Children and Adoption Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee at on 14 March 2006.

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[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families) 10:30, 14 March 2006

I beg to move,

That—

(1) during proceedings on the Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] the Standing Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday 14th March) meet—

(a) at 4.00 p.m. on Tuesday 14th March;

(b) at 9.00 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. on Thursday 16th March;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 9 to 14; Clauses 1 to 4; Schedule 1; Clauses 5 to 8; Clause 15; Schedules 2 and 3; Clauses 16 and 17; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 4.00 p.m. on Thursday 16th March.

I begin, Mr. Hood, by saying how pleased we all are to serve under your chairmanship. I am sure that you will take your usual firm but cheerful approach to keeping us in order. I hope and trust that we will not need your guidance too often; we will do our best to stay in order without having to resort to your good offices. I look forward also to the excellent chairmanship of your co-Chairman, Mr. Hancock.

It is always a pleasure to open a debate on children. That is especially so today, given the high standard of debate on Second Reading, when we heard a wide variety of considered contributions. I look forward to hearing more in Committee. I see no reason why that should not be the case, and I am glad of the chance to consider the Bill in much greater detail. It was certainly the case when winding up that debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), who made her first wind-up speech then, thought that time passed rather quickly while she did so. I certainly think that that was the case. The Committee stage will give us the opportunity to consider the Bill’s specific provisions in more detail.

I am pleased to say that the programme motion does not include any knives. Members of the Committee have no need to feel suspicious that some kind of manipulation is going on. That does not always make it easier for Ministers, but no one said that Committee work was intended to do that. However, it will enable all hon. Members fully to debate those points that they consider to be most important. In focusing on those aspects of the Bill, I hope that we can do them justice.

I am extremely pleased to share my role in Committee with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families. After a quick glance behind me, I see that we have an excellent team of knowledgeable Back Benchers, each of whom has shown a long-standing interest and commitment to children’s matters in respect of this and other legislation. I shall leave it to the hon. Member for East   Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to say what he wishes about his Back Benchers; I look forward to hearing it.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I echo the Minister’s words of welcome to you, Mr. Hood. I have not sat under your chairmanship for some while, so I may need to be reminded of how strict you can be. I look forward to Mr. Hancock sharing the chairmanship.

I reiterate what the Minister said about the well informed and well balanced debate on Second Reading. We may not agree on a lot of fundamental issues—I guess that we still will not agree by the end of the Committee—but we will have aired our differences. We certainly have a well informed Committee to help us achieve that. I am particularly pleased to see the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) in the Committee. She was a member of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee on the Bill, and she built up a wealth of experience on children and adoption issues well before my time in the House.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I speak of seniority of parliamentary experience, not necessarily age, I hasten to add.

I am delighted to be joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, who had an excellent debut when she wound up on Second Reading and who has had to become an expert on things all things to do with children. I am pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright). He brings his experience as a lawyer and barrister to the Committee, which means that, unlike in his previous career, he may speak for a long time but not necessarily be paid for it. I welcome also my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). I understand that he is a Standing Committee virgin, so I hope that the Minister will be gentle with him. He will of course be kept in good order by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who is doing the whipping. I am slightly disappointed that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) is not among our number. She played a vociferous role on Second Reading and has tabled amendments. Her presence will be felt, if not physically.

The subject is familiar territory to many of us. Those of us who served on the Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Act 2002 will see that some things that appear in this Bill are perhaps left over from that legislation, which is a good Act. It has achieved much on adoption and contains references to inter-country adoption, which forms part of this Bill. I am pleased that the inter-country adoption parts of the Bill are to be debated first, because coming at the end of the Bill they did not have the airing that they deserved in the upper House. They raise important issues and if we put them at the beginning of our deliberations we can do them the justice that they require.

I am also very pleased that the programme motion does not contain any knives. In the various pieces of legislation to do with children with which the Minister   and I have been involved in recent months and years, we have shown that strict guillotines and knives are not required to promote good healthy debate in Committee, let alone on the Floor of the House. We intend to concentrate on aspects of the Bill that we think deserve a greater airing. The absence of knives enables us to do that for the benefit of all members of the Committee.

As you are aware, Mr. Hood, we are concerned that we do not have as many days in Committee as we had anticipated and requested through the usual channels. However, I understand that if our deliberations take longer than the four sittings allocated, we may be able to extend them into next week. I am grateful for the indication by the Government Whips that that facility will be available, even if it means that we will further detain you, Mr. Hood, and Mr. Hancock.

I am also concerned by the substantial number of amendments that have not been selected for debate. By my reckoning, 20 Conservative amendments were not allowed, against 18 that were. I have never served on a Committee where so many amendments have not been selected, especially as the vast majority of them were debated in the upper Chamber. I hope that we can rely on a bit of licence from the Chair to refer to areas germane to the amendments that we had hoped to debate. Those matters will be relevant to clauses, and perhaps we can discuss them at the appropriate time, through the facility of the clause stand part debate.

We concentrated on the word “reasonable,” as associated with the mentions of contact, and it is not, strictly speaking, one of the things that we are going to debate. There are other such issues. I particularly hope that we can encompass within our debates on clauses this morning the amendment on private foster arrangements that I championed in previous Bills. It has not been selected, although it was debated in the upper Chamber. The provisions on inter-country adoption have a direct link to private fostering and the potential for it to expand. In the additional time that we might have to discuss the subject by giving priority to the international adoption clauses, I hope that I can refer to private fostering and the Bill’s implications for it.

Inevitably, much of the Bill is very complicated, as are most Bills that amend existing legislation—large swathes of the Bill are about amending the Children Act 1989. Much of it does not just tinker with odd words here and there and insert additional lines, but goes to the fundamental principles of what we think is a serious weakness in the whole system of contact in the courts. We therefore think that the system needs to be turned on its head and for the Bill to contain references to a presumption of reasonable contact, rather than presuming that that is what the courts are doing already and taking it as read.

If there were not a serious problem with the way in which the courts operate and children are treated when families break up, we would not have the Bill. Clearly there is a problem, which the Government have acknowledged and we have sought to highlight for some time. We therefore need to ensure that the Bill not only addresses that problem, but addresses it with   effective practical solutions that will make a difference. Having a nice debate about the problems within the court system and coming up with a few solutions that are pretty toothless will not solve the problem, although it may assuage the consciences of Ministers who have been lobbied about it for some time.

I am also concerned that we should not address these amendments as legal anoraks. There are quite a few lawyers on the Committee. I am not a lawyer, I hasten to add. My training is in Mesopotamian archaeology, which is eminently more useful for parliamentary matters than training as a highly paid lawyer. There has been a feeling among people who view themselves as victims of the court system that there is a cosiness between the legal professionals and those concerned with the court, and that as long as the system appears to be working okay for them, then it is okay for everybody else.

The problem is that too many families are being failed by the system. We often quote a figure, which the Government challenge, and the figures vary. However, whether it is 40, 30 or 28 per cent., an awful lot of non-resident parents lose contact with their children within two years of a family break-up. That has enormous implications for the welfare of those children, let alone the sanity and well-being of the parents who suffer from traumatic and acrimonious splits. That is why we want to spend a lot of time on the need for the presumption of reasonable contact to be written into the Bill.

Reasonable contact needs to be properly monitored and the whole court system needs to be speeded up so that if there is a dispute between parents, it is resolved as quickly as possible. The longer a dispute drags on, and the longer the children involved are frozen out of their relationship with the parent who does not have custody, the more likely it is that that relationship will suffer. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that non-custodial parents are not up to looking after the children if that contact is lost and the children feel isolated from them.

We are all agreed, and I sure that you agree, too, Mr. Hood, that there is no better environment—

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. I am trying to be as generous as possible with the hon. Gentleman, but will he come back to the programme motion? The disappointment that he expresses is a matter for him, but I am sure that he will not challenge the ruling of the Chair on the selection of amendments. I should point out, however, that many of the issues that concern him are covered in new clause 4.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Thank you, Mr. Hood. Of course I was not challenging the sagacity of the Chair in the selection of amendments; I was merely expressing my disappointment that we had to change our tactics and approach. I have made the points that I wanted to, and am grateful for the leeway that you have given me. What is important is that the Committee has time to explore the principles behind the Bill. The issues are large and there are sizeable differences between the   Government and the Opposition. With the proviso that we hope that extra time will be added, we will not oppose the motion.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:45, 14 March 2006

I am sure that serving on the Committee will be a great pleasure. Certainly, it is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I also look forward to the chairmanship of my colleague, Mr. Mike Hancock.

I should like to give the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams)—pronouncing his constituency is my first challenge of the day—for not being here. He is serving on another Committee.

I appreciate the reasons for putting the clauses relating to international adoption first, but I put down a marker that if I had had any idea of that I would have made sure that my researcher submitted our amendments on Friday. The decision presented difficulties for a smaller party, especially as the leading Committee member was tied up all day on Thursday. I hope that there will be some tolerance in our clause stand part debates because making up that deficit has clearly been impossible, since I did not discover that there was a problem until late yesterday afternoon.

I also have a slight issue with the fact that some amendments were not selected. I will make a few general points and keep in order, but I may need more guidance. I had reached the point at which I was confident in submitting amendments, knowing that the precise wording would be challenged, but that the principle could be debated. I understand entirely when amendments are ruled out of order because they are not necessary, in the wrong order or in the wrong position in the Bill. That is crystal clear. However, I am not clear about the situation when something is ruled out because of the wording. Again, hopefully we can pick up the points in the clause stand part debate.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Order. I am sure that we will pick up many points as we proceed, but I am sure that the hon. Lady is not challenging the Chairman’s ruling.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Of course not. I am hoping to get some support on tabling amendments, which would be helpful in the circumstances.

Briefly, because I appreciate, Mr. Hood, that you do not want long speeches at this stage, there are important principles to be discussed. I have listened carefully and have heard voices asking for something in the Bill that reflects what most people believe is desirable—contact with both parents. I look forward to discussing that principle. Liberal Democrat Members will make child safety our absolute priority.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I should like to remind hon. Members that adequate notice should be given of amendments, as a general rule. I and my fellow   Chairman do not intend to call starred amendments, including any starred amendments that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.