HC Deb 11 June 1999 vol 332 cc949-56

2.3 pm

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 8, leave out lines 17 to 22.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 10, in page 8, line 20, leave out from 'knowledge' to end of line 22.

Mr. Maclean

The amendments are small but potentially important. Clause 14 is in the miscellaneous and supplemental part of the Bill and will insert into section 56 of the Adoption Act 1976 restrictions on people bringing children into the United Kingdom for adoption, contrary to any regulation that may be prescribed by the Secretary of State. The amendments do not deal with those regulations. Leaving aside whatever requirements the Secretary of State may prescribe in those regulations, it is important to have penalties for anyone who breaches the restrictions in clause 14.

My concern is with subsection (4), which says:

Proceedings for an offence under this section may be brought within a period of six months from the date on which evidence sufficient in the opinion of the prosecutor to warrant the proceedings came to his knowledge; but no such proceedings shall be brought by virtue of this subsection more than three years after the commission of the offence. The amendments in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would have one of two effects. Amendment No. 9 would delete the whole of subsection (4), and as an alternative, amendment No. 10 would delete the last part, which is the bar on prosecution more than three years after the commission of the offence.

It is worth while probing these matters to ascertain the views of the Minister and of the promoter, the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), on the reasons for the provision of three years. I appreciate that there cannot be an indefinite period. Clearly that would be an injustice. However, when the Minister was last in his place on a Friday we were debating putting people on the so-called black list in the context of the Protection of Children Bill. I cannot remember the time limits for backdating offences in that Bill or for saying that people could be put on the register even if their paedophiliac activity or their abuse of children happened many years ago. I think that the time scale in that Bill was much longer than three years.

Nevertheless, we are talking not about child abusers but those who have adopted a child, or who wish to do so, who have committed an offence by bringing somebody into the United Kingdom for adoption. They have done that not because they wish to abuse the child but possibly as a result of a misguided sense of loyalty or a misguided decision that they can help the child, or possibly for wrong and selfish reasons. They may not wish to comply with the law or may not comply with it, but they wish to breach the law to adopt a child illegally.

In those circumstances, we should be sending out a slightly stronger signal. A bar after three years perhaps sends too weak a signal. If an offence has gone undetected for three years, those concerned will know that they will get away with it. If we conclude that it is wrong in any event for people to commit such an act, we should not put a three-year bar on their being prosecuted for the offence.

I cannot remember what the usual bar on criminal prosecutions is. Is there a limit of seven years? The period is different for many different offences. However, three years seems to be a highly restrictive period within which to bring a prosecution once there is evidence that a crime has been committed.

Amendment No. 9 would remove the obligation on a prosecutor, on discovering that a crime has been committed, to act within six months of his feeling that there is sufficient evidence. That is slightly too restrictive. Do we need to have a time limit? I think that there is an obligation on the Crown Prosecution Service in any case to move as speedily as it can, and there may be good reasons for it taking slightly longer than six months to commence proceedings.

Inevitably, in circumstances involving the illegal adoption of children or of bringing children into this country to adopt them improperly, people will have behaved deviously. The facts will possibly be difficult to ascertain. The prosecutor might need more time to put together a case that will stick in court. I cannot see that there will be a fundamental injustice to the accused person, or the person who may be accused, if proceedings are not commenced within six months.

I agree, of course, that there should not be a ghastly sword of Damocles hanging over someone's head, where they are told that proceedings may be brought against them and it takes years and years before any prosecution is or is not brought. That is not appropriate. However, we either need a period that is longer than six months or we do not need a period to be prescribed; the matter can then be left to be dealt with under the normal rules and subject to the obligation that already applies to the CPS to bring prosecutions as speedily as it can provided that it has sufficient evidence.

We must examine carefully the bar after three years. In many cases evidence may come to light only when the child has started school. In some cases it may come to light only when the child has come of age, has applied for a national insurance number, or has a health problem and is taken to a doctor when aged five, seven, nine or whatever. In those circumstances the doctor or the health centre may discover that the child was adopted improperly four, five or six years before. The authorities should then have the right to prosecute. If this is regarded as something for which there should be a penalty, I suggest to the Bill's promoter that we should not have too short a cut-off period, as that would prevent the prosecution taking action against people who should be punished but who committed an offence five, six or seven years earlier.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute at this late stage to the debate on this important Bill, especially on amendments Nos. 8 and 9. As I served as chairman of the juvenile court for many years and then, in my capacity as a Minister, was involved in the early stages of consideration of this difficult issue, I am delighted that the Bill has reached a critical stage and looks as though it will pass successfully on to the statute book. Would that it had been a wider adoption Bill.

Undoubtedly, amendments Nos. 8 and 9 relate to the area that has caused most pain and suffering. They concern a vexed and sensitive question, because introducing criminal offences in child care matters is always a serious step. Too often, families felt provoked into abusing the rules and the system because of the resistance and insults that they received from local authorities and adoption agencies. I was greatly perplexed that, at a time when so much effort was going into creating new fertility treatments with in vitro fertilisation and other such steps, there was so much resistance and prejudice against intercountry adoption.

Of course it is a profoundly serious step for a child to leave its natural country and live in another land, but for those who saw the alternative—frequently, institutionalisation without health care, education, nurture or love—the opportunity to give a child a loving, caring home in this country proved irresistible. Too often, those families who tried to go through the proper channels found themselves rejected and resisted at every turn.

No one could condone taking a child from one country to another without using the proper processes, but I ask the Minister and the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten)—the Bill's promoter—whether there will also be a countervailing power to take action against local authorities that simply refuse to co-operate with intercountry adoption. I accept that many have changed their tune. To hear the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the right hon. Lady that we are considering a specific amendment, which is far narrower than the points that she is making at the moment.

Mrs. Bottomley

I stand corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that the House will understand the relevance to the amendments of what I am saying. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is discussing the issue of the six months and the three-year maximum. I believe that legislation should be passed only if it will be perceived as reasonable and will be acceptable to families and to those implementing it. The present unreasonable state of affairs has caused many people to feel affronted and provoked.

I hope that, if my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border can achieve reassurances on several points, he will not feel the need to press his amendment to a vote, because it seems to me that, after three years, a child and a family should be free of the background threat that a prosecution might be lodged. I do not believe that a family can conceal a child for more than three years, and after three years, the child has become part of that family. If difficulties were emerging, almost certainly they would have come to the notice of health visitors, schools or social workers. Six months is necessary because, regrettably, it is possible to conceal a child for six months, and that child might well be at a particularly sensitive stage of development at which he or she needs the support of health visitors, teachers and other specialist providers.

2.15 pm

My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border should not press this matter further, subject to reassurances from the Minister that the unreasonableness of the statutory agencies will be tackled and that there will be discretion over taking action against families. A criminal offence in such matters is extremely serious. The Campaign for Intercountry Adoption—which has members in my constituency—has made some important points about cases where it would be inappropriate to take a legalistic and persecutory approach. With a great deal of good will towards the Bill, I ask the Minister to offer some reassurance to help my right hon. Friend to withdraw his amendments.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

These important amendments hit at the heart of the Bill—the prevention of a practice that no hon. Member wants to see continue: the practice of bringing children into this country without reference to the proper procedures.

The current procedures in this country are far too weak to deal with the problem as it stands. Existing legislation would not allow any mechanisms for the authorities to tackle a couple who had brought a child into this country and had sought to keep the child hidden here for six months. If that couple were successful and the authorities found out about the child after seven months, the authorities would have no powers to tackle them. That is wrong, and nonsensical.

As the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) said, we can all imagine circumstances where a child could be hidden for six months. The critical point in the Bill—and the reason why I hope that the right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) will withdraw his amendments, which would take away the power—is that it would provide the ability to extend the six-month period to three years. That would mean that we would not need to discover the event within six months, but that the provisions would kick in at the point at which the offence was discovered. If, after a year and a half, the authorities discovered that a child had been brought in, they would have the power to take action. That is what we all wish to see.

I understand the concerns of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border about the three-year period, and his point that if individuals have broken the law, there should perhaps not be a limit at all. I thought that the right hon. Lady made the point very well that we can be satisfied that any problems or offences would have come to light in three years. Surely after three years it is reasonable that the family should be able to carry on without the threat of legal action. If abuse is discovered in the family after more than three years, other forms of law could kick in to tackle it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Hutton)

The right hon. Member for South–West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) speaks with great knowledge and wisdom on child care matters, and she raised a number of issues concerning the amendments. I assure her and the House that the Government will keep all aspects of adoption law and practice under active review. One of the purposes of the Bill is to create a new responsibility for local authorities to operate an intercountry adoption service. No one will be able to opt out of legislation passed by the House.

The points made by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) were dealt with effectively by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, under the Magistrates Courts (Procedure) Act 1998, there is a six-month bar on prosecutions for summary offences.

The Bill provides for a new summary offence, and to show the seriousness with which we will treat offences of bringing children into the United Kingdom outwith the regulations, we propose to extend to three years the period within which a prosecution can be made.

The amendments are directly contradictory: amendment No. 9 would require that proceedings could be brought only within six months of the offence being committed, which is the present situation, but amendment No. 10 would contradict that by providing that proceedings could be brought with no time limit at all. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border had better make up his mind.

Because of the current restrictions on bringing summary proceedings for these offences, no proceedings have ever been brought against a person for bringing in a child in breach of the adoption legislation. That situation is unacceptable and the Bill is designed to correct it.

Mr. Maclean

This has been a useful debate. I tabled the amendments as probing amendments and I am very conscious of the wisdom of what my right hon. Friend the Member for South–West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) and the Minister have said. I was in toughening-up mode this morning. We spent the whole morning trying to get draconian new provisions into the Football (Offences and Disorder) Bill and perhaps I was being a bit too severe in trying to remove the three-year limit in this Bill.

I accept that in prosecuting family cases we need to have a different yardstick and a more sensitive set of rules than in prosecuting football hooligans. Following the wise words of reassurance, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

2.21 pm
Mr. Oaten

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

The Bill has wide support from individuals and groups involved in adoption. I have been extremely encouraged by the cross-party support for the provisions throughout our proceedings, especially in the excellent Second Reading debate.

Many of us have been concerned about the recent increase in the number of couples who, in seeking to adopt children from a foreign country, have not had the best quality of service from local authorities—the Bill is designed to tackle some of those issues—but we would all be more concerned about those individuals who have gone down that route as a way of avoiding some of the controls that are in place for the adoption of children in the United Kingdom.

The Bill is an attempt for the first time to deal with the grey areas by proper regulation. The most pleasing provision is the adoption of the Hague convention, allowing the House finally to ratify it, having signed up to it in 1993. It is an embarrassment to this country that we have taken so long to ratify the convention, which will institute an agreement on the recognition of various standards. Given that it is based on the fundamental rights of the child, I hope that its ratification will mean that we have enshrined clearly the principle that the child's interests must be paramount in the way in which adoption takes place.

The Bill provides for ways in which we can stop the criminal activity of bringing children into this country by those couples who seek, by one means or another, to avoid going through the proper procedures. We have, rightly, good controls for adopting children within the United Kingdom, and it would be wrong to think that one can try to avoid those controls and get a second-hand or second-rate child from another country. That is why the Bill tightens the provisions on couples who may pay for private home study reports and bypass the social work system, as well as the provisions for individuals who bring children into the country.

The Bill also reminds local authorities of what is required of them and of how they should respond to those who go to them for advice and approval for adopting. I hope that the provisions will mean that the quality of local authorities' performance matches that of my local authority, Hampshire, which has become expert in managing the process, and that a culture will develop in which authorities take a positive attitude towards the whole question of intercountry adoption. We should also, because of changed and improved practice, see far fewer individuals trying to bypass the law and bring in children, late at night, in the boot of a car.

I believe that the Bill is both tough and tender, not only recognising intercountry adoption and trying to improve performance, but saying to those who want to hinder that performance that the strong hand of the law will stop them. Ultimately, the child's individual rights are more important than are those of people trying to adopt, for whatever reason. I hope that the House will pass the Bill, which I warmly endorse.

2.25 pm
Mr. Hutton

As the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said, the Bill aims to achieve two important objectives. The first is to introduce measures that protect children living abroad and who are to be adopted by people resident in the United Kingdom. The main instrument of achieving that objective is ratification of the 1993 Hague convention on intercountry adoption. Enactment of the Bill will enable the convention's articles to be subsumed within our own substantive law, and thereby to enhance the quality and effectiveness of adoption law.

The second important objective is to place intercountry adoption within a clear statutory framework, thereby enabling regulations to be made to ensure that, within these islands, only those who are approved as suitable to become adoptive parents by a local authority or adoption agency are able to proceed to complete the adoption process abroad. As the hon. Member for Winchester said, the Bill's provisions to introduce new offences are absolutely necessary if we are to protect the welfare of children, by preventing them being brought to the United Kingdom for the purposes of adoption without authority.

The Bill also reaffirms the Government's view that privately commissioned home study reports for the purposes of adoption—whether prepared in connection with the convention or not—are unacceptable. In future, only a local authority or approved adoption agency will be able to provide a home study assessment.

The Bill also provides, for the first time, that intercountry adoption is put on a sound legal footing. I believe that that should make the procedures for convention adoptions, and the majority of other intercountry adoptions, more straightforward and effective and less bureaucratic. I should like to emphasise, however, that the last thing intended in the Bill's preparation was that it should place obstacles in the path of those who wish to adopt from abroad. That is not our intention.

The Government support the Bill not only for its important measures, but because it will provide the facility by which people may be assessed and their application processed within a clearly understood and workable framework. I believe that the Bill will achieve all of that. I also believe that, ultimately, the provisions will enable us to deliver a better and more effective service to intercountry adopters.

I very warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester on promoting his Bill. He has done the House a great service in giving us the opportunity to improve our regulations and law on the matter. I hope, as he does, that the House will now give the Bill a Third Reading.

2.27 pm
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I think that it was evident on Second Reading that the Bill has the support of the whole House. Today, we all wish it on its way with good speed.

Unfortunately, one or two comments that I made on Second Reading provoked a little confusion, particularly among Labour Members. It really does need to be made clear that—as the Minister has just said—the responsibility placed on local authorities by the Bill is very great. If the rights of the child are to be fully recognised, we must also develop an international standard by which the quality of those wishing to adopt is judged.

I believe that such an international standard would also enlighten those of us in the United Kingdom. The policy of too many local authorities—on matters such as age and interracial adoption, for example—is too restrictive, because they are spoilt for choice. When it comes to international and intercountry adoption, a child who is refused a home in the United Kingdom may be subject to much looser rules in another country. I therefore believe that we must address the issue as soon as possible, preferably as part of a much more comprehensive adoption Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.