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Select Committee

Adoption and Children Bill (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 9:59 pm on 26th March 2001.

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1. The Bill shall be committed to a Select Committee.

2. The Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House on or before Tuesday 12th June.

One of the first recommendations of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, made during the first Session of the current Parliament, encouraged the Government to make more use of a variety of procedures that are available to ensure that Bills are given the right kind of scrutiny--such as special Select Committees. The Government are pleased to be able to act on that recommendation in relation to this Bill.

The Government are particularly keen for Members, individuals and organisations involved in adoption to comment on our new legislative provisions. If further improvements need to be made to produce the best possible Bill, we certainly wish to hear about them.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

How large does the Minister expect the Select Committee to be?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

For heaven's sake. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is the deputy Opposition Chief Whip. It is up to him, and to the mysterious usual channels, to sort these things out; it is not a matter for me. That was a pathetic and, I have to say, a rather obvious intervention.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Will the Minister please tell us why he decided on a Select Committee rather than a Special Standing Committee? Both have the capacity to take evidence.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I understand that that, too, was discussed between the usual channels and that the two sides agreed on a Select Committee. As I said, the Government want to give Members the greatest possible opportunity to discuss the intricate details of the Bill, and we think that a special Select Committee will provide that.

Arrangements for the membership and powers of the Committee in its initial meetings will be put to the House shortly. How the Committee conducts its business will of course be a matter for it, but I hope that there will be ample opportunities for key groups and individuals concerned with adoption to comment on the Bill and give evidence to the Committee. I also hope that the Select Committee process will allow us to maintain the helpful consensual, consultative, cross-party approach that has characterised discussions on the issue so far. That has, I understand, happened in connection with legislation relating to the armed forces, which is regularly subject to scrutiny along the lines that we propose.

The Government's approach is intended to combine consultation with maintaining momentum in regard to legislation. The motion provides for the Committee to complete its examination of the Bill on or before 12 June. That should provide sufficient time for due consideration, while still allowing us to make progress with this important legislation. I hope that the House will support the motion.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 10:02 pm, 26th March 2001

It is a pleasure to deal with what I think would be more accurately described as a committal motion. Those of us who have had to argue our way through the rights and wrongs of a programme motion will recognise that we are dealing with something slightly different. The Opposition welcome this procedure, which--for the first time, or certainly the first time when I have dealt with such a motion--allows us, at least in theory, an amount of time for debate that must result from a good deal of common sense. After all, we are dealing with a complex Bill.

There is, however, a touch of unreality in all this. Some of us have been locked in the Chamber all day, but the moment one sets foot outside and enters the real world one finds that people are talking about the date of the general election, which could precede 12 June. There is a certain unreality in debating a motion on whether a Select Committee should report to the House before 12 June.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I do not want to be churlish about the timetable motion. The exit date of 12 June is, on the face of it, acceptable. What troubles us is that we do not know when the Bill will be committed, and therefore do not know for how long it will be considered by the Select Committee.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is just one more element of the unreality that we are encountering. I have a few questions to ask the Minister about this. If we were governed by normal times, rather than these "end times", we might safely assume that some of the excellent contributions that have been made today by Members on both sides of the House would have attracted the attention of the Whips. We might assume that their thoughts would turn rapidly to staffing the Committee with those Members, and giving it the benefit of their experience. However, the unreality comes in because not one of us can be sure what would happen after a general election and whether the hon. Members selected prior to the general election would be returned. Logically, therefore, it is not possible to constitute the special Select Committee before we are clear when the general election might be, which gives the whole discussion a distinct air of unreality.

The important point, which we endorse, is that, for a subject such as adoption, on which different groups have very different opinions and on which sensitivity is high--I referred earlier to the eternal triangle between the needs of the child, the adopters and the birth family--it is particularly important to ensure that we create the opportunity to consult those different groups about the draft legislation.

It has been pointed out that, historically, we get the chance to legislate on adoption about once a generation--every 25 years. There is a substantial need for reform. This is the time. This is now. The important thing for hon. Members is to ensure that we get it right. One of the best ways in which to ensure that we do so is to have a fairly detailed consultation on the way in which the proposals will affect those different groups.

Therefore, it is important to preserve the notional two and a half months that, if there were no election in the way, we would assume that such a Select Committee had to do its work. Certainly, when speaking to the all-party group on adoption, the Minister said that such a Bill could not be galloped through and that it would require at least a couple of months of proper scrutiny in that way. That is a view with which we concur. Our only concern in debating the committal motion is whether we shall be stuck with the date of 12 June if a three, four or five-week election campaign intervenes, when no progress can be made on the type of scrutiny that such a special Select Committee would offer. That is important.

It is the integrity of that point that I want to impress on the Minister. As I said, it is only those who pretend not to know what is going on, or who have been stuck in here too long today who are unaware of the unreality that surrounds the date in the motion. It is for that reason that we want to impress on the Minister the need to give the right allocation of time.

There is perhaps another element of unreality in all this. My right hon. Friend Mr. Davis, who played an important part in the previous debate--indeed, he played an important part in considerations of adoption by hon. Members on both sides of the House--put an important question to both Front-Bench teams: whether they would ensure that an adoption Bill came back immediately after the election in the Queen's Speech. I am happy to give him that assurance. It would be good to hear the same assurance from the Government of today, although they may not be the Government of tomorrow. For that reason, it is fair to ask that question.

As I have said, we have a once in a generation opportunity to reform adoption law and to get it right. I assure the Minister that he will have the support of Conservative Members as long as the child is at the centre of the process and that principle is not compromised in any way. We have given the Minister a number of constructive suggestions on the way in which the legislation can be improved. We look forward to the opportunity to refine it further and to ensure that we contribute to getting the reform of adoption absolutely right.

Photo of Dr Peter Brand Dr Peter Brand Liberal Democrat, Isle of Wight 10:09 pm, 26th March 2001

I missed the first half hour of the previous debate and did not speak in it because I had a long-standing previous engagement to speak with young people in my constituency. However, I am pleased that I did not speak in it, as I did not want to break up the modicum of consensus that seemed to be warming the hearts of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.

It makes complete sense to commit the Bill to a special Select Committee. Today's debate made the issues seem all too simple whereas, as we know, the problems with which the Bill deals are extraordinarily complex. My hon. Friend Sandra Gidley mentioned some of the difficulties with targets. Of course targets will be different in different parts of the country, depending on the mix of children and their ages and disabilities.

Much of the earlier debate focused on the assessment of parents, but what about the assessment of children? I hope that the Select Committee will take evidence from psychologists and psychiatrists on resources--not money, but the manpower to do some of that work. Although speed is desirable in placements, achieving permanent placements is even more desirable. Nothing is worse for a child than to be rejected time after time. Rejection is depressing for children and produces extremely poor outcomes.

I also hope that the special Select Committee will examine some of the evidence taken by the Select Committee on Health, for example, in its inquiry on migrant children. In those days, when we had a particularly unsympathetic benefit system and a non-existent support system, parents were placed under great pressure--they were literally blackmailed--to give up their children for adoption. Moreover, that event is not so historical. People alive today are grieving the loss of children whom they lost in the 1960s and 1970s, after being told that they could not support them and that it would be best for them to be given up. I hope that the Select Committee will take evidence from those mothers, who were disfranchised.

Although it is important that children come first, I believe that it is most important to maintain children in a happy family relationship that is based on birth rather than on man's intervention. Of course, sometimes, we have to intervene. I am sure that the evidence would support that assertion. However, I am concerned that we should not go for the simplest and quickest outcome--an adoption with some nice middle-class people--and give up on parents and their children.

Although I appreciate that the Select Committee may not sit for long, I hope that the evidence presented to it will be available to a successor Committee. I am also sure that this motion will serve as a precedent should a subsequent, related Bill be introduced by the Government, or by a successor Government, after the next general election.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 10:13 pm, 26th March 2001

This is an interesting motion. If the Minister will forgive me, I rather regret the absence of the Leader of the House from the debate, as it raises some interesting issues that the Minister has not entirely addressed, as she might have done.

I have spoken to most of the timetable motions that we have had since the start of that process and opposed all of them. I shall not oppose this motion because I cannot say that the report date of 12 June provides too little time. However, we do not really know enough about this process. I therefore hope that the Minister will forgive me if I ask him some simple questions.

First, the Bill is to be committed to a special Select Committee. Will that be a specific, ad hoc Select Committee or one of the House's established Select Committees? I imagine that it will be committed to the former. If so, at some stage, we shall be invited to approve a list of proposed Committee members. Hon. Members are entitled to ask when that list of names will be presented to the House for nomination.

Secondly--the answer to this question hinges upon that to the first question--when will the Bill go to the Select Committee? Until we know when it will go to the Select Committee, we cannot say whether the exit date of 12 June provides sufficient time.

I approach this as a student not of the Bill but of the constitution. Why are we proceeding via a Select rather than a Special Standing Committee? I have long held the view that Standing Committees should take evidence. As the Minister will know--if he does not, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is on hand to tell him-- a Special Standing Committee can take evidence.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

First, if a Bill goes to a Special Standing Committee it must report within 28 days. I thought that Conservative Members were not much in favour of such deadlines. Secondly, Select Committee procedures are more flexible, which will facilitate the deeper and wider scrutiny that we want to encourage.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Those are certainly points of substance. On the first, I am not too worried about the artificial constraint of 28 days, because I would rather that we got Bills right; on the second, I do not know whether the Minister is right about flexibility, although I am prepared to listen to the arguments. I am not yet persuaded that a Select Committee is better than a Special Standing Committee, but I accept that the process of taking evidence is worth while.

Can a Select Committee amend a Bill, or does it merely make a report to the House? I understand that the general procedure is for a Select Committee to report to a Committee of the whole House. Is that correct? It would be extremely helpful to know now that such a Committee of the whole House will not be subject to a timetable, because the House as a whole will have no other opportunity to scrutinise the detail of the Bill.

Photo of Dr Peter Brand Dr Peter Brand Liberal Democrat, Isle of Wight

Would it not have been helpful if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had looked up the procedure followed by the Select Committee that scrutinised the Food Standards Bill? He would then have had answers to many of his questions.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman does me an injustice. I have taken some advice on the matter. In any event, the procedure is not homogeneous. For example, the Armed Forces Bill is subject to a different procedure from that adopted for the Food Standards Bill. That is why the Minister talked about flexibility. I am entitled to answers to specific questions, and I hope that even the Liberal Democrats want those answers, even though they are in bed with Labour.

I am not opposed to the timetable motion as it stands, but I hope that the Minister will give us some answers to specific questions. He will forgive my observing that I am a bit chary when I see a relatively unusual procedure laid before the House. I would like to know rather more about why it has been put before the House.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 10:20 pm, 26th March 2001

I wish to point out some of the anomalies that my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg referred to last week.

We had two programme motions last week. The Regulatory Reform Bill had its Second Reading on 19 March and the timetable motion stated that it would be out of Committee by 29 March--a very short time indeed. On 20 March, we debated the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham pointed out, it is a substantial Bill of 57 pages, 43 clauses and nine schedules. The timetable motion stated that it would be out of Committee by 5 April. Therefore, we look at today's timetable motion with a little scepticism about the Government's actual intentions. The motion states that the special Select Committee will report the Bill to the House on 12 June.

I make no apology for asking the Minister again about the composition of the special Select Committee. He said that the Committee will be composed in the same way as that which considered the armed forces legislation.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

The hon. Gentleman asks me about the composition of the special Select Committee. Will he indicate what he would like in terms of its membership?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I can certainly do that in due course. [Interruption.] I said "in due course". I have 24 minutes in which to expand my comments, and I may do so if I am encouraged.

The Minister, in response to my earlier intervention, referred to the armed forces legislation. The composition of the Select Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill was sorted out on the same day as Second Reading. That may have been because there was some urgency about the Bill. There is no such motion on today's Order Paper--there is not the urgency.

As my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman said, the Bill was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech. It has been introduced as a result of the pressure put on the Government by the private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. [Interruption.] It is typical of the contempt that those on the Government Front Bench have for this House that they laugh at such a matter. If it were not for my hon. Friend's private Member's Bill, I do not believe that we would be debating this Bill today.

I freely admit that I welcome the time allocated to the special Select Committee. However, we must ensure that it is set up this week so that it can start its work relatively soon and is not put on to the back burner, as I expect the Government to do. The Minister acknowledged that he expects a substantial number of changes to be made to the Bill.

I was asked what size I wanted the special Select Committee to be. I would like it to be of a decent size, with perhaps 10 or 20 members. I would be quite happy to suggest 10 Conservative members. The Government could have eight and the Liberal Democrats, who always support the Government, could have the other two. In that way, the composition of the Committee would be evenly balanced across the House.

The Bill should not be about party politics--[Interruption.] I am sorry that Ministers find that so funny. The Bill is far too important to be about party politics. That is why I welcome the timetable motion and hope that it will set a precedent for future motions.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health) 10:24 pm, 26th March 2001

With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the genuine points put by Mr. Hogg, who asked sensible questions about the composition of the special Select Committee. Many of those questions will be addressed, successfully I hope, through the usual channels, including those on the composition of the Committee and when it will start its work. As he knows, I am not in a position tonight to answer his detailed points.

The special Select Committee will not have the power to amend the Bill. It can suggest amendments, which will be considered in turn by the House. We do not envisage a Committee of the whole House to consider the Bill--we wish to convene a Standing Committee in the usual way as soon as the Select Committee completes its investigation of the Bill.

Mr. McLoughlin made one of the most pointless and useless speeches that I have ever heard. I suspect that he knows that, and I shall not respond in any detail. I thought that he was simply going through the motions, and he almost made me sad that Mr. Forth was not here to make the same points.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I hope that the Minister will forgive me for being a little puzzled. I understood him to say that the Select Committee would report to a Standing Committee, which would subsequently report to the House on Report. I am not clear why we do not go straight to a Special Standing Committee, which would have the capacity to take evidence, consider the detail of the Bill and make any necessary amendment.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I shall write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members if I have misled them. I do not think that I have. The special Select Committee will report to the House. The Standing Committee will be set up in the normal way, and, armed with the information in the report of the special Select Committee, it will be better able to complete its deliberations on the Bill.

I should have thought, with respect, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would welcome this opportunity for more detailed and effective scrutiny of a Bill. He was not here for most of the Second Reading debate--I do not quibble about that; it is perfectly reasonable, and I am sure that he had lots of important business to attend to. However, had he been here, he would have learned that there is strong support for and consensus around the Bill.

The hon. Member for West Derbyshire criticised me for saying that we have an open mind about the Bill and are prepared to listen to serious suggestions for amending it. Given the hysterical reaction that we usually get from Conservative Members about the attitude of the Government towards the House of Commons, I should have thought that he would welcome what I said rather than making a pathetic attempt at party political point scoring--which I must say, with the greatest of respect to him, was entirely ineffective.

I have responded to the questions raised in this debate, and I hope that the House will support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That the following provisions shall apply to the Adoption and Children Bill: