Adoption and Children Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 15 March 2022.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 10:30, 15 March 2022

I beg to move

That the Adoption and Children Bill [NIA 37/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I take great pleasure from moving the Final Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. Born out of the Adopting the Future draft strategy in 2006, the Bill has been long-awaited by all those who are involved in the adoption process and children's social care. Indeed, the fact that Michael McGimpsey was the first Minister to try to secure these changes is indicative of just how long the wait has been. On behalf of the adoption agencies, the fostering service providers, the health and social care trusts, the voluntary organisations and the young people and their families that have contributed their expertise and experience throughout the development process, I am proud to have been able to bring forward the Bill during my tenure as Health Minister. By way of the Bill, children in Northern Ireland, who are some of the most vulnerable children in the UK, can now enjoy the same rights as those who live in the other parts.

I agree with the comments made by the Chair of the Health Committee during Further Consideration Stage. This is among the most important pieces of legislation that will be passed by the House in this mandate. Make no mistake: the changes that will be made by the Bill will change lives, including the lives of adopted children and their families who provide them with loving homes, children on the edge of care and children in care. It will mean that adoptive families can enjoy additional support, strengthen and widen support for families in need, enable some children to leave care sooner and ensure that greater support is in place for care leavers and for longer.

At recent stages of the Bill, we have focused on amendments, as is the nature of the legislative process. When dealing with those technical matters, however, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the broader benefits of the Bill. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take this opportunity to briefly highlight some of the major changes that will be brought about by the Bill, to remind us all of what the Bill is really about.

The Bill will place the welfare of the child at the heart of adoption decision-making, and that is by way of measures such as the welfare checklist. Children and young people will be given a voice, and their thoughts and feelings will be given greater weight. They will be empowered to be more involved in the decisions that affect them. The Bill will reduce uncertainty and delay in the adoption process by requiring courts and adoption agencies to adhere to the "no delay" principle and will require courts to draw up a timetable for proceedings. As a result, we should expect to see unnecessary delay removed and the time frame for adoption potentially reduced.

The Bill will introduce a framework for adoption support, and that includes financial support and access to counselling, advice and information. Birth families and adoptive families will be able to request an assessment of need for adoption support at any time, either before or after an adoption order has been made, and, in keeping with the will of the House, trusts will also be under a duty to provide adoption support services, which will have been assessed as needed, to certain specified categories of persons.

Placement orders will replace freeing orders, which have been widely criticised, partly because, once made, parental responsibility for the child transfers completely from the child's parents to the adoption agency. What will that mean in practical terms? It means that parents will share parental responsibility for their child with the adoption agency until the final adoption order is made. It will also mean that prospective adopters will share parental responsibility when a child is placed with them, and that is an important departure from current arrangements. It is intended to be fair to parents, minimise the risk of a contested court hearing and, crucially, provide greater certainty for children and prospective adopters.

The Bill will provide a new framework for contact, requiring courts to consider arrangements for contact and enabling courts to make orders specifying the arrangements for contact. In keeping with the centrality of the child aims of the Bill, children will be empowered to make or influence decisions about contact, and that includes being able to apply to the court to seek, vary or revoke previously agreed contact/no contact arrangements.

All adopted people should have the right to find out about their family history and background when the time is right for them. The adoption contact register enables adopted adults and their natural parents and relatives to register their willingness for contact. Under the Bill, it will be possible for adopted adults to indicate who they want to and do not want to have contact with and for relatives to indicate whether they want to have contact with the adopted person.

The Bill will introduce a new framework allowing for adoption agencies to provide intermediary services that may lead to sharing of information and facilitating contact. The intermediary agency will have an important role to play in providing specialist support and advice to all parties throughout the process. The Bill will strengthen safeguards for children being brought into or out of Northern Ireland through an inter-country adoption by way of additional restrictions and tougher penalties. The Bill enables my Department to establish a designated list of countries outside the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man that have sufficiently robust adoption procedures and safeguards in place to enable adoptions in that country to be legally recognised in Northern Ireland. Having a designated list will act as a further safeguard for children being brought into this country from overseas.

I am confident that the Bill will build greater confidence in the adoption system as a whole, through better and more streamlined processes, the offer of additional support and access to an independent review mechanism in order to facilitate the review of decisions relating to suitability to adoption. It is my belief that, by improving confidence in our adoption systems, we will encourage more people to come forward as potential adoptive parents. That can only be good for the children in Northern Ireland for whom adoption is considered the best way forward.

The Bill will improve outcomes for children and families in need, children in care and children leaving care. The Bill will give social workers more flexibility to provide financial support to children and families in need. Disabled children and their parents will be able to benefit from a residential short break without the child having to become looked-after. We will enhance current care planning arrangements for looked-after children by placing care planning on a statutory basis. Trusts will not only be required to prepare a care plan for the child within a timescale set by the court but regulations will specify what the plan must contain and duties to keep the plan under regular review will apply.

The Bill will introduce a set of corporate parenting principles, which will capture in one place very clear expectations of trusts when looking after children in care. That includes promoting high aspirations for them, delivering safety and stability for them and preparing them for adult and independent living; ensuring that they receive the same opportunities and life chances that any good parent would seek for their own child. Under the Bill, looked-after children will be supported to raise issues or make complaints about the services that they receive and have their views responded to appropriately. Statutory independent advocacy services will be available to support each child through that process.

While fostering panels currently exist, the Bill will enable my Department to make regulations setting out the functions of fostering panels and how they should operate. Individuals who disagree with a decision made about whether they should be approved or continue to be approved to foster will be able to ask for an independent review of the decision. That is similar to the independent review mechanism that is being introduced for adoption decisions.

The Bill will enhance the support that is provided to care leavers as they move into independent living or further and higher education. It will place the Going the Extra Mile (GEM) scheme on a statutory basis and will extend support to care leavers in education or training to the age of 25. Trusts will be required to publish information on the services that they offer for care leavers to ensure that they and those who are acting on their behalf are fully aware of what is available to them in service items.

Of particular significance, the Bill will introduce a special guardianship order, which will offer a new option for permanence for children and young people where adoption is not possible or considered unsuitable. The order will enable them to be brought up in a secure and stable home until they are 18. Unlike adoption, when a special guardianship order is in place, the legal ties between a child and their family will not be severed. Importantly, we have applied the learning from England and Wales and have created additional safeguards and strengthened support arrangements.

Members will be aware that a number of amendments have been made to the Bill since its introduction. The amendments came about following Health Committee scrutiny, and I thank the Committee members and the stakeholders who responded to the call for evidence. The time frame for scrutiny of the Bill was greatly compressed, and the efficient and diligent work of the Committee, as evidenced in its comprehensive final report, was pivotal in getting the Bill to this stage, and I thank the Committee members for their contributions.

I will very briefly remind Members of the amendments that were made to the Bill, which, in my view, most definitely strengthen it and should lead to improved outcomes for children and families in Northern Ireland as a result. We have further broadened the definition of harm in the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, more explicitly linking it to the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021, thus potentially offering greater protections to children and young people who are living with domestic abuse.

Following comments from the Committee and stakeholders, we have created an automatic right for those who are involved in special guardianship applications or arrangements to receive an assessment of need and support where a trust has determined, by way of its assessment, that support is required.

Access to information was one of the key themes that emerged from the work of the truth recovery design panel, which was appointed to work with victims and survivors of mother-and-baby institutions, Magdalene laundries and workhouses in Northern Ireland.

Amendments have been made to the Bill in recognition of that, allowing the Department to make new regulations concerning the disclosure of information and enabling the birth relatives of adopted persons to benefit from a wider range of intermediary services in order to obtain information and make contact if both parties agree. I take this moment to thank the victims and survivors of mother-and-baby institutions for their engagement on that sensitive and important aspect of the Bill.

Further amendments were made following Committee scrutiny, including strengthening the duties of trusts in relation to looked-after children. When the Bill is passed, trusts will have to promote, support and facilitate their learning and development and their achievement. We have put it beyond doubt that advocacy services provided to looked-after children must be independent. The House will be given the opportunity to engage in debate on a greater number of statutory rules developed by the Department and can be confident that it will receive triennial reports on the operation of the Children Order. The House will also be fully sighted on how the Bill's implementation is progressing, again, by way of reports from the Department that it will continue to receive until all the provisions in Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill are commenced and fully reported on.

I made a number of commitments during the Bill's passage that are not explicitly linked to its provisions. They include a commitment to explore whether there is scope under the 1993 Hague convention and/or domestic legislation to establish a special arrangement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with the aim of streamlining or harmonising current practice and/or procedure. That relates to the adoption of children between the two jurisdictions and will, of course, require the full cooperation of the Irish Government.

I firmly believe — I hope that you will agree — that, as a result of the scrutiny that the Bill has received during its passage in the Assembly, we now have an improved and more robust overarching legislative framework within which we can start to make the changes needed to improve the lives of children and young people in care and in adoption.

While reaching Final Stage is a significant milestone that we deservedly celebrate today, I do not have to remind Members that it is not the end of the matter. There are numerous sets of regulations to be made, supported by detailed guidance, in order to give operational effect to many aspects of the Bill. All those are just as vital as the primary legislation itself, and planning is already under way to ensure a smooth and effective implementation process. We plan to consult widely on any regulations and guidance, continuing the constructive engagement that we had with stakeholders throughout the process of bringing the Bill to its Final Stage.

On that note, I thank everyone who had a part in getting the Bill to this stage. My thanks to the Committee is already on record, and I repeat my thanks to the Chair, members and staff for their work on the Committee report. I also wish to recognise the input of the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC) in the preparation of the legislation. Its support and advice throughout have been invaluable and greatly appreciated by my Department. Finally, while they are far too modest to say so themselves, the Bill's Final Stage would not be happening were it not for the sheer persistence and dedication of my officials — Julie Stephenson and Liz Marsh were two of the main ones — who were very ably led by Eilís McDaniel. Also key to the legislation over a number of years was Frances Nicholson, who is due to retire from the Department after a lifetime of dedication and service. Frances extended her retirement date to see this legislation through and to work on the sealing of records as well. I thank the entire team for the support that it has given to me, the Committee and the children who will benefit from the Bill. Some 16 years after the process started, I am delighted to say that I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin 10:45, 15 March 2022

Is mór an onóir domh bheith anseo inniu ar son an Choiste Sláinte. It is an honour to be here today on behalf of the Health Committee at the Final Stage of this hugely important Bill, as the Minister outlined. I begin by thanking the Minister of Health for introducing the Bill. As he stated, it is long overdue and will make a massive difference to the people impacted by it.

I also thank the departmental officials for their support in bringing the legislation forward and for their detailed briefings to the Committee over the past number of months. I echo the Minister's words about Eilís McDaniel and her team. I thank them for their diligence, their availability to the Committee and their clear level of commitment to getting the Bill drafted and completed.

As I said at other stages of consideration of the Bill, this hugely significant legislation has the potential to provide real benefits to some of the most vulnerable in our community. The Committee welcomes the Bill and its aims and believes that it can have a real impact and provide support and help to children and young people. The Committee welcomes the fact that the Bill will align adoption law with the relevant provisions of the Children Order to ensure that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration in decisions relating to adoption.

We also welcome the fact that the Bill will provide a new right for adopted children and adoptive parents to request an assessment of their needs for adoption support services and, following a Committee amendment, that it will now place a duty on adoption authorities to provide services that have been identified as being needed. The Bill makes significant changes to the Children Order that will improve outcomes for children and young people, including the duty to safeguard, promote, facilitate and support the child's learning, development and achievement in relation to education and training. The Bill will also extend from 24 to 25 the age limit for support provided to care leavers who are still engaged in education and training; allow specified care leavers aged between 21 and 25 to pursue a new course of education or training; and place the Going the Extra Mile scheme on a statutory footing to enable care leavers to continue to live with their foster parents up to the age of 21.

During the Committee's consideration of evidence, it met young people who are engaged with Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC). I am delighted to see some of those young people in the Public Gallery. Hello to Naomi, Martha and Jack, and to their mentors Lee and Nicola. I am also delighted that we are joined today by Mack — all age nine of him. He is up there hiding behind the television, but I can assure Members that he is not missing a single thing. He is here to make sure that we do it right. I was hugely impressed by those young people. Earlier, I referred to children and young people being vulnerable. However, it is not that they are vulnerable in themselves; the circumstances and challenges that have been placed before them have put them into vulnerable positions. That is why we have such a duty to work with them and for them, and to deliver for them. I am delighted that they are here today.

During our discussion with those young people, they outlined the importance of their being involved in decisions about their lives. They stated that they wanted options and to feel empowered to make their own decisions. One of the key statements by young people during that engagement was, "If we have options, we have a voice". That is crucial, and, by providing options, the Bill gives a voice to those young people. I pay tribute to them and to the work of organisations such as VOYPIC that give a voice to children and young people in care. I hope that they will continue to engage, be involved and be heard when the regulations to implement the Bill are brought forward in the next mandate. Since we last met, the young activists of VOYPIC have developed a guidance document for how meetings with children and young people should be arranged and conducted. I hope that the 12 principles that those young activists have indicated and enshrined will become standard practice for professionals who engage with young people in the future.

The Committee places on record its thanks to the organisations that provided written and oral evidence on the Bill. I thank the adoptive parents and foster parents, along with Adoption UK and the Fostering Network, who met members to discuss the Bill and the issues that they face. I encourage the Department to engage with the experts in this area. The experts are the children and young people who are in care, or who have gone through care, and the adoptive and foster parents who are experts through experience. The Committee has always said that co-design and co-production are the best processes for ensuring that services and support are directed to those who need them, and we encourage the Department to ensure that co-design and co-production are key elements in the implementation of the legislation.

I thank Committee members for their consideration of the Bill. The Committee tabled a number of amendments at Consideration Stage to strengthen it. I thank members for their engagement. It is noteworthy that we had consensus through the Bill's progression. We had hugely diligent work from all members. We met multiple times in the evenings as well as during the day in order to ensure that we were shaping the Bill in a way that would bear maximum impact when it arrived at this point.

I thank the Committee team and the Bill Clerk for their support throughout the process of what was quite a complex Bill. We all felt a huge sense of responsibility to get the Bill right and to make it as good as we could in what was a hugely pressurised time, given all the other legislation that we were considering. I thank the Committee Clerk for that. No stone was left unturned, however, on this or any of the other Bills, in our doing everything that we could to shape and scrutinise it. As Chair of the Committee, I therefore commend the Bill to the Assembly. I look forward to seeing the real impacts and benefits that it will have for children and young people over the coming years.

I will now make a very few brief comments as Sinn Féin spokesperson. I firmly believe that this is one of the most important and rewarding pieces of work in which I have been involved in the Assembly, largely because it impacts on young people who, as I mentioned, are placed in particularly challenging circumstances by the way in which society has operated. We owe this to them.

Throughout the Bill's progress, the quality and level of engagement that we had from the experts with experience were a huge plus. You can see that that process worked really well in that what it brought has been included in the Bill. That process is a really good model of engagement, and it demonstrates the worth of continuing and of having quality engagement.

I welcome the Minister's commitments to and the work that has been done throughout the Bill's passage on North/South issues. Departmental officials and the Minister have committed to seeing how we can ensure that we maximise the benefits of having people here who could offer kinship or foster placements and who are acting in the child's best interests, which we sought to put at the centre of all our work on the Bill.

On behalf of Sinn Féin, I thank everyone who took part, particularly all the young people who are in the Public Gallery today. I am delighted to see you here to see the conclusion of your work and to see that your voice matters, that you have options and that you are exercising those options by being here and helping us to shape and deliver the Bill on your behalf.

As we have seen several times, particularly over the last number of weeks, given the timetabling, the Bill is an example of the Assembly at its very best. It is an example of the Assembly's identifying something that needs to be legislated for, going out to engage with the people who have the information to shape the legislation and coming back here to deliver that legislation on behalf of the people who are outside these walls. It is a perfect example of the way in which the Assembly should and could operate. I look forward to seeing much more of that in the future and to our being much more effective in that way.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

Today is a momentous day for our Assembly in bringing the Adoption and Children Bill to Final Stage. It is a long-awaited Bill. I sincerely believe that, after 35 years, it will bring about a much-needed overhaul and reform of our adoption system. The need is all too clear for a more fit for purpose, responsive and child-focused adoption process in Northern Ireland. It is of the utmost importance that we reform our systems and bring them into the 21st century.

The Bill makes amendments to the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 in order to improve outcomes for looked-after children and young people who have left care. A new, clear and more robust system will ensure better and fairer outcomes for children, young people, prospective parents and social care staff, who do immense work in supporting those in the system. At each stage in the legislative process, the welfare of the child has been at the heart of every Member's comments.

I thank the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, who, in his role, has guided this extensive piece of legislation through the Assembly. As Deputy Chair of the Health Committee, I record my thanks to the Chair, Colm Gildernew, and to the Committee members for all their work.

I also recognise the fantastic contribution of organisations such as VOYPIC — it is great to see you here today — during the scrutiny process. Those organisations gave oral and written evidence, and the formal and informal sessions that we had with them were incredibly useful.

I also thank the Committee Clerk, Keith McBride, and the entire team at the Health Committee for their work. They have been under incredible pressure, particularly in the past couple of years, so we thank them for that good work. Also, of course, we thank the Bill Office team and the Health officials, who have put in an incredible amount of work over many years in order to see the legislation come to fruition. There has been significant development of the Bill and supportive amendments have been made to it. Those are welcome, and we see the value in them.

Now the real work begins to ensure that the Bill is fully implemented. I support the Bill at Final Stage.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00, 15 March 2022

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill, not least because it is at its Final Stage and shows this place at its very best. When we come together, work hard together and put in the hard work at the Committee Stage together, we can deliver change that helps people in their lives. Surely the purpose of this place is to do all that we can to try to help and assist people. That was not a small task with the Bill, as Members have said. Sometimes, Bills go through here with one or two clauses. There were 160 clauses in the Bill as introduced, never mind the number of schedules. Just reading it was a mammoth task, never mind trying to assess what it would do and the changes that we wanted to make to it.

Our thanks go to all those who helped and assisted, from Keith and the Committee team to the Committee members, the departmental staff, and the organisations that came in and spoke to us. When all of us adults, who are being paid, get round the table and do our work, we can achieve things. However, setting that aside, I will always remember the session that we had with the young people, because their voice is the most important. They have the real-life experience and are able to tell us exactly what the problems were. We were able to interpret that, make amends and work with the Department to deliver real change that will help other young people. The young people from VOYPIC who participated in the process can be really proud that their work will help people in the future. You are helping other young people, who, because of your contribution, may not face problems that they otherwise would have faced. That is an absolutely fantastic achievement, and we really appreciate the contribution that you have made to the Bill.

Unfortunately, news has come to light today about a children's mental health charity that did not meet the needs of children and young people and significant failings that took place there. The needs of our children and young people must be paramount in all that we do. Children who need a forever home carry with them a range of needs that are complex and varying. Their needs and care are paramount. The legislation that we are passing today at its Final Stage will do just that; it will help and assist. The legislation, which all quarters of the House have helped to deliver, should be fit to meet the needs of the 21st century and our ever-evolving society.

One has only to look at the tragic displacement of millions from Ukraine, including many children. There will, undoubtedly, be many children who are not travelling with their parents and, as a result of the conflict, will find themselves looking for a home. People across the world are willing to open their homes to those who are in need and to help families that have been ripped apart. The plight of those people speaks to the very core of the legislation and the spirit in which it was drafted.

It is my hope that, as a result of the legislation, more families from across the North will consider adopting children. That includes families who had not considered adoption until they heard about the passage of the legislation and the additional help and support that there will be for people who enter that process. Although adopting one child will not change the world, for that child, it will change their world forever. That is something that we have to try to support and assist.

The SDLP will support the Bill. We look forward to seeing its outworking in the lives of children and families right across the North.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

This is a significant and important Bill. It will make good law that has the current and future welfare of adopted children at its core. It will improve the outcomes for looked-after children and young people, including young people who have left care. It will also cater for the needs, be those financial or for support, of adopters. We must never forget the selfless part that adopters play in providing a child with a stable family setting. The legislation will greatly improve the quality of life for many people for years to come. I welcome the provision in the Bill to make access to information that little bit easier for adopted adults.

I am delighted to see the Bill reach this point. Today will be seen as a good day for those who adopt and, most importantly, for children in care and children who have been adopted. It has taken 16 years, but it has finally arrived. I commend the Minister for his leadership and his determination to finally deliver the legislation. I also place on record my appreciation to his staff, who have worked so diligently to create the legislation. As Mr McGrath said, the House has demonstrated, through the Bill, what we can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland when we all work closely together. This may be one of the Bills on which it is easier for us all to take a collegiate approach, but I would like to see the day when we can all work together to deal with the harder and more difficult pieces of draft legislation that come through the House.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

The very first meeting that I had in my constituency office upon being appointed to the Health Committee here at Stormont was with Adoption UK. That organisation wanted to impress upon me the need for urgent reform and for the updating of the existing provisions relating to adoption law here in Northern Ireland. It was then already two years since the Children and Families Act, and nearly another six years have passed since. However, today, let us look at this in a positive light. We will now have legislation that, perhaps, advances us even beyond neighbouring jurisdictions. It is an exciting day. Listening to the Health Minister and the Chair of the Health Committee read out some of the benefits of the provisions in the Adoption and Children Bill filled my heart with joy. I am sure that other Members in the Chamber, people in the Public Gallery and people watching felt the same.

In addition to Adoption UK, many other organisations have been so instrumental in shaping the Bill, notably but not exclusively Barnardo’s, the NSPCC, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Family Routes, Family Care Adoption Services, the Fostering Network, the British Association of Social Workers, Action for Children, Home for Good and, of course, VOYPIC. The young people from VOYPIC engaged with us so eloquently and powerfully. They had such an impact on us in our endeavour to ensure that the legislation will be fit for purpose and meet the needs of young people. I sincerely thank them all for their endeavours and their support to us on the Health Committee. I also thank the individuals who came to us privately to recount their experiences, some of which were painful and quite distressing to hear. They did so with the purpose of ensuring that others coming after them will see a different process and different regulations in place to support them in their journey.

The Minister and his officials in the Department of Health also need much praise for producing such a comprehensive Bill. As others have noted, it made its passage with very few amendments, such was its comprehensive nature and the thorough work that went into introducing it at First Stage.

As the Chair has noted, Committee members, with support from the Clerk and Committee staff, worked well together. We worked extremely hard on the Bill. We wanted an outcome that would result in a much more efficient system that will change lives for ever.

From the outset, I have been concerned that the Bill was incomplete, given the lack of certainty around records, and the Minister spoke about that today. Again, I commend the member of the Health Committee Alan Chambers for introducing a private Member's Bill on the preservation of the documents of historical institutions. We are working through that in the Chamber, and it would have been great had we been able to get those provisions through the Adoption and Children Bill. As I told members of Birth Mothers and their Children for Justice in a meeting not long ago, they played a role in shaping what we have before us today, because none of us wants to see anything even close to what they experienced in those mother-and-children's homes repeated, so I warmly welcome the private Member's Bill.

I was also disappointed that the amendment about removing the defence of reasonable chastisement was ruled outside of scope. Again, we will be able to make progress on that issue in the Assembly. My colleague Naomi Long, in her capacity as Justice Minister, is working with her officials on potentially including it in a miscellaneous provisions Bill at the start of the next mandate. The children's sector, in particular, will get behind and warmly support that.

A very human penalty is being paid for such outdated provisions on adoption and support for children still being in place. We now have an improved Bill, and it is time to get on with delivering it and making life better for countless children and their families across Northern Ireland.

Photo of Nicola Brogan Nicola Brogan Sinn Féin

I am delighted to speak on the Final Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill. It is long-awaited legislation and has secured widespread support, so it is great that it has reached Final Stage. The Bill will reform the legal framework governing the delivery of adoption, making it more child-centred and more consistent with international human rights. It aims to improve outcomes for children, parents and carers and includes the introduction of special guardianship. It enhances services available to children, parents and carers in the hope of improving the outcomes for children in care.

It is lengthy and complex legislation, and I commend and thank all those who worked so hard to deliver it, including agencies such NICCY, VOYPIC, the Human Rights Commission, Barnardo’s, the NSPCC and many others. Crucially, the development of the Bill also included input from children, young people and their parents. It is really important that the voices of young people are not only heard but heeded. I am glad that they have been able to shape the legislation with their views and opinions.

I conclude by thanking the Minister and his team of officials for their work in bringing the legislation together, the Committee, the Chair, Colm Gildernew, and the Clerk and Committee team. A lot of work has gone into this long-awaited legislation. It is complex, so I appreciate all of the efforts to put it in place.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I am grateful to Members not only for their contribution today but for their unwavering support for the Bill throughout its passage. The legislation will be all the more effective in practice because of their contributions and those of the many children and young people, adoptive parents and foster carers who provided valuable insight into their experiences and needs during the development of the Bill. I commend officials and social workers in the Health and Social Care Board, the five health and social care trusts and the many voluntary organisations that support children's social care and adoption in Northern Ireland for their input to the legislation over many years and for the superb work that they do every day, often in challenging circumstances, to improve the lives of vulnerable children and young people.

I will comment briefly on some of the contributions from Members. I thank the Chair for his stewardship of the Committee and for his support for a Bill that was introduced with, as Mr McGrath indicated, 160 clauses and five schedules. Managing and delivering on that was a significant piece of work. I also thank him for his contribution and acknowledge the role played by the young people and their carers with whom the Committee engaged.

As I said, the Bill has been 16 years in development. Many people were engaged with who, I am sure, felt let down when that engagement did not produce the desired outcome, but I am thankful that we are where we are today with the Bill's Final Stage. As Mr McGrath and the Deputy Chair, Pam Cameron, indicated, the Bill shows the best of this place. We have been able to progress the legislation by working together — not only the Department and the Health Committee but all parties — on all the issues.

The Adoption and Children Bill, the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill and the now Health and Social Care Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 are all major pieces of legislation that have been brought through the House recently in a spirit of collaboration and support. It has been a pleasure to work with the members of the Health Committee on the Bill and on other legislation, because they have kept party politics out of health issues, as we promised that we would and committed to doing when we came back in this mandate. That is why we have been able to achieve such significant legislation. I only hope that that continues not only over the next weeks and months but well into the next mandate.

Mr McGrath raised issues about incoming children, owing to the situation in Ukraine. Although not directly related to the crisis in Ukraine, last week, my Department launched an appeal for foster carers and supported lodging hosts to provide a safe home for refugee children who arrive in Northern Ireland without a parent or guardian. That work has therefore already been done. It is expected that the majority of children who are displaced from Ukraine and seeking refuge will be with a parent or carer and will therefore not be considered to be an unaccompanied minor in need of transfer into the care of a health and social care trust, but support mechanisms are being put in place by the Home Office, supported by all Departments.

Mr Chambers acknowledged that today is a good day and gave his thanks to the staff involved. Ms Bradshaw mentioned his contribution to bringing forward subsequent legislation on the preservation of documents, which had been outside the scope of the Bill. That will be equally important, but, as Ms Bradshaw also indicated, that Bill came out of the engagement process on this Bill as being something that was necessary. I thank Mr Chambers for taking on that work.

Ms Bradshaw said that listening to Colm and me filled her "heart with joy". I am not sure how often any politician in this place has been able to use that sentence. I thank Ms Bradshaw for her comment, because it sums up the working relationship between the Health Committee and officials to get the Bill to the place that it should be, which is that where the legislation will give support to the children and young people and their carers and prospective adoptive parents across Northern Ireland who need it.

As I mentioned, in many ways, the work to give effect to the Bill has only just begun. It will now be for my Department to set out in secondary legislation and guidance the operational detail of the changes that we agree today. There will be an extensive public consultation on that detail, and Members and stakeholders, including the children and young people, will continue to play a vital role by sharing their views, experiences and expertise throughout that important next phase.

It is 35 years since the previous major reform of Northern Ireland adoption law took place. During that time, Northern Ireland society has thankfully changed, adapted, developed and evolved in many ways, but the fundamental needs of children and young people remain unchanged.

Their need for care and protection remains. I conclude by reflecting on the well-known proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child", which means that, in addition to a safe and loving home, a child needs support from and positive interaction with an entire community — an extended family of friends, carers, teachers and many others — in order to thrive in life. The passage of this Bill marks an important step towards ensuring that some of the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland will receive the care and protection to which they have a fundamental right. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Adoption and Children Bill [NIA 37/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:15, 15 March 2022

I ask Members to take their ease while we move to the next item of business.