Clause 17 - Placement for adoption by agencies

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:15 pm ar 27 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey 6:15, 27 Tachwedd 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 29, in, page 12, line 10, leave out `And adoption agency may' and insert

`Where an adoption agency is satisfied that a child ought to be placed for adoption it may'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 30, in page 12, line 11, leave out `a' and insert `the'.

No. 31, in, page 12, line 12, leave out `a' and insert `the'.

Before I call the hon. Member for Romsey, I draw the Committee's attention to an error on the amendment paper. Amendment No. 29 should read

``leave out `an adoption agency may' . . . ''

and not ``and adoption agency may''.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

Amendment No. 29 is a probing amendment and is grouped with a couple of small amendments that merely seek consistency of language. The purpose is to make it clear that parental consent alone is not enough to trigger the authority to place a child for adoption, which is the impression given at the moment. The onus should be on the agency to satisfy itself that placing for adoption will promote the child's welfare in accordance with the long-discussed clause 1. It is probably not intended to be in doubt, but I believe the amendment tightens up the meaning of the Bill.

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us how the Government expect agencies to approach cases. I appreciate that the details will be set out in regulations but could the Minister elaborate on their likely scope? For example, when a parent requests or consents to an adoption, how far will the agency be expected to pursue other options such as placement with relatives? There is another thrust, which is mainly welcome, to speed up the adoption process. That is as it should be because speeding up the process is generally in the best interests of the child's welfare. However, parents also need a breathing space to consider and reflect on the consequences of adoption. The amendment seeks to clarify that the authorities still must have regard to all the other considerations.

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

This is an extremely complex series of clauses relating to placement for adoption and adoption orders. During our witness sessions we heard some particularly complicated evidence, particularly from the Family Rights Group, about the impact and significance of placement orders. I have several remarks to make, some of which would fit comfortably in a debate on the clause, but others may stray into other clauses. I apologise for that but it is almost inevitable, given that these elements of the Bill are so closely related and complex.

What was presented to us quite late in the day last Wednesday was a more simple approach to placement orders, which allied them more to the Children Act 1989. Instead of taking on the entire complexity of the flow chart, which I think we will refer to often on this part of the Bill, and instead of relying on parents placing children for adoption and following that through, in principle every proposal that a child be adopted should result in a court appearance with regard to establishing a placement order.

Some complicated aspects of the Bill suggest that if children are simply accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and a parent then wishes to withdraw their consent to the child's being adopted, 14 days' notice of the child's proposed removal must be given. That significantly amends the 1989 Act. Most crucial of all, one proposal goes far beyond what is in that Act by conferring parental responsibility on the local authority and adopters without a court process. That works very much against the spirit of the 1989 Act and should be viewed with enormous caution. Elements of the proposals for placement orders seem to bring back into play something more akin to old-style parental rights resolutions, which were available to local authorities under the Children Act 1948 but were ended by the 1989 Act.

I appreciate that this is all becoming very complicated, but a Family Rights Group proposal would simplify matters. One can go down the voluntary route—with a child accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Act—or the compulsory route, with a child subject to a care order under section 31 of that Act. Whatever route one takes, it would be extremely useful if in all cases in which children were proposed for adoption, there were a mechanism whereby they were brought before a court and its permission were sought to set out an adoption order.

That would mean that children would retain their legal status under the 1989 Act, but the adoption order would then be a means of deciding whether placement for adoption would go ahead. The proposal would provide a proper forum for debate on alternatives to that. The placement could then go ahead and the process could move on to an adoption hearing, where other crucial and final issues such as whether that adoption should go ahead and contact could be dealt with.

I have tabled no amendments to the clause, because that is too difficult at this stage, but I hope that officials will have more discussions with the Family Rights Group and the British Association of Social Workers. I believe that British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering is also interested in pursuing this line of inquiry to see whether some of these highly complex and technical matters can be brought more comfortably within the scope of the 1989 Act and whether some procedures can be made more simple and more open in the interests of, above all, children, as well as their wider family and those who will have to operate the laws.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 6:30, 27 Tachwedd 2001

The hon. Member for Romsey identified her amendments as probing the decision-making process leading up to placement, which the clause does not cover. The clause makes it clear that adoption agencies may place a child for adoption only if they have the consent of the parents or if the child is under a placement order. The decision-making process for adoption agencies will be set out in regulations, as it is in current regulations under the 1976 Act.

The current process provides that, if after a review a local authority considers adoption for a child, it must refer the case to the adoption panel. In its role as an adoption agency, the panel makes a recommendation to the authority about whether adoption is in the child's best interests. The authority must then decide whether to accept the recommendation and, if it does, that means that it is satisfied that a child should be placed for adoption. The new regulations will set out a similar process. In the Bill, the decision that the agency is satisfied that the child should be placed for adoption should be made before a child is placed with the consent of the birth parents. That covers some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre.

My hon. Friend also asked about the maximum period of time—it is important to remember that—after parents have withdrawn consent within which either the child should be returned to them or the voluntary adoption agency, which under the Bill can no longer apply for a placement order, should be given the opportunity to refer the case to a local authority for a decision whether a placement order should be applied for. That is another important reason for the 14 days' notice, which as my hon. Friend pointed out we will have the opportunity to examine in more detail.

My hon. Friend mentioned the point at which parental responsibility is transferred. The Bill changes the law on parental responsibility in a way that has been widely welcomed by many stakeholders. However, we will have the opportunity to consider parental responsibility, where it is vested and the points at which it is transferred, when debating other clauses in this part of the Bill. My hon. Friend asked why there was not a placement order in all cases. Given our discussions about delays and the need to put the child at the centre of the process, it would not help to reduce delays or put the child at the centre to include possibly unnecessary court cases when parents have given their consent for the adoption of the child.

My hon. Friend may have misunderstood our proposals for restrictions on removal and parental responsibility without a court order. His demand was that there should be on-going discussion with stakeholders, the Family Rights Group and others. I assure him that, immediately after the evidence-gathering sittings last week and subsequently, discussions continued within the Department and with stakeholders to ensure that we got the provisions absolutely right. I hope to alleviate some of my hon. Friend's concerns when we deal with later parts of the Bill.

At the point in the process at which clause 17 kicks in, new regulations will include requirements to consult the child directly throughout the decision-making process, record their views and ensure that they are taken into account in, for example, panel decisions. The provisions in clause 1, which state that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration, the duty to bear in mind the harmful effects of delay in decision-making, and the welfare checklist will all apply to the agency decision-making process. If, as a result of the process, the authority is satisfied that the child should be placed for adoption but the parents do not consent and the agency considers that the significant harm threshold has been reached, the authority will be obliged by clause 21(1) to apply for a placement order.

Clause 21(1) and (2) impose a duty on the local authority to apply for a placement order if it is satisfied that a child should be placed for adoption. As I said, we intend to introduce regulations that will set out the process leading to the decision that a child should be placed for adoption. In the context of the Bill, the process must be followed before a child is placed with the consent of the birth parents. The duty to apply for a placement order kicks in only if the local authority is not authorised to place the child for adoption and the conditions to do with the significant harm threshold in section 31(2) of the Children Act are met.

With the assurance that we are, in many ways, replicating in the regulations the position under the 1976 Act, I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Romsey

This is a probing amendment, and it has been useful to hear what the intentions are. As always, the problem is that so much seems to be devolved to regulations; sometimes, the full impact of the Bill is not clear. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.