Clause 1 - Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:00 am ar 27 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk 11:00, 27 Tachwedd 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 11, leave out `likely' and insert `bound'.

Clause 1(3) states:

``The court or adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.''

I have talked to several senior people in social services about that and there is no doubt that when a child is being considered for adoption, it is essential that the process proceeds as seamlessly as possible and that any unnecessary delays are kept to a minimum. The senior executives referred to cases in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cumbria where, because of the length of delays, by the time the children—I cannot mention names—were adopted they found it much more difficult to settle into their new families with their adoptive parents. One child had remained much longer with unsuitable foster parents, but in the other two cases the foster parents were doing their level best.

The drafting is weak, and I want to replace the word ``likely'' with ``bound'', because most reasonable Members would agree that any delay is ``bound'' to be prejudicial to the child's welfare.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the word ``bound'' is a concrete term? Can he not envisage circumstances in which a delay might be needed—for example, the court may feel that it is in the child's best interests? That is the overarching principle. Our experience in child care legislation has taught us that there must be a degree of flexibility within a framework of principles. He should not recommend making hard and fast rules, because there are so many variable circumstances in a child's life. The amendment would have the reverse effect to the one that he says he wants—

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be making an intervention.

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

Yes, I just remembered that. I have made the shortest and the longest interventions.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid and reasonable point, but does he not agree that the word ``likely'' is too weak? The Bill must send a strong signal that unnecessary delays will damage the child's welfare.

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 understand the remarks made by the hon. Members for North-West Norfolk and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). One of the main thrusts of the Bill is to bring the law into line with the Children Act 1989. I practised family law before 1989; I know that in child law one of the worst enemies of any sort of justice is delay. It used to be endemic in the system, but the 1989 Act changed all that—it changed the way that we dealt with children and family law. It brought to bear a sense of urgency that was more important than in other court cases.

Before 1989 there was a laissez faire attitude. The child was placed with someone and reports would be prepared after six, eight, nine or 10 months, with the result that the disposal hearing some 10 or more months later was very often a fait accompli—if all other things were equal, the court might feel that the child had been placed at that home for the last year. The parent seeking care and control or residence lost out completely on the day of the hearing, which was unfair. Understandably, children settle down quickly, so we need to adopt a more urgent approach in this area of the law.

I hear what the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford says about flexibility, but I also heard what the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said in moving the amendment. A rule of thumb for the whole Bill is that time is of the essence. The amendment therefore has force behind it and would be a useful amendment to make at this stage.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I rise in support of the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk. The objection to it is that it forces the court to say that delay would be ``bound'' to prejudice the child's welfare and that that is somehow restrictive. Anyone who feels that that is the case should read the clause in its entirety with ``bound'' substituted for ``likely''. The operative phrase comes at the end of subsection (3), which would read:

``The court or the adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to a decision is''—

bound—

``to prejudice the child's welfare.''

My hon. Friend is concerned that having both ``in general'' and ``likely'' makes the provision far too woolly. The clause needs tightening up, but the amendment would not make it absolute because the phrase ``in general'' would remain.

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

The debate on the amendment certainly fulfilled the intention of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that we should not delay. Subsection (3), which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk would amend, is modelled on the equivalent provision in section 1(2) of the Children Act—which, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly points out, was an important improvement in child law—but it extends the application of that duty to both adoption agencies and courts. I am sure that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) recognises that, but it is an important issue.

Clause 1 and the stipulations that it makes to minimise delay relate to both adoption agencies and courts and therefore to all decisions that are made about children during the adoption process. The Bill, like the Government, is clear that in general delay is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child. It is important to put our response to the amendment in the context of the other actions that we are taking in parallel to the Bill to ensure that delay, which hon. Members agree is undesirable in most cases, is minimised.

The national standards published in August state explicitly that children will not be kept waiting indefinitely for a ``perfect family''. They state that a plan for permanence must be made once a child has been in care for four months and that the plan must have clear, monitored time scales. We issued binding statutory guidance to local authorities to enforce that.

The standards set challenging time scales for matching children if the plan is for adoption. They also set challenging benchmark time scales for agencies, stipulating that if the agency decides that adoption is in the child's best interests, a family should be found within six months. We monitor that by regularly collecting statistics about local authority performance in respect of the key time scales in the standards for matching children with families. There has already some progress in that important area: the average time spent in care before adoption fell from three years, four months in 1996-97 to two years, nine months in 2000-01. As promised in the adoption White Paper, we will soon set a national time scale target as one of our public service agreement targets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford rightly mentioned that there might be circumstances in which a degree of delay would not prejudice the child's welfare and might even be in their interests: for example, if a child has multiple disabilities or special needs, extra time taken in the matching process may be appropriate. If there is a large sibling group, given the benefits of placing them together, it might be in the children's interest to take more time to find a family that is willing to take them together rather than to separate the group. Once the match has been made, children must be prepared carefully before placement—in fact, when we consulted children on the national standards, they told us that they did not necessarily want to be rushed into a placement.

We begin substantive debate in the Committee with one of the difficult issues connected with the need to find the correct balance in achieving the objectives about which there is widespread agreement. We need to reduce delay while recognising that, given the complex nature of adoption, there may be circumstances in which it is appropriate to take into account considerations that may cause delay. However, none of what I have said affects our determination to continue to bear down on harmful delay. That is our policy, and that is what the Bill and other actions of the Government will deliver. On the basis of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

In the light of the Minister's comment that she and her Department will bear down strongly on any unnecessary delays, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I beg to move amendment No. 15, in page 1, line 14, after ``decision'', insert—

``which shall have been ascertained by means of direct consultation with the child'.''

This probing amendment has been tabled to tease out details about clause 1. When looking through that important clause and listening to many of the witnesses that were examined during our sittings last week, it struck me and my colleagues that we must pay a deal of attention to the wishes and position of the child. I think that everyone agrees with that. That is why the welfare of the child has, quite rightly, been put at the centre of the adoption process.

Clause 1 states that

``The court or adoption agency must have regard to the following matters'', which include

``the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings regarding the decision (considered in the light of the child's age and understanding)''.

That is an open-ended provision; we will return to that aspect at other points in the debate. Strictly speaking, the clause does not place an obligation on the court or the adoption agency, which includes the local authority social services department, to speak to the child. All the information could be ascertained by other means.

There are provisions, on which I am sure we will have more detail when the regulations are finally published, for social workers to produce reports on the vulnerability of a child or the suitability of his current or prospective accommodation. An educational psychologist may be enlisted to produce reports from teachers or classroom assistants at the school where a prospective adoptee is being educated. The reports may make reference to any police involvement in terms of any police record or problems that the child has got into, and descriptions of any domestic violence may be mentioned, including interviews with the parent or parents. The process will involve frequent discussions with health visitors or GPs about the medical history of the prospective adoptee. However, all those considerations could be fulfilled without speaking to the child.

I am mindful of the process because of a personal experience, albeit on a different scale and going back many years. When my parents divorced, there were custody proceedings for me and my brothers and sisters. We were hardly involved in those proceedings at all, even though we had firm views on the subject. In interviews with the court people making the decisions, we featured hardly at all. A more explicit requirement needs to be inserted so that it is clearly understood that, while all the reports are necessary, someone during the adoption process should sit down with little Johnny and have a meaningful interview with him so that his wishes are properly ascertained— rather than simply refer to little Johnny's parents, probation officer, health visitor and a panoply of other professionals, who will of course have an input.

Many witnesses last week said that children of a certain age or above should have a veto on certain parts of the process, be it the placement process to which we shall come later, or the final adoption orders. That raises many more questions, but on balance I do not favour it—which is why our probing amendment would insert an explicit requirement that in ascertaining the wishes, feelings and needs of the child at the centre of the process, an appropriate person should have a meaningful interview with that child. If the Minister gave us detailed confirmation that that will happen as part of the directional regulations, we would be reassured. Under the clause as it stands, the process can technically take place without the child having spoken a word.

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) 11:15, 27 Tachwedd 2001

The comments of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham have a great resonance. He related his personal circumstances and the breakdown of his parents' marriage. It was the very issues he raised in that respect that drove me to table an amendment to the Bill that became the Family Law Act 1996, which stated that

``In making the decision, the Court shall also have regard, on the evidence before it, to

(a) the wishes and feelings of the child considered in the light of his age and understanding and the circumstances in which those wishes were expressed.''

In that debate, I spoke about consent orders in divorce—when everything was decided down to who had care and control of the dog, but no one discussed matters directly with the young children who were, so to speak, in the eye of the storm. It was exactly the sort of poignant situation that the hon. Gentleman describes that drove me to amend the law in 1996.

Although amendment No. 15 may look like a simple probing amendment, it is important. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that all that the authorities require might be found on paper. However, if we are serious about the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and young person throughout his or her life, as is claimed in the clause, we must recognise that the decisions are momentous and the child or young person should be interviewed about them one to one. That may be an obvious point, but the amendment is worthy. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance in her response.

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

I have considerable sympathy with the views expressed by the hon. Gentlemen, but the Bill already provides what is needed. I hope that I will be able to give Committee members the assurances they are right to want about the nature of children's involvement in the decision making.

The Government believe that the child's wishes and feelings should be actively sought and fully taken into account at all stages of the adoption process. That is a key value that underpins our national adoption standards, which specify that

``every child should have his wishes and feelings listened to, recorded and taken into account. Where they are not acted on, the reasons for doing so will be explained to the child and properly recorded''.

The Bill underpins that principle. Under clause 1(4)(a), courts and adoption agencies will be under a positive legal obligation to ascertain the child's wishes and feelings about all decisions relating to adoption, and to take them into account in the light of their age and understanding. They must do that. It is a legal obligation.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham raised the spectre that it may be possible to do that without directly consulting the child. I assure him that I do not believe that it would be possible to do that without direct consultation: that must be done if the child is old enough. It is arguable that direct consultation with a baby would not be especially enlightening, but the principle that prompted the amendment is right. The assumption must be that even relatively young children have a view and that it must be taken into account.

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

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Does she agree that it might be worth examining the case for separate representation of children throughout the proceedings? It is set out that the children will be represented separately at placement order stage and on application, and that they can be represented separately at the adoption order stage. Would it not be in line with her comments and those of other Committee members about the importance of listening to children to provide in the Bill for their right to separate representation throughout the process?

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

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will touch on in a minute. He is right to say that the Bill provides for children to have the right to be party to proceedings on a placement order and for them to be able to be party to proceedings on an adoption order. No doubt we will consider that issue in more detail when we discuss the directly relevant clauses.

Following the points about the importance of agencies taking into account the fact that even relatively young children have a view about the process and about the way in which agencies will be expected to ascertain that directly, the precise procedure will be set out for adoption agencies in regulations and guidance, and for the courts in court rules and guidance. I assure the Committee that the new adoption agencies regulations that we will make to accompany the Bill's implementation will place explicit obligations on agencies to consult the child. I agree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy that that involves talking to them face to face.

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

Does my hon. Friend also agree that in some circumstances direct consultation and hard-and-fast rules might place undue pressure on a child, for example, if the child is in a stable foster placement awaiting a permanent placement. From a child's perspective, the decision may be very difficult, so to make the provision hard and fast, as amendment would, might not always be in the child's best interest.

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

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which brings us back to the difficult balances that need to be struck in relation to individual children and the necessity of ensuring that professionals acting within regulations and guidelines are nevertheless able to reflect those children's circumstances.

We need to make clear in the adoption agency regulations the explicit obligations on agencies to consult the child, to record the child's views, to ensure that the child's views are considered in the decision making process—for example, by adoption panels—and, where those views are not acted upon, to establish the reasons why not.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

What does it take away from the Bill to add the few words that I have suggested?

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

What is important, as the my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has pointed out, is that it might be to use a variety of ways when consulting the child. We can envisage cases in which some flexibility will be needed about the way in which the child is spoken to and involved in the decision making process. To provide that flexibility within a very clear framework is difficult. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my assurances about other ways in which we can achieve our shared objective.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

In a case involving a child who has a severe disability, consulting the child might be difficult—depending on the degree of the disability. Making the provision hard and fast does not take into account such a scenario.

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

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the complexity of this situation. That is why it is right that such matters are dealt with in guidance and regulations.

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 was rather expecting the age-old parliamentary word ``otiose'', so the Minister's response is rather disappointing. On the one hand, she is saying there will be one-to-one consultation; on the other, she is saying we are not going to put such a requirement in the Bill. I cannot understand why. Referring to the intervention by the hon. Member for Erewash, if the child has difficulty expressing himself, that will surely be taken into account by the professional who is interviewing the child.

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

The hon. Gentleman argues against himself: he cannot simultaneously argue that such matters will be taken into consideration by the professional and that the requirement needs to be stated explicitly on the face of the Bill.

Perhaps I am failing, but I am attempting to be helpful by spelling out the extent to which I agree that it is almost inconceivable that one can ascertain a child's views and wishes without talking to them directly. The process does not lend itself to being spelled out on the face of the Bill; instead, we need to set out the framework and the expectations more clearly in our regulations and guidance. That is why as we prepare the new regulations we will carefully consider what we need to do to ensure that the need to consult the child actively and in advance of making decisions is better represented than is the case in existing regulations. We certainly need to make improvements in that respect.

Procedure for adoption agencies will be included in the regulations and guidance. Court rules will provide that a children's guardian must be appointed to represent the child. The guardian's duties will include ascertaining the child's views through direct contact and reporting them to the court. It is good judicial practice—I defer to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department—to consult the child, if he or she is of sufficient age and understanding, in a sensitive and informal manner so that the judge can directly hear from the child. Clause 1(4)(a) obliges the courts to consider the child's views in reaching a decision. Court guidance will cover the need to explain how the child's views were taken into account in reaching a decision, thus creating a further lever to ensure that those views are ascertained, considered and reported.

I hope that hon. Members accept the importance of setting out in regulation and guidance the ways in which we ascertain children's views and wishes. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 11:30, 27 Tachwedd 2001

I started by saying that this was a probing amendment, but I am emboldened to think that it is more important than that by the contribution of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and the Minister's inadequate reply to my intervention.

Having bared my personal experiences, I should say that there was no argument about where the dog went when my parents split up. No one spoke to the dog, but it ended up with me. A happy arrangement was brokered and these days all parties get on like a house on fire with their respective families.

The Minister did not give a convincing argument against the wording I propose being added. Accepting the amendment would make my intentions, with which she concurs, more explicit. She referred to regulations and suggested that the Government might examine them in more detail, but we have had no sight of those regulations, no indication of when they might be available, and no idea of the input. We cannot take on face value an assurance that the regulations will be considered and that some improvements might be made to pander to my amendment.

It is inconceivable there will be circumstances in which all the processes and orders can be carried out without someone physically evaluating the wishes and comments of the child, even if that child has severe disabilities. Subsection (4)(a) takes that into account by considering

``the light of the child's age and understanding''.

It is a material part of the order that the level of understanding is ascertained through an interview. It is deeply arrogant to suggest that in certain circumstances, however rare, those proceedings can take place without the child's having been sat down for a meaningful conversation at some stage. That is why I can see no downside to amending subsection (4).

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

I tried to develop a consensus, but clearly I have failed. What does the hon. Gentleman think about the point that I made semi-facetiously, but that may be significant in terms of legislation, about ascertaining the views of a baby?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

When ascertaining the views of a baby, one would use common sense to determine how the interview is to take place. Whether a conversation or a physical assessment, it could not take place without the person responsible for leading on the making of recommendations having seen the child himself. That is the point. Whether a conversation is on the level of a six-month-old baby or involves sitting down with a 10 or 14-year-old, who will have firmer views and will express them more effectively, is not the point. The Minister still has not made the case as to why there is a downside to stipulating that the child should be sought in person.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

To pick up on the Minister's intervention, the Opposition are not trying to produce beautifully crafted amendments; the Government have a range of expert legal draftsmen to do that. If the Minister feels that the words in parentheses afterwards do not properly cover the eventuality of a baby, who obviously cannot be consulted, there is nothing to prevent the Government from tabling an amendment. The Opposition are not wedded to the particular wording. The issue is whether the Government are willing to put direct consultation with the child into the Bill.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is the point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reinforcing it. The Minister tried to reassure us by saying that there was a positive legal obligation to ascertain. That is clear, it is in the Bill and no one disputes that. The intention behind the amendment is to establish what the ascertaining bit amounts to.

I will not accept a vague assurance that regulations of which we have no knowledge will close a small potential loophole with which lawyers could have a field day if it turned out that a child had not been seen in person. I am not reassured at all by the Minister. At the beginning, I was happy to accept some assurances, but I fear that things became worse as the debate proceeded. In those circumstances, I urge my colleagues to vote in favour of my amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Rhif adran 1 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - Considerations applying to the exercise of powers

Ie: 7 MPs

Na: 9 MPs

Ie: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Na: A-Z fesul cyfenw

Question accordingly negatived.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I beg to move amendment No. 74, in page 1, line 15, after `understanding', insert

`which, for children of the age of 10 or older shall include the consent of the child concerned being required for adoption.'.

One of the matters that will be hotly debated throughout is the extent to which children should be consulted, the extent of their rights, and how those rights should best be protected. It is generally agreed that correct consultation is important and that children's views should be actively sought. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) mentioned the need for representation and he will have noted that I have proposed an amendment to deal with that important issue.

The question of consent frequently arises. Another issue that arose frequently during the taking of evidence was the extent to which the age of the child should be a relevant consideration. The age of 10, being the age of criminal liability for a child, was mentioned. On the whole, those who gave evidence confirmed that, at that age, children knew the difference between right and wrong. Under the amendment, when a child has reached the age of 10, consent to adoption would be necessary.

I acknowledge that it is not a straightforward issue because of the question of whether a child is of sane mind at the age of 10, but that problem could be taken into account. The Bill should expressly specify that a child of 10 has the right to say no to adoption. If acknowledgement of children's rights is an important part of the Bill—

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

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, but what he said is different from the amendment, which talks about the child's consent ``being required for adoption''. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the child's right to say no, which is not the same. Will he clarify what he means?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I apologise. The wording of the amendment is correct. The Bill should recognise that at the age of 10—I am open to discussing whether another particular age would be more appropriate—a child has the right to consent to adoption. It does not appear in the Bill now, but it should.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 11:45, 27 Tachwedd 2001

The Committee may already be fed up with me referring to hard-and-fast rules, but I am going to repeat that specifying an age in the Bill is inappropriate and will not encourage best practice. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) says that he is prepared to discuss what age is most appropriate. No age is appropriate. However, where a child can express a view, they should be consulted. No one would deviate from that, but it is inappropriate to say that they should be consulted at age 10, 11 or 12. It is important to bear it in mind that the likely relationship is between the social services department, social workers, other agencies and an older child for whom the department is considering long-term permanency plans, of which adoption is the first option.

It is likely that a department or a family will have known the child for several years. There should be continual in-care reviews if that child is placed with foster carers. A review should include the plan for permanency. The child, depending on their nature and age, will be involved in the review in its most appropriate form. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about the need to talk to the child as well as various professionals.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Can the hon. Gentleman foresee any circumstances in real-life placement in which a 10-year-old child who did not want to be adopted would be placed?

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

Yes, I can. If the department has a care order, it has parental responsibility. Parents frequently have to make decisions for children with which they do not agree. That is parental responsibility. The court would have to be satisfied, an assessment on the child would have to be carried out, and the guardian ad litem would have to see the child. The child might want not to move on from foster care, but to stay there for ever and a day. However, the foster carers might not be offering that, because they do not provide that service for the department. In that case, a decision would be made that the child's needs were best met by permanent placement in an adoptive family. That might be against the child's wishes, but it happens all the time, and may be entirely appropriate in certain circumstances.

We cannot have the mindset that, if a child wants to do something, that is exactly what we do. A social services department has parental responsibility.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman was right to remind us that, if a child is in foster care, that should only be temporary. I also accept that the authority is in loco parentis. However, if the child is 10 years old and can think for himself, no matter what the local authority thinks is best for him, if he does not want to be adopted it is inconceivable that he could be. Alternative circumstances would have to be agreed.

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

I do not agree at all. We heard in the compelling evidence, particularly from the academic witnesses, that children's lives are far more successful if they are placed with an adoptive family. The consequence of the hon. Gentleman's proposition would be to move the child to another foster carer. How long for? Would he then go to another foster carer? He would be allowed to drift in care. We have compelling evidence. If an assessment is made on a child who says that he does not want to be adopted and all the evidence is that it is in his best interests to be adopted, it is the local authority's responsibility to take that decision. We cannot set our face by a 10-year-old saying that that is what he wants, with people having parental responsibility accepting everything that he says, particularly on an issue as crucial as this. Therefore, I cannot support the amendment. To set an age in the Bill would be to set rules that are too hard and fast, and would not be in the best interests of children for whom we are seeking permanent homes.

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)

The amendment has been tabled for the best possible motives and with the best possible thinking behind it, but I say to the hon. Member for Huntingdon with the greatest respect that his heart is ruling his head. I fully appreciate his reason for tabling the amendment and the sincere way that he argued his case, but I know of children of 10 who are not mature enough to give a straight answer to anything. Whereas my children ran rings around their mother and me at the age of 10—perhaps I am na—ve—there are obvious differences.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the local authority will be in loco parentis. It will have the welfare of the child as a paramount consideration. If all other things are equal, it will be bound to carry on with the placement and ultimately the adoption. That is probably a correct interpretation of the law. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that in each case we should ask the child, regardless of his age, whether he wishes to be adopted, I would agree that that would be appropriate. However, it would not be appropriate for the veto to lie with the child. The child's wishes should be one factor in the whole process. I understand the argument behind the amendment, but it is deficient as currently drafted.

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

I appreciate the sincerity with which the amendment was moved, but such a suggestion is misplaced. We had some excellent sittings last week listening to our witnesses. Their evidence clarified much of our thinking. I hope that the new approach to adoption and consultation, in which the views of young people are listened to, and the new structures on children's guardians will encourage many more children to say explicitly, ``Yes, I would like to be adopted. That's for me''. I hope that many children younger than 10 years old will be enabled to do that. I hope also that it would be exceptionally rare for children to be faced with the option of an adoption that they did not want. If that did occur, I would hope that under the improved mechanisms, greater understanding and better procedures for listening to children, they would be enabled to say, ``No, this is not for me. This is not what I want.''

Clause 1 is well balanced and carefully proposed. I am afraid that the amendment would increase children's vulnerability. It mentions specifically children aged over 10. By that age—often even if they have lived in the most appalling circumstances with birth parents—children have developed huge loyalties to parents, siblings, grandparents and other relatives. They can be extremely torn about their future and what they want to happen to them. I would worry about placing children in a position of carrying such responsibility. Indeed, I cannot imagine myself carrying such a responsibility at any childhood age or being required to decide whether I would want to be adopted.

The amendment would put an incredible amount of pressure on children and, as Members on both sides of the House care for children, we should not do that. The nightmare scenario of a child facing adoption proceedings with a barrister instructed by people who want to undermine that child's view of what should happen to them would be appalling and destructive. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendment to a Division, although I recognise the decent spirit in which it was moved.

Jacqui Smith rose—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

If the hon. Member for Romsey wishes to catch my eye, she should stand up in her place. Waving, winking or putting her thumbs up is not good enough; the rules apply here as they do in the Chamber. I believe that the hon. Lady tried to catch my eye.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

You winked at me earlier, Mrs. Roe, so I thought that I had caught your eye.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

I was surprised that the hon. Lady did not stand up until later, which is why I did not call her.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I apologise for the misunderstanding.

I want to echo the sentiments expressed by hon. Members who spoke against the amendment. I, too, feel that it is well meant. However, criminal law is one thing, and the position of a child being placed for adoption is another. We are speaking about a 10-year-old in a vulnerable situation, at a time of intense emotional turmoil that few of us can understand. My feelings are swayed by a case that I encountered recently—it did not involve adoption, but there were parallels.

Let us consider a case in which one birth parent does not want the child adopted but, for the best reasons, social services—or whoever—decides that the child should no longer be with the birth family. The birth parents could find ways of putting incredible pressure on the child and, if he or she has the power of veto, the emotional burden would be more than we should ask someone to bear. If the amendment is pressed to a Division, I shall vote against it.

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

The arguments surrounding the amendment have been well and clearly exemplified.

The problem is not what intentions may or may not be behind an amendment—admirable or not—but the affect that it would have on legislation. The Government want to resist the amendment for two reasons. First, there are the more technical issues raised by hon. Members about a single age range. If we determined an age of 10, how would we deal with questions about the capacity of the child? As hon. Members have pointed out, there may be very different circumstances, abilities and natures among children aged 10.

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) 12:00, 27 Tachwedd 2001

To play devil's advocate for a minute, it was the hon. Lady's Government who did away with the doli incapax rule so that, effectively, every child of 10 is criminally liable regardless of his or her ability. That tends to undermine her last statement.

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

I was supported in my view by the hon. Member for Romsey, who pointed out that there is an important distinction to be made between criminal liability and the ability or need of a child to make a very difficult and potentially tricky decision about their future and their relationship with their birth parents and their prospective adopters. There are technical difficulties around the idea of distinguishing by age.

If we are attempting to make it practically impossible for an older child who could express a view to be adopted against their will, does not subsection (4)(a)—and, indeed, the rest of the clause—do so? Having weighed up the issues in the checklist and the other aspects of the clause, the courts would need an extremely good reason to do what the hon. Member for Huntingdon appears to be asking us to avoid: the possibility of a child being adopted against their consent.

That leads me to the second problem, which was ably described, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre. The amendment would require not that we should consult a child, ensuring that their wishes are represented in court and borne seriously in mind in the decisions that a court or adoption agency reaches, but explicitly that we should ask and expect the child to consent to the placement or adoption. Forcing a child to make what would have to be a formal, open, legal statement would place too much responsibility on them—probably regardless of their age. We have heard mention of some of the guilt felt by the child during the process of adoption, and of the complexity of the child's feelings. Even when there has been abuse, for example, children continue to have a commitment and an attachment to their parents.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I am interested in the Minster's line of argument against the amendment. My hon. Friend's amendment would amend the provision that

``The court or adoption agency must have regard to . . . the child's ascertainable wishes and feelings''.

Is it not therefore reasonable, in considering such ascertainable wishes and feelings, that the court should question whether an older child is agreeable to the idea and feels that the adoption should go ahead? If so, the court would be taking the child's consent into account.

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

The hon. Gentleman undermined his point as he developed his question. He first asked whether the court would consider whether the child consented and went on to provide legally weaker definitions of what constitutes consent. There is a general consensus in Committee on the objective; disagreement only on how best to achieve it. We all accept that the child's wishes and feelings should be ascertained and represented to the court. The opposition to the amendment is focused on whether it is right to ask a child, in a formal, public and legal manner, to consent to the plan. We have debated some of the difficulties and my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre suggested that requiring such consent could place a terrible burden on a child. We should remember that we are talking about adoption, so the children would carry the decision with them for the rest of their lives. It would influence their entire relationship with the adoptive family.

It is interesting that a specific requirement for children aged 12 or over expressly to consent to adoption was included in the 1996 draft adoption Bill, but was removed, following consultation, on the grounds that it placed too much of a burden on the child. The balance of evidence at the hearings would support that approach. I reiterate—as it may have been the intention behind the amendment—that subsection (4)(a) will oblige courts to ascertain and take account of the child's view,

``in the light of the child's age and understanding''.

Court rules provide that a guardian must be appointed to represent the child, and the guardian's duties include reporting the child's views to the court. The courts are obliged to consider them before taking any decision. It is envisaged that guidance to courts and the judiciary in respect of the new Act will have to cover how the child's views were taken into account before the final decision was reached. That is the appropriate way of ensuring that the child's views are heard in court. The amendment is neither workable nor desirable, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Having heard the discussion, I shall withdraw the amendment, but I am still not confident that issues surrounding the consent of the child have been dealt with adequately. The defeat of amendment No. 15, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and the withdrawal of my amendment takes us back to the Bill, in which the child's rights are not expressly stated. We will have to rely on guidance. The Minister states that guidance will be proper and adequate, but we have had no sight of it.

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

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that I spoke about regulations, which are legally much stronger than guidance.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I appreciate that regulations are firmer than guidance. However, we have still had no sight or knowledge of such regulations, so it is fit and proper to use today's debate as a forum in which to discuss what those may be.

To that extent, it is worth reiterating that there was—I think—agreement that a child has the right to a say in whether they are adopted and that there should be contact with the child. I have gone further by adding an age. If a child of 10 can be locked up for committing a criminal offence, I do not see why we cannot stipulate an age at which they can have a say in their adoption. Clearly, that brings us back to the regulations, and I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether we are likely to have early sight of them. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I beg to move amendment No. 75, in page 2, line 2, leave out from `with' to `including' in line 4 and insert

`any person who is entitled to make an application pursuant to section 25(3).'

There are two points behind my tabling the amendment. First, all hon. Members would agree that this is quite a complicated Bill in its legal construction and drafting. Reading clause 1 and cross-referring to clause 25, which contains the contact provisions, I realised that slightly different definitions were used, although the end intentions were very similar. The definition in question is in clause 1(4)(f). I noticed that clause 25, which has significant relevance to issues such as contact, used a different definition. Therefore, I suggest that the people who can apply for a contact order should be the same as those mentioned in clause 1(4)(f).

There is a wider issue, which I am also trying to get at with my amendment. It would be nice to think that most adoption agencies would be keen to encourage adoption, but we must consider whether the provisions could be used to keep a prospective adopted child within a specific area, rather than to have the child promoted on to the national register. In certain circumstances, particular adoption agencies may not be keen on using that register. My amendment is aimed at tightening up the legislation slightly to prevent an adoption agency from being able to get round one of the Bill's purposes.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 12:15, 27 Tachwedd 2001

The hon. Gentleman and I agree about the legal complexity of the legislation. I understand the probing aspects of the second part of his comments, and I will come to that in a moment.

Let me outline our concerns about the legal effect of the amendment. It seems to be aimed at narrowing the range of people whose relationships with the child the court or adoption agency must consider in coming to a decision about adoption. That may not be the aim of the amendment, but it would be the effect. The hon. Gentleman compared clauses 1 and 25. It is worthwhile for us to remember that clause 25(3)(a) is modelled on the Children Act provision for care contact orders. The intention in clause 25(3) is to enable anyone to apply, with leave, for a care contact order, and is different from and narrower than the intention in clause 1.

Another difficulty is that the amendment would remove the obligation on the court and agency to consider the child's relationship with its father, unless the father had parental responsibility. For that reason, the narrowing would be inappropriate. In the overarching clause that we have drafted to determine the conditions for all decisions that are made by courts and adoption agencies, what matters is not the precise relationship but the significance to the child of the relationship. That is why the drafting of clause 1 is flexible and differs, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, from that of clause 25(3).

Clause 1 provides a wide definition of ``relative'' but also allows for the relationship with any other person that the court or agency considers relevant to be taken into account. That might apply if a distant family member or family friend has taken a leading role in caring for the child. It can only be right to consider the value of that relationship from the child's point of view and how it would be affected by adoption. However, the court or agency must balance the value of the relationship and the chance of its continuing against all the other factors in the checklist before coming to its decision. I hope that I have made it clear that there are different intentions in different parts of the Bill for the definition of relatives.

The hon. Gentleman probed the extent to which it will be compulsory for local adoption agencies to place children on the adoption register and was concerned that the Bill allows a way in which that could be avoided. I assure him that that is not the case. Regulations under clause 117 will require local authorities to forward to the register the details of all children who have adoption as the plan, if a local or regional match has not been found within the set period.

If the register generates potential matches, it will be the responsibility of the adoption agency to consider whether the match is in the child's best interest. Under current procedures, the decision would be taken following a recommendation on the suggested match by the adoption panel. In considering the matches, the agency will need to balance the relationships relevant under clause 1(4)(f) with all the other factors in the checklist, including the benefits to the child of being adopted. However, most contact in adoption is indirect or ``letterbox'' contact, which can easily take place over a considerable geographical distance. We do not intend to allow local adoption agencies a way out of engaging in the adoption register, which we consider to be an important means of ensuring that we are better able to match children more quickly with prospective adopters. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that we will do what is necessary to ensure that the register operates in the desired way.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I am reassured by the Minister's remarks, and I am prepared to withdraw my amendment. However, having heard her talk about the differences between the clauses, I am still not sure that we have got it right.

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

I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman about the first of his concerns.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

If fathers are not included in the Children Act provision, it may be appropriate for them to receive contact rights if they are so excluded in clause 25. At the same time, I am not sure whether there are provisions to ensure that clause 1(4)(f) cannot be used to complicate the adoption process because it does not sufficiently define who should be considered for continued access to the child. That is a complicated area, and I am struggling with the words to define it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 14, leave out—

`religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:No. 19, in page 2, line 14, leave out from `the' to end of line 15 and insert `child'.

No. 24, in page 2, line 15, after `background', insert—

`, subject to the proviso that such consideration shall be secondary to the matters to be considered in subsections (2) and (3).'.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

Amendment No. 1 is probing, and we want to use it to examine some important aspects of the Bill. There are several typographical errors on page 31 of the amendment paper. I appear to be called ``Mr. Mr.'' all the way through. There is also a slight error in the manuscript amendment that I submitted to the clerks. My original manuscript said that I would leave out

``religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic''.

Making the clause say that ``the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child's background'' would simplify it. As the amendment is probing, I will not spend much time talking about the discrepancy in its tabling, but speak instead to the general principle.

It is of paramount importance that the interests of a child who is to be adopted are put first. When an adoption agency or a court considers a child for adoption, it is important that it looks at the child's background. It concerns me that the clause is very specific about all the factors that must be considered. If an agency or a court decides to be pedantic and starts to consider all those factors—religious persuasion, racial origin, and cultural and linguistic background—it could lead to delays in the process of considering the child's suitability for adoption by specific adoptive parents.

Perhaps it is worth considering how important these factors are in relation to the child's age which is not mentioned in this amendment. Obviously, if a child has reached a benchmark age of ten and has experience of a religious upbringing, a racial background, or a cultural background, or if the child speaks a language that may not be the language of the adoptive parents, all those factors should be taken into account. However, if the child is very young and has not yet grasped any particular knowledge of language, they will not have a particular cultural or religious background to which they can relate. In such cases, we are treading on dangerous ground—in fact, we are treading on fairly archaic ground if we believe that the religious background of the child's natural parents is relevant to the adoption procedure for a child who may be a babe in arms. I think that that is a factor—

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that subsection (4)(d) covers those points.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

The hon. Lady points outs that

``the child's age, sex, background and any of the child's characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant'' is in subsection (4)(d), but subsection (5) says

``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.''

The two subsections are to some extent contradictory. What I want to do is to give the adoption agency and the court flexibility while taking into account the child's background.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

On that point, in each subsection the word ``must'' is used. The organisation making the decision ``must have regard to'' the list, but the child's welfare is of paramount consideration: it outweighs all the factors on the list. In coming to its conclusions it must give consideration to those factors, but what ultimately drives the process is the child's welfare.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I thank the hon. Lady for pointing that out, but I remain concerned that on the face of the Bill it says that when placing a child for adoption

``the adoption agency must give due consideration'' to those factors, which are, in the case of younger children, too prescriptive. I want nothing to appear on the face of the Bill that might delay the adoption procedure for children to whom those factors are irrelevant.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Llafur, Chatham and Aylesford 12:30, 27 Tachwedd 2001

We all want to speed up the adoption process and avoid any unnecessary delays being inherent in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman says that he wanted to give adoption agencies the freedom to find placements for children and that he would be doing the agencies a favour by removing aspects of the clause, but I do not recall any adoption agency making that request either during the evidence hearings or in written evidence. Has the hon. Gentleman received representations from a UK adoption agency making such a request?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

My reasons for tabling the amendment are those of all Members of Parliament: we represent our constituents and, in doing so, we want to do what is best for children.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

On the comment of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, clause 1(5) was not the specific subject of inquiry during the witness hearings. Witnesses were not asked for their comments on that part of the Bill. However, we received submissions along the lines that my hon. Friend has mentioned and if I catch your eye, Mrs. Roe, I will mention them later.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and look forward to hearing about the more detailed representations that have been received. I refer the Committee also to the minutes of evidence taken by the Select Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill—this Bill's predecessor—in April. The subject was discussed at that time.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us further on the intention behind his amendment? I am confused about whether he wants to broaden or narrow the clause. He says that it is too prescriptive; presumably that means that he would like to add other factors, but the amendment would leave the word ``background'', which can include all the factors already listed and others. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the Committee what other factors in a child's background he wants to be considered during an adoption process?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the purpose of the amendment. We want a clauses that states that an adoption agency must give due consideration to a child's background, but does not have a prescriptive list of items of background to which the agency must, by law, refer. The items in subsection (5) are not especially relevant to many of the children who come forward for adoption. Of course, some factors will be relevant in cases involving older children, but many if not most are irrelevant to children who are merely babes in arms. The essence of the adoption process should be that if children are available for adoption and all parties, including the birth parents, are content, the adoption agency should be able to find a suitable home for them as speedily as possible so that they can be brought up in a relevant environment. Religious and cultural backgrounds are irrelevant to a babe in arms.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

Will the hon. Gentleman consider a babe in arms who was circumcised because of its religion? Would that be a relevant factor in the adoption procedure?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I am not sure that it would. I do not want to go into my personal situation, but circumcision has taken place in British society for some time, and often has nothing to do with religious background.

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

Ah, the cut and thrust of debate—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is very quick.

The hon. Member for North Dorset speaks of very young children, the relevance of their background and how it might affect them in later life. He has also mentioned child migrants, and I understand that he was involved in the inquiry into that issue—an excellent inquiry on which the Health Committee should be congratulated. Does he recall that very young children were removed without consent or adoption certificates and shipped abroad? He heard testimonies from people who had been moved to a different country and who spoke about the need to understand their background. Many others were removed from their homes and placed with white families. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which will help me to answer him. It was horrendous that older children who came from religious backgrounds were placed in children's homes of a different faith in Australia. The crux—and the real horror—was the forcible removal of children by the authorities here with the connivance of those in Australia and their shipment to the other side of the world. The biggest injustice suffered by these children, who are now all adults, was their inability to find out where they came from and who their birth parents were. They did not feel that there was a particular injustice along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests. There were myriad injustices in the procedure—the way in which children were removed; the duplicity of the various agencies in respect of the birth parents; the forging of certificates for emigration; the abuse that they suffered in Australia; and the cultural background in which they were placed. It was assumed that the girls would become domestic servants and the boys would become farm workers.

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

As a member of the all-party child migrants group, I have met several of them. I have also read ``Empty Cradles'' which is a powerful account of what happened to many of them. The hon. Gentleman is describing the process, but I want him to consider the effect of that process on the individuals involved in it. ``Empty Cradles'' gives testimonies from people who said that they did not know where they belonged; many of them were stateless. Failing to take account of people's backgrounds and origins leaves them with questions. It is not just the testimonies in ``Empty Cradles''—there are testimonies going back for years and years of people who were placed inappropriately.

Mr. Walter rose—

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

On a point of clarification, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford made a good intervention, but he did not say how old those children were.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

That is an intervention and it is for the hon. Member for North Dorset to decide whether he will give way again.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I can probably answer the question. The children involved the tens of thousands of cases that occurred ranged from as young as three or four-year-olds to those in their early teens. There is one point that I want to bring home and then I would like to move on because I think that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford makes some valid points. I have no doubt that we will discuss those points when we deal with intercountry adoptions—

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

When I finish my point I will be happy to give way to the hon. Lady. The crux of the issue is whether the factors are relevant to very young children or to older children. I believe that they are relevant to older children. They should have been taken into account in the case of the child migrants, but no one was taking anything into account at that stage; it was simply that money was available to ship them to the other side of the world.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

I want to take the hon. Gentleman back to the beginning of his speech, when he said that this subject was debated in April by the Select Committee on the previous Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), who used to be a social worker dealing with adoption, said most on the subject. She described trying to place children in her early days and the nonsense of having to look for adoptive parents who were seven-eighths Afro-Caribbean and one-eighth white. She said that the system was totally politically correct and that because social workers were chasing people who simply did not exist, the child would not be placed.

The Bill takes us well away from such a system. All it says is that such factors are part of the list of considerations. Subsection (4)(d) answers many of hon. Gentleman's concerns about what consideration will be given to such issues, depending on a child's needs, age and circumstances. The climate created by the Bill will be vastly different from the one described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset 12:45, 27 Tachwedd 2001

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention because she has made my point for me. If we were to leave the matter at clause 1(4), especially paragraph (d), I would be content. My problem is that subsection (5), which is much more prescriptive, has been added. If, as the hon. Lady has pointed out, we are simply considering

``the child's age, sex, background and any of the child's characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant'',

I am happy with that. I have tabled no amendments to that subsection, because I find it entirely reasonable. However, I do not find reasonable the situation into which I fear we could be led, wherein adoption agencies and others will start to be very prescriptive about taking things into account. They will create a checklist, particularly when considering younger children. They will consider a child's religious persuasion—even though they may have none—racial origin, cultural and linguistic background. I do not think that the linguistic background of an 18-month-old is particularly relevant. The linguistic background of a four-year-old, however, is very relevant.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

The hon. Gentleman said earlier that if a child were very young, religious background need not necessarily be considered. Is he saying that if a child has already been baptised as a Christian, that can quite happily be ignored?

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I did not say that at all. If a child has a particular religious background—a baptism would obviously be a significant event in such a background—that should be taken into account. However, it does not necessarily need to be on a checklist that the adoption agency considers. I challenge the hon. Lady to produce statistics on the number of very young children who have been baptised or been through any other such ceremony and are presented for adoption. My impression, based on anecdotal evidence, is that the number would be very small. A particular religious background could be taken into account, but that does not mean that it should appear on a checklist for the adoption agency to have to satisfy itself and the court about it.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am listening closely to my hon. Friend, because the essence of the suggestion from Government Members is that religion, whether it entails the physical manifestation of circumcision or the spiritual ones of baptism, is in some way imposed on a person. Religious belief is something that one grows into thinks about and adopts of one's own volition. The implication of what has been said is that people go through life with the badge of baptism or circumcision and have no ability to decide for themselves what religion they care to adopt later in life.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. His point was made differently from the way that I made mine but it was made effectively none the less. If children are entering a new environment with new adoptive parents, we should not make them carry a badge—a badge of religious persuasion—that may not be suitable as they go through life. In fact, being baptised into one part of the Christian faith does not necessarily preclude one from adopting the practices of another.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Although there has been much discussion about religion, in practice, it is the ethnic element that most often results in children not being adopted. On Second Reading of the original Bill and in Select Committee that examined it, the Minister responsible for that Bill, the then hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), made it absolutely clear that he did not want that issue to lead to delays. However, as my hon. Friend says, by including the provision as clause 1(5) instead of leaving it under clause 4, it has been put on a par with the ruling on delay in subsection (3) and is not subservient to it. Thus, we will continue to find what we and the courts have already found so often: that children cannot be placed because they are not from the appropriate ethnic background. Surely, that is the heart of my hon. Friend's argument.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Ceidwadwyr, North Dorset

I have the record of my hon. Friend's comments in the Select Committee in April open in front of me. I have no doubt that we will hear from him again as we debate the amendments.

I do not want to detain the Committee too much longer, but we are concerned about the interests of the child. The adoption of a younger child should not be delayed because of time spent investigating its supposed religious persuasion, cultural background, or linguistic ability, none of which may be relevant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned racial origin, which is a slightly more contentious area. That is a matter of judgment, and the courts and those who are involved in the adoption process are able to make such judgments. I see no reason why racial origin should preclude adoption. There are many mixed-race parents whose children bear the characteristics of both racial origins; that should not be a problem in our multiracial society. Obviously, those who are adopting will be cognisant of racial origin, and it may be something that the natural parents have feelings about, but I do not believe that any of the factors highlighted in subsection (5) should be regarded as an impediment to an adoption process that is in the best interests of the child.

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

I have already said that the clause is well balanced and humane. It gives due weight to many factors that need to be considered in the process of adoption: it weighs those factors and maintains an appropriate balance.

I was sorry to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for North Dorset, which was insensitive to important issues. The philosophical idea of children as a blank sheet of paper on which one can write what one will does not accord with reality. Concepts of identity are extremely complex: very young children may not be aware of all the elements of their identity, but in time they will—perhaps as an identity to rail against rather than fully embrace. To deny that people have an identity based on their cultural, racial, linguistic or religious background is simply wrong.

Let us try to put ourselves in the place of some of these young children. The circumstances, sometimes tragic, that lead to a child's needing adoption can happen to anyone. If I, a young white child from an exclusively white mining and fishing community in the north-east of England, had needed adoptive parents 40-odd years ago, I might have found excellent parents in the West Indian Pentecostal community in the east end of London, or in the Sikh community in Glasgow—but I there would have been a curiosity. The legislation does not prescribe that certain factors should outweigh other needs in the process of adoption. In the overall balance, however, it is important to weigh certain factors and give them the standing that they require.

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

Does my hon. Friend agree that assessing a child's needs for adoption in terms of religious, cultural, linguistic and racial background should be an integral part of the process, not a bolt-on or add-on? It is wrong to carry out the assessment and then take those factors into account; they should be considered in the round from the outset.

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

Absolutely; that is a crucial part of the assessment of a child's needs and identity. I am sorry that Conservative Members are so keen to play on that aspect. These are crucial factors that must be weighed in the balance in any proper system of adoption and assessment of young children's needs.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

I hope that the amendment is not pressed to a Division, but if it is, I shall vote against it.

Previously, in some cases social workers had to find someone who was seven-eighths Afro-Caribbean. The clause, by providing a looser definition, rightly puts the onus on social workers to take ``due consideration'' of ethnic, religious or linguistic backgrounds. Will the Minister explain what exactly due consideration means? Guidelines will have to be produced for social workers—

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.