Clause 9 - Declaration of special restrictions on adoptions from abroad

Children and Adoption Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 14 March 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 10:45, 14 March 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 41, in clause 9, page 13, line 29, at end insert—

‘(c)prescribed organisations involved in adoption.’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 42, in clause 9, page 13, line 33, after ‘country’, insert

‘to include regular reviews on why that declaration should still apply’.

No. 43, in clause 10, page 14, line 17, at end insert—

‘(c)prescribed organisations involved in adoption.’.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

As I said, we are starting with overseas adoptions. The clause deals with the ability of the Secretary of State to deem that people from the UK cannot adopt children from certain countries.

Amendments Nos. 41 and 43 are worded in the same way and would add an additional consultee from

“prescribed organisations involved in adoption” to the other named bodies that the Secretary of State is required to consult before issuing such an order. Amendment No. 42 would ensure that once a decision is made it is reviewed regularly and not just forgotten about.

I shall talk generally about why the amendments are required and what I think that the Government are trying to do. We broadly support them in trying to firm up the law on abuses of inter-country adoption. The problem was brought into the public consciousness by the abuse of international adoption procedures in the wake of the tsunami, and by certain Cambodian adoption cases that have come to light. In July last year, Mr. Justice Munby ruled that the Government’s existing ban on adoptions from Cambodia was lawful, and mentioned concerns about possible child trafficking and improper payments in the Cambodian adoptions system. It was suggested that one way of dealing with elicit adoptions from Cambodia would be to take up the offer from British embassy officials, who recommended that a special official could be posted in Cambodia to investigate the background of children matched with British couples to ensure that they were being adopted legitimately and not by people whose intentions were far from beneficial for those children.

The situation in Cambodia is rather sad. In the last year for which figures are available, there were 670,000 orphans under the age of 18—more than 5 per cent. of the population. Some 30,000 of those were AIDS orphans under the age of 15. The UN estimated that as many as 300,000 Cambodian children would become AIDS orphans by 2005. That is a very distressing figure and shows the problems that many countries, particularly developing countries, have with looking after orphaned children.

It is worth pointing out that when we discussed international adoption in our proceedings on the 2002 Act, various measures were taken to tighten up the procedures by which children are brought into this country. Prospective adopters now have to apply through the local authorities or adoption agencies, receive certificates of eligibility, and so on. That Act tightened up the law, and the Secretary of State took powers to ban adoptions if they were “contrary to public policy”—I think that that was the wording.

At the time, the Minister who faced me during deliberations on that Bill—she is now the Minister for Schools—said, and we agree:

“We acknowledge that intercountry adoption can be an extremely valuable placement choice for some children. It is in line with international conventions to which we are a signatory.”

All of us recognise that overseas adoptions are beneficial in many cases, particularly where there are an awful lot of orphans who otherwise might be consigned to miserable existences. There is a problem, however, in that the number of overseas adoptions in this country is very low. The clause therefore appears to be trying to address a relatively small problem, and we do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Last year, there were approximately 25,000 adoptions internationally, of which 15,000 took place in the United States, which is by far the biggest adopter of overseas children. Other countries are some way behind that. France adopted 3,600 children from overseas and Norway adopted 600. Yet the figure in this country is only 300, and has been at about 300 for some time. As things stand, not many children from overseas are actually adopted by UK couples into the UK.

The reasons for that are numerous. One may be that we have a slightly better domestic adoption system than France, where there is not so much domestic adoption. Part of the problem, however, is that adoption from overseas is a bureaucratic, long drawn-out, cumbersome and costly process. It can cost up to £10,000 to adopt a child from overseas and the system is already very tight.

I understand that the Secretary of State already has the power to ban countries from the adoption list, but clause 9 and the following clauses seek to formalise that arrangement. We agree with that, but unlike many other countries the UK has no adoption agency, and that is part of the problem—we rely on the Secretary of State to make the decision, in consultation with the Welsh Assembly and other United Kingdom bodies, whereas in other countries it would be made by a specialist international adoption agency with all sorts of expertise and input from professionals working around the world. That is a weakness, and unfortunately the Government have not taken on board the idea of separating out the powers of the Secretary of State into a separate international adoption agency in this country.

For that reason, it is all the more important that, if the Secretary of State is to ban a country for adoption purposes, he should do so with the maximum information available to him and after maximum consultation with all the powers that be. For obvious   reasons, that list of consultees must include the National Assembly for Wales and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, as set down in clause 9(5)—we do not dispute that. Nowhere in the Bill, however, is the Secretary of State obliged to consult more widely.

In amendments Nos. 41 and 43, which could be termed probing amendments, we suggest that the Secretary of State should have an obligation to consult other named bodies that are skilled in adoption, and in particular international adoption. One such body is the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, with which all hon. Members are familiar, and there are other renowned, long-standing adoption agencies that have great experience of dealing with international adoption. They should be put on a list of bodies with which the Secretary of State should speak. We do not want a country put on a banned list just because some political furore blows up there.

Action should be taken purely in the interests of the child’s welfare. That is what adoption is all about. It is not about the convenience of the parents, nor about helping the political system of a particular country, but about promoting the welfare of a child who happens to be overseas, rather than here, if it is deemed that a loving, adoptive family from the UK is capable of providing a better home.

As I said on Second Reading, the figures for the countries from which adoptions are made are pretty lopsided. Of the total number of international adoptions—about 3,000 in the past 10 years—1,441 or approximately half have come from China. Some 98 per cent. of those 1,441 were baby girls, which is a comment on the value that Chinese society places on them. I also mentioned that the figure for China is way ahead of the figure for the country from which the next highest amount of adoptions come, which is India with 235. India is followed by Guatemala with 205, and the figure for Cambodia during the past 10 years is 67.

The amendments would ensure that the Secretary of State is absolutely convinced of his case before countries are put on the banned list. We must also be sure that if a country is placed on a banned list, whether it should stay on the banned list will be under constant review. At what stage will Cambodia, for example, be restored to the list of countries from which children may be adopted? The Minister might like to use that as a case in point, because Cambodia is the main country that has given rise to the proposed legislation. The situation applies also to Romania, although I think that Romania was banned by an EU decision rather than one instigated at home.

How much evidence is required to prove that the system is not working properly and that child trafficking, not genuine adoption, is taking place? Where will the burdens of proof be, and where will that information be found? It is slightly worrying that we need separate legislation to prevent child trafficking, because many other laws and regulations, which I hope are working, are aimed at preventing it. Border controls are better now, one hopes. Are they still not sufficient? I have serious qualms. The Conservative   party tabled amendments to the recent Children Bill and to the Adoption and Children Bill about ensuring that minors who arrive at ports of entry unaccompanied by their parents or people with parental responsibility are looked at closely by immigration officials and local social services before being allowed on their way.

Gatwick airport is in West Sussex, and I am told by social services representatives there, who now work closely with immigration officials at the airport, that by far the largest amount of unaccompanied minors now arriving come from China. Too many of them then disappear into the system, ending up as goodness knows what—we do not know whether they are being trafficked or abused. A lot more must be done to ensure that those children are properly identified and that their subsequent journeys are properly logged.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport 11:00, 14 March 2006

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the difficulty lies with countries whose Governments are not making a huge effort to create robust systems to deal with trafficking in the country—where parents are offered money in exchange for children—or to reunite abandoned children with their parents? We agree that information from those countries for the Department of Health is important, which is why, as he said, having specialist UK adoption agencies that are in contact with agencies in other countries is an important way forward.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is clear that we must have as much specialist information as possible that is properly gathered, interpreted and passed on to the relevant authorities—in this case the Secretary of State.

The Government could do a lot by working with social services in other countries—there are international social services—particularly when dealing with west African children. The majority of private fostering arrangements in this country appear to be made with Nigeria and Sierra Leone. We have had the problem in my constituency of girls from those two countries arriving at Gatwick airport as minor asylum seekers and going into the care of social services having been trafficked by people who have threatened them with voodoo curses and all sorts. They were placed with foster parents by social services but were then whisked away by what were, in effect, pimps, and many of the girls ended up in the sex trade in northern Italy—in Milan, for example.

Fortunately, the problem went away for a time, because a lot of work was done by the Home Office, Sussex police and West Sussex social services to attack the problem at the entry port, Gatwick airport. However, it has not gone away completely; it has just moved location. If more work was done with people in the country from which the children came in the first place to determine whether they were being trafficked or were genuinely being adopted, there would be fewer problems.

The proposals in amendments Nos. 41 and 43 would require the Government to consult stakeholders before making the decision to impose special restrictions, as recommended in the report of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, as the hon. Member for Stockport will remember.

There is some confusion about how the Bill will affect those countries that have signed and ratified the convention and those that have not. There is a discrepancy between the Minister and her right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. In reply to a written question tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), the Minister said:

“The 1967 European Convention on the Adoption of Children aims to harmonise the laws in contracting states to promote the welfare of children who are adopted. However, the convention does not provide for international recognition of adoptions made in the UK, or in any other country.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 11 October 2005; Vol. 437, c. 450W.]

In a letter dated 1 April 2005 to Felicity Collier, who until recently was chief executive of British Association for Adoption and Fostering, the Foreign Secretary stated that his officials had checked with the

Council of Europe who confirmed our understanding that adoption orders are fully recognised between member states that have ratified the European Convention on the Adoption of Children.”

There seems to be a discrepancy about the status of adoptions in respect of countries that have or have not ratified the convention.

What will be the status of the provision for decisions made by the Secretary of State in the context of decisions made by the European Union? When Romania was suspended from adoptions, the decision was made by the EU and presumably we were obliged to follow it. Does the EU list override our list? Does our list automatically form part of the EU list? Will the Minister clarify the countries that may be trapped in that respect? Will we be subject to bans on countries with which we, but not European countries, have a healthy and long-standing adoption relationship—Commonwealth countries, for example? Some European countries may once or twice have fallen foul of instances of child trafficking in other countries and therefore sought to add them to the list. Again, that could lead to a conflict of interest.

At what stage will a potential adopter be forced to abort the adoption process for a child coming from a country that then goes on to the list? If they have started the process of getting the entitlements cleared in this country and are still going through the international reporting mechanisms with a specialist social worker, or whatever, and the other country is banned, will those prospective adopters still be allowed to adopt, will they be thwarted and have to wait for however many years until that country is taken off the list, or will they have to start again with another country?

There are some serious concerns for people who are trying to adopt from another country or are looking to do so. I would appreciate some more detail, because there is not a lot of detail in this part of the Bill and much will be left to regulations. The Minister would   help enormously if she gave much clearer and more detailed examples of how this legislation is likely to work.

Finally, Mr. Hood, I want to touch on why it is disappointing—not to argue with your decision—that our amendment on private fostering was not selected. I fear that if people are thwarted in adopting somebody in a banned country, they may go down the private fostering route. If that is so, the child will be brought to the UK on a temporary permit, or whatever, and placed with distant relatives or with people of no connection at all as part of a private fostering arrangement, particularly through Nigeria and Sierra Leone, as happened in the Victoria Climbié case.

If a legitimate route of adoption is closed off, people may seek to exploit a private adoption route, which cannot be in the interests of that child if it then disappears from the radar. Many hon. Members are concerned about those children, who may number in excess of 10,000; but that is only an estimate because they are off the radar. As high-profile cases have shown, those children are potentially the most vulnerable to abuse and violence. They need to be found, identified and scrutinised, and all the support of local children’s services must be brought to bear to ensure that they are in genuine relationships and genuinely harmless surroundings. Some of us believe that the only way to achieve that is to make private fostering a fully regulated activity, with penalties for people who fail such children. Many Labour Members have expressed their support for that and many professionals and organisations involved have supported it for a long time. I fear that the clause could give rise to private fostering arrangements that most of us want to see clamped down on, if not eradicated, so it is unfortunate that we will not have the opportunity to replace it with a new clause.

The amendments are helpful and aim to ensure that the Secretary of State does his job with as much information as possible and that, when he makes a decision to place a country on the banned list for good reasons, it is kept under review. That provision is allowed for in clause 10—

The Secretary of State must keep under review ... whether it should continue to be a restricted country”— but he needs to report on that review. He may look at a country and say, “We don’t need to make any changes”, but he needs to make a statement, annually, or whatever it takes, about whether it should remain on the banned list because certain conditions have not been met that were set out at the time it was included on the list, or because certain improvements in the way children, who can be spirited away from their homes, are looked after have still not been addressed. He needs to report on what assistance the British Government are providing, through him and the Secretary of State for International Development, to Governments in such countries to spruce up their act, because it is not in the interests of their citizens that children are being adopted, or trafficked, in less than satisfactory circumstances.

The amendments are helpful and I hope that the Minister will respond to them constructively.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:15, 14 March 2006

I broadly support the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in particular his well made points about calling for wider consultation and independent scrutiny of decisions. We need to achieve the right balance. We are all concerned about child trafficking and other unethical practices, but we need to think about the plight of children in some countries in the developing world and focus throughout on the welfare of the child.

I shall briefly comment on something and promise that I will not raise it again. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill and the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the Bill should require the Secretary of State to have particular regard to the convention on the rights of the child. There is a strong case for including something so that we get the right balance. Of course we want the protection, but we wish to focus on the child throughout.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned private fostering, which we debated at great length in discussions on another Bill, and the points were made well in the other place. I draw the Minister’s attention to Lord Adonis’s comment on private fostering. He said:

“the first statistics from the new monitoring arrangements” of the notification

“will be available at the end of this month.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 November 2005; Vol. 675, c. 944.]

If those statistics were available, it might give us some direction on how necessary it is to push the registration of private fostering at this stage. The case is as strong as ever. Various reports have been put to us at meetings in the House and there is widespread support for registration now, rather than waiting for it. I recall that our argument was that, if it is a good idea in future, it has to be a good idea now.

I emphasise those points on private fostering, because they tie in with the overall issue of adoption. We are closing one loophole but might be opening another, leading to unintended consequences.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood?

I want briefly to support amendments Nos. 41 and 43 and to highlight a few points in relation to them. I accept the need for the Government to restrict inter-country adoption in certain circumstances, as I am sure all Committee members do. I have no doubt that there will be no dispute about that. It is also right that we should recollect and keep it in mind that it is possible to do that in the right circumstances. However, it is important, as the amendments indicate, that the Government take into account as much available information as they can and keep the situation under regular review, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said.

Amendments Nos. 41 and 43 propose that the Government should take into account information from those who know most about the situation on the   ground. There are two reasons why that is important. First, those operating within the charitable sector, or non-governmental organisations working either directly with international adoption or on broader child welfare issues, are likely to know a great deal more about the fast-changing situation on the ground in those countries. They will perhaps have that information more quickly than the Government and in more detail. It would therefore be sensible for the Government to take that information into account as quickly as it becomes available in order to make an up-to-date decision.

Secondly, the information coming from NGOs in particular may be of use because it is possible that they can gather information that the Government find it difficult to gather. They will be able to establish relationships with delivery organisations in countries where the Governments are not willing to communicate with our Government.

I simply want to endorse what has been said about amendments Nos. 41 and 43, and commend them to the Committee.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

I congratulate hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. We have had a wide-ranging discussion. I will deal with some of the points that have been raised, but want to set out what we think the amendments do and the Government’s response to them.

As has been said, amendments Nos. 41 and 43 are similar, although they relate to different jurisdictions. They both require the Secretary of State to consult prescribed adoption organisations—we can assume the usual list of local authorities, voluntary agencies and stakeholder groups—before making a declaration of special restrictions on adoptions from a particular country.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested that the situation that arose in Cambodia in 2004 might be a good example. It is, of course, the only one at present that we can use to inform the debate on what would be useful in terms of process. The Minister for Children suspended inter-country adoptions from Cambodia on 22 June 2004, partly because of concerns about what was going on in respect of adoption which went much wider than the organisations that I assume would be on the proposed prescribed lists. There was evidence on the systematic falsification of official documents relating to adoption and on the extent of the involvement of adoption facilitators in the adoption procedures in Cambodia, even though those were expressly forbidden in Cambodian law.

There was also evidence relating to the procurement of children for inter-country adoption by facilitators, including the use of coercion and concerns about the prevalence of children trafficking and corruption generally. It was not just in this country that those views were taken; there is a list of countries that have taken a similar view about the good sense or otherwise of allowing inter-country adoption from Cambodia. Many countries suspended the process before we did—   some as early as 2001—so there was widespread concern throughout the world about what was happening there.

I agree absolutely that it is important that the powers that clauses 9 to 12 give to the Secretary of State are not used without due process and without proper consideration of the effect. There is no doubt about that. If I say a little about the evidence gathering that took place prior to that decision it may assist both the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) also has a long-standing interest in the matter and made reference to it.

Such decisions will not be made on a whim. There clearly needs to be information and evidence for the Secretary of State to be able to make a decision about special restrictions. On the Cambodian example, evidence was gathered by the British embassy from other countries, some of which had already suspended adoptions from Cambodia by the time the decision was taken to do so in Britain, and from NGOs, particularly the kind of organisation that the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth mentioned. For the reasons that he set out, such organisations can have better intelligence about precisely what is going on, and perhaps pick up concerns ahead even of the embassy. I hesitate to say that, because the Foreign Office has already been cited and our embassies have good information about what is going on in the countries in which they are located. Evidence is also taken, of course, from human rights organisations.

My slight concern about the idea of a prescribed list is that organisations with relevant knowledge may vary from country to country. There are certain circumstances in which a list of whom we would have to consult would not be wide enough to cover everybody.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

I am pleased to serve on the Committee, Mr. Hood.

On the Minister’s point, there is no right of appeal for those countries where we decide to restrict adoptions. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be more consultation and transparency in the process to ensure that the reasons why a country has been excluded are clear to all concerned?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

I am coming to that. We need a balance; the purpose of having such powers is the safeguarding of children. We must ensure that, in seeking to be fair and clear, that step is taken and we do not compromise the safety of children in any way. Simply because children may be coming from other countries does not mean that our standards of safeguarding their well-being should be any lower. There is always a balance to be struck between the length of time for which one considers information, the extent to which one wishes to consult and the extent to which one needs to take action to safeguard children, which is an important issue and must be at the forefront of our minds.

Clause 9 requires the Secretary of State to consult the National Assembly for Wales and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland before making a declaration of special restrictions. That is because adoption is a devolved policy area. The requirement is entirely appropriate in view of the fact that such a declaration will have a direct effect on those countries and jurisdictions. Such consultations are undertaken relatively often and do not cause delay. They represent good inter-governmental administrative practice, and civil servants across Whitehall know how best to make such consultations. The provision is not specifically about the wider consultations but about good governance between the different jurisdictions in the UK.

Although I fully understand the desire of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and other members of the Committee to offer consultation to a wider group of stakeholders, we must consider the safeguarding of children. The primary focus must be the protection of the children involved. There may be situations in which a requirement to consult widely among stakeholders outside the Government could have unfortunate implications for the welfare of children, through a delay in introducing special restrictions or by triggering a rush to adopt before such restrictions are introduced. We must ensure that we have sufficient leeway to make the restrictions work. That is not to say that I disagree with the idea that we should take into account what is going on on the ground and talk to those involved in the way that I have described. We did that in respect of Cambodia and would intend to do so in any other situation that were to arise.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am listening to the hon. Lady, but why would ringing up or sending an e-mail to BAAF, as I have done, or to the specialist officer at the Local Government Association to ask their opinion on inter-country adoption take any longer than going through the whole rigmarole of consulting the National Assembly for Wales and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland? The delay argument does not wash.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

The hon. Gentleman’s amendment suggests that we include a requirement for a list of prescribed organisations that should be consulted. It sounds bureaucratic to me. He says that it might mean an e-mail or a phone call, but I can think of few organisations consulted by the Government which would accept that that counts as consultation. Our views on the practicalities are not widely separated. We recognise that there are situations in which it would be possible to consult the relevant stakeholders and, as I have tried to illustrate in respect of the Cambodia case, we searched for sources for information. Some information sources gave rise to concerns that led to the decision being made. We wish to work without compromising the welfare of children.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Rugby and Kenilworth 11:30, 14 March 2006

What the Minister says may be contradictory. She cannot have it both ways: either our proposals would be far too onerous and bureaucratic, or the Government are already implementing them. It cannot be both.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

If the proposals of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham were absolutely clear, I might be able to agree with him. He suggested that there may just be an e-mail, whereas his amendment sounds like a bureaucratic list of prescribed organisations. A list of prescribed organisations that must be consulted rarely suggests to me as a relatively junior Minister, although of some experience these days, that consultation could be done quickly and without a certain amount of bureaucracy.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth makes a lawyer’s point—that is another lawyer saying that to him, so I hope he will forgive me. To be fair to him, arguably there has been a lack of clarity from Opposition and Government Members. I am being kind this morning. In practice, we are probably not saying much that is terribly different. The Government are not suggesting that the Secretary of State should get up one morning and on a whim prescribe that there be no more inter-country adoptions from a certain country. That will not happen in practice.

Although I accept the concerns that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and his amendments display about properly taking into account the understandings of those who are active in this field in the country concerned, that does not require us to accept an amendment that would create potentially onerous obligations concerning prescribed lists.

Amendment No. 42 tries to ensure that the Secretary of State publishes regular reviews of why special restrictions should continue to apply to a particular country. Clause 10 provides for reviewing whether countries should continue to be restricted, and, where appropriate, for removing those restrictions. It is an important provision, and we intend to be responsive to events and changes in the countries concerned.

Clause 9 requires the Secretary of State to publish her reasons for placing a country on the restricted list. The hon. Gentleman confirmed that his amendment’s intention is to require publications of subsequent reviews of each restricted country. Where there are substantial obstacles to the proper operation of a child-focused adoption system in a restricted country, the special restrictions might need to remain in place for a significant period. For example, we have not seen much progress in Cambodia in the 20 months since the restrictions were placed on it.

Although the hon. Gentleman is right that where there is a material change we should ensure that we notify interested parties and provide clear and accessible information about the latest position of countries under special restriction, it would not be flexible to require periodic reviews after pre-determined lengths of time. We expect that before the situation in Cambodia can change, there needs to be a   significant development, such as new adoption legislation or accession to The Hague convention. Although we have kept in touch with the situation in Cambodia via the embassy, no significant changes to date have warranted a review.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about ensuring that those with an interest know what is happening about any special restrictions that apply. We would not necessarily want reviews every few months, because that might be overly ambitious in countries where serious changes need to be made. It might take some time, but when there is a material change, it will certainly be the Government’s intention to make available information about restricted countries. If Cambodia were suddenly to accede to the convention or to make changes to the law that would make a difference to the restrictions on adoption from that country, we would certainly tell those people with an interest that it had happened.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Education)

Part of the reason why we are debating part 2 first is that it might have been felt in the other place to have had insufficient debate, because it came at the end of proceedings. I should like to raise a further point with the Minister. It was acknowledged in Committee in the other place that in the vast majority of cases the agreed international criteria of the UN convention on the rights of the child and The Hague convention would be followed. When does the Minister envisage that they would not be? Lord Adonis said that they would be followed in the vast majority of cases. Will the Minister take a moment to clarify that for me? I should be most interested in her response.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

I suspect that my noble Friend was seeking to ensure that he did not place any unthought-of fetter on the Secretary of State’s discretion. We could all think of some circumstances in which it might be the case that that would not cover all eventualities, but at this moment I am struggling to find out what they would be—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

There is one example coming.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

It is not an awful lot of help; it merely says that we have had only one example so far, which we all know. I suspect that my noble Friend was using careful Minister-speak to ensure that he did not fetter the Secretary of State’s potential future discretion.

I want to make one or two further points, as I seem to have been on my feet for rather too long. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked me some questions when moving his amendment, and I shall deal with one or two of them. I cannot remember now whether it was him or the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, but my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport also made a point about specialist international adoption agencies, and it is worth saying a word about them.

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the number of inter-country adoptions in Britain is relatively low—about 350 a year. They   involve many different countries—about 60 or so at the last count. The effectiveness of an inter-country adoption agency is at its best when it has an office in the country where the adoptions are made. By saying that 350 adoptions are made from 60 different countries, I hope that I have shown the Committee the potential difficulty. Should the agency have 60 officers? It is not necessarily the best way to deal with a small number of cases from a great number of countries. Obviously, that would be most likely to have some impact in China, but China recognises only Governments, not agencies.

Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Scotland Office, PPS (Rt Hon Alistair Darling, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

Adoption is a stressful process for most would-be adopters. Domestic adoption is stressful enough, but inter-country adoption has additional factors. Although I accept entirely the Minister’s views on the effectiveness of an agency placed in the country from which the child will come, does she not accept that there is also an argument for having agencies in this country to provide specialist help and additional support to would-be adopters? Perhaps people who handle domestic adoption do not accumulate that degree of expertise.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

I think that my hon. Friend would acknowledge that there are many excellent inter-country adoption charities in the UK that assist people in that way. They can play an important role, but at present I am not convinced that a specialist agency would be the right way forward, given the numbers that we have in this country and the many different countries with which we are dealing—with a small number of cases from most.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a point about the 1967 convention. I can tell him my understanding of the position, which I am confident is the correct one: the convention, which aimed to put common standards in place for adoption, does not require recognition of adoptions. [Interruption.] I am just telling the hon. Gentleman my very strong understanding of the position and I shall say no more than that.

A number of hon. Members have said that if we get this wrong we shall see an increase in private fostering. However, members of the Committee should remember that it will be an offence to bring a child into this country if to do so would be in breach of the special restrictions. Unless, therefore, people are willing to commit criminal offences, we should not see them bringing in children from countries to which special restrictions apply. That should deal with what is, as the hon. Gentleman said and we should all recall, a small problem in a small number of places. We have only one example so far, which is Cambodia, and, as he said, there are only 300 or so cases in a year.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

On that specific subject, my understanding was that the EU had placed Romania on the banned list, and that that covers adoption into the UK. I asked about the relationship between what is banned by the EU and what is banned in the UK by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

My understanding was that it was Romania itself that banned adoptions from Romania, rather than that a ban was imposed on it, so that point did not arise. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is my understanding and if I am wrong then no doubt we can take it up outside the Committee.

I have sympathy with the points of substance in the proposed amendments, but the Government do not feel that they are necessary to make sure that the special restrictions operate properly. I welcome the fact that everyone who has spoken has recognised the need for the Government to have power to impose special restrictions in order to safeguard children in certain circumstances–which we all accept will be rare. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing his amendments on the basis of the assistance I have given.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am a bit disappointed, because although the Minister is suffering from the lurgy this morning, she did not address several of the points that I raised, and some of the questions were left hanging in the air.

The Minister gave us a couple of rough examples of why there was a problem with Cambodia. We need to know that a country would not be put on the list for political reasons or political instability. I am not clear, either, how a country would come off the list; the Minister said that it might involve accession to the convention, but that can take some time. Is it just a matter of signing the convention, or is ratification needed? I remind the Minister that when the Adoption and Children Bill was introduced, the United Kingdom Government had signed The Hague convention but had not ratified it, and there was quite a gap between the two events.

I am also still unclear about the relationship between the European list and what the Secretary of State provides. The argument that the Government will not accede to amendments Nos. 41 and 43 because of the possibility of a delay is a red herring. The Minister said that we banned adoptions from Cambodia in June 2004 and that some countries banned it as long ago as 2001. Those things do not happen overnight and can take quite a long time. Admittedly, we need to expedite that process, but I cannot understand the objection to going to a bit of extra trouble by consulting a prescribed list of bodies.

The list should not be Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, but there is enough unanimity among the adoption community that a small group of recognised organisations and representatives of local authorities, for example, could be put together. Such a group could give a rapid response if the Secretary of State wanted to make a decision on a specific country or countries and, equally importantly, could feed back to the Secretary of State if it felt that there were grounds for adding countries to the list that he had not instigated at that stage. The prescribed list is not a cumbersome process and it need not be time consuming. It could speed up proper consultation. I do not understand how it would take more time than referring to those   bodies that may require regulations to be made or having debates on the matter. I do not buy the Minister’s argument on that one.

Amendment No. 42 would not require reviews to be published every other month, but it would be useful if a decision were reviewed annually as matter of course. If the circumstances were fast moving, it could be reviewed half yearly. Certainly, we are not asking for random reviews every few months. The Secretary of State is, after all, obliged under clause 10 to keep that situation constantly under review. If new evidence comes to light at any stage, we simply ask that the Secretary of State publishes the reasons for his decision changing or not changing as a result.

I started by saying that these were probing amendments. I fear that the Minister has left a lot of questions unanswered. She has certainly left unanswered the large question of whether her opinion or the Foreign Secretary’s opinion takes priority. In the interests of getting the problem sorted out, although not in the interests of enhancing her career, it might be helpful if she and the Foreign Office came up with a standard line. I have had correspondence from people affected by the problem, and I know that she has had correspondence, too, because I have had copies of it. That line needs to be sorted out because there is clearly some confusion.

The key to the problem is that proper information and knowledge should be sought out and made available. Some of us think that we need a national adoption agency that specialises in providing that. That does not mean having individual offices at every one of those 60 countries, such as Azerbaijan, Barbados or Samoa, each of which has yielded one adoptee in the past 10 years. We are asking for it to be taken at arm’s length from the Secretary of State so that he can rely on that body’s expertise to inform him on making the final decision. That decision should be based on the information that it has been able to gather from its experts around the world, which is then integrated with the expertise of British embassies, consulates and high commissions.

At this early stage, I am not going to push the amendment to a vote, although we might like to return to the subject on Report, by which time the Minister can joyfully tell us whether she has resolved her differences with the Foreign Secretary. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Mr Elliot Morley, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is a delight to serve on a Committee chaired by you, Mr. Hood, with your customary good sense and wisdom.

There were several references to The Hague convention and the UN convention on the rights of the child. Before we decide to approve the clause, can the Minister confirm that she regards it as fully compliant with our international obligations? Both those conventions recognise that a childhood spent within a family environment is in a child’s best interests when   compared with a childhood spent in a non-family environment. Inter-country adoption can be a way of realising that aim. For example, article 21 of the UN convention on the rights of the child contains such a reference.

There is no specific recognition in the Bill that inter-country adoption might be in the best interests of the child. There is no requirement that the Government should balance those factors that they are going to take into account in deciding on special restrictions against the welfare of an individual child and the benefits under the convention of an inter-country adoption. Instead, what we have, effectively, is the Secretary of State empowered to react to perceived problems by adopting a blanket ban. There might be some circumstances in which there will be exceptions, which may be drawn to our attention when we get to clause 11, but at the moment nothing is clear.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Joint Committee that considered the draft Bill recommended strongly that it should refer to those international convention obligations. The Government explained why that recommendation was not accepted immediately and concluded, at paragraph 57 of the response, on page 11:

“We therefore do not accept this recommendation but will give further consideration to how greater clarity may be achieved.”

After that response, the Joint Committee on Human Rights also considered the matter and again repeated the recommendation about putting something in the Bill.

Having given that answer, will the Government give further consideration to how greater clarity can be achieved. Did they conclude their consideration and decide that no greater clarity is required, have they not finished their consideration yet, or have they finished their consideration and decided that there is a need for greater clarity, but that that will not be given in Committee?

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

Order. The Chair has moved that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Children and Families)

Apologies; I am not at my best this morning.

I will try to deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). He asked whether the clauses were fully compliant with The Hague convention and the UN convention on the rights of the child. We believe them to be fully compliant. Clauses have been developed in consultation with the Permanent Bureau at The Hague Conference, which confirmed that they are fully compliant. We also believe them to be entirely compliant with the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Given the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and of the Joint Committee that considered the Bill and our response, which was that we would have another look, my hon. Friend asked   whether we have done so. Following that undertaking, we have completed our consideration. We have decided that referring to any specific international instrument in the Bill is not appropriate, but we are fully confident that it complies in full with both conventions. I hope that that deals with his points and that he is content that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.