Clause 53 - Information to be kept about a person's adoption

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 18th December 2001.

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Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 4:30 pm, 18th December 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 193, in 53, page 31, line 32, at beginning insert—

'In relation to an adopted person'.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 194 and 195.

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

We move to the parts of the Bill that deal with access to information. Clause 53 introduces the access to information provisions, setting out the information that adoption agencies must keep and the regulation-making powers around transfer. It would perhaps be helpful if I were to set out the intention behind the clauses that relate to access to information and the amendments that we have tabled to them and, for the benefit of our discussions of these amendments and others, worth while to compare the new provisions with the current legislation.

The Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 provide that an adoption agency may disclose information in its possession as it thinks fit for the purposes of

carrying out its functions as an agency. Adoption agencies may, for example, disclose information to an adopted person about his background, although guidance is that such information should not include the information recorded on his birth certificate, as provision for such disclosure is made separately in the Adoption Act 1976. Information about the adopted child's progress may be provided to birth parents. The guidance makes it clear that the child's new identity and whereabouts should not be disclosed.

The adoption agency regulations give adoption agencies wide discretion, but practice is varied and inconsistent. Often, the provisions work well, but in some cases they do not. Agencies have passed on sensitive identifying information without consulting the person who would be identified. People involved in adoption, including children and birth relatives, have been traced and contacted against their wishes. That may be disturbing and could disrupt the adoptive placement; in a small number cases, there is a risk of physical harm.

Access to information in the context of adoption is a sensitive matter. Nowadays, many adoptions include some element of contact between the adoptive and the birth families—often involving an exchange of information about the child's progress through letterbox contact, but in some cases the two families may meet. The majority of adopted children are adopted after infancy and know that their birth families have information about them. However, in some circumstances it may not be appropriate to share identifying information, especially if a placement could be disrupted or the child's welfare affected.

The measures in the Bill that provide for safeguards on the disclosure of identifying information are intended to balance the interests of all parties. Striking the right balance has been difficult. Information that identifies people is potentially sensitive; we need to consider how to safeguard it in some circumstances and how to provide access to it in others. We have tried to ensure that the system is fair and balanced and that it provides some flexibility.

We set out to develop the provisions with the following aims in mind. We want to ensure consistency of adopted people's access to information about the background to their adoption, which is a commitment the Government made in the adoption White Paper. When identifying information might be provided, we aim to give every individual involved in a person's adoption a right to express his or her wishes. We want to give adoption agencies some discretion, supported by guidance, to determine whether to withhold or disclose identifying information. We want also to balance an agency's exercise of discretion by providing a right for an independent review of its adoption determination.

The Government made it clear when introducing the Bill in October that the access to information provisions were new; we also outlined the fact in our memorandum of evidence to the Committee's evidence sittings. Continuing our consultative approach to the Bill, we also made it clear that we would welcome views on whether we had struck the

right balance. [Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] Opposition Members mock the notion that Governments might consult and listen to people. That may have not have happened during the 18 years of Conservative Government, but it is what the Labour Government are doing.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

If the Minister is so proud of her record on consultation, why did it take a month from the pre-scrutiny witness sittings, at which every witness threw up their hands in horror and every document presented in evidence expressed horror at the changes that the Government were suggesting? It took the Minister until the 11th hour on Thursday—her very last opportunity—to table the amendments. She did not have the courtesy to tell the Committee that she was doing it, let alone inform those members of the Committee who had tabled their own amendments to the same effect.

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

As I have said, this is a complicated area of policy. It is right that the Government took the time to reflect on the evidence taken in the evidence sittings; we wanted to ensure that we got it right. I wrote to all members of the Committee last Thursday afternoon outlining the proposals that the Government intended to bring forward. I made our intentions clear. I thought that that was appropriate. According to the programme motion, we have at least three sittings to discuss the matter, so I feel sure that hon. Members will have ample opportunity to probe the Government on their amendments and to table their own.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

I am grateful to the Minister for telling us that the amendments are the result of the Government's desire to consult. However, when the Bill was presented the Government said that its original provisions were there because of the danger that those who had been adopted might go back and be violent toward or attack their birth parents. Will she explain which consultation exercise led her to believe that that was a danger?

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

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware if he has read my letter and looked carefully at the amendments, the Government still consider that it might be appropriate, in a small number of cases, for adoption agencies to exercise discretion over the release of information that will enable people to access their birth records, although we have made a significant change in the proposals.

Although I accept that there was disagreement at the evidence-gathering sittings about the Government's approach to birth records, some of the evidence given then, and subsequently, suggested concern about such disclosure. The Government have changed their position in the light of representations under the Special Standing Committee procedure. We could have decided just to convene—dare I say it—a bog standard Standing Committee. However, we did not; we took evidence and we acted on that evidence.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister has referred to evidence that backs up the Government's decision to amend the Bill. First, will she tell us what that evidence is? We were not made aware of it by any witness during the evidence-gathering sittings. Secondly, will she tell us exactly when the Government changed their mind, given that last Thursday morning her Department was busy briefing Radio 4's ''Woman's Hour'' that there would be no changes and telling that programme why the Bill had to stay in its original form? When did that damascene conversion happen?

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

The idea that it is appropriate for a Government Department to brief a news programme about a proposal before it presents it to Parliament is rich coming from the Opposition.

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

Perhaps my hon. Friend would note that although Opposition Members constantly bleat about lack of time, when they do have some time, they waste it on fatuous arguments. Will she accept my sincere congratulations, as someone who raised serious objections to these clauses at the very welcome evidence sittings, on having listened to the evidence that was presented to her and making the appropriate changes? Perhaps we can now move on to the serious business.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. The hon. Gentleman takes the words out of my mouth. Since I have been in the Chair, I have heard no fatuous contributions from any hon. Member on this Committee, for which I am eternally grateful. Can we now return to the terms of the Government amendments?

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

I was describing how the amendments relate to clause 53, which provides the basis for the Government's approach to all the information provisions that we shall discuss.

The adoption stakeholders were concerned principally with the proposed restriction on the adopted person's right of access to his birth records. Some also commented on the need for prospective adopters to have better and fuller information on the child whom the agency proposed to place with them. Clauses 53 to 62 provide for the adoption agency to be the single gateway for access to identifying information, including birth records. The Registrar-General retains his duty to record and keep the adopted person's birth records under clauses 74 to 78. The Registrar-General will, of course, retain his duty under the Adoption Act 1976 to maintain the registers.

The Government believe that the adoption agency is best placed to provide identifying information, to contact the interested parties, to deal appropriately with such sensitive information and to arrange for the provision of counselling. The evidence that we heard broadly supported that view. That model is an improvement on the current situation, whereby access to the birth records of the adopted person is obtained through the Registrar-General without any involvement from the adoption agency. In addressing the issue of access to birth records, we have carefully

considered the representations made to the Committee and how to address the significant concerns that have been expressed.

Under the current legislative framework, the adopted adult has a right—provided by section 51 of the Adoption Act 1976—to obtain information from the Registrar-General that enables him to access a copy of his birth certificate, which identifies his birth parents and their address at the time of his birth. The only exception to that is when the Registrar-General decides that it is appropriate to withhold the information on public policy grounds. In such cases, the adopted person can challenge the Registrar-General's decision by recourse to the High Court.

Committee members know that we have been concerned about the small number of cases in which access to birth records might pose a significant risk to the birth parents. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) asked me about evidence given at the evidence-gathering sitting. I refer him to an amendment to the evidence that was given to us on behalf of the Association of Directors of Social Services, in the name of Rob Hutchinson, the chair of the ADSS children and families committee. He said:

''The principle of openness is now well established in adoption practice. The Association of Directors of Social Services recognises that adopted adults greatly value their right to obtain their original birth certificate and believes that this right should be preserved. However, some concerns remain about the small minority of cases where individuals involved may be placed at some risk.''

We believe that our new proposals balance that very small number of cases with the need for people to be able to gain access to, and copies of, their birth certificates. We have listened carefully and have weighed the evidence now available to us. As a consequence, we have decided that adopted people should retain the right to access the information that they need to enable them to obtain copies of their birth certificates, and we propose to amend clause 58 to provide for that.

We intend broadly to mirror the current legal position, although the route of access will now be through the adoption agency. When an adopted person aged 18 makes a request, he will be able to obtain the information that he needs from his adoption agency in order to obtain a copy of his birth certificate. The only exception will be in those cases where the adoption agency considers that exceptional circumstances justify recourse to the courts to withhold information.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre 4:45 pm, 18th December 2001

I recognise and welcome all that my hon. Friend is saying about the role of adoption agencies. Can she confirm that those adults, however unwise others might think them, who wish to have access to their birth records without any counselling process, will be able to make application through the adoption agency, without being subjected to unwelcome social work intervention?

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

Although we have made provision for the single gateway to be through the adoption agency, that does not imply a necessity to receive counselling through that agency. In such circumstances as the adoption agency considers justify the withholding of information, the adoption agency will need to seek the permission of the High Court not to disclose that information. The High Court will make an order only if it is satisfied that the circumstances are exceptional. I hope that that change will allay the concerns that have been expressed and will, in the cases in which a court gives its consent for information to be withheld, provide a safeguard.

As for other identifying information about the birth parents and others, we now propose that all adults involved in a person's adoption should be treated in the same way. The provisions in the Bill were based on our aim to give all such people a right to express their wishes about the sensitive information that identifies them. However, that was complicated by the need to provide for birth parents to be able to object to the release of their information while others were asked for their consent. That distinction was based on the presumption that that information about the birth parents would be released unless they exercised a right of veto. As we now propose to retain the right of the adopted person to access his birth records, we consider that the adoption agency should ask the birth parents for their consent to the release of identifying information held by the agency—but not in the case of the birth records information. That mirrors our intentions with respect to the disclosure of identifying information about everybody else involved in a person's adoption.

Under our proposals, a person would be able to ask the adoption agency to provide identifying information about anyone involved in an adoption. Where they decided to proceed to process such an application, adoption agencies would be required to take reasonable steps to seek the views of the person who would be identified, including establishing whether they consent. If their consent were forthcoming, we would expect the information to be disclosed, unless the agency felt that it was not appropriate to do so. Where consent was refused or could not be obtained, the agency would be allowed to disclose the information if it were safe and appropriate to do so.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I would like to return to the matter of releasing identifying information on behalf of the adoptive person. Will the Minister confirm that she would not anticipate that adoption agencies would feel in any way compelled under the clauses, when an adopted person was seeking identifying information, to contact the birth parent to seek permission in order to protect themselves against the fact that they have not gone to the High Court? Would she anticipate that in the majority of cases there would be no need for an adoption agency, when approached by an adopted person, to contact the birth parent before releasing the identifying information?

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

The provision relating to the High Court deals with the provision of information necessary to gain access to the birth record. It would not be necessary to contact the birth parent in such cases. I was moving on to other identifying information. There is now a distinction between those two categories.

The other area about which concern was expressed in evidence-gathering was that of the quality and range of information about the child that is made available to prospective adopters. Doubts were expressed about the way in which the Bill provides for that. In particular, there were concerns that information needed to inform prospective adopters prior to agreeing to a proposed match might be held back until the time of the adoption order.

It has always been the Government's intention to use the Bill's provisions to ensure that prospective adopters receive full and appropriate information in advance of the adoption order. In the light of the concerns expressed, we have tabled a new clause to provide for the disclosure of information during the adoption process. To ensure that the means used to achieve our aims allow for some flexibility should the process of providing information to adopters need to be improved in the future, the clause provides an enabling power through regulations to require adoption agencies to release certain information to prospective adopters at three key stages.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

This morning, we were talking about rights of appeal to a panel, and one of the matters we discussed was the release of information. That is one of the areas in which the Government have acknowledged that they will be giving rights of appeal to the panel. That being the case, has the Minister thought about the timing of people's ability to appeal to the panel? In other words, if an adoption agency is considering releasing information, at what point would someone be able to exercise the right of appeal that the Government have said they will grant under clause 12? Will the Minister please explain how that mechanism will work?

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

The review mechanism might be used in a complicated range of ways. For example, if an adult had approached an adoption agency and that agency had sought consent from the person for about whom information was being sought and had gained that consent, but then for some exceptional reason decided not to provide the information to the person who had requested it, that person could then resort to the independent review mechanism.

Alternatively, if the person being asked for their consent had failed to give it, but the adoption agency still believed—we are providing for discretion—that the circumstances were such that the information should be made available to the person who had asked for it, that would be another opportunity for an appeal to the independent review mechanism.

I talked about prospective adopters, and outlined the fact that we will discuss a new clause that will enable us to set regulations to state the information that should be released to prospective adopters at three

key stages. I am sure that we will have the opportunity to discuss packages of information as we discuss the new clause. As I informed the Committee in my letter, our amendments also ensure that the adopted adult can access the information that his adopters receive, if he wants to.

Striking the right balance in the provisions has been difficult. Information that identifies people can be sensitive, and although many adoptions include some contact between the adoptive family and the birth family, in some circumstances it is not appropriate to share identifying information, especially when the adopted child's welfare is at risk. The amendments reflect understandable concerns and provide for the creation of a fair and balanced system for access to sensitive identifying information on someone's adoption.

Under current regulations, an adoption agency must keep indexes to all its case records, including those that detail the making of an adoption order, for at least 75 years. All other records must be held for as long as the agency considers it appropriate. All the records must be kept in a place of special security. We know that practice varies greatly. Some agencies keep only patchy records, while others have lost or disposed of information for past adoptions.

The adoption White Paper pledged that the Government would provide people with a consistent system for access to information about their history. The provisions enable regulations to be made to prescribe the information that an adoption agency must keep in relation to someone's adoption, the form that it should take and the way in which it should be kept. The provision also enables the making of regulations that govern the transfer of information between adoption agencies.

The amendments will make the group of clauses apply to information about an adopted person, rather than to information that an agency must keep in relation to a person's adoption. That ensures that we can regulate all the necessary information under the clauses, as I have spelled out. It makes it clear that the group of clauses relates to a scheme for the disclosure of identifying information once an adoption order has been made. The information will be about the adopted person, his birth parents, his adoptive parents and any other person involved in his adoption, such as the adopted person's siblings, grandparents or the social worker.

The amendments will enable us to set out regulations that apply to the information to be kept, and that govern the transfer of information when, for example, one agency is to cease and it is essential that its records pass into the safekeeping of another agency. In such cases, regulations provide a better and more flexible legislative means of detailing the responsibilities that we intend to place on adoption agencies for keeping information in relation to a person's adoption, its form and the way in which it is kept. On that basis, I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South 5:00 pm, 18th December 2001

Order. Before we proceed, I should say that the Clerk and I have had further consultations. I want to add to my response to the point of order made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. As I said, there is no mechanism under the terms of the programme motion by which more time could be given to consider the business dealt with this morning. It remains open to Committees to amend programme motions, but that first requires a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee. No such meeting has been requested.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Stevenson. No doubt, a letter requesting such a meeting will be in the post shortly.

In response to the Minister, I expect that that is probably the longest scripted U-turn that any Committee has heard for a long time—a U-turn that contained no hint of contrition or mea culpa—from a Minister who, a week ago, said that the Bill was perfect and did not require any amendment. Now, at last, we see its flaws. We welcome the amendments. We would have welcomed them four weeks ago, as would scores of adoption agencies and other voluntary bodies with an interest in the Bill. The Minister is well aware of the comments that were made in representations to the Committee, to which we were all privy.

The south-east post-adoption network said:

''The proposed legislation is a retrograde step that is likely to cause harm to the psychological wellbeing of adopted individuals.''

The National Organisation for Counselling Adoptees and Parents said:

''We are utterly incredulous by the manner in which changes have been made and appalled by what is placed before you purporting to be an appropriate response for at least the next 30 years.''

The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering said:

''It would not be putting it too strongly to say that there is consternation among BAAF's member agencies and others at this proposed change.''

The representative of the Fostering Network said:

''I think that this is such a draconian proposal.''

All that evidence was available to the Committee five weeks ago. Why has it taken the Minister five weeks to come up with this U-turn? Worse still, why does she constantly refer to this great letter? To turn into some sort of triumph simply returning to the status quo that has existed for the past 25 years and worked perfectly satisfactorily—she has not been able to cite a single case where it has not worked— shows incredible brass neck.

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

Has not my hon. Friend the Minister stolen the hon. Gentleman's thunder? The speech that we have just heard is one that the hon. Gentleman was hoping to deliver in the event that there were no Government amendments. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), I was unhappy with the Bill and welcome the changes. My hon. Friend the Minister has not presented the changes in a fanfare

of glory. The Government have listened and introduced changes and the hon. Gentleman is clearly disappointed with that.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am not at all disappointed about what has happened. I am disappointed at the discourtesy shown by the Minister to the Committee and all the voluntary organisations—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Let me first respond to the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). If other hon. Members were seriously unhappy with the Bill, they should have had the independence of mind to table their own amendments five weeks ago, or at least to put their names to our amendments. As we all know, this is not a party-political Bill because it received the support of all parties on Second Reading.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

One at a time.

In the spirit of co-operation, we have sought at all stages to improve the Bill, which is why we welcomed the pre-scrutiny witness sessions. At those sessions, the evidence was so categorically weighted in one direction that we immediately tabled our amendments to reverse this misguided part of the Bill, as the Government have done at last.

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

I have a couple of points. First, does the hon. Gentleman really think that his approach is a good way to ensure that the Government will do what he wants them to do, because it seems to me to be tactically inept? Secondly, in all his concern for the adoption agencies, voluntary organisations and people who have been caught up in this issue, does he not understand that those people would have more respect for the process if he simply welcomed the legislation and allowed us to get on to the meat of the debate?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Everyone would have much more respect for the process if the Minister had responded favourably and positively at an early stage. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that today represents the first opportunity to discuss clauses 53 to 62, which deal with access to information. That would have been the most contentious part of the Bill if it had not been changed. The last day for tabling amendments to this part of the Bill came at the end of last week and, because it was a non-sitting Friday, the amendments were not published until Monday.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I shall in a minute.

Unless hon. Members had had a conversation with the Minister, they would not have been able to see those amendments or respond to them with their own amendments until Monday, which would have been too late for this afternoon's debate.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is why I wrote to hon. Members on Thursday afternoon?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister wrote her famous letter to us after the Committee rose on Thursday afternoon and the letter was available in Members' pigeonholes after the Committee adjourned on Thursday afternoon. I believe, however, that it was available earlier to Labour Members.

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

The hon. Gentleman should check his pigeonhole.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We could either sit in Committee between half past two and five o'clock to debate clauses and amendments and challenge the Minister, as we should be doing, or we could nip downstairs every five minutes in the hope that the Minister had changed her mind at the last moment and that there might be a letter in our pigeonhole. What nonsense! We sat opposite each other the whole day, but the Minister gave no indication whatever that the Government had had a change of heart. That would have given all hon. Members the opportunity to see the amendments, which are not contained in the letter, as it is merely a general statement about what they intended to do—although they have not even done that in respect of clause 57, for example. Opposition Members would have had the opportunity to see whether the amendments fell in line with what we sought, and been able to table our amendments in reply. We have not had that opportunity and it is a gross discourtesy to the workings of the Committee.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

My I help my hon. Friend? I was observing the Committee diligently and I think that letters were distributed personally to Labour Members that afternoon, while our letters were left in our pigeonholes.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. It is perfectly in order that hon. Members should examine why the Government tabled the amendments and the circumstances that led to that. I shall be calling a clause stand part debate. When hon. Members have made their points, can we return at the earliest opportunity to debating the amendments?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Of course, I am happy to do that, Mr. Stevenson.

The Minister's opening remarks on the amendments gave us a wide background to what brought about the Damascene conversion, but she has yet to give the reason why the conversion happened at such a late stage. It would be useful to hear what the criteria were.

I said at the outset that these are the amendments that we have sought for the past five weeks. They contain some of the amendments that we tabled. For the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford to say that we must be disappointed is to misunderstand what we are trying to do in the Committee. If we had voted against the Bill in its entirety and opposed it on principle all the way through, he might have had a point. Our task, however, has been to improve the Bill and to remove from the present group of clauses some draconian measures—as they were described—that would have set back the adoption process by 25 years.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, because the amendments that I have heard being debated have been constructive and were meant to improve the Bill. There have been no wrecking amendments. In previous Standing Committees of which I have been a member, if the Government were minded to amend the Bill, the Minister gave a draft to Opposition Members, which resulted in open discussion. That is the way forward if we are serious about the Bill.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is absolutely right and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have served on Standing Committees that have been debating issues of significance, particularly complicated, technical and legal matters, when the Minister has had the courtesy to write in advance of amendments being tabled giving a full explanation and producing additional explanatory notes to explain the Government's thinking.

The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford talks about wrecking amendments, but everything has been in order—otherwise you, Mr. Stevenson, or your co-Chairman, Mrs. Roe, would have ruled them out of order.

Kevin Brennan rose—

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I will give way in a moment. Labour Members seem very excited this afternoon. Perhaps they have been briefed to be excited and animated. The only wrecking amendment on the amendment paper this afternoon would appear to be a Government amendment to clause 57. It is so incompetently out of order—it would delete the whole clause—that it has not been selected. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford should stop throwing stones at people in glasshouses.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I do not want to take the Committee's time, but the hon. Gentleman claimed that the Minister had said that it was a perfect Bill and that it did not need to be changed. Later, he said that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford had accused the Opposition of tabling wrecking amendments. I have listened carefully to the Committee's proceedings and I heard neither of those remarks. I realise that the hon. Gentleman has to make his mark, but we are not here so that he can engage in political point-scoring for a starring spot on ''Woman's Hour''.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what we here to do. The producers of ''Woman's Hour'' will be even less amused by his comments than they were by the way in which the Department of Health treated them last week. However, that is aside from the issues that we are debating.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I do not want tempt your patience, Mr. Stevenson, but it should be placed on record that adoption is a subject on which ''Woman's Hour'' has taken a considerable interest. It has had several programmes on the subject and I have been privileged to take part in a couple of them.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. I attempted earlier to guide the Committee gently. The last thing that I want to do is to intervene too often. That is not why I am here. However, a debate on the content of ''Woman's Hour'' seems to be far wide of the amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

You are obviously not a devotee of ''Woman's Hour'', Mr. Stevenson—

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. I would not want that remark to remain on the record, nor would the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I apologise, Mr Stevenson. I return to the point in hand. Opposition Members have no objection to the amendments—[Interruption.] Government Members treat the Committee as though everything should be rubber-stamped and think that we have a cheek to raise objections. Our objection is that we saw the Government amendments only yesterday, by which time it was too late for us to table amendments to those proposed changes. That is not a good way to run a Standing Committee. It is particularly bad when the Committee has not had the opportunity to debate more than one fifth of the Bill because of the draconian programme motion. That is the truth of it.

We will support the amendments, but we would like more explanation about further the amendments resulting from the Government's change of heart. However, the Government have a duty to all members of the Committee to explain any further changes in plenty of time.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk 5:15 pm, 18th December 2001

I also welcome the amendments, which the Minister should be congratulated on tabling. It is disappointing that Opposition Members were not afforded the same privilege as Labour Back Benchers last week and it would have been courteous to treat us identically by giving us advance warning. However, one must give credit where credit is due because the Government have listened and learned from the debate. Several Labour Back Benchers should be congratulated on having had the courage to stand up to the thugs and bully boys in the Labour's Whips Office—the same ones who intimidated the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), pinned him up against a wall and frightened him.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. My patience is running out a little, and I am sure that hon. Members will understand why. I urge the hon. Gentleman to return to the terms of the amendments.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

It is difficult to return to the terms of the amendment without putting them in the correct context and I am sure that you will sympathise, Mr. Stevenson.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. I am jumping up and down like a jack-in-the-box, which I did not want to do. I have no problem with hon. Members debating amendments in context, but the hon. Gentleman should return to the wording of the amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

Indeed. I welcome the amendments. The Minister may genuinely have thought that she could push the Bill through as it stood, but let us give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that she took her time to introduce the changes because she wanted to get the wording absolutely right. As a result, there were discussions in her Department and experts were brought in, in an effort to draft everything in the most perfect order.

None the less, I welcome the amendments and pay tribute to Labour Back Benchers who had the courage to stand firm. A rebellion was brewing and the Government would have lost their provisions had they not made concessions.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 194, in page 31, line 33, leave out 'a person's' and insert 'his'.

No. 195, in page 31, line 37, leave out from 'information' to 'is' in line 38 and insert

'kept by an adoption agency by virtue of subsection (1)(a)'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

I beg to move amendment No. 124, in page 31, line 41, at end add—

'(4) All records and other relevant information must be securely held by the relevant adoption agency on a permanent basis; furthermore, all such information must be passed on to any successor agency.'.

The Minister mentioned records and the secure holding of relevant information. However, I am not clear from her comments whether there will be an obligation on adoption agencies to keep records permanently and to ensure that information is passed on to any successor agency. Will she clarify that aspect of her earlier remarks? If there is an element of doubt, I humbly suggest that a simple way forward would be for the Government to accept the amendment to make it crystal clear that the relevant information must be securely held.

Different agencies are involved in the adoption process. Local authorities will have systems in place to ensure that records are properly stored and logged. Although other agencies may be good at their jobs, they may lack record-keeping facilities, attention to detail and access to the resources needed to ensure that the right systems are in place. They may have completely different standards of information storage and retrieval and it is essential that we include in the Bill a requirement that information be securely held.

It is equally vital that information is passed on to a successor agency, as we discussed a fortnight or so ago in relation to a later clause. When debating Bills, one has the problem of dealing with some clauses before others, which sometimes leads to confusion. I know that there is a reason for it, as was mentioned during the debate on programming.

I want the Minister to consider my amendment carefully. It would tidy up the relevant aspect of the clause.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

I support the amendment. Will the Minister suggest what the security arrangements are for holding the records? Presumably, thousands of

adoption records are held in locations around the country. Have the Government taken an interest in the subject before, or should it be of more concern than we have heard to date?

Although the amendment refers to adoption agencies holding information ''on a permanent basis'', my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) will be aware that such agencies sometimes close down. Several have in recent years. In such cases, what happens to the records? In the past, they have been lost. Sometimes they have not been handed to the new agency as they should have been. What security measures are there? Might lost records have found their way into the wrong hands? I would be grateful to hear the Minister's views on the important questions that surround the amendment.

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

I shall respond first to the points made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). In my introduction to the previous amendment, I spelled out the fact that adoption records should be kept in a place of special security under current regulations. There is no detail as to what such a place should be, however. The hon. Gentleman suggested that information might reach the wrong hands, but no evidence suggests that that is the case and that adoption agencies do not hold information securely. The clause will enable us to make regulations to cover the nature of information that adoption agencies need to keep and the way in which they should keep it. The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned transfer.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

Is it intended that such records could be sent using electronic communication? Clearly, that could give rise to a new series of security problems?

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a salient point, and one in support of stating the details in regulations as opposed to in the Bill. It is likely that the way in which information will be held and transferred will change with technology. Regulations enable a more flexible approach to ensure that safeguards remain as changes happen.

Clause 53 allows regulations to be made that govern the transfer of information between adoption agencies when, for example, one agency is to cease operation and it is essential that its records pass into the safe keeping of another. If a registered adoption society were to cease operation, the local authority in the area where the society was based would be responsible for safeguarding the information. That will reflect the present position under regulations, except that when now the Secretary of State is notified of the transfer of records, in future it will be the National Care Standards Commission. Hon. Gentlemen may recall our discussions under clause 6 and 7 last week about the ceasing of an adoption agency, the safeguards that need to be put in place, and the role of local authorities in relation to inactive and defunct adoption agencies.

I have outlined why we believe that regulations provide a better and more flexible legislative means to detail the responsibilities that we intend to place on

adoption agencies. We intend to consult key stakeholders, including adoption agencies, on the regulations, which we will ensure are based on best practice. The consultation will also enable us to set, through regulations, the prescribed periods for which records should be held. I remind hon. Members that they are currently held for 75 years.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk contains a contradiction. It requires that the agency hold the records permanently, but that it should pass them on to any successor agency.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

The idea of holding records permanently is self-explanatory. If an organisation closes down, by definition it cannot continue to hold records permanently, so it hands them on to a successor body. That is the point inherent in the amendment. It is slightly unfair of the Minister to pick holes in it.

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

Heaven forbid that I should be unfair. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

My intervention is on that same point, so I think that the Minister had better hear both before replying. The amendment does not use only the word ''permanent'', but reads, ''on a permanent basis''. That means as though the basis were permanent, not permanent itself.

Jacqui Smith rose—

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

I am sure that all hon. Members would want to avoid giving legal experts the opportunity to argue about whether permanence is in conflict with the necessity to transfer records from one agency to another. That is why it is important that, in the regulations, we can state more clearly and flexibly the provisions that need to be made for the long term.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I can give an objective view of the wording. The words ''on a permanent basis'' mean while the agency exists. If it ceases to exist, the information has to be passed on to a successor agency. That is a belt-and-braces provision. There is nothing wrong with it and no conflict arises from it.

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

There is disagreement as to whether the amendment produces a conflict. I do not think that the disagreement is helpful, especially as I hope that I have already reassured the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that his points about the need to maintain records and transfer them appropriately will be properly covered in regulation, following consultation that will enable us to consider the details. I cannot promise that the consultation will enable us to have an in-depth consideration of the nature of ''on a permanent basis'', as opposed to ''permanent'' or any other wording that hon. Gentlemen might devise. On

the basis of those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk 5:30 pm, 18th December 2001

We do not know what the regulations will contain. We have the Minister's word that they will include provisions to ensure that what I want to achieve is secured. The regulations will be debatable, in theory, but regulations are debated only rarely, as the Committee knows only too well. The pressure of work in this House is such that it is difficult for hon. Members to secure a proper debate on regulations that are laid before the House. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) pointed out, my amendment takes a belt-and-braces approach. It is straightforward and simple and it is churlish of the Minister to turn it down, because it is in no sense a trap with respect to what she is trying to do. I am sure that she is 100 per cent. genuine in her account of her aims and that the regulations will be brought forward. The amendment will complement those and I see no harm in her accepting it.

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

As we are going into the detail of the wording of the amendment, may I ask whether there is a danger that it can be interpreted to mean both that all records and other relevant information must be securely held by the relevant adoption agency on a permanent basis and, in addition, that equivalent records must be transferred to a new adoption agency? That is another potential difficulty.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

I do not accept that. However, we are now dealing with important provisions and the Minister has made important concessions today. Being kind hearted, I shall accept her word that the documents, records and other relevant information will be properly stored for 75 years. It would be futile to press the amendment to a vote because too many Labour Members would blindly support the Minister, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 53, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.