Examination of Witnesses

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:57 pm on 21 November 2001.

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Liz Garrett, Head of Policy, and Ann Haigh, Project Leader of Counselling Services, Barnardo's; Christine Atkinson, Policy Adviser, Child Protection, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; Caroline Abrahams, Director of Policy, National Children's Homes; and Kathy Evans, Head of Social Policy, and Julia Feast, Project Leader, Post Adoption and Care: Counselling and Research Project, the Children's Society.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I welcome our next group of witnesses. I thank you for attending and for your co-operation with our short inquiry. Divisions in the House may be called shortly. If so, we shall suspend the sitting immediately. I ask hon. Members to return as soon as possible. Once we have a quorum, we shall resume our hearing.

I ask the witnesses to introduce themselves briefly, starting with Ms Abrahams.

Caroline Abrahams: I am director of public policy at National Children's Homes.

Christine Atkinson: I am a policy adviser with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Ann Haigh: I am project leader of counselling services with Barnardo's and a guardian.

Liz Garrett: I am head of policy at Barnardo's.

Julia Feast: I am the project manager for the post-adoption care project at the Children's Society, but I have also done some research into the search for identity and reunion of those involved in adoption with Professor David Howe and currently with Professor Triseliotis.

Kathy Evans: I am the head of social policy at the Children's Society.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

We want to cover a number of areas. One is special guardianship.

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

You will have heard me ask the foster care association its view on special guardianship. Barnardo's has expressed some concern about the words ``may'' and ``duty'' in clause 14. You have the opportunity to flesh your argument out a little.

Ann Haigh: We welcome it as an option for children, but we feel that it is important, if this is going to be considered either by foster carers or members of the child's family, and particularly if we are looking at older children who have on-going relationships with their parents—these children may have particular needs and they may be significant—that they can be sure of getting good support, including financial support. I know when I have acted as a guardian and a child was in long-term foster care and they were considering a residence order, something that gave me concern for the child was whether there would be a continuing commitment to education for the child. I think these sorts of areas need to be addressed when people are making the decision whether they are going to go forward.

One of the other things we would like to say in relation to special guardianship is that we do welcome the fact that it would allow people who are not married to apply, because we do feel, listening to the evidence—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield 6:11, 21 November 2001

Miss Haigh, you were interrupted by the bell. Had you completed your answer?

Ann Haigh: I think I was speaking about my concerns in relation to education and that there would be a commitment for that to be supported, because we know that children in care are disadvantaged educationally. If it is an older child that is going to be placed under special guardianship, I would hope that there would be financial support for that child.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Do any other witnesses have thoughts on the points raised earlier by Mr. Shaw?

Kathy Evans: We raised a similar point in our memorandum to reiterate the point that we felt there was a need for a slightly stronger statement, which may include financial support. We feel there is a need to standardise allowances for adoption and also then to consider special guardianship in the same way.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I am conscious that Margaret Moran wants to comment on child contact.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

Part 2 of the Bill extends the right of contact to unmarried parents. There have been some concerns that that could cause greater access for children to abusive parents. What do the children's charities feel about child safety in respect of child contact orders?

Christine Atkinson: Children's charities are concerned that children remain at risk from unsupervised contact arrangements with abuses in private proceedings. The Children Act at present fails to provide adequate protection. I think we would recognise that the Government have introduced a range of measures to protect children from sex and violent offenders, including schedule 1 offenders who have offences for neglect, physical injury or sexual harm to a child. Examples include the Sex Offenders Act 1997, which requires sex and violent offenders to register their name. The Government have also introduced other measures to ensure that unsuitable people, including schedule 1 offenders, are unable to gain unsupervised contact with children. But problems still remain, and the children's charities are concerned that children are not protected from contact with a sex or violent offender consistently by the law and the child protection system.

The tragic death of Victoria Climbie last year illustrated that our child protection system still has serious flaws. Unfortunately, Victoria's death was not an isolated example. At the NSPCC, we know that one to two children die each week from abuse and neglect. The lessons have not yet been learned. We are aware that a public inquiry is currently looking into the circumstances of Victoria Climbie to determine what would prevent such a death from occurring in future.

Over recent years, the media have reported a number of cases in which children have been murdered in the context of contact. They include Daniel, aged 7, and Jordan, aged 3, who were killed by their father during a contact visit. Unsupervised contact had been granted, even though the father was facing charges of threatening to kill his former partner and of causing her actual bodily harm. Imtiaz Begum was stabbed to death at a railway station, where she was collecting her son after a contact visit in 1996. Her son was found strangled in her husband's car, and her three daughters were found dead in their beds with their throats cut.

However, public inquiries have not been set up to investigate the circumstances of the deaths of any of these children or to question the agencies involved or identify lessons to be learned to ensure that children are not put at risk in contact arrangements. The children's charities recommend that urgent action is required to address the continual risk to children in cases in which the courts grant unsupervised contact with the person who has abused them. We believe that the Bill provides an opportunity to address the issue of child protection.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South 6:16, 21 November 2001

It would perhaps—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield 6:24, 21 November 2001

Christine Atkinson, would you like to say anything more?

Christine Atkinson: I have one further point. We acknowledge that there have been attempts to improve the legal protection of children in contact arrangements, including some recent good practice guidelines for judges. However, we are concerned that the guidelines are not good enough on their own. Since they were introduced in June 2001, NSPCC and NCH projects working with children have reported little change in court practice. Children are still being placed at risk by courts that grant unsupervised contact with the parent who has abused them. The judicial statistics for England and Wales also suggest that there has been little change in court practice. If there were greater emphasis on child protection as a result of the guidelines, we would expect to see an increase in cases where the courts refused contact. However, the number of cases in which contact is refused has decreased.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

It would be helpful to know the extent to which children's charities feel the same way. Could you say why you think that a change in the Children Act 1989 is necessary?

Caroline Abrahams: Undoubtedly there have been steps forward. However, at the National Children's Homes we remain concerned that in recent years there have been 14 deaths of children during contact disputes, which suggests that we have not got it right yet. We run a number of contact centres and mediation projects, and I have been talking to them about what impact the guidelines have had. The consensus is that they have not seen an impact. There was one exception that is worth mentioning, and that was on the northern circuit, which is generally viewed—including by the Lord Chancellor's Department—as a stunning example of good practice. Good progress is being made there and that seems to be because there is a judge there who has taken a particular interest and is leading change in a multidisciplinary way. That is feeding through to better outcomes for children.

One argument might be that having guidelines is enough. However, I am afraid that experience from other areas of childcare practice, for example, vulnerable witnesses, suggests that the trouble with guidance is that in areas like the northern circuit where there is someone who is committed and excellent, things get much better but, unfortunately, that is not the picture everywhere. We remain concerned, and a bit perplexed, that there is not more rigorous action in the area, as Christine Atkinson has said, given that there is so much determined action in so many other areas—such as the Criminal Records Bureau—to try to ensure that we do everything that we possibly can to keep children safe. This seems to be a bit of a loophole, which ought to be addressed.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Can I check that the deaths that you have mentioned were in cases in which there were formal contact orders and that we are not referring to instances in which deaths have occurred, tragically, in marital disputes?

Caroline Abrahams: No, these were during contact visits, as I understand it. One of the key factors is that they were unsupervised. The need for more, and better quality, supervised contact is a big issue. It is important for people to understand that we are not trying to stop contact; we want it to work well for the children and for their parents. We have to see it as part of a process and must do more to support parents at the point of breakdown and just after, so that contact can work for them and be part of their carrying out their parental responsibilities to their children.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I am interested in exploring some of the options that you think would be needed in legislation. It has been suggested that guidelines should be made statutory. However, that might cause a problem, and I should be interested in your comments. The whole idea was to monitor the guidelines to find out whether they were effective, whether they needed amending or improving and whether some of them needed to be taken away. If they were immediately made statutory, you might be left with inadequate guidelines. Do you think that other legislative changes should be considered?

Caroline Abrahams: It is partly about the law and it is partly about practice, is it not? I think what is happening is that on the northern circuit the practice is moving ahead and that is terrific, but maybe we need to do more to tighten up the law to help other people. But it should not be an either/or.

I think we must do everything we can to keep encouraging people like the well-named Mr. Justice Allweis in the northern circuit—the guy responsible for this improvement. That is great, but we need to encourage him and applaud what he and his colleagues are doing; but perhaps for other people you need something that is altogether stronger so that everyone can move together. I do not know what Chris says about this.

Christine Atkinson: Also, we have learned in other aspects of law where the judicial system has looked at the situation of children—I am thinking particularly of child witnesses. What we have seen is very much an incremental approach, where you have had legislation but also, accompanying that, guidance to help things along.

I think what we are saying is we do not think, in this situation where children are actually being currently put at risk, that guidelines on their own are enough, because it leads to inconsistent practice. From what we can see in how the Children Act is being interpreted there is an over-emphasis on that contact should continue with both parents regardless of the safety aspects for the child. So if there was a change to the Children Act it would actually attempt to rebalance that in certain cases.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash 6:30, 21 November 2001

I am sorry that I have come in at the end of this discussion—I got back late from voting. I should like to ask Caroline Abrahams what Judge Allweis is doing that makes him so effective? Is he merely following the guidelines, employing a huge slab of common sense and ensuring that that practice is followed throughout his district, or does more need to be done? If practice, based on what is already there, was good, would the situation be much better or would the law still need to be changed?

Caroline Abrahams: My understanding is that Judge Allweis is being incredibly proactive and has set up a multi-disciplinary group, and it has set up training on the back of that. So the culture has changed, and I think that my view about that would be that that is because the people were ripe for change, as it were, and there was real leadership in that area. Perhaps in other areas, where the same conditions do not apply, one needs a greater tightening of the law in order to generate that change. If we could replicate people like him everywhere then everything might be okay, but I do not think that that is how it is, and I think that there is always a danger of extrapolating from the best. I think we do that all the time—we find an example of good practice and we are inclined to think we can replicate it, and I am just not sure it works like that.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

Judge Allweis must be operating within the framework of the law, and he is delivering best practice, so what could change in the legal framework to help people elsewhere to reach his standard?

Caroline Abrahams: I suppose one of the things you could do is to look at what has happened in other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand or Northern Ireland, where they have actually changed the law quite significantly so that there is actually more of a trigger during proceedings for a thorough assessment and discussion about whether contact is in the best interest, what kind of contact, and how we can make it work for children and for adults. So there is a rebuttable presumption against contact, for example, in New Zealand, which Mr. Justice Wall did look at, but I think considered a bit unwieldy and possibly a bit expensive. But the great thing about it is it meant there would be a thorough risk assessment, and perhaps that is what is sometimes missing at the moment. That is perhaps why children are still sometimes having unsupervised contact with schedule 1 offenders and it leading to significant problems later on.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

But there is certainly scope in the interim for spreading the good practice of Judge Allweis across the land?

Caroline Abrahams: Yes, I think that that is undoubtedly the case.

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

To follow up the point about looking at other systems, can you explain to us what they do differently in Northern Ireland and how that would translate into British law?

Caroline Abrahams: My friend here might help me, but my understanding is that they have gone part of the way towards the New Zealand approach, but not all the way. I am slightly perplexed by it, because they seem to have put in a trigger to make the court decide, before granting a contact or residence order, whether the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering any harm through seeing or hearing ill treatment of another person; or perhaps a non-molestation order is already in place. It is specifically around domestic violence. The thing that seems slightly odd to me is that it does not seem to encompass cases where there is direct abuse or a risk of direct abuse towards the child. It is an interesting step forward but does not quite meet the ends that we would like it to. Maybe I have got that wrong and Chris will put me right.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Christine Atkinson is shaking her head. Do any other witnesses have thoughts about this aspect of the matter?

Liz Garrett: We at Barnardo's are very much in support of the points that NCH and NSPCC have made. It is a matter of concern. The practice is inconsistent and therefore children are not protected. It is not enough to wait and see whether good practice spreads, because in the mean time children are subjected to very risky situations.

Kathy Evans: I support that view.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

To follow up the points about the Northern Ireland legislation, Caroline Abrahams seemed to imply that it would help but that other things would make it more effective with respect to child protection. How might it be enhanced?

Caroline Abrahams: A slight amendment to the Northern Ireland legislation, dealing with the possibility that the child had suffered ill treatment or was at risk of it, as well as the slightly wider and more subtle issues concerning domestic violence, would help. That would put the focus much more firmly on the probable impact on the child, which is what courts need to think about.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

I take your point about the New Zealand legislation. I understand that an element of that is a checklist that the courts are required to use to assess risk before taking a decision on child contact. Do you think that that would be helpful?

Caroline Abrahams: I think that it would be very helpful. Interestingly, the reason for New Zealand doing what it has done is, as I understand it, the tragedy of a child's death. New Zealand has done as we often do—it has responded to a tragic situation. It would be nice if that did not have to happen to us before we acted. Perhaps we could learn from them.

Christine Atkinson: As well as a checklist, New Zealand also uses risk assessment. I was making a point earlier about other areas of law and protecting children from schedule 1 offenders and sex abusers. That has meant a programme of risk assessment before anybody is allowed unsupervised contact. In this area, we do not have a risk assessment process.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Let us move to another area and the issue of independent advocacy. I think that Mr. Shaw wanted to ask about this.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Mr. Dawson will fill the gap.

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

On an issue of interest, we are all in favour of increasing the number of children who are adopted from care, but I have been reflecting on the fact that, in care, children are relatively protected because if they are physically punished by staff—or indeed by foster carers—the staff get sacked and stopped from working with children ever again, whereas once children are adopted they can, of course, be physically punished and are less protected under the law from physical assault than adults. I just wondered what the children's charities felt about that glaring inconsistency.

Ann Haigh: The most important thing, when assessing potential adopters, is to talk about discipline and how they will bring children up; and to educate people to understand how best to deal with issues and to bring them on board, so they are internalising those things and sort of see it through looking at the experience of a child, particularly children who have been abused in earlier times of their lives. I think that is something you can do with people to look at those issues and to endeavour to keep children safe.

Kathy Evans: The way in which Mr. Dawson describes the situation illustrates what to us is unacceptable: that there are some people in society who currently have a defence in law for assaulting a child. That is what is highlighted by that situation, and we would wish to see that defence repealed.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Mr. Shaw, is your act together?

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

I hope so.

This question, which is on the right to independent advocacy, is for the representatives of the Children's Society, but the other agencies might want to comment. You said that you were concerned that no system had been set up for independent advocacy for children. We discussed the subject during the passage of what is now the Care Standards Act 2000, and the Government were not minded to establish one.

Caroline Abrahams made a point about law and practice. Perhaps the message that we should spread is that a law could be implemented where practice worked well, but the test for whether it worked would be whether it affected the practice. Why would such a system assist children?

Kathy Evans: We think that all complaints procedures are particularly important. They are not even always a sign of failure—that we want to encourage young people to voice their opinions about the experiences that they are going through—and so, as it relates to what we have said, we welcome addressing an informal stage of that process. That process is about empowering young people to express their views about what they are going through. But we have to recognise—as we have done in all sorts of other contexts—that, for children and young people who are dealing with both statutory systems and primarily with adults who are making decisions about them, that can be intrinsically intimidating, even not counting the fact that, in these situations, many of them will be extremely vulnerable and may find it quite difficult to express themselves.

The advocacy is really there. It may in fact have the beneficial effect of bringing a complaint to a happy resolution at an earlier stage. If a young person is in a situation where they are feeling that something is wrong and they are told that they have an informal stage to go through first, they may feel the need to take that straight through in order to be able to get the support that they will get at the stage where it becomes formal. We think that the benefits of having advocates for young people who can help them to distil what it is that they want to say—to distil what it is that they want out of a process—will actually reinforce this informal stage of a complaints process.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Let us turn to the issue of unmarried couples and adoption, which, as you are probably aware, has been discussed at some length in Committee.

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

It might be easier to cut the question short. What are your views on whether we should consider allowing unmarried couples to adopt?

Kathy Evans: As with everyone on the previous panel, we think that children should be entitled, where it is the placement of choice, to be jointly adopted by unmarried parents.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

There is complete consensus on the subject, then.

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

I would like to ask Julia Feast and Kathy Evans about research. I know that your research was mainly about searching and reunion but did any issues arise from it, or is there evidence from any of your other work, which might be helpful on the issue?

Julia Feast: The research that we have done was dealing mostly with married couples, because it was adoptions of years gone by, not current-day adoptions. So that is not very helpful.

Caroline Abrahams: There is research which I know of, and we could get you the source. I am not an adoption expert, but I was talking to our family placement adviser yesterday who was saying there is research that shows that children suffer, as it were, in that kind of context. They have a legal bond to one parent but not to the other. The quality of the relationship slightly suffers because of that difference, which is really pretty much what your previous witnesses were saying. I am sure we can get you the reference for that research, if that would be helpful.

Ann Haigh: It is really important to look at the skills and experience that people are bringing to meet that particular child's needs—looking at the family that is going to meet the needs, not the marital status of the family.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Can we probe witnesses, Mr. Hinchliffe, on the subject of right to information, although it is not on our list?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West 6:45, 21 November 2001

I am sure that Julia Feast would like to be asked a question on this subject, as pretty much everyone else has been. Everyone else has held their nose and pulled their face when presented with the idea that adopted children should not have an automatic right of access to their birth certificate. What are your views on that?

Julia Feast: I feel extremely strongly that these clauses would be a retrograde step. The research shows that for the majority—the vast majority of people—getting information or having access to it is very important. It answers very simple questions. You can sit on a bus and know that the woman next to you is not your mother—basic things like that. So for these to go through would be awful, but what is terrible is that they are going through so quickly. That concerns me. Many professionals do not know that this is happening, adopted people do not know that this is happening, or adoptive parents or birth parents. Nobody has had time to have a proper consultation about it, but my view is that most people would disagree with what is happening.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

We have had a clear message on that in the past two days.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Do I take it that there is no dissent from that among our witnesses?

Ann Haigh: We have 11 years' experience within the project of doing this work and we would say most of the outcomes of people receiving the information have had such a positive impact on their lives. It would worry me for the outcome for people's mental health if this is denied them.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

The other side of the coin—the other thing on which we have been pressing people—is the right of birth parents to contact adopted children. People have taken two positions on this: first, that birth parents should have a right to contact adopted children in adulthood and, secondly, that birth parents should at least actively, through an intermediary, be able to inform the adopted child in adulthood that they are seeking contact. What are your views on those two outcomes? Are either of them satisfactory?

Julia Feast: Again, I think intermediary services for birth relatives and the second option that you are describing should be in legislation. We should be modernising legislation. We have been promised an overhaul of adoption legislation; unless that is put in place, it will not be modernised and will not meet the needs of all these birth mothers of years gone by, who are desperately wanting to know whether their children—who are now adults, not children—are alive and well. That is the minimum.

Ideally, we should be moving like other places. Ireland is even considering equal access to identifying information when the child is 18. The stigma around that is even greater in that country than in ours. We really need to go forward and not backwards.

Ann Haigh: I would endorse that. I think that what has been developed and seen as good practice would actually be stopped by the proposed legislation, and that would give me very great concern. I do not see any evidence that would support that—I think all the evidence from the agencies and research studies—as this actually has been a very positive development.

Julia Feast: I know that you are all very busy and this is not the time, but the Children's Society published its research last year and we held a conference in London, and 260 people came to that conference. We had five adopted adult people speaking—non-searchers as well as searchers, so it was the other way round. We have a video that lasts 40 minutes on which those people describe their experience. If you are interested, I will leave that video here, because it is not us telling you, it is them.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

That would be very helpful.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

The Chairman mentioned this morning our inquiries relating to a particular group of adoptees, who were child migrants. I am looking at the Government's response to our suggestion that they should help people to trace their roots by assisting them to confirm their identity so far as possible from available records—name, date of birth, address at birth, identifying sending agencies and so on. That seems to be an about-face. The evidence from the Children's Society about compatibility with the European convention on human rights contains a phrase to the effect that you will be seeking further legal opinion. Have you made any progress on that?

Kathy Evans: We have not, as yet. That came up because we have seen cases that have proceeded to the European Court, establishing the right of adopted people to identify information about their birth. We think that those set the precedent that casts this in doubt as being compatible with the Human Rights Act.

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

Can we consider equal access to identifying information? I accept that adopted people should have the right to seek out all available information about their birth, but should we really be enabling birth parents to do the same? We recognise the anguish that people go through; we also recognise the fact that some people have been adopted as a result of abuse that they have suffered from birth parents. I accept that there are schemes for mediation and good practice that make available the information that birth parents are seeking in order to make contact with their children. However, surely it is in the interests of those children—now adults—that there is not 100 per cent. open access to them from people who have in the past seriously offended against them.

Julia Feast: We are talking about two different groups of the population. There is the population of people who were placed as babies, who have not had harm done to them, and there are the children today. Whatever is introduced has to safeguard all people. We must not rush into these things. At the same time there should be a basic human right for people to know whether their child is alive and well.

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

That is agreed.

Julia Feast: Also, there should be safeguards for the other generation of children who are coming through adoption now, which is different from the women and men who are now 50 and 60 years old. We are talking about two different groups; we are talking about adults, not children.

Ann Haigh: It is important that we remember that we are dealing with two categories. What I would hope to see incorporated would be the right of birth relatives, including siblings and grandparents, to access an intermediary service that could contact the adopted adult to notify him or her of their interest. It would then be up to the individual to take that forward. I believe that it is important for people to have a right to such a service.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

We want to cover a number of other areas. One is inconsistencies in the Children Act 1989.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

That is right. The evidence of BAAF carefully highlights various inconsistencies. Do you agree with BAAF that the Bill would leave glaring inconsistencies in the Children Act 1989, and do you feel that that is a problem?

Liz Garrett: I think that I would need you to clarify which inconsistencies you were referring to since I cannot, off the top of my head, remember all of them.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

Shall I go into a little more detail? BAAF's evidence states that

``the Bill, as currently drafted, would leave some glaring inconsistencies within the Children Act framework. In particular these relate to the distortion of the Children Act framework covering children accommodated by the local authority under voluntary arrangements. Unlike the Children Act the provisions in the Bill:

vest parental responsibility in the local authority or adoption agency without any court order

vest parental responsibility in prospective adopters on placement without a court order

place severe restrictions on the right of the parent to remove the children from accommodation...

authorise the local authority to retain a child against the parents' wishes if the local authority intends to apply for a placement order (whereas...under the Children Act the local authority would be required to apply for an emergency protection order).''

That is quite technical stuff. Who would like to comment?

Liz Garrett: I cannot speak to the highly technical detail there. It is important that all aspects protect children and put their welfare first. Some of those inconsistencies are what we have referred to. For example, in the contact arrangements, that a child be protected is the most important thing. But I cannot speak to those technicalities.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Do any other colleagues want to speak on that? Mr. Shaw, you wanted to raise private fostering.

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

Do the agencies have a view on private fostering? We discussed it at length yesterday with BAFF and local authority representatives. Do witnesses feel that the provisions of the Children Act that require private foster carers to notify the local authority that they are fostering a child are adequate to safeguard children in what are obviously vulnerable situations? Is the law working?

Ann Haigh: The law needs strengthening on that. There should be a register held by local authorities for private foster carers to be regulated and monitored. I understand that BAFF made representations or has written a paper. There ought to be a duty for local authorities to have a designated officer to monitor that. That protects very vulnerable children.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Do the others concur?

Christine Atkinson: Speaking from experience, I worked in a previous organisation as project manager working on a project on private fostering where west African children were involved. That received Department of Health funding. A survey we did revealed that there could be up to 10,000 privately fostered children. The issue was that it was not given priority in local authorities. Children were very often in situ before social services could do anything about it. The penalties for not complying were very small. So, you would have the problem—especially where it was west African children coming over from west Africa—of what the social services department could do when it was very difficult to trace the names and addresses.

On one side, the regulations and legislation requiring private foster parents to register needs to be looked at, but we also need to look at the parents' side. What are we asking the parents to do? Are we asking them to give their name and address and things like where they can be traced and how they can be contacted?

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

I want to take up the point about the penalty. At the moment, the penalty for failing to give notice is a fine of up to £5,000. What higher penalty would you consider appropriate and why would it work if the present provisions do not?

Christine Atkinson: My experience is from approximately 10 years ago, when we worked on the issue. We had contact with a large number of private foster parents, many of whom the local authority would not approve as their own foster parents because they considered that they did not come up to standard. In conversations we had with some of those private foster parents, they were not aware of the penalties—but, in lots of cases, penalties were not even enforced by the local authorities, who were not aware of these private fostering arrangements. So, it did not come to the issue of the rate of the penalty.

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

Right. So if authorities were not aware of those arrangements, what is it about setting up a register that will make them aware? Why will that change the situation? You said, and I agree, that it is a problem that we do not know how many privately fostered children there are. However, if there is a duty in law to notify and a penalty for not doing so, why are you arguing not that we should make the current system work, but that we should change it, when there is no certainty that we shall improve it?

Christine Aktinson: The situation over the last 10 years and even longer is that the legislation has not provided adequate protection for many children in private fostering situations. Again, it is about the low priority afforded within social services to this area and social workers feeling very helpless that the children are already in situ. Also, many private foster parents think that they did not receive support when they first approached social services, so why should they bother to continue to keep them up to date with information. I think there needs to be an awful lot done. It is about legislation, but also about raising awareness with private foster parents. It is also about considering whether that arrangement can be valued in some way.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford 7:00, 21 November 2001

Do you agree that a register would at the very least—there is evidence that it would provide more—provide parents with information on whether the people looking after their child were schedule 1 offenders? We do not even have that at the moment. If there is a requirement for people to register, and that is known, and a parent is looking for a foster carer, they will go to the local authority and get the list. At least then they can weed out potential paedophiles.

Christine Atkinson: The register is a step forward, a step in the right direction. Many of the parents live in west Africa. There is a need for public awareness that a register exists, as part of a much wider awareness of the legislation here and of how it can protect children. That is part of what parents coming from west Africa need to know.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

What is the profile, from your research and experience, of the sort of children who are coming in? We hear a lot about west Africa. Victoria Climbie came from Africa and was fostered—I think—by a very distant relative. In my constituency in Sussex there was a trade in girls from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, who ended up as prostitutes in northern Africa. They came as asylum seekers and were taken into care. Is the problem largely one of people coming to the country from that part of the world? How old are those children, by and large?

Christine Atkinson: We are dealing with different groups. I am very much aware of the situation in Sussex. The children's organisations are involved in a piece of work looking at the trafficking of children.

The private fostering arrangement involved a distant relative, a great aunt, so I am not too sure whether it would be covered by the legislation in this country. In addition, the situation is one involving our legislation, which does not apply in west Africa. That was where the arrangement was first made. Ten years ago—and the practice goes back to the 1930s and 1940s, when west African students came to this country to study—that was the only suitable arrangement. That was a matter of cost and the hours for which they were studying.

Within that, there was also another group; I think that this goes back to colonial days and the way in which the importance of a British education was put across in west Africa—the status that it was given. Some west African families would send their children over here to private schools, and in the holidays they would make a private fostering arrangement.

Besides those families, there is another group—this links up to the Victoria Climbie case—in which children whose parents are in poor circumstances are brought over from west Africa. The parents are told by relatives or other people, ``If your child comes with me, I will ensure that they get a good education.'' Often they are brought to Europe and either involved in prostitution or used as domestic servants. They do not get the education that they have been promised.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

What should happen when they are found out by social services departments? We know that many departments turn a blind eye simply because the alternative would be to take the children into their care, where there is already enormous pressure. What is the solution? Is it to send the children back to Nigeria or to Sierra Leone, or to provide for them here? In many cases, they will be in great danger in the place where they came from.

Christine Atkinson: This is an enormous problem and needs quite a lot of discussion not just by social services—this discussion needs debate in a much wider forum. It needs to bring in other organisations, not just individual social services but, for example, the international social services and also other Governments. I think it is about public awareness, with parents back in west Africa, to actually point out some of the risks.

We also need to include immigration, in terms of tightening up procedures and actually showing that, once children do come to this country, they are actually given protection—that the pimps are not actually taking them out of residential care, and that there are attempts to try and rehabilitate these children back with their families.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Do any of the other witnesses want to add any comments on the subject?

Liz Garrett: As a social worker of rather more than 20 years' experience, for me as well my experience of private fostering goes back to being a very young social worker in a part of north London where I was discovering pockets of private fostering practice which are quite different and have different histories and social international contexts.

What Christine Atkinson has said makes absolute sense: we do not know enough. We have different populations from different parts of the world. We need to know more, and we need to have a wider discussion about the best way to provide protection and support for those children. The issue of awareness is critical to what social services departments can deliver when they come into contact with those situations—to encourage families involved in that, and people involved in that, to come forward and seek support. So I just concur with everything that has been said.

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

We have discussed children's consent a lot today, but I would appreciate your views on another aspect of the subject. The Bill states that we should be clear about ascertaining the wishes and feelings of children. Do you think that children of a certain age and understanding should have a right to veto any proposed adoption? Do you believe that such children should be required actively to agree to an adoptive arrangement before it goes ahead? Do you think other aspects of the subject important?

Ann Haigh: Speaking as a children's guardian, I think it is absolutely essential that the children's voice is heard. I would wish that extended when you are looking at special guardianship as well, when you are looking at an older child and the issues round step-parents' acquisition of parental rights and step-parents' adoptions. I think that if you are looking at a child with sufficient age and understanding who is saying, ``I do not want this to happen,'' I cannot imagine that any adoption would be successful. It is very important.

There are ways of getting the child's view to the court that is making the decision, and empowering the child to say that. I think that there are many ways of saying it rather than, ``Do you want an order to be made?'' I think it is about addressing the needs of that particular child in a way that their voice can be heard. It is essential that we all listen most clearly to the voice of the child.

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

Would you say, therefore, that the Bill would provide good practice guidance?

Ann Haigh: Under legislation at the moment, if there is an application for an adoption order and it is contested, the child's wishes and feelings have to be clearly shown to be separate. I think that is good practice and needs to be reinforced and kept, because it is essential.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Are there any further questions? There are not. In that case, I thank our witnesses for this helpful sitting. We are most grateful to you. As this is the last sitting in this part of the Committee's deliberations, I thank my colleagues for keeping their questions sharp and to the point. We have managed to get through a lot of business, and it has been a valuable exercise. I also express my appreciation to our Hansard colleagues and our Clerks for their support at this stage of the Committee.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

May I add to that, Mr. Hinchliffe? You have the easy billet, in that you are leaving us now. Some of us will be considering the Bill until well into 2002, although it seems to some of us that we have already. We would like to thank you for your excellent chairmanship. By my calculation, we have examined more than 30 witnesses within the strictures of three three-hour sittings, which is no mean feat. That is largely down to your strict but fair chairmanship, for which we are very grateful.

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

This process was recommended partly to enable a truly consultative approach to the legislation. I have certainly gained from the evidence that we have heard, and I think that other people have as well. That has largely been possible because of your excellent chairmanship, Mr. Hinchliffe. We will look to you to provide us with drinks and cold towels during the coming weeks and months. Thanks to your chairmanship of this stage, we have got off to a particularly good start.

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

A huge amount of information has come out in these epic sittings. I will ask a question, then I will clear off for the weekend, with a bit of luck. Will the record of the proceedings be available electronically within the next 24 hours?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I understand that the record of proceedings will be available tomorrow at about 6 pm.

I would like to conclude by thanking Mr. Paton, who has been with us throughout the proceedings and has been extremely helpful.

There is a private meeting in this Room immediately afterwards, to do with the programming of the Committee. I should be grateful if Members who are not involved in that sub-Committee and everybody else who is not concerned with that meeting would leave now. Thank you very much.

The witnesses withdrew.

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Seven o'clock till Tuesday 27 November at half-past Ten o'clock.