Clause 54 - Restrictions on disclosure of protected etc. information

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:30 pm ar 18 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 5:30, 18 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 196, in page 32, line 6, at end insert—

'(1A) Any information kept by an adoption agency—

(a) which is necessary to enable the adopted person to obtain a certified copy of the record of his birth, or

(b) which is information about an entry relating to the adopted person in the Adoption Contact Register,

may only be disclosed to a person by the agency in pursuance of this group of sections'.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 197 to 200, 206 and 209.

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

Yes, I believe it is.

The amendments will help to bring about our revised approach to access to birth records. They will change the definition of protected information under the Bill to include the information necessary for an adopted person to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. Previously, the Bill referred to that information as section 76 information and dealt with its disclosure separately from other identifying information held by adoption agencies. As I explained earlier, the Government attended to what was said in the evidence hearings and have decided to continue to provide, through the adoption agency, for an automatic right for adopted people to receive the information necessary to gain access to their birth records—that will be provided through the adoption agency. That provision is to be brought about through changes to clauses 54 and 58.

Amendment No. 196 covers the information needed to gain access to the birth record. It ensures, by way of inserting new subsection (1A), that that will become protected information under clause 54. The rest of the amendments are consequential and delete references to section 76 information. The result is that the adoption agency may disclose the information needed to obtain the birth record only under the arrangement set out in the clauses. Later amendments to clause 58 provide that the agency must disclose the information needed to access the birth record on request to an adopted person once they reach the age of 18, unless the agency seeks a High Court order blocking that release. The amendment also extends the definition of protected information to include any information that the adoption agency may have from the adoption contact register. Any such information may be released only under the arrangements set out by the provisions.

Amendment No. 200 makes consequential amendments to omit the reference in clause 55 to section 76 information. Amendment No. 206 amends clause 58(4) to leave out section 76 information and amendment No. 209 is a consequential amendment to clause 61(6) omitting the reference to clause 59, which is to be omitted to achieve the Government's intentions. The amendments enable us to omit the distinction between the section 76 information and the information that we are now considering and to deliver on our new approach on access to birth records and the disclosure of other information. On that basis, I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Again, we welcome the amendments and what the Minister has just referred to as the Government's new approach—actually, we are reverting to what happened 25 years ago. The amendments should achieve what the Minister tells us they will and what the Opposition wanted all along. They should be known as the, ''rest in peace clause 76 group'', because they have certainly put paid to everything that that clause was designed to achieve. In the interests of pushing the Committee along speedily,

as I know that the Government would like us to finish this evening, I should say that we have no objection to the amendments.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I have a small point to ask the Minister, because she has confused me. I welcome the bulk of what she has just said, but amendment No. 209 amends clause 61 and I do not understand why it must be discussed under clause 54. Will she explain that? If we are able to discuss amendment No. 209, will the Minister tell the Committee something about the payment of fees in respect of disclosure, in the prescribed circumstances, of the relevant information? Who will set those fees, and will there be an upper limit for them?

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

Although we now appear to be proceeding in a spirit of co-operation and general welcoming of the Government's approach, I would like to correct the suggestion of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that we are simply reverting to the status quo. As I spelled out at the beginning, we are proposing a new single gateway for access to information through adoption agencies, including the information necessary to access a birth record. That was supported by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering in their evidence. Felicity Collier said

''We support the fact that . . . access to birth records should be through adoption agencies''.—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 20 November 2001; c. 67.]

The ADSS evidence to which I referred earlier also backed that change. Stakeholders have recognised the need to modernise and improve the system. We are not simply reverting to the old system. As I said in my introduction, there are now new issues about data protection and human rights in relation to access to information and it is important that the Bill considers them in relation to not only the disclosure of birth records information but the disclosure of other identifying information to adults.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked about amendment No. 209. In my rush to help the Committee, I did not properly outline what the amendment does. It would omit the reference to clause 59 in clause 61. Because we propose to delete clause 59, it is a consequential amendment. It also covers the disclosure of non-birth record identifying information that the Bill terms ''protected''.

As I explained earlier, in light of our change of approach on birth records, we have tabled amendments making new provision for the disclosure of protected information by adoption agencies to ensure that the disclosure of that information is handled in a sensitive manner that ensures that the views of those to be identified are taken into account. For that reason, and because the new clause spells out that new approach, clause 59 will no longer be necessary.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The Minister has not answered my question. I asked why Government amendment No. 209 is not being discussed under clause 61, the clause

to which it refers—unless I am very dim and did not understand what she said. It is part of a group of amendments to clause 54, but if it is indeed relevant only to clause 61 we should be discussing it then, because I cannot ask questions on clause 61 now.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

The amendment is grouped under this clause because it is relevant. The decision will be taken when we come to the clause in question.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 197, in page 32, line 8, after '(1)' insert 'or (1A)'.

No. 198, in page 32, line 13, leave out subsections (4) and (5).

No. 199, in page 32, line 18, leave out 'or section 76 information'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I beg to move amendment No. 190, in page 32, line 20, at end add—

'(7) Nothing in this Act shall permit local authorities to provide birth parents with information relating to an adopted person who has attained the age of 18 years or more and, prior to attaining the age of 18 years, other than pursuant to an order made pursuant to section 25.'.

I tabled amendments Nos. 189, 190 and 191 together. I was advised by the Public Bill Office, whose staff know a lot more about drafting legislation than I do, that they could not be debated together because they apply to different clauses, so I start with the amendment on birth parent access.

I should also like to add that I am not sure what the Government's position is on this issue. Two minutes before I rose to speak, I noticed Government new clause 7. It looks as if the new clause deals with birth parents' access to information, but I am sure that the Minister will tell me if I am wrong. New clause 7 is starred, which means that it must have been tabled some time yesterday. That timing is unacceptable—even more unacceptable than the previous group of amendments, which were at least tabled last Friday and were, therefore, not starred. I believe that I am right in saying that the effect of the new clause being starred is that the Committee will not be able to discuss it today because it was not tabled in time, so the situation goes from bad to worse. That is a shame because it relates to an important issue, which to many people is also emotive.

From my brief consideration of new clause 7, which presumably we shall discuss later—perhaps when we reach the end of the Bill—it seems to me that the Government are introducing the same sort of provisions for parental access as they have introduced on a child's access to information, in so far as the new clause contains a consent provision. If I am incorrect about that, I would appreciate some further explanation from the Minister.

Access for natural birth parents is conceptually different from access for children, in so far as the adoption decision is that of the natural parent and not that of the child. In practice, that is not relevant to adoption on a day-to-day basis in this day and age and has not been for some time, progressively since the

1975 legislation, and it is unlikely to become any more relevant to future adoptions. It is now rare for children not to know who their parents are. The number of babies who are adopted has decreased dramatically and most young people have some connection with their parents. Increasingly, the adoption process is becoming an open adoption system, whereby contact provisions are made. Indeed, the Bill takes that process further with the contact provisions contained in clause 25. It is a great shame that we have not had the chance to debate clause 25, as I have received almost as much correspondence on that clause as on any other issue. We were unable to discuss it because of the timetable, which shows the deficiency of the system.

If no contact is given—presumably because of abuse or where the child may be endangered—the local authority should not then give information to the birth parent once the child has reached 18. Furthermore, in the case of pre-1975 legislation adoptions, where the children involved would all now be over 18, the assumption is that no contact orders will be made. There was not a system for contact orders then and it was not the culture of the time. That culture is an important consideration in relation to pre-1975 adoptions because the ''deal'' under which adoptions then went ahead was that the child was removed from one parent and given to another, with no contact between the two. Frequently, in those times, the children's first names were changed. The individuals who were adopted then as babies—there were many more baby adoptions then than there are today—and are now adults may not know who their natural parents were. Many hundreds, or even thousands of such people, might not even know that they were adopted.

I do not want to say that the system before 1975 was wrong for its time. Whether it was right or wrong, it changed at that time—I accept and support that. For that reason, I am as delighted as any of my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches that the Government have seen sense and gone back, essentially, to the system that was adopted post-1975. However, children obviously have a right to know who their parents are and to have access to their birth certificates. It should be for the child to initiate contact with birth parents, not vice versa. The provisions need to be seen in the light of the further amendments.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd 5:45, 18 Rhagfyr 2001

Can the hon. Gentleman not envisage that, in many cases, it may be a more favourable proposition for contact to be initiated by a birth relative, rather than by the adopted person? Plenty of research evidence shows that adopted people find it a difficult subject to raise with their adoptive parents and that in 90 per cent. or more of cases where contact is initiated by a birth relative, it is welcomed. Is he not ignoring the evidence?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I do not think that there is evidence, as such, that says that. More to the point, the hon. Gentleman will see that, in amendment No. 191, my hon. Friends and I have gone some way to alleviating his concerns. His point is a fair one. The expression of the approach can often best be made by the natural

parents—the amendment provides for that. Providing for an expression of the position of the natural parent towards contact is very different from making contact. That is the distinction that we need to make.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

The hon. Gentleman says that he does not think that there is any research evidence. I can provide him with it. Is he aware that research quoted in ''Adoption, Search and Reunion - The long Term Experience of Adopted Adults'' by Howe and Feast, published in 2000, showed that 90 per cent. of non-searching adopted people who are informed of a birth relative's inquiry agree to have some form of contact? Is he also aware that 74 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults did not feel comfortable asking their adoptive parents for information about their birth family and background?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

. I do not know how well the hon. Gentleman's statistics can be verified. Even if they are correct, that means that 10 per cent. would not want contact. That is a large enough proportion to support my view that the system under which they were adopted should not be changed in retrospect. The question of where we go from here is a different matter. We are considering contact provisions and I do not dispute that it is often appropriate to maintain contact. However, I am not talking about where we go from here and the Bill must take account of the historical position. We must respect the culture and provisions under which adoptions were previously carried out.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

The hon. Gentleman says that the provisions would be unacceptable if 10 per cent. did not agree that contact was suitable, but the figure in the research is 6 per cent—a small minority. He talks about the culture of the past, but is he not in danger of setting it in stone? We should move on and accept that we are talking about human beings now, not then.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman is talking about the relatively short period from the mid-1920s to 1976—from the creation of adoption until the introduction of new laws in the Adoption Act 1976, which we all support. That does not mean, however, that we can simply overturn the basis on which adoptions were made between 1926 and 1976. Rather, we must accept that adoptions were made on that basis. It is easy to say that someone in their 60s should be sent a letter saying that they were adopted, but we must take on board the implications for their state of mind and the potential need for counselling. We should not simply assume, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that they will accept the news. I do not accept that.

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

I honestly cannot believe what I am hearing. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that we should accept the standards of a time when women who gave birth outside marriage were ostracised and sometimes put in mental asylums? The standards of that time and the rights that were accorded to women were far fewer than they are now. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that we should accept those standards in the 21st century?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I am not saying that those standards were right or that the basis for adoption was right, but we must respect as an historical fact that adoption was carried out in a particular way for a limited period. We cannot go backwards; we must go forwards, as the Bill does.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

No, it would be best if I moved on.

It is important that information is given in two instances, which are reflected in other amendments. The first is the death of a child. From a humanitarian point of view, information should certainly be passed to the natural parents in such a case. They have no automatic right to information and they should be given one. Secondly, we shall promote a procedure whereby natural parents can provide the adoption agency with written information. In that way, a child who makes contact with the agency can receive the information and have some understanding of their natural family. However, it should be the child who has the right of approach and not the birth parents.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 6:00, 18 Rhagfyr 2001

The amendment would add a new subsection to clause 54 to ensure that a local authority would not be able to provide birth parents with any information relating to an adopted adult or child unless it did so under a contact order made under section 25. The amendment appears to suggest that the courts should authorise all exchanges of information concerning an adopted person.

The first point to note is that the amendment applies only to local authorities. It would not cover adoptions arranged through registered adoption societies. More substantially, it would mark a considerable change from the current position by requiring the courts to regulate all exchanges of information of any sort concerning an adopted person. At present, adoption agencies have discretion under regulation 15 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 to disclose information for the purposes of their functions as an adoption agency, and the accompanying guidance makes it clear that agencies can use that discretion—for example, to give a birth parent information about a child's progress without disclosing his new identity or his whereabouts. The amendment would require a court order before that could take place.

The Government believe that it is right, subject to appropriate regulations and guidance, that adoption agencies should take the lead in planning and managing contact arrangements. The key principle here is that in considering arrangements for contact, links and the passing of information the central concern must at all times be what is in the interests of the child. Our national adoption standards and the accompanying draft practice guidance are emphatic on that point. Agencies must plan contact arrangements from the child's point of view, and discuss proposed arrangements fully with the prospective adopters and the birth family. The standards and the accompanying draft practice guidance also make it clear that agencies should

provide on-going support to adoptive parents and birth relatives in managing and maintaining contact arrangements that have been agreed in the interests of the child.

I do not think that the answer is to burden the courts with providing for every arrangement for the exchange of information concerning adoptions.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

Will the Minister take the opportunity to explain new clause 7? It will not be possible for the Government to move it today as it is a starred amendment. What route do the Government intend to take on that issue?

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

The amendment was starred because I was aware of the need to ensure that amendments were tabled in plenty of time; although we are unlikely to discuss them until after the Christmas holidays, all hon. Members would still have had plenty of time to consider the implications. Nevertheless, I shall outline in a moment how the proposed system should work and explain the distinction between the proposals in new clause 7(2) on providing information to adults and those in new clause 8 on providing information to children.

As I said, the answer is not to burden the courts. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon said, there has been an increase in open adoptions, and that is set to continue. It may not be the intention, but the amendment could place a considerable burden on the courts—and on the affected parties, who would need to pay all the associated costs. In addition, a child's needs and wishes in respect of contact may change over time and, under the amendment, any substantial change would presumably require a further court order.

The Government's view is that the contact provisions under the Bill for children placed for adoption, or under the Children Act 1989 for contact with children once they have been adopted, should be used when it has not been possible to arrive at a satisfactory arrangement through the offices of the adoption agency, and not as a first resort.

On identifying information about adopted adults, again we acknowledge that it is important that the disclosure of such information is handled sensitively and that the views of the adopted person are sought whenever they can be found. That is why, as I set out earlier, we have tabled new clauses 7 and 8, providing for the disclosure of such information in a way that ensures that the adopted person's views are taken into account. Again, we believe that this is a task primarily for an adoption agency with the necessary skills and expertise operating within the proper framework of regulations and guidance, and not a task for the court.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's question, let me say that it is the intention in relation to new clauses 7 and 8 that the disclosure of identifying information about adults will operate as follows. On receipt of the request, the agency would make an initial decision about whether or not to proceed with the application. We anticipate that where the agency is not minded to proceed with the application, there would be access to the independent review mechanism. If it decided to

proceed, it would be under a duty to take all reasonable efforts to seek the views of the persons who would be identified and to establish their views, including whether they consented to the release of the information.

Once it has obtained the person's views, the agency must decide whether to disclose the information. Where there is consent, information will normally be disclosed, and the regulations and guidance will be slanted in that direction. However, the agency will be allowed to withhold the information when, for example, its direct contact with the applicant means that it has concerns about the disclosure of which the identified person was not aware.

As I outlined earlier to the hon. Gentleman, we anticipate providing access to the independent review where access is blocked in that manner. Where consent cannot be obtained, the agency will have the ability to release the information in appropriate circumstances.

A different approach is necessary to requests for information about a child. Although the process would be similar, we would not make it a condition that the agency had to approach the adoptive family. Where the agency decided to proceed, it would be under a duty to make all reasonable efforts to contact the adoptive parents to find out their views and establish whether they would consent. The agency can also seek the views of the child if it considers it appropriate to do so, having regard to the child's age and understanding.

We will no doubt go into the matter in more detail when we discuss the new clauses. There will be a higher level of protection with regard to disclosing information about a child, certainly in terms of making contact for the purposes of seeking consent to disclose such information, than there will be in the case of an adult. The Government believe that to be appropriate. Where a request is made for information that could identify both a child and an adult, the principle of the paramountcy of the child's welfare, which is also included in new clause 8, must be applied to the decision.

I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some guidance on the Government's approach to the new clauses and that on that basis he feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I thank the Minister for that explanation. It was helpful, but not adequate. The position needs to be fleshed out, and the Minister admitted as much herself. I hope that, over the Christmas recess, the Government will think about how to do that.

The Minister's point on the technicalities of the amendment placing further burdens on the courts was fair. However, that was not my actual point. When the amendment was tabled, it was intended to represent the elegant middle ground in contrast to the Government's brutal approach. I shall not pander to certain Labour Back-Benchers who want to make out that the amendment represents an unusual or nonsensical approach, because it makes more sense than their Government's approach.

However, I appreciate that the ground has shifted and that new amendments have been tabled, although they are not available for debate today. The Minister referred to seeking the views of the child before contact. What if the child does not know that he or she is adopted before the views are sought? That should be considered. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

With this it will be convenient to debate the following: New clause 5—Intermediary services—

(1) Regulations may require adoption agencies to provide an intermediary service at the request of an adopted person, or a birth relative of an adopted person.

(2) Where the intermediary service is requested by a birth relative of an adopted person, the regulations may provide that the Adoption Agency shall use such information as is available to it to contact the adopted person, and notify them of the request of the birth relative to receive identifying information about the adopted person.

But regulations made by virtue of subsection (2) shall provide that information as to the identity of the adopted person shall only be given to the birth relative with the consent of the adopted person.'.

Government new clause 6—Disclosing information during adoption process.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Llafur, Gorllewin Caerdydd

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy mentioned the word ''lacuna'' and it was my view when I tabled new clause 5 that that word was applicable. There was a gap on access to information for birth parents. My new clause may be flawed and may not go far enough, but it is my view that birth parents whose children were adopted pre-1975 should have the right to obtain identifying information about their children. The new clause provides both the opportunity for debate on the issue and a statutory basis for birth relatives to have means of showing a desire to contact adopted persons when they reach adulthood. I welcome the Government's effort, in new clause 7, to deal with the issues to which I refer. We may need to cogitate further on the matter and digest it over the Christmas period, but I am glad that the gap has been recognised.

Why do we need to legislate for intermediary services for birth relatives? We rehearsed some points earlier in interventions when the hon. Member for Huntingdon spoke to his amendment. First, there is a postcode lottery across the country as regards the provision of intermediary services from adoption agencies and local authorities. Whether those services are provided depends on where one lives. There is no requirement to provide those services but, as they are provided throughout the country to an increasing extent, it is right that they should appear in the Bill and have a statutory basis.

We need the reference to intermediary services to address past injustices. Every day in this country someone—usually an elderly woman—wakes up and thinks about the child that she gave up many years ago

for adoption. Prior to 1975, many birth mothers gave up their children when they felt that they had no choice, because they lived in a very different society from the one in which we live today. Many still consider that they were pressurised into the decision and have had to live with it throughout their lives. In considering this aspect of the Bill, we should consider their position and show some humanity in debating it. All people affected by adoption must be given opportunities to access knowledge and exchange information with the appropriate consent. Birth parents should at least be able to express the desire to do so.

The research shows clearly that 90 per cent. of non-searching adoptive people who are informed of the birth relatives' inquiry agree to have some form of contact. Only 6 per cent. do not agree that adopted adults should be informed of a birth relative's interest. Apparently, 75 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults have never even heard of the adoption contact register, while 74 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults did not feel comfortable asking their adoptive parents for information about their birth family and background. One does not need a great deal of imagination to understand the clear benefits in allowing birth relatives to initiate that contact.

Research also states that 80 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults thought about their birth parents while they were growing up, and 80 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults said that the contact with a birth relative answered important questions about their origins and background. Five years after the first contact was made, 55 per cent. of non-searching adopted adults were still in contact with their birth relatives. That is a human success story on which we should build. Statistics are only statistics, but behind them are real human stories that we should consider when we debate the Bill.

I referred to a constituent of mine who believes, rightly or wrongly, that her adopted child was abused by her birth mother when in fact the abuse took place when the child was in the care of the local authority and the child received criminal compensation. The hon. Member for Canterbury referred to cases when disclosure of information may have had a catastrophic effect on an adopted child, and I accept that the example that he gave of a 15-year-old girl from his constituency fell into that category. However, I am proposing not to enable such cases to occur but to allow birth parents the right at least to signal their desire to contact adopted persons in adulthood. I do not propose that they should be able to do that while the adopted child is growing up or going through a difficult development after, perhaps, a difficult adoption.

I can cite cases to counter that given by the hon. Gentleman. The Children's Society gave me some information on the matter. I withhold from criticising the society's decision to withdraw from its work in Wales, because it does good work in general. It

provided an example of a young man called Anthony, whose adoptive parents contacted the society when he was 17 years old, because he wanted access to information. They were told at that time that Anthony could not receive the information until he was 18 years old. A few years later, when nothing happened with his case, he committed suicide. Afterwards, the Children's Society realised that Anthony's birth parents had contacted the society when he was 15 to say that they were interested in his progress and would like to know more about him, and would like him to know that they were interested in his progress. I am not saying that that was the cause of his suicide, as these matters are complicated, but my proposals address that kind of dysfunction and misunderstanding.

I refer, too, to the case of George who, in 1994, wanted background information about his origins, which were held on the Children's Society's adoption records. He thought that he might begin a search for his birth mother. She had written to the society three years earlier to say that she would be pleased to hear from him, but the letter was received when the Children's Society did not have the proactive policy that I propose. When George found out about the letter, he was delighted that his mother had written; through the Children's Society, he contacted the last known address, sadly to discover that his birth mother had died six months earlier. We should try to avoid those scenarios and legislate against the possibility of them happening.

I shall mention one other case, of someone who takes close interest in the Bill. In fact, without wishing to breach protocol, I can say that Irene takes very close interest in our proceedings today. She is a birth mother aged 76, who tried to locate her daughter, Anna, whom she had relinquished for adoption 50 years ago. The agency that held the adoption records did not provide intermediary services for birth relatives. Her search lasted for more than 10 years. Eventually the information was obtained and Irene learned that her daughter had died 39 years ago, aged 11. She had to rebuild her hopes and dreams in the light of that information, but for 10 years she had been left looking for it. It should have been provided to her much earlier. I recognise that Opposition Members have also acknowledged that such cases should not continue to occur.

Several times in our sittings, the hon. Member for Huntingdon has spoken about a pre-1975 deal that would be broken if we allowed birth parents access to information or if we permitted them actively to signal to adopted persons in adulthood that they wanted to contact them. That deal has already been broken. It was broken when adopted persons were given the right to seek identifying information about themselves and to find their origins. In addition, the hon. Gentleman's objection ignores the changes that have happened in society. I do not know whether he has seen the fine British feature film, directed by Mike Leigh, called ''Secrets and Lies'', but his attitude perpetuates the culture of secrets and lies. We should be trying to get away from that in legislating for adoption in this day and age. I hope that he will rethink his position over

Christmas and return, suitably reformed—[Interruption.]—or modernised, if hon. Members prefer to say that.

I think that hon. Members have received copies of the personal statement of Pam Hodgkins MBE, the founder of NORCAP. In that statement, remembering the time when she began her work, she says:

''I naively believed that the adopted person had no voice in the original proceedings whilst the birth mother had made a choice. I therefore considered that the balance of the law from the 1976 Act was correct. I quickly learned that whilst the adopted person had no voice fear, shame and the pressure of family and society silenced the voice of birth mothers.''

It is for that very reason that many Commonwealth countries, following the lead taken in the 1976 Act, dealt with the matter of birth parents receiving information. Pam Hodgkins says:

''I was also learning from my practice that there were benefits to all parties when a birth relative was the person offering renewed communication . . . Everything demonstrates the need for change I am advocating now. There is no evidence whatsoever that making these changes would be problematic or harmful. The aged birth relatives uppermost in my mind are mothers in their 70s and 80s who parted with babies who are now 30 to 60 years old and the siblings of the babies adopted in the war years and beyond.''

Without the changes for which I argue, the Bill will uphold a dubious principle and perpetuate a cruel and unusual punishment—the psychological punishment of a life sentence of uncertainty about what happened to one's child. We should bring to an end that injustice, before it is too late for the generation who gave up their children.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 6:15, 18 Rhagfyr 2001

I rise to support my hon. Friend's excellent speech. His pursuit of the issue through Second Reading and Committee has been notable. It would be a considerable tribute to my hon. Friend if the Government tabled a new clause to deal with this important adoption issue. He has swept the legs from under those who want to argue that new Labour is full of drones, in thrall to the Whips and at the mercy of Ministers. He has told us that the Committee is the first on which he has served and what he has done on it is a model of parliamentary work.

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

Perhaps I can drone for a while. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) said that parents often felt pressurised to give up their children. Does he agree that many of them were deceived about what happened to those children? I am thinking especially of child migrants. Between the war and 1967, 10,000 children were shipped to parts of the former empire and the parents were never told what happened to them. Many parents believed that those children were put up for adoption. The sands of time are running out and those people would welcome new regulations.

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

I agree with my hon. Friend, although I would never use a cliche such as ''the sands of time''. New clause 5 is about reparation—undoing some of the wrongs of the care system. The Government are changing the care system dramatically and we have an opportunity to right wrongs that have been perpetrated in the past.

If we establish mediation systems through new clause 5 or other provisions, I hope that they will not be needed for many decades. I sincerely hope that the adoption system that the Bill will set up will be open to easy access and full of tremendous knowledge and information. I hope that people will not go through the deceptions, lack of information, secrecy and iniquity that has been present in adoption in the past and that we have a much better, freer and more civilised adoption system. That is plainly needed now.

We cannot say that the rights of birth parents are the same as those of people who have been adopted. I was surprised to hear Professor Triseliotis attempt to strike a balance between the two, because the balance of power needs to be with the person who was adopted. The contribution from that eminent person was otherwise tremendous.

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

On that point, does my hon. Friend accept that the quality of the intermediary services will be to recognise that the balance should be with the child, but to enable contact to take place when it is welcomed? Thereby, it will meet the needs of all those involved.

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

My hon. Friend exemplifies the point that we both tried to make this morning. The process is not bureaucratic, but skilful, careful, intuitive and very human.

I do not want to say more, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West has said everything important. If his new clause is not acceptable for technical or drafting reasons, I sincerely hope that everyone will support the proposals that the Government will eventually make under the clause and, in the process, ensure that the Bill is tremendously improved.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 6:30, 18 Rhagfyr 2001

I shall deal with the issues raised in relation to new clause 5 and then to introduce Government new clause 6.

On new clause 5, there is no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West made a powerful contribution to our discussion and highlighted, as have other hon. Members, the fact that the provision of intermediary services to birth relatives who wish to contact an adopted adult is a complex area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre outlined, it may not be possible to lay down cast-iron rights, especially for birth parents, although I appreciate that that is not proposed in new clause 5.

The Government understand the need of birth parents to know how the lives of their children have progressed. For that reason, we would like agencies to take a positive and compassionate view towards the approaches of birth relatives who wish to trace people from whom they were separated. Last year, with the assistance of the Children's Society, the Government produced good practice guidance on intermediary services for birth relatives. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health, the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) concluded the forward by saying

''I would expect an agency's response to a request for intermediary services from a birth relative to be sympathetic and as helpful as possible.''

However, in doing so, adoption agencies must carefully consider and balance the needs of all parties concerned. In particular, they must take account of an adopted person's rights to privacy and to protect the family life created through adoption.

The provision of intermediary services to adopted adults wishing to contact a birth relative is an equally complex area. There are many cases—my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West has ably outlined the examples—where people want help to trace a relative, but others feel strongly that the relative should not be traced or contacted. I have spoken to two people who were adopted between the periods mentioned by my hon. Friend, who said that they would not want to be contacted by their birth parents. One may or may not agree, but we must recognise that some people hold that view, even if they are in a minority.

In the light of conflicting views about intermediary services, it is important to think carefully about what role they should play. My hon. Friend made a powerful argument for the role of intermediary services as part of the adoption support framework that the Government intend to implement. Intermediary services are a support service like other services such as counselling and support groups. As we explored when we discussed clause 3, we have expanded the provisions to ensure that local authorities will have a duty to provide adoption support services and not just for adopted children and their families. As we develop the new framework for adoption support services, it will be possible to consider the provision of intermediary services as part of the debate on the context of that framework and also the provisions of all other forms of adoption support. If, following that consultation, we decide that it would be appropriate to require all local authorities to make arrangements to put intermediary services in place as part of their adoption service, we could make regulations requiring them to do so. To that extent, the new clause is unnecessary, although it has enabled the hon. Gentleman to raise his concerns.

One other important point about the adoption support framework, is that it will enable us to provide support for those adoptions that took place before the provisions of the Bill were implemented. Hon. Members have said, as I have, that the Government new clauses could allow a more proactive approach in ensuring opportunities for contact and the passing of information between adopted adults and their birth relatives; but those provisions will apply to adoptions taking place after the Bill is passed. We have scope within the adoption support provisions to deal with adoptions that happened before the Bill was passed, and for provisions on the disclosure of information after the Bill is passed, which we shall debate later in more detail.

I hope that my hon. Friend realises that I have sympathy with his views, although I would not go as far as him in seeing it as an absolute right. It is one of

those extremely difficult and sensitive areas and it highlights the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre. It is not about a bureaucratic process or about rights; it is about providing support that enables appropriate contacts to be made. We shall be able to consider that as we take forward the adoption support framework.

Government new clause 6 is designed to respond to the concerns expressed by a number of witnesses during the Committee's evidence sittings about the crucial importance of adopters receiving full and appropriate information about a child during the matching process, and to support the adoptive placement well in advance of the adoption order. A number of witnesses felt that the Bill did not address that clearly enough. They said that the provisions of clause 57 on the providing of information following the adoption order did not spell out the entitlement clearly and that it caused a misunderstanding about what the Government intended to be provided to prospective adopters.

The Government entirely agree that it is crucial that adopters receive full information during matching and to help the placement succeed. Under regulation 12 of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983, after making a decision following a panel hearing that a prospective adopter would be a suitable adoptive parent for a particular child, adoption agencies are required to provide written information to the prospective adopter that sets out the child's personal history and background, including his cultural and religious background, his health history and his current state of health, together with the agency's written proposals in respect of the placement.

Our national standards underpin that by making it clear that, before a match is agreed, adopters should be given full written information to help them understand the needs and background of the child and an opportunity to discuss that and the implications for them and their family. It has always been our intention to use the various regulation-making powers under the Bill to provide for that, but in light of what has been said, we think it would be appropriate to amend the Bill to make our intention clear. That is why the amendment removes clause 57. The new clause therefore makes clear that the general regulation-making power under clause 9 may be used to set out the key stages at which adoption agencies are to provide information to prospective adopters and the information that they will be obliged to provide.

As is set out in my letter to the Committee, the Government intend to use that power to make regulations to ensure that a fully comprehensive package of background information should be made available at three stages: where a match is being considered, once a match has been approved and in preparing for the placement of the child.

Let me spell out what we envisage will be included at those three stages. At the linking stage, when the prospective adopters are first visited by the child's social worker and the adoption social worker, there will be a summary report on the child. That will provide information on the child's appearance and

family circumstances, the part played in his life by his birth parents, his home environment, why he had been taken into care or given up for adoption, his behaviour, how he interacts with other children and relates to adults and his current care status. It should not contain identifying information about anyone other than the child, and the adopters will be asked to agree to keep the information confidential.

At the second stage, after the matching recommendation by the adoption and the decision by the agency decision maker, there will be a full matching report on the child. That will provide the prospective adopters with all the information that they need to decide whether to go ahead with the match. It will include a full description of the child's history, personality and behaviour and of his needs, problems and progress at school and in care. It will be supported by medical, psychiatric, psychological and educational information. The adopters will, again, be asked to agree to keep that information confidential.

If the prospective adopters, having had the time to consider the full matching report, wish to proceed to the preparations for the placement, they will be provided with a written proposal setting out the terms for the placement. That will include details of proposed financial and other support arrangements and of any agreement about contact arrangements. If the child's birth family agrees in writing, life story books, which could include birth certificates, photo albums and other identifying information such as family trees may be passed to the prospective adopters, who will be asked to sign a further undertaking to keep the identifying information confidential.

We intend to consult again with stakeholders in the adoption field to ensure that the regulations and guidance set out an appropriately full range of information to help adopters successfully to care for the child. We shall also ensure through regulations and guidance that, where appropriate, adoption agencies pass on to adopters any relevant information that they obtain after the adoption order has been made.

I hope that Government new clause 6 allays the concern—although unfounded—that was properly represented and expressed at the evidence-gathering sitting, that the Government had not made clear their expectations in relation to the information to be provided for prospective adopters. That is our reason for having tabled new clause 6 and I commend it to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 54, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.