Adoption and Children Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee am ar 27 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne 10:30, 27 Tachwedd 2001

If hon. Members find the Room hot, they may remove their jackets.

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

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Adoption and Children Bill the Special Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Nine o'clock and half-past Two o'clock;

(2) 20 sittings in all shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill by the Committee;

(3) the proceedings to be taken on the sittings shall be as shown in the second column of the Table below and shall be taken in the order so shown;

(4) the proceedings which under paragraph (3) are to be taken on any sitting shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the time specified in the third column of the Table;

(5) paragraph (3) does not prevent proceedings being taken (in the order shown in the second column of the Table) at any earlier sitting that that provided for under paragraph (3) if previous proceedings have already been concluded.

TABLE
SittingTD><TD width=">ProceedingsTime for conclusion of proceedings
27th NovemberClause 1, Clauses 17 to 40 and Clauses 50 and 51
27th NovemberClause 1, Clauses 17 to 40 and Clauses 50 and 51
29th NovemberClauses 1, Clauses 17 to 40 and Clauses 50 and 51 11.25 a.m.
29th NovemberClauses 41 to 49 and Clause 525 p.m.
4th DecemberClauses 94 to 99, Clauses 104 and 105
4th DecemberClauses 94 to 99, Clauses 104 and 1057 p.m.
6th DecemberClauses 63 to 7311.25 a.m.
6th DecemberClauses 80 to 87, Clause 120 and Clause 123
11th DecemberClauses 80 to 87, Clause 120 and Clause 1231 p.m.
11th DecemberClauses 2 to 16, Clauses 115 to 119 and Clause 122
13th DecemberClauses 2 to 16, Clauses 115 to 119 and Clause 122
13th DecemberClauses 2 to 16, Clauses 115 to 119 and Clause 122
18th DecemberClauses 2 to 16, Clauses 115 to 119 and Clause 1221 p.m.
18th DecemberClauses 53 to 62, Clause 74, Schedule 1, Clauses 75 and 76, Schedule 2, Clauses 77 to 79
10th JanuaryClauses 53 to 62, Clause 74, Schedule 1, Clauses 75 and 76, Schedule 2, Clauses 77 to 79
10th JanuaryClauses 53 to 62, Clause 74, Schedule 1, Clauses 75 and 76, Schedule 2, Clauses 77 to 795 p.m.
15th JanuaryClauses 88 to 93 and Clauses 113 and 1141 p.m.
15th JanuaryClauses 106 to 112, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 2
17th JanuaryClauses 106 to 112, New Clauses and New Schedules relating to Part 211.25 a.m.
17th JanuaryClauses 100 to 103, Clause 121, Clause 124, Schedules 3 to 5, Clauses 125 to 132, Schedule 6, Clauses 133 to 135, remaining New Clauses and New Schedules5 p.m.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Roe. Other members of the Committee are back from last week's deliberations and evidence gathering. You visited us briefly then, but I fear that you will have to spend rather longer with us in forthcoming weeks than perhaps you would have wished. However, I am sure that all Committee members are determined to make our time productive, interesting and informative.

We had useful evidence-gathering sittings last week, which will inform our discussions as we go through the Bill in more detail. Given that we also had discussions in the Programming Sub-Committee, I hope that Members will be satisfied if I move the motion briefly, so that we can get on to the substantive business that I know they are raring to get on with.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I echo the Minister's comments in welcoming you to the Chair, Mrs. Roe, for more of a marathon sitting than you have endured so far. Opposition Members also felt that the witness sittings were exceedingly useful for the debates that we are about to have. It is a shame that, because of the strictures of the House, we could not go into more detail with more witnesses and spend more time with those witnesses whom we did examine.

We did not oppose the motion and the specific times that we briefly discussed in your presence last week, Mrs. Roe, but we oppose the programme resolution that gives a finite time for the whole discussion of the Bill. It is a very important, long and technical Bill, with 135 clauses and six schedules. It should have come before Parliament earlier; it came very late in the previous Session and was lost by the intervention of the general election.

The fact that the Bill achieved all-party agreement shows how important a measure it is. I can do no better than to quote Barnardo's:

``The acid test of the Bill must be—will its provisions help us to make successful lasting placements with positive outcomes for the children concerned.''

Surely that is the intention of the legislation and the wish of all those who are involved with it. Therefore, we need a good long time to scrutinise certain aspects and clauses. I think that we all agree that the care system has not proved to be the best of parents.

We have the experience of the Adoption Act 1976. The previous Government but one provided a draft Bill on adoption as long ago as 1996. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) introduced a private Member's Bill on the subject in the spring , which was swiftly followed by the Government's draft Bill, which, as I said, fell before it could be properly scrutinised. In the light of that experience, it is extraordinary that there is this rush, with an end date imposed on our deliberations. That is particularly odd, given that many changes have taken place between the draft Bill that the Government published in the spring and the new Bill that they eventually published on 19 October, just five weeks ago.

Within that tight timetable, we have had not only to look at the Bill but to interview more than 30 witnesses, just a week ago, to get their views on some of the changes that have been made. As the Minister herself has said, a lot of changes have been made. We welcome many of those changes but they have not had the scrutiny that the original Bill had. We would like to see as much scrutiny of this Bill as possible. It is slightly odd, therefore, that as part of the programme resolution, this Committee is not to start its deliberations on Thursday until 9.30 am and is obliged to end its proceedings at 11.25, making a sitting of one hour and 55 minutes.

On all the Bills on which I have served, it has been customary to start proceedings at 9 o'clock or five to 9, and it is interesting that the Thursday morning sitting has been curtailed. I am sure it has nothing to do with the sleeping habits of the Minister. Perhaps it is prescient of more drastic changes by the Leader of the House to curtail the amount of time that this House sits to scrutinise all legislation—part of the centralisation of legislation and the emasculation of the legislature.

We are faced with 20 sittings until 17 January, which raises the question why the Bill has been programmed at all. The Bill has all-party support, no one opposed it on Second Reading and I have heard no one in any part of the House oppose the Bill outright. As I have said, it is a highly technical and legal Bill that deserves closer scrutiny and the taking of advice from outside expert witnesses where possible. It was programmed before our discussions in the three evidence-gathering sittings. That raises the question: how did the Government know how much time was required for proper scrutiny of the Bill when they did not know who would be called before the Committee as witnesses to give special evidence, and what questions, queries and concerns they might raise, as many of them did?

Basically, the Government have prejudged the amount of time we need to spend on the Bill, regardless of all the subsequent queries that came up in our deliberations last week. The Special Standing Committee procedure has raised many questions. We had some excellent witnesses. There were about 35 or 38 representations from outside bodies, commenting particularly on the new measures in the Bill as opposed to the earlier draft Bill.

So far, well over 100 amendments have been tabled, so there is an awful lot to do in the next 20 sittings. It is ironic that the Government appear to be rushing to get the Bill through, yet, from my reading of the Bill, that is not mirrored by any timetabling for the implementation of the Bill, if it eventually becomes an Act, as we hope it will. That is a point that the Law Society has raised.

It is worth remembering that many of the sections of the Adoption Act 1976 took some eight years to be implemented. The last thing we want is to delay improvements to the adoption system by a further eight years. It is essential that we get it right first time round. I was involved in the Financial Services and Markets Bill a couple of years ago. The pre-legislative Committee and the Standing Committee on that Bill took up a year of my life. By the time it went through the Lords, it had been amended more than 2,500 times, most at the Government's behest. I gather it is already coming back to the House for further amendment, even though the Financial Services Authority has not been properly constituted. We do not want that to happen in this case through lack of deliberation in the first instance and through the Government not listening to reasonable amendments from other sides and from outside bodies.

It is a worry that the Bill does not contain any timetabling indications, and that we are left in the dark about when many of the regulations that are essential for the implementation of many clauses will be introduced. If we are lucky, regulations concerning the provision of support services may be introduced in spring, long after we have finished scrutinising the Bill in Committee. We are promised further regulations regarding the provisions of the Children Act 1989 relating to the ascertaining of children's wishes. As we speak, there is consultation on the draft standards for adopted adults and birth siblings, which will not finish until 30 November. I do not know when we will have the feedback. The thorny question of an adoption allowances review must be debated. We have no timetable for when we will hear about those matters.

Therefore, the details of many outstanding topics that will strategically affect the way in which we scrutinise the Bill will not be available for some time yet. I tabled several questions this week to ascertain the intentions behind some clauses, and I hope that the Minister will be speedy and forthright in answering them to help our debate. All the good intentions in the Bill will amount to little if they are not properly resourced. That is another question that we will address, particularly when we debate the adoption support services provisions between clauses 2 and 8.

As I have said, several issues have come out of our deliberations. The most striking was the consternation of almost all the witnesses and Opposition Members about the Bill's restriction on access to information about a child's birth parents. That is a drastically retrograde step from the 1976 Act. Not a single witness could understand why the Government had done that, let alone support the changes. Unless the Government can fully justify their changes or better still change their mind—there is still time to do so—I would not be surprised if there were a challenge under the European convention on human rights.

There are questions related to what support services for adoption and for the people concerned will be provided and whether local authorities will be properly resourced. There is the thorny issue of political correctness, which we will probably come to later this morning, and how to go about prioritising the paramountcy of child welfare. There is the question of how to speed up the process of adoption without subjecting it to meaningless targets, and the problem that the Bill contains a lack of extra provision for fast-tracking children under the age of three. There are several other problems.

In that context, let us look at the proposed timetabling. In three sittings—this morning, this afternoon and Thursday morning—we must discuss clause 1, which is the core of the Bill and deals with the principles, paramountcy and political correctness. We must also consider clauses 17 to 40 inclusive, which deal with the mechanics of the complicated placement orders, parental consent, contact, the dangers of contact with potentially abusive birth parents, removals, recovery orders, and how to deal with step-parents. We must also examine further changes in clauses 50 and 51 to the 1989 Act and compatibilities.

For all those 26 clauses, no less, we have been allotted the likely time of six hours and 55 minutes; I make that less than 16 minutes per clause. That does not include time to debate amendments—more than 100 amendments have already been tabled, many of which pertain to those early clauses. It is difficult to understand how on earth we are to deal successfully, efficiently and effectively with the technicalities of the legislation in that time.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey 10:45, 27 Tachwedd 2001

Surely the correct place for raising that issue was the Programming Sub-Committee. We should have flagged up some of our concerns then rather than wasting valuable Committee time now.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The concerns were flagged up well before that, on Second Reading, when we had an inkling that the Government wanted to programme the whole matter to end in January.

We will then move to clauses 41 to 49, which deal with pre-adoption procedures, adoption orders and the thorny issue of whether adoption should be exclusively for married couples—I am sure that Government Members will have things to say about that if they are true to the comments that they were keen to make throughout last week's sittings. I note that none of them has yet put his head above the parapet to table amendments on the issue; we shall see whether that happens by Thursday.

We will then deal with definitions of legitimation. The relevant group comprises 10 clauses, but only two and a half hours have been allocated to debate them; that is only 15 minutes per clause, leaving aside all the amendments that have so far been tabled and all those that we eagerly await from Government Members.

Next, we will go on to clauses 94 to 99, 104 and 105, which deal with proceedings for offences resulting from the regulations and the important issue of how to avoid delay, which is one of the core principles in clause 1. That group comprises eight clauses, for which we have five hours of debating time—very generously, we get 37.5 minutes per clause.

After that, we will go on to clauses 63 to 73 and the status of adopted children, where we have been allocated 10.5 minutes per clause. That hardly seems enough time to do the clauses justice, particularly as they deal with the topical subject of the inheritances of Members of the House of Lords and adoptions. I am sure that the Minister will comment on that, given that the Government have proposed various changes to the operation of the House of Lords.

Then we will come to clauses 80 to 87, 120 and 123 on intercountry adoptions, covering the issues of Scotland and overseas territories. That group again comprises 10 clauses, for which just five hours have been allotted—half an hour per clause, leaving aside the amendments.

We will then move to clauses 2 to 16, dealing with adoption support, assessments, local authority plans, fees, the review mechanism, inspection and regulation. Clauses 115 to 119 deal with the use of the register, which leaves a lot to be desired—again, that is a very technical subject—and grants to local authorities. There are 21 clauses in that group, which means 28.5 minutes per clause, leaving aside the amendments.

We will then deal with an enormous hotchpotch of clauses, beginning with clauses 53 to 62, which deal with access to information. As we have said, the provisions are retrogressive compared with the 1976 Act—I am sure that all hon. Members will want to contribute to that debate, as many did during the earlier proceedings. Other clauses cover the information and counselling available to adopting parents at the time of placement, entries on the register and disclosure of records. The group comprises 16 clauses and two schedules, with less than 25 minutes to debate each item.

Finally, we will have just 415 minutes for the remaining 24 clauses—plus all the new clauses, of which two have already been tabled, all the new schedules and all the new amendments dealing with the Children Act 1989. On top of that, we have constantly to refer as our bible to the flow chart on page 73 of the explanatory notes, which explains the way in which adoption works. It is one of the most complicated flow charts ever devised, requiring many hot towels and sessions in dark rooms to interpret effectively. We will doubtless refer back to it on many occasions, to follow the Minister's detailed explanation of how the Bill flows—if it begins to seem that the flow has been thwarted at any point.

This is not an easy Bill. It is not minor legislation. It is highly technical and contains several contentious areas dealing with matters of principle. Throughout it are clauses that require expert legal input. However, the Government have rushed it through in a matter of weeks, having produced the revised version on 19 October. Less than a week after detailed witness statements, which raised interesting, important and new points, we are debating this Bill. Our time has been heavily curtailed and we have to produce findings by 17 January. We must get this right; implementation of the Bill must not take eight years. In the interests of expediting debate, we will not, despite our objections to the timetables, oppose the motion.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I will clear up the confusion on the point made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley). The breakdown of the clauses was agreed without a vote in the Programming Sub-Committee, but the grossly inadequate number of sittings to scrutinise the Bill was determined by a whipped vote on the Floor of the House.

I have supported the Bill's main measures for a long time. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned, some were included in a draft Bill under the last Conservative Government. Sadly, this Bill has taken a long time to come to fruition. It deals with a complicated subject, on which there is a broad consensus of principle, but also disagreement on complex and detailed issues. The Government accordingly agreed to the Special Standing Committee process, which followed on from the three hearings of the special Select Committee before the general election.

We have a truncated programme, with only five weeks for debate, which has directly followed that scrutiny process. We were not allowed even a one-week interval to digest those complicated and intensive hearings, which lasted for six hours on one day. We all felt tired by the end. However, we had only a day and a half to table amendments to the initial clauses dealing with complicated issues of principle, particularly clause 1.

The Government's approach contrasts strangely with the handling of earlier Bills—for example, the Children Act 1989, which has been referred to repeatedly. That legislation was not forced through on a timetable. It was not guillotined, and Members of all parties worked hard to make the best stab at a complicated subject. The Act achieved much good. Some mistakes were made despite the time taken, and we will deal with some today.

Another example is the Family Law Bill. The debate on that lasted much longer than five weeks, and I was privileged to serve on the Committee. The then Opposition welcomed parts of the Bill, and they agreed that, if elected, they would bring it into force. No fixed time was set to bring it into force, and after three or four years, it has now been abandoned.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is not making an empty point. There is a huge discrepancy between the incredible rush in which the Bill is being forced through and the lack of a specified time when the Bill will become law. It is a question not just of when the legislation comes into force, but of when resources will be made available. We all know that any amount of laws and regulations relating to social services can be passed, but without the resources to implement them, little will be achieved in practice.

The Bill will definitely become an Act. The Minister may attempt to suggest that the Opposition, in stressing that the time for scrutiny is inadequate, are trying to damage, slow down or wreck the Bill. Let us be clear that the Opposition are strongly committed to the Bill. It is being dealt with early in the Session, and no one could argue that allowing an untimetabled approach with a few extra weeks for scrutiny—and an extra week's reflection between the hearings and the start of our working scrutiny—would prevent the Bill from becoming law. Rather, it would allow us to get our teeth into the issues and produce better law. Nevertheless, with the support of my hon. Friends, the Opposition will work as best we can within the limited time available.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that debate will be restricted. It is an early stage of the Session and we have plenty of time. It is extraordinary that debate of such a highly topical and uncontroversial Bill is being curtailed. It is an absolute disgrace.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Romsey, we voted against the Bill on the Floor of the House because we strongly believe that the Bill should not be dealt with in this way. Many Government Members present have a background in the caring services. At least two are former social workers who have made significant contributions in our Special Standing Committee. Others, such as the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman), have backgrounds in local government. The hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) has worked in the caring professions. So it goes on. I would have thought that such Government Members wanted to spend as much time as possible debating the Bill. I hope that they will take every opportunity to impress on Ministers that they feel as strongly as we do that the Government are dealing with this important Bill so shabbily.

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

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham seems to share the view put to me as a teacher about how to deliver a good lesson—tell everyone what you are going to say, say it and then tell everyone what you have said. If that is his approach to the rest of the Bill, it may foreshorten our time to debate the important and significant issues. The Bill introduces a major reform of adoption legislation. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman believes that the Bill has been delayed, but the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) thinks that it has been rushed through too early in the Session. It is doubtless part of the conflict of views among Opposition Members with which we shall have to grapple throughout the Committee stage.

The Bill is a major piece of legislation, which puts children at the centre of the adoption process. It sets out the basis for adoption support, reforms and modernises the legislative framework, and introduces special guardianship as a means of reforming and modernising the system. It should be considered alongside other significant Government actions, such as publishing national adoption standards, setting up the adoption and permanence taskforce and the adoption register.

The Bill should receive the scrutiny that it deserves, but it should also be delivered in a timely fashion. As our debate progresses, we shall be able to discuss how and when the measures should be implemented and how much detail should be set out in regulations.

Now that Opposition Members have had the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to a rational way of organising the House of Commons rather than to anything substantive in the Bill, perhaps we can get on with the matter in hand.

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

Thank you, Mrs. Roe, for allowing me—

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

Order.

It being half an hour after commencement of proceedings on the motion, The Chairman put the Question, pursuant to paragraph (9) of Sessional Order C [28th June] relating to the Programming of Bills.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne 11:00, 27 Tachwedd 2001

I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill; copies are available in the Room. I also remind Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting. Clause 1 Considerations applying to the exercise of powers