Clause 133 - Commencement

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 17th January 2002.

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Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 3:30 pm, 17th January 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 263, in page 73, line 26, leave out 'and' and insert 'to'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 264 and 265 and Government new clause 17—Amendment of Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978: overseas adoptions.

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

Clause 133 makes provision in relation to commencement. The Bill is to come into force on a day appointed by order of the Secretary of State, in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales. The only exception is chapter 2 of part 3—the clause is in that chapter—which covers final provisions and the provisions mentioned in subsections (3) and (4).

The provisions listed in subsection (3) are to come into force on such a day as Scottish Ministers may by order appoint. They are clause 120, which provides Scottish restrictions on bringing children into the United Kingdom, clause 124(1) and the linked provisions in schedule 3. The provisions listed in clause 133(4) are to come into force on a day appointed by the appropriate Minister, which means the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly in Wales.

Amendment No. 263 amends subsection (1), which provides that the Bill is to be commenced by the Secretary of State in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales, with the exception of the final provisions and the provisions mentioned in subsections (3) and (4). The effect of the amendment is to exclude from subsection (1) a new subsection that is added to the clause by amendment No. 265. That will ensure that paragraph 15 of schedule 4 is not commenced by the Secretary of State in consultation with the National Assembly for Wales. It will be commenced by Scottish Ministers, as will the provision in amendment No. 265.

It may have escaped the Committee's attention that the amendment is technical—there will be a short test later—and will ensure that the appropriate commencement powers are given to Scottish Ministers.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister has unintentionally confused us completely. I have a question, but I am not sure whether I should ask it now or on the clause stand part debate. Perhaps I should make it on a point of order. I want to establish when the Government plan to put the Bill into effect in England, Wales and Scotland.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne

Order. That is not a point of order, so the Minister can reply.

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

I will try to respond to that after I have gone through the amendments and new clause 17, if hon. Members will let me.

Amendment No. 264 amends clause 133(3). It provides for Scottish Ministers to commence new clause 17, under which they will have the power to make an order specifying the adoption orders to be recognised in Scotland, as the Secretary of State will with regard to England and Wales. The new clause also allows Scottish Ministers to make regulations that set the criteria that the procedures in an overseas country must meet in order to be included in the list of recognised overseas adoptions.

I will now give a fuller explanation of the new clause. Hon. Members will remember our debate on clause 83. That clause related to the new designated list, and the new clause mirrors it in relation to

Scotland. Adoption is a devolved matter, with separate systems operating north of the border. The new clause allows Scottish Ministers to work alongside those in England and Wales to put in place arrangements for the recognition in the UK of adoption orders made overseas. When Scottish Ministers make an order that specifies the adoption orders to be recognised in Scotland, they will also protect the status of those adopted in the past from countries included on the old designated list.

The current designated list was created in an order in 1973. To add China, it was amended in 1993 for England and Wales and in 1995 for Scotland. Other than that, it has remained unchanged. It was always the Government's stated intention to review the designated list for England and Wales once the 1993 Hague convention was ratified. However, it has become clear that that cannot happen without changes in primary legislation, largely because the removal of a country from the list could remove recognition of the adoption of someone previously adopted from it.

Photo of Robert Walter Robert Walter Conservative, North Dorset

The Minister referred to the provisions coming into effect once the Hague convention had been ratified. When is that likely?

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

When I respond to the points raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about the Government's plans on the commencement of the provisions, I shall cover the point made by the hon. Member for North Dorset as well, if he will allow me.

The new clause tackles the issues for Scotland in the same manner as clause 83 tackles them for England and Wales. Scottish Ministers share our intention to consult on the nature of the criteria included in regulations. It is likely that those criteria would be based on key principles enshrined in international law. Those include that the country ensures that the child has been freely given up for adoption and that adoption has not been induced by payment or compensation of any kind, that attempts are made to place the child with a family in its own country, that it has been confirmed that intercountry adoption is in the best interests of the child, that the arrangements and requirements for domestic and intercountry adoption are the same, that profit is not made from the process, and that the prospective adopters have been assessed and approved as suitable to adopt in their home country.

Scottish Ministers have agreed to work in concert with Ministers in England and Wales, so that adoption orders made overseas in future will only be recognised in the UK when the systems in that country meet agreed criteria. The new clause would allow that.

In the excitement of explaining the amendments, I may have failed to point out that amendment No. 265—I am surprised that no one missed it—inserted a new subsection into clause 133. It would provide the commencement by Scottish Ministers of paragraph 15 of schedule 4, which details transitional provisions and savings in respect of section 86(6) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, and clause 124(2) in so far as it

relates to paragraph 15. I am sure that the Committee is much relieved that I have spelt that out.

The hon. Member for Canterbury rightly asked when we would put into operation the important measures that we have debated. Clearly, we must await the conclusion of Parliament's deliberations on the measures in the Bill and Royal Assent. However, I can give the Committee some idea of our intentions for commencing the provisions.

Hon. Members will be only too aware that the Bill is complex and makes important and fundamental changes to the adoption system. We all want the measures in the Bill to succeed in providing a greater degree of permanence and stability in the lives of more of our most vulnerable children. Changing the law alone will not optimise the favourable impact of what we all agree is needed to achieve that; we must ensure that we properly prepare the way. Some changes will involve completely new areas of law and practice, such as the operation of placement and special guardianship orders. That will require awareness raising and training, not only for front-line staff in social services departments and voluntary adoption agencies but in the courts and among the judiciary, so that there is a smooth transition to the new legal framework.

We have said throughout that we shall consult at each stage to ensure that the detail is right. We shall draft and consult on regulations and court rules to give effect to the new provisions and set in place the new systems. Above all, we want to ensure that children do not experience delays in planning and delivering their permanent future because of uncertainty about the new legal arrangements.

We expect to bring into force the main provisions of the Bill in 2004, but I believe that there is a case for taking action on some measures sooner than that. Today I shall give the Committee an idea of which areas we shall take action on sooner. I propose to bring forward on Report any amendments that may be necessary to enable the provisions to come into force before 2004.

We intend to introduce provisions covering improved adoption support for new adoptive families from April 2003. As we know, that will be a key means of encouraging more families to adopt, to enable us to meet the public services agreement target to increase the number of adoptions by 40 to 50 per cent. by the end of 2004–05. We are already seeing improvements in those services on the ground, as we heard in our evidence-gathering sittings, and we want to maintain the momentum. We intend to consult on our proposals for a new framework for adoption support in the spring. On that basis, we shall develop regulations for further consultation to enable us to make final regulations, which we may have in place for April 2003.

A key element in our strategy to attract more adopters is to build the confidence of prospective adopters in the system of adopter assessment and approval. As the Committee knows, we made a commitment in the White Paper to conduct a fundamental review of adopter assessment this year.

We made a commitment to provide an independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who are dissatisfied when they learn that they may be turned down, which will also apply to decisions relating to access to information. I propose to introduce an amendment on Report to allow the independent review mechanism to operate in respect of adopter assessment in 2003.

In response to the question put by the hon. Member for North Dorset, I can inform the Committee that this summer we plan to complete the process of ratifying the Hague convention. There are strong arguments for introducing at the same time the new restrictions in clause 80 on bringing children into the United Kingdom. The Government ordered an urgent review of the law in January, following the Kilshaw case, and it would not be right to wait until 2004 to introduce those new measures.

As part of that package of measures, and alongside the ratification of the Hague convention, we plan to begin the process of reviewing the system for automatic recognition of overseas adoptions. We do not know how long that process will take or what complex issues will emerge. Nevertheless, I propose to table an amendment on Report that will allow us to set in place the new arrangements in 2003, should we be in a position to do so.

We believe that the new restrictions on electronic adoption advertising are important, and should not wait until 2004. Again, we shall introduce on Report an amendment to section 58of the Adoption Act 1976 to make it clear that the restriction applies both off-line and on-line. We intend to bring that into effect this year.

I hope that hon. Members agree that the approach that I outlined is in the best interests of children and will allow those responsible for the new systems time to adjust. I hope, too, that the Committee agrees that we have identified important priority areas for early action to ensure that key improvements are made and that new elements are put in place as soon as practicable.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 3:45 pm, 17th January 2002

I am sure that the Opposition will go along with the Minister as far as we can comprehend in the absence of a comprehensive flow chart, which in this case would need to be a chronological flow chart. The Minister successfully got her teeth around the technical amendments.

We welcome the news that the Government urgently want to introduce the measures that gained cross-Committee support, especially with regard to adoption support services, which should come into force next year provided that the Bill sails through the rest of its parliamentary stages. The ratification of the Hague convention in the summer is another move that we welcome. In respect of intercountry adoption, I especially welcome the Minister's comments about clamping down on internet advertising, which is a menace that needs to be dealt with. There are many loopholes in that system, and new measures cannot come soon enough.

The Government amendments largely relate to the parts of the British isles outside England. What are the differences between Scotland and England in respect of adoption? Is there a fundamentally different approach between the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Government? What soundings has she taken with her colleagues in Scotland?

New clause 17 includes the phrase

''appear to the Scottish Ministers''.

Does that mean that Scottish Ministers have a different view on overseas adoption and what constitutes overseas adoption in respect of the adoption law that will come into force in Scotland? I hope that England will not be included in their definition of overseas adoption, and that the fragmentation of the United Kingdom under this Government has not gone so far that England is regarded as overseas when it is only on the other side of Hadrian's wall. Will she set our minds to rest on that point?

Will the Minister also tell us when the Bill will come into force in Scotland? As it will have to go through extra processes in the Scottish Parliament, will it have a later start date there? Will the provisions that she said were likely to come into force at an earlier date in England come into force early in Scotland as well? Early in these proceedings, we made the point that, when the last Adoption Act came into force, it took a full seven years before all of its terms came into play. That was far too long, and that would be wholly unacceptable this time round. Given the constraints that are now on us to seek the approval of other legislative bodies in the United Kingdom, will the Minister assure us that all the work by her Department and by this Committee to promote the Bill will result in its coming into force as soon as possible in all parts of the United Kingdom and as extensively as in England and Wales?

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

To the extent that adoption is a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament, it is not appropriate for me to answer for Scottish Ministers. What I can tell the Committee is that Scotland is currently reviewing adoption law generally. We are working closely together on the designated list—which is what I referred to under new clause 17—because the new provision will allow Scottish Ministers and Ministers in England and Wales to work together to ensure that, in future, adoption orders made overseas will be recognised in the United Kingdom only when the systems in that country meet criteria set out in regulations and which I spelled out when I was outlining new clause 17.

It is not possible for me to give the Committee assurances about something for which I am not responsible, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have, in the process of developing this legislation, worked closely with Ministers in Scotland and with colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales. There is a clear view that we must avoid the scenario suggested by the hon. Gentleman in which we see people from each part of the kingdom as overseas

adopters or our processes became so out of step that it is difficult for individuals going through the adoption process to see the sense of the range of procedures across the United Kingdom.

Ironically, the need to ensure that the people on the receiving end are not confused by differences between the various procedures has resulted in the legislation being complex in order to ensure that the process is simple and joined up.

The hon. Gentleman asked about commencement for Scotland. That will be a matter for Scottish Ministers. I am sure that people there are raising the same points about the need to make progress in Scotland as have rightly arisen in discussion on this Bill.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 264, in page 73, line 30, leave out 'Section 120' and insert

'Sections 120 and [Amendment of Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978: overseas adoptions],'.

No. 265, in page 73, line 32, at end insert—

'( ) Paragraph 15 of Schedule 4 and, so far as relating to that paragraph, section 124 (2) are to come into force on such day as the Scottish Ministers may by order appoint.'—[Jacqui Smith.]

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

I beg to move amendment No. 266, in page 73, line 33, leave out '3(4)' and insert '3(3) and (4)'.

We turn our attention from northwards to westwards, and Wales—[Interruption]. That is just to show my understanding of geography. Clause 133 makes provision for commencement, as we have discussed. The amendment adds clause 3(3). Hon. Members will remember that that refers to adoption support provisions, which are to come into force on a day appointed by the appropriate Minister. Clause 3(3)(a) enables regulations to be made extending the duty on local authorities to make and participate in arrangements to provide adoption support services to persons prescribed in regulations. Clause 3(3)(b) gives local authorities a power to extend their arrangements for the provision of adoption support services to any other person. That combination of a duty and a power provides the flexibility needed by local authorities in this area. The amendment would enable Ministers in England and Wales to commence the provisions in clause 3(3) separately, should they wish to do so. Ministers will also have the flexibility to prescribe different requirements in the regulations as to the persons to whom local authorities must make adoption support services available. That will ensure that the regulations are appropriately tailored to meet the needs of people living in England and Wales in relation to adoption support services. I hope that, in light of this explanation, hon. Members will feel able to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 231, in page 73, line 33, after '51(1) to (3)', insert—

'[Disclosing information during adoption process]'.

No. 232, in page 73, line 33, after '62', insert—

'[Disclosing protected information about adults] and [Disclosing protected information about children]'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

Clause 133, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.