have to build in flexibility and that, in the end, you have to work with what people will work with, but provide encouragement and support for openness along the way.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does Pauline Dancyger have a view on whether the new arrangements for placement orders in the Bill are an improvement on those in the Children Act? Would she, like some of the other speakers, prefer us to stay with the approach in the Act?

Pauline Dancyger: I have to acknowledge that I have not studied that part of the Bill, but from the discussions that I have heard this afternoon, I think I agree with my colleague, Robert Tapsfield—with some provisos.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

What sort of provisos?

Pauline Dancyger: I was struggling with the question of contact arrangements. I was considering that there would need to be, obviously, some skeleton arrangements and agreements regarding contact prior to placement. I feel very strongly indeed that the question of finalising arrangements for contact cannot take place at the adoption hearing. The experience that the family, the child and, indeed, the birth family will have had must come into it at that final hearing, but we cannot leave it to that hearing to make those arrangements.

Pam Hodgkins: I am rather concerned about the idea of anyone thinking that you can finalise contact arrangements, because the whole point is that contact is something that evolves beyond childhood into adulthood. It is about the adopters that we recruit. It seems, on a number of points this afternoon, as though there is a competition going on, or that there are sides and that if one side gains, another side loses. Somehow, the child is generally caught up in the middle.

What we need to work very skilfully towards is a win-win situation, where people acknowledge the role that different parties are playing in family life. Inevitably, a birth family and an adopted family are also joined—they are connected for life through that adoption process. Those people need help and support to co-operate to achieve what is best for the child at particular points in time, and that will vary considerably: the needs of a two-year-old will be very different from those of a 12-year-old and different again from those of a 22-year-old.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

We have had a useful discussion, and it has been helpful to hear what people have said. Can we look now at the issue of unmarried couples and adoption?

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

Most of the witnesses have had a say on this matter. I have a question for them, and the easiest approach might be to start with Mr. Tapsfield and then move to the witness on his right. Mr. Tapsfield, do you think that unmarried couples should be able to adopt jointly? If not, why not?

Robert Tapsfield: Very simply, we think adoption needs to be a service for the child and that children can and do grow up with married and unmarried couples. Adoption law needs to reflect that.

Pauline Dancyger: I must say I struggle a little with this question. My view is that it is an added dimension for adopted children to have to consider that they are not part of a conventional family—that is, a married couple. My experience thus far is that children desperately want to be like their friends along the road, where they have a mum and a dad.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

As a parent, I can say that you might be a little out of date in respect of what goes on in current families. Large numbers of my children's friends do not have a mum and a dad at home. Things have changed somewhat, sad as that may be.

Pauline Dancyger: Yes, I know they have, but none the less—

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

Can you envisage a set of circumstances in which a child was in a foster home that everyone agreed was to be their permanent home, and in which the foster parents said that they had been together 10 years and would not get married but would adopt the child? Would you say yes in that situation?

Pauline Dancyger: Yes; indeed, I have been in that position.

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

So you do not set your face against that and say, ``No, never.''

Pauline Dancyger: Not at all.

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

You might say that marriage is preferable, but in certain circumstances you could envisage a situation such as that I outlined being in the best interests of the child.

Pauline Dancyger: Yes.

Philly Morrall: I think that the needs of the child are what come first, not the status of the adults. I notice in the Bill that special guardians can apply to be special guardians if they are not married, and both be equal special guardians. The problem for the child is not so much that they cannot say they have a mum and dad, but they cannot say they have a mum and a whatever-it-is because only one of those two people will have been able to adopt them. If you have been able to place that child with those two people and you have assessed them equally as being suitable, then I think it is a bit of a funny message to be giving to the child that actually only one of them is suitable to adopt you.

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

You might agree that permanence would be better for the child. They might have to say to their friends, ``No, my parents aren't married'', but better that than, ``I'm moving again next week.''

Philly Morrall: Yes; sure.

Pam Hodgkins: Exactly as my colleague has said—if the placement is the right placement for the child, and that is where you place them, then they are the people who should be able to adopt them, whether they are married as husband and a wife, a couple living together of the same sex or a couple of the opposite sex. If that is the placement of choice, then the child's right is to have the same legal relationship to both parent figures.

Sue Gourvish: I agree with Pam Hodgkins. The parallel with foster care has been drawn. Unmarried foster carers bring up foster children over many years perfectly successfully. There are many examples of that to point to—and indeed some small-scale research which points to—the success of those arrangements.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I should like to ask about a wider issue. In studying statistics, I noticed how difficult it is to find anyone in this country willing to collect data on favourable and unfavourable outcomes based on whether parents were married, although there have been plenty of such studies in America. From your experience, what proportion of children in care do you think come from married and unmarried families? I am told that the Government do not have such statistics. Is a child more or less likely to be in care in this country if the parents are married or unmarried? Does it make any difference?

Pam Hodgkins: I cannot answer that question. I perhaps can throw light on the matter with the fact that, over the past 50 years, the number of people who were adopted by a married couple who divorced or separated during the childhood of that child is quite enormous. When assessment procedures were not as they are today, very often you had a situation where a wife wanted to adopt and a husband went along with it until a better idea came along. The number of adult adopted people who, effectively, grew up in single-parent families is quite remarkably high. I do not think you can assume that a married couple is a guarantee of stability throughout childhood.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Do any of you have a feel for the statistics in this country? I have seen a 1988 study by the Department of Health and Human Services in the United States that showed not children in care but those in juvenile prisons. It suggested that those from the poorest decile of the community whose parents were married were less likely to be in a juvenile prison than those in the richest decile whose parents were unmarried. It is curious that we do not seem willing to produce statistics. Does anyone think that it would be worth undertaking statistical studies on that subject?

Pam Hodgkins: Only if you are going to decide you are not going to place children in those situations. Very often they are the placement of choice. If it is a placement of choice, then both should adopt. If it is not a placement of choice, you should not place the child there in the first place.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield 5:45, 21 Tachwedd 2001

We have covered most of the key areas that we wanted to consider. Mr. Shaw wants to touch on special guardianship before we conclude.

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

I have a brief question for Fostering Network. You did not include in your evidence about special guardianship something mentioned by some of our next witnesses. They expressed concern about after-support when foster carers take up special guardianships for the children who they are looking after. We heard earlier from one of our academic witnesses, Professor Triseliotis, that 13 per cent. of adopted children are adopted by foster parents. You did not include that in your evidence, so can we take it that you are not concerned about the Bill's provisions on support?

Sue Gourvish: We are concerned, yes, because we believe that many foster carers who might otherwise consider applying for special guardianship—or, indeed, an adoption order—will be dissuaded from doing so unless provisions are in place which are at least equal to the arrangements that they would receive as foster carers. And of course, one of the most important ones of those is the allowance that the local authority pays to them as foster carers; it would need to be continued as an allowance in their role as special guardians or as adopters.

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

I wanted to ask Sue Gourvish—others can join in—whether the registration of private foster carers should be included in the Bill. Does Fostering Network have a view on that?

Sue Gourvish: We know that you heard from representatives of our sister organisation BAAF about this and, to shorten matters for you, we support the position that they took with you, perhaps at greater length, when they saw you. We believe that it would be a good idea to take the opportunity of this Bill to introduce measures which properly deal with the issues that private foster carers, despite the Children Act 1989, are not receiving monitoring and are not registered, and that many children are at risk as a result. In fact, we do not know how many children are at risk in private fostering. There is simply no statistical basis, no national collection of figures about them. We do not know how many children are at risk, but there is every reason to believe that many children are at serious risk, and we would urge you to take the opportunity provided by the Bill to bring in those measures.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

I have a question for Pam Hodgkins and Robert Tapsfield. There is some doubt whether local authorities acting as adoption agencies owe a duty of care to birth parents in the adoption process. Are you happy that the Bill establishes a duty of care in that process—to birth parents as well as to adoptive parents and the children?

Pam Hodgkins: I acknowledge that they are covered by the general statement, but I am not in any way convinced that it will meet the needs of birth parents. I think they are likely to be a very low priority. Again, we do not see the regulations that will support the Bill. I am particularly concerned that there is no specific provision for birth parents in terms of being able to initiate contact with adopted adults, and although the Bill states that the provisions for people already adopted will be the same, because there will be a continuing schedule from the previous Act, this is in fact not the case. Last year—the judgment was this year, in the case of the triplets—I took a case before the High Court. The actual provision under which I went to the High Court will not be available, so the situation will be worse for birth parents. It is pretty poor now. It will be even worse if the Bill is enacted in its present form.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I want to ask Miss Gourvish about the fostering situation generally. We heard this morning about the reluctance of local authorities to adopt through foster parents, because there is a limited pool. What is needed to encourage more people to become foster parents? More children could be taken on as a result, and it could increase the number of adoptive parents.

Sue Gourvish: To encourage foster carers to become adoptive parents?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

No. What is needed, first, to encourage parents to become foster parents; and, secondly, to encourage foster parents to become adoptive parents, if they have successfully fostered children?

Sue Gourvish: I could go on at length about this, but I will try and keep my answer brief: national rates of allowances, pensions systems for foster carers and arrangements whereby foster carers are trained and supported in their role. Foster carers, as you know, look after some of the most troubled children in the country and they do need all those things in place. Some of them will go on to become adoptive parents and, hopefully, some of them will go on to apply for special guardianship. Those two important events do not lessen the requirements that are laid out that foster carers actually need, because, for instance, foster carers who might consider adopting a sibling group will need considerable consideration about the support they require, particularly the financial support that they will require. There is no reason to assume that they will be able to do so from their own resources.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Does research suggest that foster parents who go on to adopt their foster children make for much more stable, longer-lasting family relationships?

Sue Gourvish: I do not believe there is research that bears that out.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

What is your view, then?

Sue Gourvish: Clearly, if you have been a foster carer who has been well supported by your local authority, you have received training as a foster carer—hopefully over a long period of time—and you have been helped to deal with contact issues of the sort that we have been talking about, you will start from a position that will be easier for you, if you then move into the adoption of children that are already placed with you. You will have encountered many of these issues and, hopefully, you will have come to some kind of consolidation of your skills and abilities to do so. One would imagine intuitively that people in that position will probably be in a good position to go on to adopt. But there is no research that I am aware of.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Yet, if anything, the shortage of foster carers available to local authorities for their problem children is a disincentive for that to happen, which is why only 13 per cent. of them do so.

Sue Gourvish: Yes. I would have thought that increasingly, if foster carers want to adopt children who are placed with them and are sufficiently determined to do so, they will overcome resistance from local authorities. And I think that in the present climate, whereby there are increasing numbers of adoptions from care, that problem will lessen. I would not dispute that it is the case, although of course one local authority will behave very differently from another.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

Are there any other quick questions?

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

Is not fostering an important task in itself? It should not be seen only as an anteroom to adoption. Given that the vast majority of children in care will return to their families, we should try to support foster carers, social workers and families working to enable that to happen. We should not give foster carers a misleading impression about the over-importance of adoption.

Sue Gourvish: We would very much regret it if foster care—particularly, in this case, long-term foster care—was not a valued option for children. There is no doubt about it that, where there is an allegiance of children to families, long-term foster care can be the placement of choice for children. We would not want to see that undermined in any way by any of the provisions in the Bill.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Llafur, Wakefield

There seem to be no further questions. On behalf of the Committee, I thank the witnesses for an interesting session. We are most grateful.

The witnesses withdrew.