New clause 1 - Interviews with children

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 17 January 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

' In the case of an application for a placement order, for the variation or revocation of such an order, or for an adoption order,

no interview which is conducted with a child shall be relied upon in proceedings unless supported by a video or audio recording of that interview.'.—[Tim Loughton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am pleased that we have a little time left in which to discuss the Opposition new clauses. New clause 1 is a probing new clause, tabled by my hon. Friend the ubiquitous hon. Member for Isle of Wight. The new clause seems to be sensible. It would allow evidence from children to be relied on only if it were supported by a video or audio recording of their interviews. He tells me that there is concern that children's statements may be used to influence the court, even if the way in which they were obtained would be out of order for the purposes of a criminal prosecution, and he can cite some examples of that from cases in his constituency. Having made inquires at the House of Commons Library, he also told me that it is unlawful to disclose any reports or other evidence to any third parties without the leave of the court, even after proceedings are concluded. He is concerned that that is perhaps unreasonable because, on that basis, parents who have a grievance cannot even disclose the relevant information to local councillors who are responsible for social services departments or to a Member of Parliament.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that any person who wants such information to be disclosed can apply to the court, giving their reasons, and the court will give due consideration to those reasons? The papers are the property of the court in order to preserve the confidentiality that we would expect in those circumstances.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Yes, I appreciate that. That came up in discussion of the earlier amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight, to which the Minister responded. There seems to be an anomaly whereby a parent with a strong direct interest cannot disclose information on a confidential basis, even to a Member of Parliament or a councillor who is responsible for the social services department, who may be privy to the information that is being discussed or decided on in court.

I said that this was a probing amendment. We have, of course, referred at length to the desirability of ascertaining the child's wishes as a party to any of the adoption processes. We have had debates on whether a child's age should be taken into account when their evidence is considered. The Bill contains all sorts of provisions about ascertaining the child's point of view, but there is no compulsion for somebody to go and speak, first-hand, to the child. That is still a weakness, even though one would hope that, in practice, the child would be consulted without such a compulsion.

I cited my own case of parental custody divorce proceedings many years ago, in which a greater input into what was being discussed and written about the circumstances of the child would have been desirable. Given the varying reliability of the child's evidence, which may depend on age, circumstances or the

different emotional pressures on that child, there seems to be a case for ensuring that everything happens as dispassionately and objectively as possible, to minimise the pressure on that child. Keeping a video or audio recording seems a sensible way to do that.

That is the purpose of the new clause. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances as to why it will not be necessary, so that I can convey her message to my eager hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight.

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

On reading the new clause, I was frankly appalled. I know that the Committee is aware of the extent of Labour Members' experience of such situations. The idea that we should interview children on video about their wishes and feelings about an adoption is so bad that words fail me. I cannot believe that anybody would think that that is the right way forward.

Video interviewing of children was introduced in criminal proceedings to ensure that children who had been abused did not have to repeat their allegations in court, as they had had to in the past, often before their alleged abuser. It was designed to protect the child. However, anybody who has ever been involved in a video interview with a child, however it is done, and whatever steps are taken to minimise the distress to the child, will know one would never want one's own child to have go through it, because it is not easy.

Adoption involves civil proceedings, and we are concerned with the importance of knowing the wishes and feelings of children. Hon. Members who have children will understand that children say different things at different times to different people, and that their age and understanding of the issues will have implications for what they say about their wishes and feelings. My hon. Friends who have worked in the social work field will have heard children saying different things at different times, depending on which of their parents they are with or whether they are with their foster parents or their birth parents. It is not easy to get to the bottom of what a child really thinks. In the adoption process and in care proceedings, which often precede adoption, necessary mechanisms are already in place to ensure that the wishes and feelings of the child are taken into account.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 4:15, 17 January 2002

I appreciate the hon. Lady's experience of the matter, and her remarks. I remind her that the new clause refers to video or audio. While video may be an encumbrance or an intrusion and as such make such an interview more difficult, I should have thought that taking an audio recording would not pose that sort of problem. The reasons that the hon. Lady has just stated—that children will say different things to different people in different circumstances—surely make it essential that there should be a proper record, which can be referred back to, of multiple interviews. If what children say varies, would such a record not be better than relying on the impression of the person who conducts the interviews, which may differ from one interview to the next and cannot necessarily be substantiated?

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

I was about to say that the CAFCASS officer is there to consider the child's needs. Officers see the child in different circumstances and base their conclusions on observation of the child in a number of situations. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that, in addition to everything else that the CAFCASS officer has to take into account, such as ensuring that they develop a relationship with a child and that they interview them in appropriate circumstances, they should also become an expert on audio equipment? Is he suggesting that they should carry that equipment around with them, so that at some point someone is able to play back everything that the child has said and make a judgment on the conclusion reached by the CAFCASS officer? The courts generally have a great deal confidence in the CAFCASS officer and usually respect the fact that they have reflected on what the child has said and the circumstances in which they said it.

It is beyond belief that anyone could think that the new clause provides an answer. The issue is enormously important, and it is difficult to get it right. However, experienced court officers are expected to set out in their reports the tensions and difficulties—especially in the case the older children whom we have been discussing—of what the child is trying to express, as well as how they have reached their view and the circumstances in which they have spoken to the child.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight may be ubiquitous, and seems fairly ambitious. He may be proposing the measure with certain situations in mind, but people should reconsider it, because it is not sensible.

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

Following the excellent contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, it is hardly worth my while standing up.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about records not being able to be disclosed without leave of the court. That is true; it and is designed to protect the privacy of the child and the other parties. The parties can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out, apply to the court for permission to disclose and that is important, because information disclosed in court may affect other people who also have the right to have their privacy respected.

On the substantive point of the new clause, it is worth noting that audio and video recording are not routinely used or thought necessary by CAFCASS, local authorities or adoption agencies. The Government have not had representations about that from children's organisations or other stakeholders. The court may already consider applications by parties to the case for specific evidence, including video or audio evidence, to be lodged in the proceedings. The child's views may be taken into account in several ways in adoption and placement proceedings, including the presence of CAFCASS officers and solicitors to represent children's best interests.

If there is concern about the extent to which the evidence represents the views of the child, the court process provides the opportunity for statements to be challenged. All children are interviewed sensitively,

taking into account the circumstances of the individual case and the age and understanding of the child. I agree that we need to ask why children should be subjected to the additional pressure of having their views recorded, when, incidentally, that would not be required of adults. The clause would not apply equally to all children. It could not do so, practically, because some children might be too young to be interviewed.

While the use of recorded evidence is common in criminal proceedings—and my hon. Friend pointed out the reasons for that—there is no such requirement about giving evidence in family proceedings. Children of sufficient age and understanding can be made a party to the proceedings and speak directly to the court.

If the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is mainly concerned about how to represent the voice of the child in the proceedings, my response is that we have gone into that issue at length in Committee. Hon. Members may fear that he is making a misguided attempt to force on to children the recording of their views, and I hope that on his behalf the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will feel able to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight will, I am sure, be disappointed, if not wounded, particularly by the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, and the Minister's remarks about his being misguided. I remind the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley that the new clause was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight and that she should not attempt to shoot the messenger. If my hon. Friend is not sufficiently wounded by the power of Labour Members' comments, he may seek to table a version of the new clause on Report, at which point the hon. Lady can target her ire on him directly. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.