Adoption and Children Bill

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 27 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:30, 27 Tachwedd 2001

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.