HC Deb 23 February 1968 vol 759 cc812-25

Order for Second Reading read.

11.6 a.m.

Mr. Walter Alldritt (Liverpool, Scotland)

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

The primary purpose of the Bill is to give effect to the provisions of the Hague Convention on the Adoption of Children. The Bill will also provide for certain overseas adoption orders, whether under the Hague Convention or otherwise to be recognised in our law in the same way as adoption orders made in Northern Ireland, the Channel Isles and the Isle of Man, as provided for under the 1964 Act.

Even at that time many hon. Members were thinking in terms of the Bill now before us. I want to quote what was said by the right hon. Member for Islington, East (Sir Eric Fletcher), because it has some relevance. He said: Looking at the Explanatory Memorandum I see that the object of the Bill is ' to secure that an adoption order made in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands shall have effect in England or Scotland as if it had been made in Great Britain? That seems to be quite unexceptionable. I hope that we can regard adoption as part of the law of status. Surely it follows that in this country we wish to give recognition to an adoption order made in any other part of the United Kingdom. I am not sure that I follow why we should necessarily stop there. I hope that the same principle would apply in respect of adoption orders made in other civilised countries. It may not be that there is much necessity, if any, to legislate on this subject, but if the question arose I hope that our laws would give the same kind of recognition to a child adopted in France or the Irish Free State, for example, as to a child adopted in the Isle of Man or the Channel Isles."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1964; Vol. 690, c. 814.] In looking back into the history of adoption, all through I have found this underlying theme—that hon. Members were concerned with an extension of the principle of adoption. What is perhaps not generally appreciated is the fact that legal adoption in this country has quite a short history, the first Adoption Act being that of 1926, but it can be shown that it is a matter of increasing importance in our social life; indeed, in the seven years following the 1958 Act adoptions increased by 60 per cent.—from 14,109 in 1959 to 22,789 in 1966. It therefore seems likely that if this trend continues during the next 50 years there will be about 1 million adoptions in England and Wales alone. Coupled with this increase in adoptions has been an increased movement of workers between countries, so that inter-country adoptions are now by no means unusual.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by "inter-country" adoptions. These occur when the adopters and child are of different nationality or domicile. The child may be legally adopted in the adopters' country of domicile, but the adoption may not be recognised by the country of which the child is a national, or the child may be adopted in his own country by a couple working there who, on returning home, find that their own country does not recognise the adoption for all purposes. I understand that they are known as "limping" adoptions, the colloquial term for adoptions which are recognised as valid in one of the countries concerned but not in others.

As the numbers of such adoptions increase, social workers, the legal profession and especially the adopters themselves have become concerned about the problems which they cause. As a result, in 1960, the Hague Conference on Private and International Law suggested that a Convention should be drawn up to reconcile the conflict of laws, some based on domicile, as in Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon countries and some, as in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy, on nationality.

Arguments about the law to be applied reveal a difference as to the principles underlying adoption. The first concept of adoption of which we know dates from Roman times and its purpose was to provide a worthy successor, but only where there was no natural successor and some countries still do not permit adoption if there is already a legitimate child. There might be other restrictions on adoption stemming from this conception, but we are concerned here with the modern concept as we know it in this country, which is to provide a home for a child who, for some reason, cannot be brought up by his own parents, the child's needs, of course, being paramount.

The Hague Convention on Adoption was eventually concluded on 15th November, 1965, and has so far been signed by Austria, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, but as yet none has ratified it. Because of the different concepts of adoption, it had to be made possible for any country ratifying the Convention to specify certain prohibitions based on its national law which should apply to the adoption of any of its nationals under the Convention.

I would draw attention of the House to the recent Council of Europe Convention on the Adoption of Children which was published as Cmnd. 3350, 1967. This has recently been ratified by the United Kingdom and signed by other countries, which has encouraged a number of member countries to start to modernise their own adoption laws.

It seems likely, therefore, that the prohibitions under the Convention will be few and gradually eliminated. The Convention is, however, non-exclusive, so that, if a couple domiciled here wished to adopt a foreign child under the Convention so as to secure recognition of the adoption in both countries, but could not do so because, for example, they already had a legitimate child and the country of which the child they wished to adopt was a national prohibited adoption in such circumstances, they could still apply to adopt under United Kingdom law, although this would obviously mean forgoing the advantages of recognition in both countries.

Those eligible to apply for an adoption order under the Convention would be those who habitually live in Great Britain or have British nationality. The Hague Convention will not apply to adoptions in this country where the adopters are of United Kingdom nationality and resident here. Then, our own internal law will continue to apply.

Perhaps the most important Clause in the Bill is Clause 4, which provides for recognition of certain overseas adoptions, whether under the Hague Convention or otherwise. The Secretary of State may, by Order, specify the countries whose adoption orders we shall recognise and the intention is that the Orders to be recognised will be those made by countries whose adoption law is similar to our own.

The advantage of this is that the status of a child adopted abroad who is subsequently brought here would be secure. The recognition of an overseas adoption order will remove any permanent doubt about its qualifications for—to give a firm example—family allowance, but, more important it will secure the rights of inheritance here if the adopter dies in-testate, and citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies if the adopter is a citizen.

I believe that it will have advantages also, in that, if the United Kingdom recognises the adoption orders of other countries, it may be easier for our citizens to obtain orders there. I understand that the Home Office has occasionally been asked by other countries for an official declaration that an adoption order, if granted there, will be recognised here. Of course they have not been able to give that assurance, with the result that we do not even know whether the orders concerned were granted or what misery the refusal may have caused.

The Bill will also provide that, when the adoption overseas of a child born in this country is recognised here, the Registrar-General will, if he is satisfied that the order relates to an entry in the Register of Births, record the adoption in the Adopted Children's Register. This will mean that the child will be able to have a short birth certificate in the name by which he has been known since his adoption, which will give great satisfaction to a number of adopters and will save those children the possible embarrassment of being asked to produce their original birth certificates and the adoption order, as happens so often at the moment.

Hon. Members may know how many will benefit from the Bill, although it is impossible to be precise. We know that over 500 children born overseas are adopted here each year, many of whom will benefit by an adoption under the Convention. We also know that a considerable number are adopted overseas by couples who return with them to this country. I could relate some harrowing stories on this score, but it would unfortunately be impossible to do so without running the risk of identification, which is the last thing I would want to do.

All that we can be certain of is that the number who will benefit will increase as time goes on and the movement of population and workers between countries becomes even more widespread. Because we will become involved with others whose law is different from ours, the Bill is technical and complex. I have tried to outline it in simple language, but I believe that its intent is clear and that the House will approve that intent.

I said that the modern concept of adoption in this country is that of providing a home for a child who, for some reason. cannot be brought up by his own parents, the child's needs being paramount. In addition, under our law, that child becomes in effect the natural child of the adopters. I think it wrong that, for reasons beyond their control, they should be deprived of the security and satisfaction of our own internal law. I therefore hope that the purpose of the Bill will commend itself to hon. Members and that the House will be ready to give it a Second Reading.

11.19 a.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I congratulate the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Alldritt) not only on his clear description of the Bill which he has presented, but on his luck in winning the Ballot and his choice of subject, in which I have for a long time taken an interest.

I was particularly pleased that the hon. Member referred to the work of the Council of Europe in this regard. It is a pity that we have not been able to change some of our laws with regard to adoption and I hope that what the hon. Member has said today will convince us all that if we want to change our laws, the Convention will not in any way prevent our doing so.

I should like to ask one or two questions in regard to this important Measure. I was interested particularly in the fact that the hon. Member reminded us of the great numbers who have already been adopted in this country and what a great success adoption has been. I should like to know whether the Convention applies to voluntary societies which undertake adoptions as well as to local authorities. If so it would be useful to know whether their attention is being drawn to the Convention.

I agree with the hon. Member that one of the best ways of making young people happy is for them to have a settled home. One of the difficulties which has not been settled in the Convention is the duration of the period during which children can suddenly be whisked away from people who wish to adopt them because of a change of mind by the parents.

The Explanatory Memorandum states that: A further purpose of the Bill is to enable effect to be given in the United Kingdom to certain adoptions taking place in countries other than those adhering to the Convention. I should like the Under-Secretary of State, in replying to the debate, to tell us exactly what that means. I do not see how we can go outside the scope of the Convention.

In explaining Clause 2, the Explanatory Memorandum states that: One modification required by the Convention is that the national law of the child relating to consent by members of his family shall be applied". If a foreign girl, in this country has an illegitimate child, I presume that the child would take British nationality having been born in this country. If the girl wants to have the child adopted, she has to get the consent of "members of his family", or does it mean the girl's family in. say, France or Germany, or would it be the putative father's family in this country? I do not understand how this will work.

I know that the laws of other countries are rather different from ours. In many of the countries mentioned in the Convention, for example, a woman has the right of guardianship of her child, whereas in this country she does not. I presume that if she has a right of guardianship, she could decide whether the child should be adopted irrespective of the wishes of the putative father.

Difficulty can arise in this country. I had a case recently of a woman who had an illegitimate child whom she wanted to have adopted. She had not had the child with her for two and a half years. She subsequently married the putative father, thereby legitimising the child. Although the woman had already surrendered parental rights to the local authority, the father decided that he did not want the child adopted. Therefore, despite the mother's wishes, the adoption was prevented. What will be the position of girls of another nationality who, in many cases, have a right of guardianship under the law of their own country?

I hope that we shall use carefully the provisions of the Bill as they could apply to the Colonies. I gather that under the Hague Convention, it can be applied to any territory for which we are responsible. It would be a pity if we exercised this power to any great extent, because interference in the family laws of another country is rather dangerous.

I should like the Under-Secretary to explain one or two points in the Convention. Article 7 refers to the annulment of adoptions. Is this the existing practice in our country? I am disappointed to see in Article 13, concerning internal law prohibiting adoptions, that single persons who make application are likely to be prohibited. I have always regarded this as unfortunate because if a woman is left a widow, or a man a widower, with children, he or she is quite capable of bringing up the children. I was sorry to see this provision in Article 13 of the Convention.

By Article 21 Any State may, at the time of signature, ratification or accession, declare that the present Convention shall extend to all the territories for the international relations of which it is responsible, or to one or more of them. That is what gave rise to my question concerning the colonies. We are responsile, for example, for the protection of Tonga and Brunei, but I hope that we would not use any of our powers in this regard.

In Part II of the Convention, Article 2 states that Each contracting State shall designate a Central Authority which shall undertake to receive requests for service". Who will be the central authority in this country?

On page 15 of the White Paper, Article 15 deals with a writ of summons and states that Each contracting State shall be free to declare that the judge, notwithstanding the provisions … of this Article, may give judgment even if no certificate of service or delivery has been received, if all the following conditions are fulfilled … (b) a period of time of not less than six months … has elapsed since the date of the transmission of the document". I wonder whether six months is not rather long in this connection. I know that affairs of the law take a long time, but I should have thought that six months was rather long. I shall be grateful if the Under-Secretary can explain why that period was chosen.

With those few words, I welcome the Bill as a whole but I would like to have explanations of these various points in the Hague Convention.

11.27 a.m.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

As we have been told, the Bill implements the Convention on the adoption of children which was settled at The Hague. The Convention was signed, as appears from the document, on 28th October, 1964. Therefore, the decision to sign the Convention must have been one of the first decisions taken by the present Labour Administration. The negotiations concerning the Convention would have taken place during the period of office of the Conservative Government, and the decision to sign it was taken by right hon. Gentlemen opposite. In my view, they were right, as one of their first functions, to sign the Convention, which had been negotiated in the preceding months. It is a useful Convention and it is right that it should be adopted by our own law in the Bill which is before us today.

All of us should regard it as important to be able to have reciprocity across national frontiers in laws generally relating to the status of individuals. Only fairly recently, on 5th February, we were debating the plight of deserted wives. On that occasion I spoke of the necessity for having reciprocity across national frontiers in laws relating to the maintenance of deserted wives and I had an assurance from the Solicitor-General that the Government would consider the possibility of a convention. I hope that that will, indeed, be investigated. One therefore welcomes the implementation of the Convention by the Bill.

While I congratulate the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Alldritt) on introducing the Bill, it seems somewhat surprising that a Convention which was negotiated by the British Government and signed by them should be implemented by a Private Member's Bill. It is a little disappoint ing that the Government have not themselves taken action earlier, so avoiding valuable private Members' time being taken up, but this procedure is not without precedent.

A private Member introduced the Merchant Shipping (Liability of Ship-owners and Others) Act, 1958, which implemented an international convention, and in 1964 the Dangerous Drugs Act—which also implemented an international agreement—was similarity promoted by a private Member. The procedure is, therefore, not without precedent, but I am not sure that it is a very good precedent that matters of Government responsibility, negotiated by the Government, should be thus implemented. However, as the Government have not acted, it is very right that the hon. Member should have done so.

I understand that the Convention has been signed by 23 States, and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary would confirm that this country is the first to ratify it. If these countries have not yet ratified it, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell us what representations he is preparing to make, or has made, to persuade them to take the action it seems likely the House will today agree to take.

The Bill will have to be looked at in Committee with considerable care because, as its sponsor has pointed out, it is somewhat complex. That is inevitable because of the basic complexity of adoption law. We shall want a Clause by Clause explanation in Committee.

I do not, of course, blame the sponsor of the Bill for its phrasing, but it does seem in some respects unnecessarily complicated, particularly Clause 2, which embodies legislation by reference to the Adoption Act of 1958. Subsection (1) reads: Subject to the provisions of this section, the Adoption Act 1958 shall have effect as if any reference in that Act to an adoption order within the meaning of that Act, other than a reference in the provisions mentioned in subsection (2) of this section, included a reference to an adoption order within the meaning of this Act. The precise effect of this does not exactly spring at once to mind, especially when with it one reads subsection (2): The aforesaid provisions of the Act of 1958 are sections 1(1) to (4), 9(1) and (5), 10(1), 11(1) and (3), 12(1) and (2) … and so it goes on. It is not a very satisfactory way of legislating, though all may be well if the Under-Secretary can assure us that it is proposed before long to consolidate the legislation. We must see whether, by the exercise of some intellectual gymnastics in Committee, we can improve the phrasing, though I am not very sanguine on that score.

I represent a garrison constituency and I know that the Bill will provide practical assistance to some constituents who may be either permanent or transitory. Within my experience, the situation has arisen of a soldier serving in Germany wanting to effect an adoption there. There have been cases where the adoption of a child abroad has been impeded because of lack of clarity about the status that the child enjoys on coming to this country. That position will now be altered, and the Bill will facilitate people serving abroad who may wish to arrange the adoption of a child from a foreign country, so long as the adoption is regularly and properly effected. Similarly, children who have been adopted by people serving or living abroad and coming here will enjoy full status. In certain cases in the past readoption procedure in our courts has been necessary. That will be precluded by the Bill.

Clause 4 will be of specific advantage to a very small but, I suspect a significant number of people and children, but in connection with it perhaps the Under-Secretary can tell us which States will be designated as being States whose adoptions are to be recognised. We should like to know on what principles he will act in designating States which have recognised proper adoption procedures We would then have some indication of the proposed scope of the Bill.

Many of us feel that it is important to have international reciprocity concerning laws, especially those relating to status. The Bill is the latest step forward in that direction, and we are right to pioneer the ratification of the Convention.

A word of thanks is due to the Dutch Government who, from the international point of view, will be, as it were, the clearing house Government which will co-ordinate arrangements for the international implementation of the Convention. I know that the Home Office will occupy a similar position in this country but we are grateful to the Dutch Government, and also to the sponsor of the Bill.

11.38 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland (Mr. Alldritt), first on being successful in the Ballot—a matter not entirely within his own control—and, secondly, on his choice of a Bill which should in important respects increasingly help a number of children. It is not a Government Bill, though the Government have given assistance in its drafting. As the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) knows, there is always a great shortage of legislative time and it is of very great assistance, and of service to the public, that private Members can take over Bills which the Government have helped to prepare.

It is not many years since adoption was regarded as unusual, and the adoption of a child of different nationality or domicile was very rare indeed. That is no longer the case. As people move more freely between countries, there is no doubt that the number of inter-country adoptions will increase. We therefore very much welcome a Bill which seeks to overcome the difficulties that arise when an adoption is recognised in the country of the adopters or that of the child but not in both countries. That can have very serious consequences.

My hon. Friend has given a very full and clear explanation of the general principles of the Bill, but perhaps I may be allowed to deal with a few general points, and with certain specific points about which I have been asked.

First, it would be very fitting if the United Kingdom, which is generally regarded abroad as having an enlightened attitude to adoption laws and to adoption, were to be the first to ratify the Convention. Indeed, if the Bill is passed, the United Kingdom will be the first to do so. Adoption is a field in which we should give a lead. It became apparent during the preparation of The Hague Convention that there was a marked difference between the old concept of adoption and the modern concept.

In answer to the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), I would say that part of the reason why there appear to be one or two prohibitions permitted in the Convention which we ourselves would not find acceptable, is that an attempt is being made to reconcile the views of a large number of countries which have quite different adoption laws.

My hon. Friend gave the example that in some countries an adoption is not possible if there are already legitimate children. Another example is that in some countries one cannot adopt unless one is over 50. Neither of these are points which we would find acceptable, but we must recognise prohibitions on the part of certain countries when they relate to their own nationals.

The Council of Europe Convention also did much to advance a more modern approach to adoption law. This was a Convention which we were able to ratify without amending legislation, and we did so last December. The House will be interested to know that two other countries—Malta and the Irish Republic—have also ratified this Convention, and it will come into force on 26th April, 1968. The Hague Convention will come into force when three States have ratified it, so two other States have to follow our example. Other Council of Europe countries are seeking to modernise their adoption laws and practice with a view to ratification of the Council of Europe Convention.

The Bill is, unfortunately, a complex one. I will do all I can to help with details in Committee. I will leave some of the points about which the hon. Lady asked me until the Committee stage. It would be wholly inappropriate now to go into the various complex kinds of circumstances which might arise when consent is needed under a particular child's national laws. Similarly, I will in Committee consider some of the prohibition questions which arise under other laws.

The Bill will apply to all individual adoptions, irrespective of which society has promoted them. It is non-exclusive, as my hon. Friend pointed out. If there are laws in other countries which a couple would not like to accept, they have the choice of going under our own adoption law. The only disadvantage they would then suffer would be that this adoption might not be recognised in the other country.

The reason why we go beyond Convention countries is that the Bill, as a secondary purpose, is not concerned only with ratifying the Convention. It is concerned also to deal with the kind of cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Colchester, where servicemen overseas have adopted children and then find that our courts do not recognise the adoption. The Bill empowers my right hon. Friend to specify by Order the other countries whose adoption orders shall be recognised. These countries will be the countries whose adoption laws are similar to our own.

The hon. Member for Colchester asked if I could give some indication of the countries involved. It is likely that the first to be recognised will be adoption orders made by countries which ratify the Hague Convention or the Council of Europe Convention. Then there will be adoption orders made by a number of Commonwealth countries which have adoption laws similar to our own. Recognition will be from a current date, but it may apply to orders already made if the law under which they were made is considered to be similar to our own. So it should in that sense have a considerable practicable effect on a number of adoptions which have already been made overseas.

Mr. Buck

Am I right in thinking that at the moment the French do not recognise our adoption procedures? I notice with interest that France sent only one person to negotiate the Convention. We sent five or six. The reason may be France's concern with economy or its lack of interest.

Mr. Taverne

I speak subject to correction, but I believe that France was one of the countries that helped to conclude the Convention and which we hope will ratify it in due course.

The Central Authority in this country will be the Home Office. Annulments of adoption orders very rarely occur. There are a few cases where it has been found necessary to annul, but the circumstances can be so infinitely varied that I do not think that I can say much on this point now which would be of assistance.

The Government welcome the provision which will make it possible for a child born in this country and adopted overseas under an order recognised in this country to get a short birth certificate in his new name.

The essential point of the Bill is that, despite some of the difficult legal questions involved, especially questions of private international law, it is intended to serve a very simple social purpose—to improve the lot of children and adoptive parents who are concerned in inter-country adoptions. I am sure that this is an object which the whole House embraces. I support my hon. Friend's Motion and strongly recommend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).

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