HC Deb 20 May 2002 vol 386 cc45-7
Ms Rosie Winterton

I beg to move amendment No. 135, in page 52, line 21, leave out from "of' to "rules" and insert—

  1. (a) any relevant application,
  2. (b) the signification by any person of any consent to placement or adoption'.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 136 to 140, 256, 142 and 143.

Ms Winterton

We now come to a series of amendments to clause 98. Right hon. and hon. Members may recall that I said in Committee that the Government would consider the issue of avoiding conflicts of interest when appointing CAFCASS officers to act in adoption and placement proceedings. I also undertook to review the clause more generally.

I am very pleased to move these amendments, which will not only address the conflict of interest issue but improve the protection for parents. They allow CAFCASS officers to witness consents to placement and adoption and improve the range of information that can be put before the court regarding the welfare of the child. The amendments will also allow officers to be appointed in applications for contact with a child who has been placed for adoption, and in other circumstances in the future, should we decide that they could assist children and families in other ways.

Clause 98 currently provides that rules must provide for a CAFCASS officer to report to the court or act "on behalf of a child in placement and adoption proceedings, including the making, varying and revoking of placement orders, applications for making adoption orders and applications for the transfer of parental responsibility prior to an adoption abroad. In addition, the CAFCASS officer will witness birth parents' consents in those cases where the birth parents wish to consent. There is power for additional duties to be imposed on CAFCASS officers by secondary legislation. Clause 98 builds on existing provisions in the Adoption Act 1976, as supplemented by secondary legislation.

CAFCASS officers play an essential role in recommending to the court what is in the best interests of the child, advising on the implications of giving consent in consent cases and being an independent witness of that parent's consent. Amendment No. 135 will enable CAFCASS officers to witness consent before the commencement of court proceedings. We envisage that officers will be provided in prescribed cases to advise birth parents on the implications of giving their consent and to witness their consent where it is given.

Amendment No. 136 allows the Lord Chancellor to provide in rules for CAFCASS officers to carry out additional duties in prescribed cases if some were identified in future, such as in relation to post-adoption support or advice.

Amendment No. 137 is a consequential amendment to align the language of "any relevant application" with the reference made in amendment No. 135.

5 pm

The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that all relevant matters on the child's welfare are brought to the court's attention. Amendment No. 138 adds to the functions of CAFCASS the requirement that it report to the court, on the court's request, on matters relating to the welfare of the child. That is similar to provision under section 7 of the Children Act 1989. However, it improves the current position in respect of the work that CAFCASS officers can undertake in adoption, as it ensures that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration of the court, in line with clause 1.

Amendment No. 139 aligns provision in the Bill with that under section 7(2) and (3) of the Children Act, whereby the issues to be covered in a report on the child's welfare must include any matter prescribed by rules, unless the court orders otherwise. Reports may be made orally or in writing as the court requires. We will consult key stakeholders on the rules, following the passage of the Bill.

The Government acknowledge the importance of ensuring that the views of parties to proceedings are appropriately put before the court. The way in which the views of the parties—for example, the birth parents or the child—are put before the court will vary in different circumstances and in different types of proceeding. We have already said that the full detail on representation and party status in proceedings will be set out in secondary legislation, such as court rules. We have listened closely to Members' points in the Standing Committee and in today's debate and will consider them when we hold consultations on the detailed proposals.

We must not pre-empt the consultative process, but it is anticipated that the welfare report will include the views of birth parents. Currently, their views are reflected only in the schedule 2 report or in the reports of the children's guardian or the reporting officer. Amendments Nos. 138 and 139 will, therefore, reflect the current law by ensuring that the representation of the views of birth parents is included in the process of making, varying or revoking placement or contact orders, and in the making of an adoption order. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson).

The clause, as currently drafted, also provides for the preclusion of certain persons from being appointed to safeguard the child's interests: in the case of placement proceedings, a person employed by the local authority that made the application, and, in the case of adoption proceedings, a person employed by the adoption agency that placed the child would be precluded from being appointed to safeguard the child's interests.

In Committee, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) tabled an amendment that would have extended the category of people who may not be appointed. We felt that the provision went too far, but I informed the Committee that I would give the matter further consideration. Having looked more closely at the provisions of clause 98, I think that the specifications for those who could act in the matter could be extended. Amendments Nos. 140 and 256 will fulfil that requirement. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

Amendment No. 142 removes the provision that allows a CAFCASS officer to act on behalf of the child and to witness consents. That provision is no longer necessary as the functions of reporting officer and guardian have been combined.

The amendments address a number of the points made in Committee; they much improve clause 98 and I hope that the provisions—especially those in respect of the role of CAFCASS officers—will give my hon. Friends some reassurance about—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Bill, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Order [16 May], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Amendment agreed to.

MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Amendments made: No. 136, in page 52, line 23, at end insert— '(lA) The rules may provide for the appointment of such an officer in other circumstances in which it appears to the Lord Chancellor to be necessary or expedient to do so. (1B) The rules may provide for the officer—'

No. 137, in page 52, line 24, leave out third "the" and insert "any relevant".

No. 138, in page 52, line 26, at end insert— (aa) where the court so requests, to prepare a report on matters relating to the welfare of the child in question'.

No. 139, in page 52, line 28, leave out "other prescribed duties" and insert "prescribed functions. (1C) A report prepared in pursuance of the rules on matters relating to the welfare of a child must—

  1. (a) deal with prescribed matters (unless the court orders otherwise), and
  2. (b) be made in the manner required by the court'.

No. 140, in page 52, line 32, leave out "or".

No. 256, in page 52, line 35, at end insert— 'or (c) is within a prescribed description'.

No. 142, in page 52, line 36, leave out from "(1)" to end of line 38 and insert "or (1A)".

No. 143, in page 52, line 40, at end insert— '( ) the making of an order under section 25, or the varying or revocation of such an order'.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Forward to