We can move fairly swiftly through the next group of clauses. A step-parent can acquire parental responsibility for a stepchild on marriage to the child's mother. Does parental responsibility automatically lapse if those individuals are subsequently divorced, or is the question subject to a parental responsibility court order as part of a divorce settlement? I am sure that there is an obvious answer. I see the Parliamentary Secretary scribbling fiercely and I am sure that she will respond quickly. The Bill is not clear on the point.
Perhaps it would help if I first outlined the effect of clause 107. It inserts into the Children Act 1989 section 4A, to enable a step-parent to acquire parental responsibility for a child of his spouse, either by agreement between the step-parent and the parents who have parental responsibility for the child, or by order of the court. The measure is intended to provide an alternative to adoption where a step-parent wants to acquire parental responsibility for his or her stepchild.
The advantage is that the provision will not remove parental responsibility from the other birth parent and will not legally separate the child from membership of the family of that other birth parent. It will enable step-parents to acquire a legal status in relation to the child for whom they are caring. Given that that will come about by order of the court, parental responsibility will not automatically lapse. It could be terminated only by the court. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question and that he will therefore agree to the clause.
Under subsections (3)(b) and (4) of new section 4A, the court could, effectively, bring the arrangements to an end if they did not work out. The child would be listened to and the court would need to see whether the child had sufficient understanding. I
have been thinking about whether we should also turn matters around. Why should the child's views not be heard in the first place, when it was proposed that parental responsibility be given?
This is an excellent clause. I am sure that a large part of the delay in social services departments affecting adoption arises from the vexed question of step-parent adoptions, which can have little priority for overworked social services departments but which, nevertheless, are important for children, step-parents and natural parents. I welcome the proposal to enable step-parents fairly readily to acquire parental responsibility without all the pain, difficulty and frustration that loss of parental responsibility and of contact between the child and the wider family would cause to the birth parent with whom the child is not living. I very much hope that the clause will be widely used and that it will lead to the withering away of the use of step-parent adoptions. I can see no further use for such adoptions, given the content of the new provisions. This is a very important step forward. It is efficient, sensible and above all humane, and I welcome it.
I agree; the clause is useful and important and brings into line a matter that needs to be dealt with. The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked the Minister why we could not turn the whole matter round. If, under subsection (3), the child has the right to apply to the court, why should the child not be consulted when the step-parent makes his or her application for parental responsibility? That would be perfectly logical and right and would extend the concept. The question is useful, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to consider it further.
I should like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre in warmly welcoming the clause. I remember, when I was a duty social worker, receiving calls from birth parents and having to explain to them that they would have to adopt their own child. The messenger was often shot. I was considered to be responsible—not true with regard to existing legislation, but to some extent true with regard to this Bill.
It is beyond me how anyone could have dreamt up the idea that a birth parent should be obliged to adopt their own child. A constituent in such a situation wrote to me a couple of years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), the ministerial predecessor of my hon. Friend the Minister, wrote to me, stating that the Government were committed to removing the anachronism in order to facilitate a speedier process in which families could secure themselves and children could be adopted by their step-parents. My constituent was put off by the thought that they would have to go through the whole adoption process, and put the idea on ice. I hope that, when the Bill receives Royal Assent, that constituent's family and thousands of others will be able to take advantage of it. The legislation is long overdue, but represents a promise kept and is very welcome.
I declare an interest in that I might benefit from the application of the provision, as I am a step-parent of a child, without parental responsibility, in the very circumstances set out by the clause. I want
to probe the Parliamentary Secretary, because proposed new subsection (1)(b) states that
''the court may, on the application of the step-parent, order that the step-parent shall have parental responsibility for the child.''
That is the alternative to proposed new subsection (1)(a), which states that
''may by agreement with the step-parent provide for the step-parent to have parental responsibility''.
If the estranged birth parents decided for reasons that might in certain circumstances be vindictive that they objected to the arrangement, would the court get involved in lengthy litigation and debate among the three parties about the merits and demerits of the application, which might be detrimental to the child's welfare? Will the Parliamentary Secretary gives us some idea of what criteria she envisages the court applying?
I am glad to be supported on the clause, which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have welcomed. It is true that the adoption law review recommended that the law be changed to enable step-parents to acquire parental responsibility. The provisions also have the advantage of not removing parental responsibility from the other birth parent and do not, therefore, legally remove the child's membership of that birth parent's family. That is important, given that we have spoken throughout about what is in the child's best interests.
I shall come to that when I have discussed the hon. Gentleman's point about taking the child's views into account.
The provisions will apply the principles of the Children Act. In practice, the court will apply the welfare checklist. In some instances—where the child is a baby, for example—it may not be possible to take their views into account. None the less, the welfare checklist will include the child's wishes and feelings, and the court will be able to appoint an officer of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to report on the child's views if that is felt to be appropriate.
I want to mention two other issues. First, it is open to a natural parent to oppose the granting of parental responsibility to a step-parent in court. As the hon. Member for North Dorset said, that may involve some wrangling, and the court will have to decide what is in the child's best interests. Such circumstances will inevitably arise.
As I have said, the principles of the Children Act would apply, which means that the child's interests and welfare would have to be taken
into account. If necessary, the court can appoint a CAFCASS officer to ascertain the child's feelings.
The whole point of the clause is to provide a faster solution so that people do not have to go through the whole adoption process, and everyone welcomes that. However, a husband and a stepmother may make an application in which social workers are not involved to a great extent. There may, therefore, be greater scope for not finding out what the child wants.
In any case before a court, what is in the best interests of the child will have to be considered, especially when one parent opposes the application. Because the welfare checklist in the Children Act will apply, it will be important for those interests to be taken into account. A point was made about inheritance. A child will be able to inherit from only the natural parent or when there is a will, so the acquiring of parental responsibility will not affect that. I hope that I have provided some reassurance about the views of the child being taken into account.
As I have said, we believe that the provisions will be effective. They will improve the situation for step-parents while allowing the child to continue to have a legal relationship with the birth parent. I am grateful for the support that the Committee has given the clause, and I hope that it will stand part of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 107 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 108 and 109 ordered to stand part of the Bill.