Clause 58 - Disclosing information to adopted adult

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:15 am ar 10 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 10:15, 10 Ionawr 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 204, in page 33, line 10, leave out from 'receive' to 'from' in line 11.

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

With this we may discuss the following: Government amendments Nos. 205 and 207.

Amendment No. 7, in page 33, line 20, leave out subsection (6).

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

Clause 58 outlines the conditions on the disclosure to an adopted adult of information held by the courts or by adoption agencies. With new clauses 7 and 8, it spells out our new proposals on disclosure of protected information. We made it clear when we introduced the Bill in October that the provisions on access to information were new and that we would welcome views on whether they struck the right balance. Following the weight of representations and with the benefit of having set up a Special Standing Committee to hear evidence, we are making significant changes to the provisions.

The clause deals with the conditions for the disclosure of information about birth records held by the court. Under current law the adopted adult has a right, provided by section 51 of the Adoption Act 1976, to obtain information from the Registrar-General that enables him to access a copy of his birth certificate, which identifies his birth parents and their address at the time of the birth. The only exception is when the Registrar-General decides to withhold the information on public policy grounds; in such cases, the adopted person can challenge the Registrar-General's decision by recourse to the High Court.

We have reviewed the existing right, taking into account the views of stakeholders and others and the

concerns raised about the very small number of cases where unfettered access to birth records could pose a significant risk to the birth parent. Under the amended clause, the adopted adult will retain the right to access the information that he needs to enable him to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. We have broadly replicated but improved on the current legal position. The route of access will now be through the adoption agency.

On making a request, the adopted adult would be able to obtain the information that he needs in order to acquire a copy of his birth certificate from his adoption agency. The only exception would be cases in which the adoption agency considered that exceptional circumstances justified recourse to the courts to withhold information, such as when there was a potential serious risk to the safety of those identified. In such a case, the adoption agency would have to seek the High Court's permission not to disclose the information. The High Court would make an order only if it were satisfied that the circumstances were exceptional. I hope that that change will allay the concerns that have been expressed, while still providing a safeguard whereby a court may give its consent, in exceptional circumstances, for information to be withheld.

Amendment No. 204 amends clause 58(2), which provides that an adopted person has the right, at his request, to receive the information that is provided to his adoptive parents under clause 57. Under the Bill as originally drafted, that is the information that the adopters would receive at the time of the adoption order, but clause 57 has now been removed, to be replaced by new clause 6 for prospective adopters; consequently, the reference to section 57 information needs to be omitted.

Amendment No. 205 will amend clause 58 to provide that the adopted person has a right, at his request, to receive the information that is necessary for him to obtain a certified copy of his birth certificate, unless the High Court orders otherwise. That is the intention that I outlined at the beginning. New subsection (2)(a) inserted by the amendment indicates that the High Court may make an order withholding the information if the circumstances are exceptional, and makes it clear that that would be done on an application by the adoption agency. The amendment also provides, in new subsection (2)(b), for the adopted adult to have a right to any prescribed information disclosed to the adopters by the agency under new clause 6.

Finally, amendment No. 207 removes subsections (5) and (6) of clause 58 because the disclosure of protected information is now provided for in new clauses 7 and 8, to be discussed later, the intentions behind which I outlined in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Huntingdon in the sitting before Christmas and set out in my letter. That is the reasoning behind amendments Nos. 204, 205 and 207, which do make happen our intentions with respect to the new provisions on access to information, which we discussed more broadly before Christmas and earlier today.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:30, 10 Ionawr 2002

None of the amendments ''do make happen'', as the Minister puts it, what we would like to have happened a long time ago. This whole thing should never have happened in the first place. We will support the amendments. Doing so will make amendment No. 7, which is grouped with this, rather superfluous, so I shall not press it.

The Minister has given a short explanation—great explanation would have been welcome—of the way in which the Registrar-General will withhold information on public policy grounds, to be challenged by the court. How many of the applications now going through adoption agencies does she envisage will be referred to the courts? I am pleased that the circumstance is exceptional, but what sort of circumstance are we talking about? How will it be monitored so that there is consistency across adoption agencies and the leave of the High Court is not overly sought? What numbers are we talking about? The process is expensive and cumbersome, so it would be useful to have more information about the nature of the exceptional circumstances and how the system of going through adoption agencies and producing birth certificates will work. While we are considering this set of amendments, the Minister might like to give us a few more practical examples. The intention is right, and we agree with the big U-turn that the Government have made, but we need a more detailed explanation of how the system will work. I shall be grateful if the Minister provides that.

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

The provision does not exactly replicate the current position with respect to access to birth records. One of the problems that we highlighted was the fact that it would be possible for somebody, without having gone through an adoption agency, to make contact directly with the Registrar-General in order to receive information that would enable him to access his birth record. We are proposing, as a refinement of that process, that access be through the adoption agency, allowing—as we all agree—for referral in very exceptional circumstances to the High Court.

To obtain a copy of one's birth records, one will have to provide the information necessary for the Registrar-General to make the links between one's birth record and one's record of adoption. That would produce the information to enable access to one's birth certificate. The change is that the Registrar-General will provide the adoption agency with the information to enable it either to pass on the information to the individual or, in rare cases when there could be cause for concern—I shall give examples in a moment—to consider it.

The Registrar-General has blocked the discharge of information in order to allow access to the birth certificate in one case since 1976, so the numbers are not significant. However, as we have previously argued, the matter could become marginally more significant in future. The exceptional circumstances with which we are concerned are those, for instance, that might entail a risk of death to the birth parents if the adopted person were able to identify them. The issue is not so much about numbers but the nature of

the risk that such exceptional circumstances might involve.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I appreciate fully what the Minister is saying, but who determines the risk? Is there not other provision in law, such as the issuing of injunctions or restraining orders and other action, if a risk is perceived? Every adopted child who came from an abusive home might be a risk to the parents in question, but only a tiny minority would prove to be so.

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

The previous difficulty was that the Registrar-General could determine whether a risk existed only if it was obvious from the circumstances of the approach for information. Because the adoption agency has much better information and understanding about the circumstances of the adoption and the potential relationship between the birth parents and the adopted person, it is in a better position to evaluate the potential for risk.

However, the agency will not be able to make a decision depriving the adopted person of their right to a birth record. It will be able only to apply to the High Court for permission not to disclose the information. The court will then consider whether it is justifiable to withhold the information that would enable the person to obtain access to their birth record. A pretty high hurdle will have to be cleared. The adoption agency and the court will have to consider risk and the appropriateness of withholding the information.

The Association of Directors of Social Services has provided some examples of cases of concern over the possibility of tracing and contacting individuals. One concerns an adopted person

''who had reached 18 years of age, and sought information which would lead to him finding out the whereabouts of his birth parents as he wanted to 'kill them'. Apparently he had been badly abused as an infant and had a facial disfigurement. He said 'every day when I look in the mirror it reminds me of what they did to me and it makes me very angry'.

In a second example, an adopted Asian girl

''who was part of a very close knit family (which sought to exclude the authorities and any outsiders) was very seriously neglected as an infant over a significant period of time—indeed her doctors didn't think she would survive. The child was placed for adoption. Now that she is 18 she wants to trace her birth family: it is considered by the agency that she may be at risk if she does locate them as she is likely to be an extremely unwelcome visitor.''

Another point that has been made is that the vast majority of adoptions happen well after birth, so people inevitably know who their birth parents are. Also, the vast majority of adoptions are open, which is generally considered to be good practice. We are attempting to make provision for rare cases and exceptional circumstances.

I have given information about the situation that has existed up until now, but I do not have an estimate of future figures. Perhaps the issue will never arise, but if it does, the circumstances might be so important as to necessitate the provisions in the clause. That justifies the balance that we have struck on access to birth records. There should be a right to access the information necessary to get one's birth record, and access should be through the adoption agency, which is best placed to know the particular circumstances.

However, in exceptional circumstances, the High Court should still be able to prevent that right from being exercised.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 205, in page 33, line 11, at end insert—

'(a) the information within section 54(1A)(a), unless the High Court orders otherwise,

(b) any prescribed information disclosed to the adopters by the agency by virtue of section [Disclosing information during adoption process].

(2A) The High Court may make an order under subsection (2)(a), on an application by the appropriate adoption agency, if satisfied that the circumstances are exceptional'.

No. 206, in page 33, line 16, leave out 'or section 76 information'.

No. 207, in page 33, line 17, leave out subsections (5) and (6).—[Jacqui Smith.]

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I beg to move amendment No. 191, in page 33, line 23, at end add—

'(7) The natural parents of an adopted person shall at any time have the right to deposit, with the adoption agency who acted on the related adoption, written or electronic material which is addressed to the adopted person contained in sealed form.

(8) Upon receipt of such material referred to in subsection (7), the adoption agency shall have a duty to retain such material in sealed form—

(a) where the agency is made aware of the death of the adopted person, for a period of three years from the date of that death, or

(b) in all other cases, for a period of 80 years from the date of receipt.

(9) Upon written request from the adopted person made at any time following his or her having attained the age of 18 years or, following the death of the adopted person, upon written request from a personal representative of the adopted person, the adoption agency must forthwith release such material to the adopted person or his or her personal representative as the case may be.

(10) At the conclusion of the relevant time periods referred to in subsection (8)(a) and (b), the local authority shall destroy any material deposited pursuant to subsection (7).'.

As the Minister has just said, most adoptions are open, and that is accepted good practice. However, for historical or contemporary reasons, that is sometimes not the case. Normally, that will be where there is no contact, perhaps because the child has been the subject of abuse. In addition, people involved in pre-1976 adoptions might not even know that they were adopted, while those who do so might not want contact with their natural parents.

Even in such problem cases, natural parents have certain basic rights, which should be set out in the Bill. As we discussed, they have no automatic right to information in such cases, but they should have a right in all circumstances to make information available to the adopted person. The amendment proposes a procedure to ensure that they have the right to deposit information about themselves so that the adopted person can access it on reaching maturity. That ties in with the next amendment, which suggests that adopted children should be told that they are adopted. However, the provision should not be retrospective, and there is no reason to tell someone who was adopted in 1945 that they were adopted, if

they had not been told before. In future, however, it would be best practice to do so.

The amendment would set up a procedure whereby information could be disclosed. It is based on a procedure that was used by the adoption agency with which I was involved as a councillor, and I can tell the Committee that it works very well. Ultimately, however, it would still be up to the adopted person to decide to seek the information.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 10:45, 10 Ionawr 2002

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the amendment would add four new subsections to clause 58. They would provide for birth parents to be able to deposit sealed information with the adoption agency—information that the adopted child would have a right to see only once he had reached the age of 18.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's intention. It would be entirely laudable and appropriate with, for example, private or confidential information that could have no bearing on the child's upbringing but that the birth parents did not wish to share with the adoptive parents—a message, or photographs of the birth family whom the adopted child may not know, such as grandparents who may have died by the time that the adopted child had reached adulthood. However, it is not necessary to make such a provision in the Bill. To do so would prevent flexibility.

To return to a much rehearsed argument, a more practical approach would be for regulations to be made to allow adoption agencies to provide such a service. Indeed, clause 9 enables regulations to be made in respect of local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies. It provides a general power to make regulations for any purpose relating to the exercise by local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies of their functions in relation to adoption, and by adoption support agencies for their functions in relation to the provision of adoption support services.

Although the Government have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's intention, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment in light of my assurance that we shall consider how best to make such a provision through regulations made under clause 9, after due consultation on the details with adoption stakeholders.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I thank the Minister for taking that approach. It seems that the meat of what is proposed will be accepted and included in regulations. I would have preferred to see it in the Bill, but the Government have accepted that it should somehow find its way into the legal process. 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. 235, in page 33, line 23, at end add—

'(7) On attaining the age of 18 an adopted adult shall be formally notified by the appropriate adoption agency that he was adopted.'.

The amendment is all to do with a person's right to know that he is adopted. You may recall, Mr.

Stevenson, that in debate of an earlier amendment we wanted to make it a requirement that the birth parents would at least be told if their child, who had subsequently been adopted, had died. We felt that that was at least natural and humane, lest at a later stage those birth parents tried to seek out that child, could not access any information and, when they eventually tracked down the records, discovered that the child had died. That would be doubly cruel. We are attempting to insert a fundamental right into the clause.

During our proceedings, and in the preparation that many hon. Members have made in familiarising themselves with a subject with which many of us were not familiar, we have heard many extraordinary tales, cases and life histories of people who were adopted or gave up their children for adoption many years ago in circumstances that were not as equitable as one would hope for.

I have heard cases of people in their 70s discovering that they were adopted, often only when an adoptive parent, whom they had thought was a birth parent, had died. Adoptive parents who did not want to make it clear during their lifetime that they were not the natural birth parents have sometimes left notes for after their death, or the information has been released by friends or relatives in the know. That can come as a very traumatic revelation for the adopted children, especially if they have been living a pretence—although the intentions behind it may have been good—for many years.

It may be a doubly traumatic experience for adopted children if, when they try to search out their birth parents—as many do, for obvious reasons—they discover that they have died, as they are likely to have done if the discovery of the adoption has been made late in life. Those children will live their remaining years with the discovery that they are adopted, which may have come as an enormous shock, and that the people with whom they have grown up are not blood relatives. When they want to research into their birth relatives, if they are lucky enough to be able to trace them, they may find that they have died some years previously.

There is a case for making it a statutory right for adopted people to know that they are adopted. That is not an issue for those who are adopted at an age when they are quite aware that they are being removed from a birth family and placed with an adoptive family. However, a number of children are adopted at an age when they cannot assimilate that information, and that number will increase if this legislation is successful in promoting the number of children who are adopted out of care. In many cases, they will be told by responsible adoptive parents at an appropriate time and when all the adoption support services, to which we referred in earlier debates, are made available to them if appropriate, so that they can assimilate and cope with that information.

However, there still are—and I judge that there still will be—people who reach the age of 18 without for whatever reason being told by their adoptive parents

or people around them that they are adopted. They will live for a long time under the impression that their adoptive parents are their birth parents. Perhaps by accident they will find out that they are adopted, because certain facts that they come across do not stack up. It is a fundamental right that children, when they reach the age of 18 and become adults, should be entitled to that information, as long as all the necessary support goes with it.

The Children's Rights Alliance for England has stated that it is

''a fundamental principle . . . that children should have the right to know they are adopted''—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, November 2001; c. 314.]

It goes on to quote from the United Nations convention on the rights of the child to back up that entitlement.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend has made a cogent case for the emotional side of the matter, and in most cases that is the more important side. However, I hope that he will also allude to the medical aspect, which we were discussing with reference to clauses considered earlier, such as when an adult is suffering from an illness. The provisions for being able to identify birth parents can kick in only at the point where an adopted child discovers that he or she is adopted.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is a very important point. We are not talking about an enormous number of people, just those adoptive parents who, for the best of reasons in their view, are too protective towards an adoptive child. After they have died, a medical problem may emerge. We have ensured, although not quite to the extent that we wanted, that the child's medical history is passed to the adoptive parent, but there is no requirement for adoptive parents to ensure that the child is fully apprised of his or her medical condition. If the adoptive parents die and the child develops a medical condition and examines their medical history, that would be one way of finding out that they were not his or her birth parents. Lack of disclosure could lead to medical problems if there were a genetic history of such problems from a completely different family.

I am sure that the amendment has problems. I am sure that it needs to be better worded, with many more safeguards attached to it. I think, however, that the Committee should consider the principle behind it. I am entirely happy for the Government, if they accept the principle of the amendment, to take it away and rewrite it, making a large part of it reliant on regulations.

The principle is so important that it should be taken up. It needs to be done sensibly, and I am certainly not suggesting that on an adopted child's 18th birthday they should automatically receive communication from some adoption equivalent of the tax office. I am not suggesting that along with their tax code and their 18th birthday card from their Member of Parliament they should receive a bit of paper saying, ''Congratulations. By the way, you're adopted.'' I am suggesting that the process be much more sensitive, which is why I alluded to the support services and counselling for which we have made provision in the Bill.

It is right that if, on reaching the age of 18, a person has not been told that they are adopted, that information should be made available to them, so that they can go through the rest of their lives knowing exactly where they come from. If they choose to pursue a line of inquiry based on the information given to them, they must know where to start on that path. That is a fundamental human right. On that basis, I commend the amendment to the Committee, although I would be delighted if the Minister bashed it around a bit if she accepted the general principle.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon 11:00, 10 Ionawr 2002

As my hon. Friend said, there are relatively few cases of babies being adopted, and in the majority of adoptions, the children know who their parents are. However, babies are still adopted and the Bill may encourage that, as my hon. Friend also said. It is important that people should be informed of their adopted status when they reach the age of 18. That will do something to prevent people from experiencing the life-changing moment—we have discussed this several times—of finding out that they were adopted, and all the attendant emotions and problems.

However, I hope that the provision will not apply retrospectively because that could create a host of unintended problems. It would be very unfortunate if hundreds of 70, 80 and 90-year-olds were suddenly to receive letters informing them of their adoptive status. That said, I support the amendment and note that it is drafted using the future tense, so I presume that it will not have retrospective effect.

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

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the amendment is pretty ghastly, but the principle behind it is sound. Although I do not expect that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to accept it, I hope that the Government will recognise the fundamental right of people to know that they were adopted.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

I certainly support the amendment because it is vital that any child who is adopted knows so at the earliest possible stage. If they are not told by their adoptive parents, they should be told when they reach the age of 18. It is unthinkable today that any adopted child should not be told at an early age, gradually, slowly and in an appropriate framework, that they are adopted. We hope that more very young babies will be adopted as a result of the legislation, so will the Minister say what the Government intend to do to improve the education and training of adoptive parents to ensure that they fully understand how important it is that adopted children are told the facts at an early age? How they are told is obviously also very important, although that is a side issue. However, some parents may not be able to cope and may find the matter too difficult to explain, so a few children may slip through the net. That is where the amendment would come in.

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 also fully agree with what has been said. It is a fundamental human right to know that one has been adopted, and such a provision should be in the Bill. I have followed the arguments; clearly the communication must be conducted sensitively. The

scenario of letters arriving suddenly on people's 18th birthdays is rather ghastly. I am sure that the proposal is not meant in that way, although given the current state of the postal services, people might be considerably older than 18 by the time the letter arrives. [Laughter.] To be serious, the amendment is important. The wording might not find favour, but the principle is sound and I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly.

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

In fact, the principle is a difficult one—[Interruption.] That is not to say that I do not have a lot of sympathy with what has been said and that I am not willing to consider the matter further. However, I think that I should spell out what I see as the difficulties, not only with the amendment but with the principle.

The amendment would make it a duty for the adoption agency to inform the adopted person when he became an adult that he was adopted. The hon. Member for Huntingdon used the words ''best practice'' in relation to amendment No. 191, and many points that have been made on this amendment have related not to what should be an absolute statutory duty but to what all of us would agree is best practice.

Nowadays, the majority of children will know that they have been adopted. Under our adoption standards, where adoption is the plan for a child, he or she will be given clear explanations and information about adoption and will be prepared before joining a new family. Adoption plans will include details of the arrangements for maintaining links, including contact, with birth parents, wider birth family members and other people who are significant to the child.

If a child does not know that he has been adopted, our guidance to adopters emphasises that it is better if the adoptive parents explain that to him. It encourages them to be ready to do so when the child starts to take an interest in his origins. It states that openness is more likely to promote a secure relationship between the child and his adoptive parents.

The guidance also points out that when the adopted person reaches the age of 18, he will be entitled to a copy of his original birth certificate, as provided for by amendment No. 205. The adopted adult will also be entitled to access the prescribed information that was given by the agency to his adopters as part of the adoption process—although the hon. Member for Canterbury is right that that presupposes that the person knows that he is adopted.

However, I have a problem with the sometimes rather slick way in which people try to define a fundamental human right. I ask the Committee to consider the situation in which somebody was brought up by people who were not his parents, but who believed that they were. We need only to stretch our mind to soap operas to come up with such situations, but I am sure that they exist in reality as well. In those circumstances, there is not a fundamental human right to know that the people who are bringing up the child and who the child believes to be their parents are not their parents. It is not as easy as to say that it is a fundamental right to know who one's birth parents

are; life is not that simple. It could be that the nature of adoption is different and that we should consider whether people should know that they are adopted. I would be willing to think about that.

There is another problem with the amendment, as it would make it a duty for adoption agencies to intervene in a matter that we could argue is best left to the family to decide, and to the adopted adult to pursue, should he want to do so. We should remember that, when a child is adopted, he moves into a new family that should have the right to make decisions about him of the type that I would expect to make about my children. Hon. Members should be aware that providing such a duty or right—however we want to phrase it—would effectively be an intervention into family life, affecting decisions that some would argue should be most appropriately made by the family.

As I have pointed out, our guidance clearly encourages adoptive parents to be open with their adopted child about his origins, when they consider that he is ready. They will know that their child will be entitled to discover the facts for himself, should he want to when he becomes an adult.

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 follow what the Minister has said, but guidance to adoptive parents does not mean much because the parents may opt not to tell the child. As the hon. Member for Canterbury suggested, the words ''at his request'' in the clause clearly presuppose knowledge of adoption. The clause fails adopted children, as in many circumstances they will not know that they have been adopted. In some circumstances, alas, adoptive parents will not follow the Minister's guidelines. In that case, we are undermining an important principle. Further thought should be given to the issue.

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

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; there will not necessarily be many cases in which children do not know that they have been adopted. In a small number of cases, children may not know that they have been adopted because the adoptive parents have especially decided not to tell them. Which of us know what the circumstances might be in such a case? The implication of the proposal is that we overrule the decision taken by the adoptive parents not to tell their adopted child. The issue is more complicated than a blithe assertion about fundamental human rights. It will need careful consideration.

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

Will my hon. Friend consider whether adoptive parents have the right to withhold such crucial information from their adopted child? Might a large part of the assessment of people as possible adopters be whether they are willing to allow such openness and honesty within the family so that the information could be made available at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way?

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

I very much agree with my hon. Friend's second point. On his first point, I have a right not to inform my children about many things. That may be bad practice on my part, but it is my right as a parent.

I cannot envisage a situation in which it would not be appropriate for someone to know that he was adopted, or for an adoptive family to tell its child that he was adopted. The amendment and the arguments for it made by some hon. Members suggest that every adopted person in all circumstances, regardless of any decisions made, should be told at the age of 18 that they had been adopted, not that it would be good practice in almost every circumstance.

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, 10 Ionawr 2002

If the Minister argues that she can conceive of no situation that would justify denying the adopted child the knowledge that they were adopted, that guidance should surely have the force of law behind it. Either we should accept the amendment, or every adoptive parent should, as a matter of common practice, disclose to the child at an appropriate time and in the most sensitive way that they were adopted. The Minister is confusing the issue. She says that she can conceive of no reason to deny the child the knowledge that they were adopted, but then says that the amendment is no use because it gives a blanket right to obtain that knowledge. I cannot reconcile those two standpoints.

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

The point that I was trying to make was that I agreed with hon. Members about what was likely to be best practice. However, I am also raising concerns about the extent to which such practice can be a right. I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he suggested that the Government should produce statutory legal guidance on how parents should relate to their children. That is a little problematic, and I am attempting to exemplify some of the problems with moving in the direction in which hon. Members are pushing me. I am not saying that I absolutely oppose the proposed measures, and I am willing go give them further consideration, but some of the assertions that have been made—I have not even got to the practicalities—suggest that hon. Members rather blithely believe that it is possible or desirable for the state to intervene in family life or in the relationship between parents and their children.

Mr. Llwyd rose—

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)

With respect, the Minister's argument is not very persuasive. I am not saying that we want the Government to interfere in family life—far from it. We want to enshrine a child's right to know their roots. That is the main aim, and we are looking for a way to achieve it. None of the Minister's arguments hitherto should prevent that.

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

That is the point that we are discussing. What are the implications of enshrining such a right? I am attempting to exemplify some of them.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am glad that my amendment has prompted such an interesting discussion. The Minister is discussing the fundamentally different issue of the state interfering in family life, and there are provisions in the European convention on human rights and the

UN convention on the rights of the child to deal with that. We, however, are talking about a different issue, because the state will have legitimised the adopted child's relationship with their family. That will not be a natural birth relationship, so the state will have a right of involvement.

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

That is an important point. That is why I said that it might be more fruitful to state that it was someone's fundamental human right to know that they had been through a legal process of adoption, rather than to know the nature of the people who were bringing them up. That may be the way forward.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

As a Burkean Conservative who is not very impressed by a dialogue about rights as the best way to examine the obligations that make for civilised society, I rather sympathise with the Minister's point.

The critical point is that we are dealing not with children, but with people who have reached the age of 18. Rather than telling people that they were adopted—that will already have happened in nearly every case—we might get round the problem by making it a statutory duty to make them aware of their right to see their birth certificate, which will include the information that they were adopted. Given that that will happen when they are 18, the birth parents will have plenty of time to get ready, and the information will appear slightly less ghastly when it comes through the post.

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

Perhaps I have had a Burkean transformation over the Christmas break. I need to think about the suggestion made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, as I am not sure that it is the most appropriate way to go forward, and I see practical difficulties in implementation. The amendment would place an onerous duty on adoption agencies in that it would be necessary for them know that an adopted person was approaching 18 and was able and willing to make contact—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, having made much of the resource implications of the proposals, now dismisses something that is potentially onerous.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

This whole Bill is about making lifetime adoption work; it is about providing lifetime adoption services. If the adoption agency cannot even manage the not onerous task of working out when one of its previous charges reaches 18, then it is not doing its job very well. That is not a great responsibility or burden.

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

That is the hon. Gentleman's view. I shall be interested to know whether adoption agencies consider it onerous or not. That might be one of the implications that we need to consider.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

On the method of informing the adopted child, it might be that the first approach should be made to the adoptive parents, to remind

them that the child must know by the age of 18; after 18 years, they might have forgotten that they had to tell him. They should be reminded that they should take matters into their own hands rather than having the state bluntly inform the adopted person.

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

I am pleased that, as the hon. Gentleman's intervention shows, the debate has forced us all to consider both the principles and the practicalities of the issue. Given that, perhaps I can reassure the Committee that the Government will consider in more detail both the practicalities and the principle and that I will give further information to Committee members before consideration of remaining stages on the Floor of the House. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will feel able to withdraw the amendment, which is not quite ghastly, but might not achieve what we want to do.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am flattered that the Minister thinks that the amendment is not ghastly. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) went slightly over the top in saying so. I did not suggest that it was ghastly. I implied that it might be flawed. Like all Opposition amendments, it is far from ghastly.

It will be useful to address the outstanding points in Committee—I am grateful that the Minister is sympathetic to returning to them on Report, but I hope that her undertaking to come back to us before the remaining stages does not mean the night before—so that we have more time to consider what she might come up with. I would want to table amendments along these lines for consideration on Report, and they would be dependent on what the Government are thinking.

The Minister started by saying that the amendment was difficult. Then she said that she had some sympathy with the points raised, then she said that she would consider the matter further and then she said that it was a bit of a problem. Initially, I was slightly alarmed, because she seemed to pray in aid a case—I think that she is talking about the Slater family and what is currently going on with Kat, Zoe and Uncle Harry. I am concerned about the use of the example of what happens in ''EastEnders''. [Interruption.] I am very surprised that Labour Members raise the question of which soap opera is relevant. I should be alarmed if the Minister were citing those not exactly everyday instances that people have been watching on their screens in recent weeks as a good basis for not adopting a legitimate amendment—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, the Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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