Clause 41 - Child to live with adopters before application

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 pm ar 29 Tachwedd 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 2:45, 29 Tachwedd 2001

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, but he is mistaken. Foster parents who want to adopt will be able to take two routes: a non-agency route, with the time scales that I am about to discuss, and an agency route, which I have outlined. [Interruption.] That is most certainly what the Bill says, and that is the intention. It is open to local authority foster carers to take an agency route.

Amendment No. 26 concerns the residence period for step-parents. The 1996 draft Bill proposed introducing a three-year residence requirement for step-parents. However, given that such adoptions involve one of the child's birth parents, the residence period need not be as long as that for non-agency stranger adoptions. That is why the Bill provides for the period to be six months. Step-parent adoption involves severing the legal relationship between the child, the other birth parent and the wider circle of relations. There should be a route whereby step-parents can acquire legal parental responsibility for a child of their spouse without disrupting wider legal relationships. That is why clause 107 provides a new route to enable a step-parent to acquire parental responsibility for the child of their spouse by agreement between the step-parent and all those with parental responsibility or by order of the court.

The amendments also raise the issue of local authority foster carers who take a non-agency route. The clause states that they can apply to adopt a child who has been with them for 12 months, whether the local authority approves or not. As I tried to spell out earlier, it would be open to them to apply earlier as an agency case, with the agreement of the local authority. That is similar to the position in the 1976 Act, under which an adoption order may not be made in non-agency cases—including those involving local authority foster carers—unless the child has been with the adopters for 12 months. As with all the residence requirements in the Bill, the 12-month period now runs up to the point of application, not the point at which an order may be made. That is a more sensible approach, given the variable length of court proceedings. We have shortened the time for foster carers that was proposed in the 1996 draft Bill, which provided that they could not begin to give notice of their intention to adopt without the local authority's consent unless the child had been with them for three years.

Amendment No. 27 would allow foster carers to apply to adopt a child without the approval of the local authority when the child had been with them for 13 weeks. That would be a substantial change from the position in current legislation, in which, in foster carer non-agency cases, an adoption order may not be made until the child has made his home with at least one of the applicants for 12 months. That change could risk creating a deterrent to families that use voluntary accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, as they might perceive that a foster carer could apply to adopt their child after 13 weeks.

We also need to consider the interests of the child. For something as significant as adoption, it is important that the child and applicant have a proper opportunity to establish a relationship that justifies the making of an application to adopt. That is especially important in non-agency cases, as I suggested, when none of the safeguards of placement through an adoption agency apply, and when the child has not been matched or placed with the foster carers with a view to adoption.

Local authority foster parents will be able to seek formal approval from the local authority as prospective adopters for children for whom they are caring. Clause 19 provides that the authority may leave the child with them if they are approved as prospective adopters. That counts as an agency placement under the placement provisions. If a local authority does not approve them as prospective adopters or agree to them adopting, the foster carers can still seek to adopt a child for whom they are caring by independently giving notice of their intention to apply to adopt the child as a non-agency case, providing that the child has been with them for a year. The one-year period relates to such cases.

A point was made about specific circumstances. If the child has been with the foster carers for less than a year but they still want to apply to adopt without the authority's agreement, they can seek the leave of the court to make an earlier application under clause 41(6).

Amendment No. 28 deals with other non-agency applications, which could include those when private foster carers or relatives proposed to adopt the child. The Bill provides that the application may not be made unless the child has lived with the prospective adopters for three of the previous five years. That was the approach suggested in the 1996 draft Bill, and it was generally supported in the consultation on this Bill. It is broadly consistent with the provisions in the Children Act 1989 that govern applications for residence orders, under which anyone with whom the child has lived for three of the previous five years is entitled to apply automatically.

The amendment would cut the residence order to 13 weeks, even though an adoption order may currently not be made in non-relative or non-agency cases unless the child has been with the adopters for a year. The Government cannot accept the amendment for broadly the reasons that I have given, which were about what was in the child's interest in non-agency cases.