I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate to consider the rights of adoptive parents. In respect of the adoption of children, we hear a great deal about the children involved, about what is best for them, and about how to provide them with stable and happy upbringing. Given the need to protect such children, who are often very vulnerable, it is right and proper that they should remain the main focus of attention. We also hear a great deal about the rights of the birth parents, particularly when they wish to have access to those children, but we hear rather less about the parents who adopt such children. They are often people who have given up a substantial proportion of their lives to provide a stable home and family background to children who are in desperate need of love and support. We must not forget that group of people and the unique set of challenges that they face.
I hope to raise a number of the issues that affect adoptive parents. These include: the confidentiality of information relating to adoption; the way in which a birth parent, often years after an adoption has taken place, is able to challenge terms of contact; and the lack of support available to adoptive parents in difficult circumstances. As with many issues raised in the House, I learned about this subject when I was visited by a constituent at one of my surgeries, a lady whose family is engaged in a complex legal case involving her adopted daughter.
The Minister and I have already corresponded about this case, and I have similarly contacted the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly in respect of matters relating to legal aid that I shall talk about in a moment. Following the family’s wishes, they will remain anonymous in the debate. I will do my best to explain the elements of this rather complicated case, which raises a number of issues.
The first issue relates to the security of data in matters of adoption. In the case to which I am referring, the birth mother was just 13 years old when she gave birth to her child. Both mother and child—the mother came from London—were put into care in London with the original ambition of finding a foster placement for them both. However, professionals in the field at the time quite reasonably decided that, given the mother’s age, the best long-term interests for both lay in putting the child up for adoption. The birth mother, despite her very young age, was reluctant to go ahead with the adoption and wished to keep the child. This wish to retain and gain access to the child has led to many of the difficulties facing my constituent and her family.
In 2001, my constituent and her family successfully adopted the child, who was just 23 months old at the time; she is now 12. They carried on with family life, and adopted a further child. During these years—pretty happy years from what I understand—the family were keen to do what was right for the child. The contact agreement, which was to facilitate indirect contact with the birth mother through letters a couple of times a year, was honoured; and it continued quite successfully through to 2008. The birth mother’s reluctance to part with the child led to concerns that she might attempt an abduction, so the indirect contact did not include the ability to send photographs to the birth mother.
Given that distance between the birth mother and the parent, one can imagine the adoptive parents’ concern when, seven years after the adoption, when the child was nine, the birth mother arrived unannounced at the family’s home. The question is how the birth mother was able to locate the family. The mother is and was resident in London, and this was an out-of-area adoption, with the child resident some 80 miles away. Clearly, the birth mother should not have been able to find out the name and address of the adopting family without their consent. This was the first of things to go wrong for my constituent and her family.
This matter also raises questions about the very objective of adoption legislation. As the Minister has confirmed in his recent response to me, adoption legislation is there to provide a framework for protecting confidential information, such as the names and addresses of the individuals involved. That requires local authorities to obtain the consent of the individuals if disclosure is requested. The individuals might be concerned that disclosure could lead to them being identified. In this case, the adopting family had specifically not given such consent. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some guidance in his comments about the security of information in such cases.
Seeing the birth mother on her doorstep, my constituent attempted to make the best of what was then a difficult situation and sought to avoid a distressing scene in front of the child. She invited the birth mother into her home. She did so on the basis that the birth mother had seen her daughter and that it might affect her adversely if further contact was denied. The adopting family reluctantly felt that they had no choice but to permit ongoing and regular contact. That happened for a couple of years, although it proved extremely difficult when, over time, the birth mother became increasingly aggressive and confrontational about access.
After a period, the mother’s behaviour became such that the family felt obliged to contact the police, leading to the birth mother receiving a police caution for harassment. With that in mind, the family quite reasonably requested that direct contact should be stopped, as it was starting to have serious consequences on the child who had become afraid of being abducted. The matter became so serious that at one stage the police provided both child and adoptive mother with alarms in case of an attack. One can only imagine the family’s horror when, a few months after contact was stopped, the family received a court summons through the post, advising them that the birth mother was attempting to force direct contact once again. Even more than that, the birth mother had secured legal aid in order to do so.
That brings us to the issue of the ability of a birth parent to challenge an adoption order. Unfortunately, under the existing rules my constituent and her family—the adopting family—are not eligible for legal aid, but they are also not sufficiently wealthy to afford expensive legal representation. They have been given an estimate of a cost of some £6,000 to fight the case in court, and they have no access to such a sum. I believe that the case raises serious issues about the rights of adoptive parents compared with those of birth parents, and about access to legal representation in such circumstances.
According to the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the effect of an adoption order is to give parental responsibility to the adopters. It refers to the extinguishing of parental responsibility from those who had it previously. Once an adoption order has been made, birth parents cease to have any legal rights over the child, and therefore cannot simply claim him or her back. As I explained earlier, a particular cause for anxiety is the fact that the direct contact came about not as a result of the wishes of the adoptive family, but because the birth mother had somehow managed to locate them.
Where does that leave the adopting family? They are left feeling that the birth mother has more rights than they have. It surely cannot be right for a birth parent who has breached the agreements of a contact order to be allowed to take the adoptive parents to court in order to make contact. I think most people would feel that in such circumstances the rules seem to be loaded in favour of the birth parents, with a lack of regard for the feelings and treatment of the adoptive family.
The availability of legal aid to the birth mother has become a matter of real concern to my constituent and her family. I am aware that the Government are currently undertaking a review of legal aid, and have presented proposals that will result in 500,000 fewer instances of legal help and 45,000 fewer instances of legal representation being funded by legal aid annually. I am also aware that family law is the single most expensive area of legal aid. In 2009-10, the most recent year for which figures are available, it cost the taxpayer £597 million. It is therefore understandable that the Government wish to make changes.
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, has confirmed to me that legal aid is granted on the strength of information provided by applicants and their solicitors. I realise that it is calculated on a means-tested basis and takes no account of previous behaviour, but while I also understand the importance of safeguarding access to legal advice, I feel that in a case such as this the existence of legal aid complicates matters unnecessarily. I therefore welcome the Government’s measures to restrict it, especially in cases such as this in which it pitches one person unfairly against another, and especially when options such as mediation may be more effective. It seems fundamentally unfair that in the case that I have raised, legal aid is available to the birth mother but not to the adoptive parents. I realise that this issue is not within the Minister’s portfolio, but perhaps he will clarify the effect that changes to legal aid provisions will have on cases involving adoption.
Finally, I want to draw attention to the apparent lack of support measures for adoptive parents. My constituent and her family have been subjected to the behaviour of an aggressive birth mother, and must now deal with a complex legal case without the funds that would enable them to instruct a lawyer. They feel that throughout this time little or no support has been available to them. My constituent feels that she has been left with no choice but to trawl the internet to search actively for advice and guidance from adoption charities. That situation cannot be right, so will the Minister take the opportunity to advise us on what system of support and guidance exists for parents of adoptive children?
In highlighting this case and the cause of adoptive parents, I wish to make it clear that I do not expect the Minister to comment on this particular case and I simply seek his views on the broader issue of policy. I join my constituent in making the point that the legal importance of adoption orders often seems worthless if birth parents are able to take adopting families to court simply because they decide that they want to have more or full access. I fully appreciate the difficulties facing birth parents, particularly those who may not have wished to give up their child for adoption in the first place, but they should not be allowed to force legal proceedings and wreak havoc on new families who will have worked so hard to provide stability and security for the children they are adopting. If moves are made to encourage more direct contact, more guidance ought to be available for adoptive parents and more support measures must be established for them. I recognise that the law involved in this case is complex and that it is further complicated by the Government’s review of legal aid. They must do all they can to educate both adoption agencies and adoptive families to understand what their position is. However, I accept that the most important factor throughout all these cases is the requirement to facilitate happy and successful adoptions for years to come.
The case I have described has been most distressing to my constituent and her family. For 10 years they have brought up an adopted child as their own in a happy and stable environment, but it is now one where both they and the child are extremely uncertain about their future together. I recognise that much of this unfortunate situation cannot be changed and that the clock cannot be turned back, but I wish my constituent and her family every success in their legal battle, and the best and happiest future for them and their adopted daughter.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey on securing this evening’s important debate. It seems that we have been debating for days in this Chamber and he was unlucky enough to draw the short straw of having his debate at the tail end, after a night when some of us have been left short of sleep.
Leaving aside the specific case behind today’s debate and the correspondence between my hon. Friend, myself, the Department for Education and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, to which reference has been made, I know that, like many of us across the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby is a big admirer of the many thousands of wonderful parents in this country who have chosen to adopt a child. His closing remarks absolutely affirmed the nobility of such an activity, and I very much wish to encourage, and have been seeking to encourage, it in my time as the Minister with responsibility for adoption and children in care.
My hon. Friend raised several crucial issues and I wish to address as many of them as possible because, as he knows, adoption is an issue on which the Government have been working extraordinarily hard over the past year. As he said, I cannot refer to the specific case of his constituent because it is before the courts. It is clearly a difficult case and it has been going on for some time. As he says, the child has been placed with the adoptive parents for some 10 years and that child is regarded as their own. He was also right to mention the oft-referred-to rights of children that are at the heart of the Children Act 1989. The welfare of the child must be the paramount consideration when dealing with any matters to do with children in the care system. He also mentioned that we hear, quite rightly, about the rights of birth parents. Only in extreme circumstances should a child be taken away from their birth parents and the process should end in adoption only when it is not safe for that child to be returned to the birth parents or parent.
Most importantly, perhaps, we have made it clear from day one that we have a lot of work to do to get an adoption system that is truly fit for purpose. I have been coming at it from the angle of wanting to ensure that we have more adoptions as well as speedier and smarter adoptions, but I am also conscious that we must ensure that we get the right adoptions. The right children should be adopted and everything should be done to restore children to their birth families wherever possible.
My hon. Friend raised quite an interesting scenario that falls in between those two points, in which parents had come forward as adopters, were confirmed in that role and took on a child as their own, but their position was challenged at a later date after which legal action was brought to bear on them. Such a situation is quite unusual, but he has certainly made me aware of such cases and in formulating our approach to adoption, I want to take them on board. If we are to promote adoption as providing a suitable home for a number of children who were not lucky enough to be able to be brought up with their birth parents, it is crucial that we ensure that there are safeguards so that the right children are placed for adoption and the people who adopt them have their interests protected, too. After all, they have come forward with the noblest of intentions. We need an adoption system that is truly fit for purpose in all those respects.
No one could fail to be concerned by the fall in the number of adoptions of looked-after children over the past few years, particularly the decline in the timeliness of placements. When it has been decided that a child’s future best lies in an adoptive placement, we owe it to that child to get on with placing them as swiftly as we can so that they have as good a chance as possible to secure a second chance at the stable family upbringing that was denied to him or her in the first place.
At this stage, I would particularly like to commend the campaign that has recently been promoted by The Times and, in particular, by the journalist Rosie Bennett, who has highlighted a lot of the shortcomings in the adoption system and has worked with us in the Department for Education to try to highlight the problems and to promote some of the solutions. We are working with a number of organisations and people who are interested in the field of adoption.
As I have said before, both in the House and outside it, we want to see the decline in adoption stopped in its tracks and more children adopted quicker and more smartly when that is in their best interests. I also want local authorities to consider carefully the support that adopted families need—my hon. Friend mentioned that—so that everything possible is done to increase the number of successful adoptions. It is not just a question of getting more adoptions to happen; adoptions must be sustainable and they must not break down. It is all the more important that we get a good match and that the right support is provided at an early stage and for as long as it takes so that everything possible is done to increase the number of lasting and successful adoptions.
Placing a child for adoption with prospective adopters is only the start. Adoptions need to succeed and that is why I set up a ministerial advisory group on adoption. At our next meeting we will consider adoption breakdowns and how better adoption support can help to prevent them. As part of a wider programme of adoption reform, we have recently published revised national minimum standards, revised statutory guidance and an adoption data pack to inform and stimulate debate both nationally and locally about the volume and timeliness of adoption.
In addition, as many hon. Members will know, we have asked David Norgrove to review the family justice system. The review panel’s interim report, which came out just last month, provides a valuable initial assessment of the challenges that the family justice system faces. We encourage everyone who has experience of the system to contribute their views over the coming months so that the panel has as much information as possible on which to base its final recommendations, which are due out later in the year. I have also had very productive discussions with Sir Nicholas Wall, the president of the family division, and I will be holding further discussions with judges and members of the judiciary who are involved in adoption.
To come back to the specific circumstances outlined by my hon. Friend, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 makes it quite clear that in reaching a decision about the adoption of a child, the paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child’s welfare. In reaching a decision, the court or agency must take into account a number of issues, including the likelihood of any relationship with birth family relatives continuing, as well as the benefits to the child, and it must have regard to the child’s ascertainable wishes and feelings. I know from some of my constituency cases that ongoing contact with birth parents is a difficult and sensitive issue; great sensitivity and, often, the judgment of Solomon, is required.
As my hon. Friend knows, during the period between a placement order and an adoption order, the adoption agency must satisfy itself as to the child’s welfare and consider any additional requests for support by the adoptive parents. Once an adoption order has been made, adoptive parents are in exactly the same position as birth parents, but adoption support services are available. An adoption order is, of course, final and irrevocable, other than in exceptional circumstances. The courts have consistently emphasised the special, permanent nature of adoption orders because they affect people’s status and alter the most fundamental of human relationships. However, the High Court has the power to set aside an adoption order on appeal in cases of mistake or where there has been a failure of natural justice due to procedural irregularities or fraud, but that is extremely rare and is to be avoided if at all possible as it is greatly unsettling for the child.
Children, adoptive parents and birth family members all have the right to an assessment of their needs for adoption support services on request and it is for the local authority to decide what services to provide. Sensitive, proactive post-adoption support can sometimes make all the difference to the success of an adoption. Having looked at the record of some independent adoption agencies in particular, I know that it is invariably those agencies that offer good pre-adoption placement support and good-quality post-adoption support for as long as it takes to make sure that the adoptive placement is sustainable and able to last that tend to have the lowest disruption rates and the best records of giving children a decent second chance. The cost of not providing such support, in terms of children returning to care, can be very great in financial terms and, more importantly, in the human and social effects for the children involved.
There is a legal framework under the 2002 Act that protects the identity of the adopted child and the adoptive family. My hon. Friend rightly raised the important issue of security of information for adopters and I would be interested to hear how the case he has discussed evolves and to learn where security breaches might have happened, because it is essential that the anonymity of new arrangements is paramount. If there are flaws in the system that enable people to exploit it in a way that is not in the best interests of the child, we need to be able to do something about that. We need to be able to identify such problems and I would appreciate further discussions with him as the case he mentioned is unravelled.
No information should be disclosed that would reveal the child’s identity or whereabouts or the identity or whereabouts of the adoptive parents. Although there are safeguards in place, in today’s electronic world a determined person with little information about an individual might be able to find them, but that is no excuse for our not having in place systems that are as watertight as possible.
As regards contact after adoption, my hon. Friend will know that before a child is placed for adoption, the adoption agency must assess the needs of the child in relation to future contact arrangements with members of their birth family. It must ascertain the wishes of the child, birth parents and any other person whom the agency considers relevant about future contact. As I said, that is a sensitive and difficult area. Contact plans are reviewed at the various stages of the adoption process, and are considered by the court when making a placement order and an adoption order. It is not something that is static—it is constantly assessed and reassessed.
It is important that adoptive parents are made aware that, as part of the support services available to them, they can receive help in relation to any contact arrangements and, like the birth family and of course the child in question, the adoptive family can ask the adoption agency that placed the child to review the contact arrangements if they are not working or if the child’s needs for contact have changed. That is not uncommon as the child grows up and begins to ask questions about his or her origins. I must emphasise that once an adoption order is made, a birth parent has no automatic right to contact, and can only make an application to the court for an order for contact with the court’s permission. The court may make a contact order requiring the person with whom the child lives or is to live to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in the order, or for that person and the child otherwise to have contact with each other. It bears repeating that a court will do so only if, having weighed the evidence, it is clear that such contact would be in the child’s best interests. The paramountcy consideration always comes into play. The revised adoption guidance that I mentioned earlier covers those matters.
It is worth noting that if adoptive parents are unhappy with the way in which they have been treated by the local authority they have the right to make a formal complaint under the local authority complaints procedure. If they are unhappy with the council’s response, they may request a panel hearing, which will have independent representation. If they remain dissatisfied, and think that a local authority has treated them unfairly as a result of bad or inefficient management—“maladministration”—they can refer their complaint to the local government ombudsman.
My hon. Friend mentioned legal aid, and I am aware of his correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon. I will not deal with the detail of that issue, but he is right to refer to the review. It is worth noting, however, that the legal aid review is intended to achieve a level playing field for various aspects of family justice, as that is clearly not the case at the moment. Legal aid changes might affect adoption in some cases, but I am happy to take another look at that if, in the light of my hon. Friend’s case, he thinks that there is not a level playing field, and I am happy to take part in discussions with my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice.
The Ministry of Justice recently consulted on changes to the legal aid system, with the aim of focusing resources where they are most needed, and it is currently considering a response to the consultation, so its final judgments are a little way off. Decisions about legal aid funding in civil cases are a matter for the Legal Services Commission, which is responsible for administering the legal aid scheme. Generally, legal aid in civil cases is available to anyone who qualifies, provided that the applicant is using the courts of England and Wales and that the case is within the scope of the scheme. Civil legal aid is available for cases involving the welfare of children. Each application, which may include the child if they are a party to proceedings, is considered on an individual basis and is subject to statutory tests of the applicant’s means and the merits of the case.
Let me finish by repeating our absolutely, intently serious commitment to improving adoption services in this country, in particular to those people who come forward to provide loving and supportive homes to children who desperately need the second chance that they were denied with their own parents. With the wider reforms that we are introducing, we want to get people talking and thinking about adoption again, and we want all that to translate into action, with better-quality, sustainable placements right across the country. If there are examples from this case and others that hon. Members wish to raise that show in some way that the ability of adoptive parents, who have often gone through a long, drawn-out and intrusive process, to continue to offer a stable, loving family placement to an adopted child is impaired, we will need to look at that, and I am happy to review the situation if that is the case. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue, and I hope that his constituent’s case, which is behind today’s debate, reaches a satisfactory conclusion. Equally, if there are important lessons to be learned that we can apply to the whole area of adoption, I should very much like to learn them.
Question put and agreed to.