Clause 96 - Proceedings to be in private

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 4 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 12:30, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 134, in page 51, line 21, after 'camera', insert

', except where the judge deems it to be in the public interest to make all or part of the proceedings public and, in all cases so deemed, the child's identity shall be protected.'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this we may discuss amendment No. 10, in page 51, line 21, at end add—

'(2) Notwithstanding subsection (1), any proceedings may be reported subject to the following conditions—

(a) the name of any adult or child involved in the proceedings must not be reported;

(b) no place other than that of a local authority may be reported;

(c) the name of any school or other institution, the naming of which might reasonably be expected to make possible the identification of any adult or child involved in the proceedings, must not be reported.'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I fear that we may not be able to deal with this clause as quickly as we did with clause 95, because Opposition Members are mystified as to why the Government appear to be restricting information about serious cases, rather than providing full access to information when things go wrong.

Amendment No. 134 would make it more likely that the proceedings of a case where there had been infringements against which proceedings had taken place could be made public where a judge defined that that was in the public interest, subject to provisos over identifying the children involved. We assume that the right of access to such information is in the public good and the onus should be on individuals to prove otherwise.

The second amendment was tabled primarily by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who takes a keen interest in the proceedings of the Committee even though he failed to make the grade by becoming a member of it. I am sure that that only emphasises the enormous amount of talent on the Opposition Benches and the interest in the Bill. We very much welcome my hon. Friend's contribution to the Committee.

Let me return to amendment No. 134. We take the view that proceedings should be in private only if, and to the extent that, they relate to a particular child. If an adoption agency or a person running an adoption service contravenes the Act, there is no good reason why their names and behaviour should not be publicly exposed. It may be in the public interest to be aware of unsavoury adoption agencies' activities. A small minority of people who do not have the child's best interests at heart have sought to profit from adoption. The Bill is designed to work against those people. That does not detract from the excellent, necessary, worthwhile and dedicated work of the vast majority of adoption agencies and support services. However, we are debating infringements.

The clause includes a curious feature in line 20 that proceedings in the High Court may be ''disposed of in chambers'', whereas proceedings in the county court must be heard and determined ''in camera'', as set out in line 21. Why does only the High Court have discretion to decide whether to hear proceedings in public? When parties may benefit from obtaining publicity, they will be tempted to take proceedings at greater expense in the High Court. County court judges deal with the vast bulk of adoption work and should have the same discretion.

The Parliamentary Secretary may have the same success as she did previously in assuaging our curiosity and concern. Why are the two types of court treated differently, and why are the Government intent on hiding information about where the service is not functioning properly? Individuals who should not be involved in that service must be named and shamed. The Government are very good at naming and shaming various professionals, so why are they reluctant to name and shame unscrupulous individuals who should not be involved in adoption? Openness is in the public interest. If a judge decides that it is in the public interest, why should he be fettered by the Bill? If people who have escaped the rigours of regulatory inspection, and have been licensed, set up an adoption agency and, as a result of their activities, the welfare of children suffers, details of that crime should be put into the public domain, unless there is a reason for not doing so—for example, because it does not benefit the welfare of the child. Under the amendment, the judge, who has the case in front of him and is best placed to decide whether it is in the public interest to disclose, would have that power.

I am reminded of a notorious and horrific case that happened at the hands of the social services department in the London borough of Richmond, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. A story in The Mail on Sunday strategically revealed the background to the problems of the case. It clearly demonstrates where disclosure of information in the public interest was absolutely right, yet the courts were used to prevent it:

''The Mail on Sunday told last year how Richmond social workers went to the home of Roger and Frances Holmes to take away a four-year-old girl, known as Child X, whom they had fostered for nearly two years.

The couple wanted to adopt her but were rejected by social workers who said she should go to a family in London from her native African country.

Shortly after Child X was taken away from the couple in September last year, the Government's SSI''

—social services inspectorate—

''carried out a review of social services in Richmond as part of its national programme of inspections. Its report''

—published in January—

''said the needs of children at risk, in care or with foster parents were not being put first by social workers.

Most worryingly of all, cases on the child protection register—which should be reviewed at six-monthly intervals—were not being reviewed.

Richmond had held only 53 per cent of the reviews that it should have done during 1999 and 2000.

And fewer than half the statutory reviews required for children in family placements were carried out in time—'a significant failing', the report concluded. In some cases there was no evidence to suggest that recent referrals had been dealt with at all.''

The authority then brought an injunction to gag the child's former carers. On behalf of Roger and Frances Holmes, The Mail on Sunday fought the council in the High Court and revealed how child X was taken, sobbing, from the Holmes' west London home. An article in September continues the story:

''The four-year-old girl, who lived with them for two years, was taken to a family with the same racial background.

In spite of a High Court ruling, the Holmeses have been denied access by the council because they spoke up about the case.

Until last week, they were pinning their hopes on the review carried out by former head of Devon social services Andrew Williamson CBE. The inquiry was announced last December.''

Mrs. Holmes, a registered childminder for 30 years, has received sinister phone calls and death threats, and the Holmes have been banned from fostering in future, despite the fact that they have proved themselves worthy foster parents in the past. Richmond council has subsequently claimed that the couple breached an agreement not to disclose information about child X without its consent.

That ghastly case goes to the heart of the amendment. We are saying that it is in the public interest that misdemeanours be made public. In the example that I gave, the misdemeanours of Richmond council social services department and its failures to carry out its duties as a social services department are very much in the public interest. People who live in Richmond and may be considering going to the social services department in its role as an adoption agency should be fully aware that an inspector has deemed it not to be up to scratch.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

I am puzzled by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If an adoption agency is deemed not to be up to scratch, surely it will not be allowed to practise. We would not want a situation in which people do not go to adoption agencies because such agencies are not deemed to be capable of doing a good job. The purpose of regulations and inspection should be to ensure that all licensed adoption agencies are up to scratch. I am sure that that is the Government's intention.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 12:45, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

The fact is that Richmond council social services department is still acting as an adoption agency, even after its shortcomings were revealed in a report and after it tried to gag responsible people who had been doing the job of foster parents—in this case for 30 years—with an unblemished record. The heavy hand of Richmond council sought to gag them and to prevent their speaking out against what they saw, rightly, as inadequacies in a system that had taken a young child who was happy with her foster parents away from them.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend has been characteristically generous in his reply by keeping it particular, but the intervention by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, was odd. On the strength of Government-commissioned research, Ministers have spoken out strongly against bad practice in agencies throughout the country, mostly local authorities. There is much good practice too, but many local authorities have been guilty of bad practice. The amendment seeks to address the question of why judges should be prevented from ever making the proceedings public.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is entirely the point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for elucidating it. If the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley had been to the Local Government Association social services conference in October, at which the Secretary of State for Health and I spoke, she would have known that the entire basis of his speech was naming and shaming social services departments that had underperformed. We are trying to ensure that when social services departments' shortcomings are revealed, they are not gagged and prevented from revealing what is obviously in the public interest. The Secretary of State agreed that it was in the public interest for shortcomings in social services departments to be revealed, but he went about it in the wrong way by pointing the finger of blame at certain social services departments, many of which suffer woeful billion-pound underfunding against standard spending assessments under this Government.

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

Has the hon. Gentleman noticed a good word about social workers or local authority social services departments in The Mail on Sunday?

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

I ask hon. Members to keep to the amendment, please.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that The Mail on Sunday is making a fuss about nothing in respect of the case in Richmond, he is wrong. The problem, as I said in my speech in Harrogate just before the Secretary of State spoke, is that no one is interested in reading in the papers about the plane that landed safely; it is that sort of business. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that we hear far too much about the things that go wrong in social services departments, especially those involving children, such as the high-profile Victoria Climbie case and the John Smith case. Every day, hundreds and thousands of children are looked after successfully and lovingly because of social services departments, having been placed with exceedingly skilled and dedicated foster parents or in other forms of care by local authorities. Those are the vast majority of cases; if they were 100 per cent. of cases the Bill would be unnecessary, as it tackles the cases in which things go wrong. It is right to cite cases in which things have not gone wrong, to learn from an example and to ensure that there are measures according to which we can legislate against anything going wrong in future.

The amendment would ensure that when things go wrong, a heavy-handed local authority cannot use the courts to take out a gagging order. Even when a judge thinks that it is in the public interest that the shortcomings of a local authority or an adoption agency should be revealed, the proposal as drafted will prevent him from doing so. The amendment would tackle that and enhance the Bill, which seems exceedingly reasonable. We cannot understand why the Government want to take the opposite course and restrict the amount of information in the public domain.

Amendment No. 10 was tabled primarily by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, whose interest in the subject is well known. I was not trying to be derogatory about him earlier. He is involved in many other important parliamentary matters, but his record on education and children's issues is particularly well known. That is why he tabled the amendment, which would make the welfare of the child the ultimate consideration. In most cases, that means respecting the anonymity of the child.

The amendment would add a subsection so that all cases could be disclosed and discussed by the courts, unless there was a danger that a child's name might be revealed. Information about the location of a child would also be restricted, as would the name of his school or other organisation if it compromised the child's anonymity, which is the prime consideration. The amendment would therefore permit the reporting of proceedings, subject to wide restrictions—all predicated on promoting the welfare of the child.

As my hon. Friend said in discussing the amendment with me, some current restrictions are understandable, but they make it almost impossible for the layman to understand much about care and adoption proceedings. They place an unreasonable limit on freedom of information about an issue involving a clear public interest.

The thrust of both amendments is to assure disclosure of information in the public interest, subject to child anonymity. I challenge the Parliamentary Secretary, when she speaks to the amendments, to say why covering up information about the track record of certain adoption agencies furthers the public interest.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I support all that my hon. Friend has said. Reasons must be given why the High Court has proceedings in chambers, while the county courts are heard in camera. County court judges deal with the great majority of cases, but that could change. If people want more publicity, for whatever reason, they will push for cases to go to the High Court, which would be much more expensive. That might not be to anyone's advantage.

I back up my hon. Friend's point about the rights of the child. Those are what we want to protect, not the right of adoption agencies to maintain their reputations when they deserve to be questioned. The presumption should be that the proceedings should be heard. Wherever the hearings take place, children's right not to be reported should be the outstanding consideration.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I shall start by clarifying one point. Hon. Gentlemen raised important questions about the prosecution of an adoption agency, and seemed to feel that the clause would prevent that. The clause deals with the civil courts, whereas the proceedings to which hon. Gentlemen referred would be heard in criminal courts and could not be held in private. I hope that that gives them some reassurance about the cases that were mentioned, because they seemed fearful that there was some attempt to cover up actions being taken against adoption agencies by the National Care Standards Commission. Such actions would be brought in the criminal courts, which do not sit in private.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, amendment No. 10 would allow for detailed reports about all adoption cases to be placed in the public domain without identifying details. As has been said, at present reporting can take place on a case-by-case basis, invariably anonymised, only if the court gives permission. Amendment No. 134 would seemingly give the judiciary in the county court discretion to allow all or part of any adoption proceedings to be held in open court, which would mean that anyone could be present, if the judge deemed that to be in the public interest. The intention is that the identity of the child would be protected in all such cases.

There is confusion about two questions. One is who should be in court—whether the proceedings are private or open—and the other is how much of the proceedings should be reported. As Opposition Members have said, and I am sure all my hon. Friends would agree, when cases come before the courts concerning sensitive issues in the context of adoption—we are talking about adoption proceedings, not the prosecution of agencies—it is important to protect the welfare and interests of children. In that context, the Bill provides that only people directly concerned with the case should be present, and the public should not be admitted. Cases involving children are usually conducted in private, to safeguard the welfare of children.

The position on children's cases in England and Wales was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights last November in the cases of P v. UK and B v. UK. The court upheld the UK's position.

As for who should be present in court and what should be reported, we intend the courts to retain their discretion to allow reporting of cases, suitably anonymised, when that is in the public interest. I hope that my comments have met the concerns that led the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham to move amendment No. 134.

On amendment No. 10, there may be some room for improvement—

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.