Clause 96 - Proceedings to be in private

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 4 December 2001.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 12:30, 4 December 2001

I fear that we may not be able to deal with this clause as quickly as we did with clause 95, because Opposition Members are mystified as to why the Government appear to be restricting information about serious cases, rather than providing full access to information when things go wrong.

Amendment No. 134 would make it more likely that the proceedings of a case where there had been infringements against which proceedings had taken place could be made public where a judge defined that that was in the public interest, subject to provisos over identifying the children involved. We assume that the right of access to such information is in the public good and the onus should be on individuals to prove otherwise.

The second amendment was tabled primarily by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who takes a keen interest in the proceedings of the Committee even though he failed to make the grade by becoming a member of it. I am sure that that only emphasises the enormous amount of talent on the Opposition Benches and the interest in the Bill. We very much welcome my hon. Friend's contribution to the Committee.

Let me return to amendment No. 134. We take the view that proceedings should be in private only if, and to the extent that, they relate to a particular child. If an adoption agency or a person running an adoption service contravenes the Act, there is no good reason why their names and behaviour should not be publicly exposed. It may be in the public interest to be aware of unsavoury adoption agencies' activities. A small minority of people who do not have the child's best interests at heart have sought to profit from adoption. The Bill is designed to work against those people. That does not detract from the excellent, necessary, worthwhile and dedicated work of the vast majority of adoption agencies and support services. However, we are debating infringements.

The clause includes a curious feature in line 20 that proceedings in the High Court may be ''disposed of in chambers'', whereas proceedings in the county court must be heard and determined ''in camera'', as set out in line 21. Why does only the High Court have discretion to decide whether to hear proceedings in public? When parties may benefit from obtaining publicity, they will be tempted to take proceedings at greater expense in the High Court. County court judges deal with the vast bulk of adoption work and should have the same discretion.

The Parliamentary Secretary may have the same success as she did previously in assuaging our curiosity and concern. Why are the two types of court treated differently, and why are the Government intent on hiding information about where the service is not functioning properly? Individuals who should not be involved in that service must be named and shamed. The Government are very good at naming and shaming various professionals, so why are they reluctant to name and shame unscrupulous individuals who should not be involved in adoption? Openness is in the public interest. If a judge decides that it is in the public interest, why should he be fettered by the Bill? If people who have escaped the rigours of regulatory inspection, and have been licensed, set up an adoption agency and, as a result of their activities, the welfare of children suffers, details of that crime should be put into the public domain, unless there is a reason for not doing so—for example, because it does not benefit the welfare of the child. Under the amendment, the judge, who has the case in front of him and is best placed to decide whether it is in the public interest to disclose, would have that power.

I am reminded of a notorious and horrific case that happened at the hands of the social services department in the London borough of Richmond, which is controlled by the Liberal Democrats. A story in The Mail on Sunday strategically revealed the background to the problems of the case. It clearly demonstrates where disclosure of information in the public interest was absolutely right, yet the courts were used to prevent it:

''The Mail on Sunday told last year how Richmond social workers went to the home of Roger and Frances Holmes to take away a four-year-old girl, known as Child X, whom they had fostered for nearly two years.

The couple wanted to adopt her but were rejected by social workers who said she should go to a family in London from her native African country.

Shortly after Child X was taken away from the couple in September last year, the Government's SSI''

—social services inspectorate—

''carried out a review of social services in Richmond as part of its national programme of inspections. Its report''

—published in January—

''said the needs of children at risk, in care or with foster parents were not being put first by social workers.

Most worryingly of all, cases on the child protection register—which should be reviewed at six-monthly intervals—were not being reviewed.

Richmond had held only 53 per cent of the reviews that it should have done during 1999 and 2000.

And fewer than half the statutory reviews required for children in family placements were carried out in time—'a significant failing', the report concluded. In some cases there was no evidence to suggest that recent referrals had been dealt with at all.''

The authority then brought an injunction to gag the child's former carers. On behalf of Roger and Frances Holmes, The Mail on Sunday fought the council in the High Court and revealed how child X was taken, sobbing, from the Holmes' west London home. An article in September continues the story:

''The four-year-old girl, who lived with them for two years, was taken to a family with the same racial background.

In spite of a High Court ruling, the Holmeses have been denied access by the council because they spoke up about the case.

Until last week, they were pinning their hopes on the review carried out by former head of Devon social services Andrew Williamson CBE. The inquiry was announced last December.''

Mrs. Holmes, a registered childminder for 30 years, has received sinister phone calls and death threats, and the Holmes have been banned from fostering in future, despite the fact that they have proved themselves worthy foster parents in the past. Richmond council has subsequently claimed that the couple breached an agreement not to disclose information about child X without its consent.

That ghastly case goes to the heart of the amendment. We are saying that it is in the public interest that misdemeanours be made public. In the example that I gave, the misdemeanours of Richmond council social services department and its failures to carry out its duties as a social services department are very much in the public interest. People who live in Richmond and may be considering going to the social services department in its role as an adoption agency should be fully aware that an inspector has deemed it not to be up to scratch.