HC Deb 20 May 2002 vol 386 cc22-33 3.34 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith)

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in page 44, line 21, after "are" insert "natural".

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that with this we are discussing Government amendments Nos. 60, 61, 29, 298, 299, 255, 38, 27, 28, 306 and 39.

Jacqui Smith

The amendments are largely linked to the Bill's inter-country provisions, which are an important part of the package of measures that the Government are putting in place to ensure that inter-country adoption takes place only where, as a minimum, the same safeguards as for domestic adoptions have been applied.

Clause 81 re-enacts the restrictions in the current legal framework that make it a criminal offence for British residents to bring a child into the United Kingdom for the purposes of adoption—in other words, intending to adopt them in the UK—unless they comply with prescribed requirements. The Adoption of Children from Overseas Regulations 2001 make it a requirement that prospective adopters apply to a local authority or voluntary adoption agency to be assessed and approved under similar procedures as those followed in domestic adoptions, and to have a certificate of eligibility issued by the Secretary of State.

The clause also extends the restrictions to include British residents bringing a child into the UK whom they have adopted outside the British islands within the past six months and do not intend to adopt in the UK, thereby closing an important loophole. It is our intention that the prescribed requirements and conditions that must be met by people wanting to bring a child into the UK for the purposes of adoption—prospective adopters—should be similar to those made under the current legal framework: that the prospective adopters apply to, and are assessed by, an adoption agency in the UK; that while going through the assessment process the prospective adopters provide as much information as requested by the agency; that the prospective adopters agree to the carrying out of police and medical checks; that the case is referred to an adoption panel; that the home study assessment and such other information as is required by the overseas authority is sent to the central authority—the Department of Health in England and the National Assembly for Wales—so that it can be checked that the proper procedures were followed and all the relevant information collected before a certificate of eligibility is issued on behalf of the Secretary of State and sent to the relevant overseas authority; and that within 14 days of arrival in the UK with a child that they intend to adopt, notice of an intention to adopt is given to the local authority in whose area the prospective adopters reside.

The effect of those provisions is that the prospective adopters must first be assessed and approved as suitable to adopt in the UK before adopting overseas. If they do not do that, they are guilty of an offence. We will, of course, consult on draft regulations and guidance that set out the requirements that must be met prior to bringing them into force.

Clause 81 also increases the penalties for those found guilty of breaching the restrictions on bringing, or causing to bring, a child into the country. At present, the maximum penalty on conviction is three months' imprisonment or a fine of £5,000, or both. We have strengthened that so that there is a maximum penalty in a magistrates court of six months' imprisonment and/or a fine of £5,000, and the possibility of an even higher penalty if the magistrates court refers the case to a Crown court, or if the defendant enters a plea of not guilty and elects for a Crown court trial. In such cases, the maximum penalty will be 12 months' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both.

Finally, clause 81 allows us to apply with modifications and disapply the provisions in chapter 3 on inter-country adoption cases. It is our intention to modify the provisions to provide that, where the proper procedures have been followed, children brought to the UK for adoption spend at least six months living with their prospective adopters prior to an application being made for an adoption order, and at least 12 months where they have not. We also intend to ensure that children adopted from overseas are able to obtain access to information that the agency holds about them, although the exact nature of such information will vary depending upon the procedures in the child's state of origin. Clause 121 makes similar provision for Scotland to that made by clause 81 in respect of England and Wales.

Clause 84 allows us to put in place arrangements for the recognition in England and Wales of adoption orders made overseas. It permits the Secretary of State to make an order specifying the adoption orders to be included. The clause also allows the Secretary of State to make regulations setting out the criteria that an overseas country's procedures must meet in order for the country to be included in the list of countries whose adoptions are recognised—sometimes known as the designated list.

The current designated list was created in an order made in 1973. It was amended in 1993 to add China, but other than that it has remained unchanged. It has always been our stated intention to review the designated list. However, that is not possible without changes to primary legislation, as the removal of a country from the list would automatically remove recognition of adoptions made before the review, which would undermine the status of children and adults adopted in the past from countries included on the list. Clause 122 makes similar provision for Scotland to that made in clause 84 in respect of England and Wales.

Government amendments Nos. 59 and 60 seek to clarify the definition of the word "parent", as referred to in clause 81, in relation to overseas adoption. The policy intention is for the restrictions provided for by clause 81 not to apply where the adopter or prospective adopter is a natural parent of the child. Those amendments respond to concerns expressed by stakeholders that the term "parent" includes an adoptive parent, and therefore that the provision in clause 81(1)(b), which imposes the restrictions that I explained, is nullified by subsection (2), which provides that those restrictions do not apply to a parent of the child.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech. Hon. Members understand the point that she is making, but will she explain why she feels it necessary to use the word "natural", rather than "genetic"? The term "natural parent" suggests that birth parents are the only parents who are natural. Surely adoptive parents would be natural. Why not use a more narrowly defined word, such as "genetic"?

Jacqui Smith

We understand from our discussions on the Bill that there are a lot of sensitivities about the nature of birth parents and their relationship with the child and the nature of adopters. It is generally recognised, however, that the use of the phrase "natural parent" conveys what is necessary. I suspect that we will continue to discuss some of the sensitivities involved in the use of such terms.

In response to those concerns, and following further consideration of the wording of clause 81, we seek to make amendments Nos. 59 and 60 to clarify the meaning of the word "parent".

Amendment No. 61 will provide a power to impose functions on a local authority where notice of intention to adopt has been given to the authority in respect of a child brought into the United Kingdom under clause 81(1)(a). The amendment will ensure that the maximum possible protection is conferred on children brought into the United Kingdom for the purposes of adoption. Where subsection (1)(a) applies, a person who brings a child into the United Kingdom for the purposes of adoption will be required to give a local authority notice of his or her intention to adopt within 14 days of returning to the United Kingdom.

In such a case, the intention is to impose specific functions on local authorities by regulation, following full consultation. The regulations are likely to require a local authority to visit the child, to inspect premises, to require specified information in respect of the child and prospective adopters and to monitor the child. In summary, amendment No. 61 will afford the maximum protection to be conferred on a child brought into the country for the purposes of adoption.

Amendment No. 27 is similar to amendments Nos. 59 and 60. It will ensure that the Scottish restrictions in clause 121—on bringing a child who is not habitually resident in the British isles into the United Kingdom—do not apply to a natural parent or relative.

I shall now deal with the amendments—in particular, amendment No. 29—that we have tabled to the defence provisions. We tabled the amendments to ensure that the clauses comply with the way in which the courts are now interpreting defences in the light of article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which states:

Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law. As several amendments follow the same principle, I am sure that hon. Members are paying close attention.

3.45 pm

The amendments change the legal burden in the defence provisions to an evidential burden to comply with recent court judgments. When a person is charged with an offence in contravention of a clause that provided a defence, he will not have to prove the matter set out in that defence on the balance of probabilities. The change means that if there is sufficient evidence that a defence provision may apply to the case before the court, it will be for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it does not. We consider that to be the appropriate balance in the light of convention case law.

To counterbalance that change in the burden of evidence, the amendments also amend the formulation of "did not know or have reasonable cause to believe" currently in the Bill, to "did not know, and had no reason to suspect", which provides a higher test. Amendment No. 29 applies to the offence of arranging the removal of a child from the United Kingdom for the purpose of adoption, in contravention of clause 83, and I have explained the principles behind that.

Amendments Nos. 298 and 299 substantially amend clause 84. In Committee, I set out our plans to bring into force some of the Bill's provisions before full implementation. As part of the early work, we intend to begin the process of reviewing the designated list, but we want to do so in light of the regulations that will prescribe the requirements. The review will involve bilateral discussions with countries to decide which ones should be included in the list on the basis that their adoptions are likely to meet the requirements set out in regulations. Having completed the review, the Secretary of State may make an order that adoptions made in those countries from the date that the order is made are to be overseas adoptions for the purposes of the 1976 Act and the Bill, which means that they will be recognised in the UK. As it stands, we cannot begin the review against those prescribed requirements before the commencement of the Bill as a whole, and we are keen to get on with it.

I stated in Committee that I would table an amendment on Report to allow us to set in place the new arrangements in 2003, should we be in a position to do so. The revised clause 84 will enable the review to begin in advance of the commencement of the Bill as a whole. However, the review of the designated list is likely to be a time-consuming process and we will not be able to complete it in respect of some countries by the time it comes fully into force. So the amendments to clause 84 also provide the necessary flexibility to continue to recognise adoptions from those countries currently on the designated list that have not yet been reviewed.

Amendment No. 298 largely replaces what is now clause 84. Amended subsection (1) re-defines overseas adoption for the purposes of the Bill and the 1976 Act. Subsection (2) enables the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing the requirements that should be met by an adoption that is made after the commencement of the regulations for it to be an overseas adoption. Those are likely to be: that the law in the overseas country ensures that the child has been freely given up for adoption and that that has not been induced by payment or compensation of any kind; that the overseas country makes attempts to place the child in a family in their own country; that it confirms that inter-country adoption is in the child's best interests; that the domestic and inter-country adoption arrangements and requirements are the same; and that profit is not made from the process.

Those are the main requirements in the amendments on the inter-country provisions. The key consideration is that the Bill already significantly strengthens and clarifies the position on inter-country adoption. Its additional restrictions and tougher penalties will protect vulnerable children overseas by acting as a deterrent to those who do not want to go through the proper assessment and approval procedures. It should also help us to ensure that a consistent service is provided to those who wish to adopt overseas, and that they are helped to navigate the often complex procedures. The amendments will provide for the Bill to go even further to strengthen the safeguards and procedures for children who are adopted overseas, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Brazier

I shall focus mostly on Government amendments Nos. 61 and 298, although I want to press the Minister for a moment on the point that I made in an intervention in relation to Government amendments Nos. 59, 60 and 27.

Terminology is of some significance. To many adoptive parents, it seems sad to hear the genetic parents of the children concerned, many of whom have been most unnatural in their treatment of their children, referred to as "natural parents", as if adopting were somehow unnatural. Why cannot the much more usual terminology of "birth parents" be used, or a more technical term such as "genetic parents"? That is not clear to me.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I have some sympathy with the use of the term "birth parents". Would the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the term "genetic parents" can cause problems, as genetics do not always bear out—in probably 20 per cent. of cases, I understand—what a child believes to be truly his or her parentage?

Mr. Brazier

The hon. Lady is taking us into a terminological minefield. Perhaps she and I can agree on the most commonly used phrase: "birth parents". We do not want to spend too much time on the terminology, but the fact is that many adoptive parents resent the idea that it should be suggested in law that their relationship with the children concerned—the adoption of whom has often involved them making huge sacrifices—is somehow unnatural.

In relation to Government amendment No. 61, it is worth making a few background points on clause 81. The United Kingdom still has a bolt-on inter-country service, both currently and even after the introduction of this Bill, rather than, as is the case in many other signatories to the convention, a system that is specially designed to deal with overseas adoptions. The amendment takes a small step in the right direction of putting Britain into the mainstream of convention-signing countries that receive children for adoption. Adopters will now have to notify their local authority about their new child's arrival. That should mean that the local authority is then obliged to make welfare visits: alas, these are all too frequently not done because of the pressures on social services staff.

The provision will help a little with the difficulty that adopters have in trying to get recognition of the probity of inter-country adoption within their local authorities, but, sadly, it probably does not go far enough, and certainly not as far as was envisaged by the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. There is, indeed, a question. The 1999 Act envisaged that any adoption of a child into the UK should be treated as though it were an agency adoption. That ensures that local authorities oversee the assessment of adopters and review the child's progress once the child comes into the UK, and that the rest of the protective measures apply. Given that this Government amendment is, effectively, less strong than the 1999 provisions, what happens to those provisions? They have not yet been put into operation, so are they simply to disappear?

The Minister referred to the importance of helping overseas adopters, as we do other adopters. They battle with paperwork and practicalities here and in the sending country almost alone. There is no specialist agency of any kind to help them here. When the British adoptive family have returned to the UK with the child, they have hitherto received very little assistance from most local authorities. Sometimes, there has been monitoring of the early days of the adoption, but, mostly, work pressures in local authorities have prevented even that.

It is worth noting that very few overseas adoptions have broken down over the years. The one group that has been thoroughly researched is the 500 or so children who came from Romania in 1991 and 1992. About 20 of those 500 adoptions have broken down—that is only 4 per cent., which is an extraordinarily low figure and much lower than the rate for domestic adoptions. It is particularly remarkable, given the horrendous conditions—we all saw the pictures on television—from which the children came.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House the average age of the children who came from Romania? Children from the UK who are adopted tend to be older and, therefore, have more problems.

Mr. Brazier

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer, but I believe that the children from Romania came from across the age spectrum. They were certainly not all babies, which seems to be the point behind his question.

Before I move away from the subject of Romania, it is worth putting on record the anger that many adopters feel about the activities of Baroness Nicholson. She was sent to Romania by the European Parliament to consider the position there, and in her report on adoption in Romania she makes an attack that appears to be corroborated by very little evidence. The suggestion that children were being sold from Romania so frightened the authorities there that overseas adoption from that country to this country has stopped completely, thus denying many children the opportunity of a loving family to adopt them.

The fact that such a high proportion of overseas adoptions succeed is a towering achievement and testimony to the intense commitment of overseas adopters. Surely help should be available to them. It is well known that early intervention with a problem is usually productive and often saves the relationship. The amendment should help a little, because social workers will have a duty to monitor families just as they do with domestic adoptions. I hope that the barrage of quality protects indicators—it seems to get larger every year— will be followed up and delivered despite the extreme overstretch that many local authorities, including mine, have experienced.

Government amendment No. 298 will amend clause 84 and it is clearly designed to deal with cases such as that involving the Kilshaws. As the Minister said, it will close the current loophole that allowed the Kilshaws to get round having a local authority pre-adoption vetting. They used a private home study that went directly to a US-based agency, which then allowed the adoption. A number of such adoptions have taken place each year. I am not attacking the Kilshaws under parliamentary privilege—enough has already been said about that case—but there is a danger that those with genuinely sinister motives, such as paedophiles, might take advantage of the loophole. Therefore, it is right to close it and to bring the rules for UK adoptions from the US into line with those for other countries. However, in the Kilshaw case, it must be pointed out that the American and British laws together finally delivered a satisfactory result.

The Kilshaw case resulted in much animus against American adoption agencies. However, although the state of adoption law in some American states is not very good, it is better in many states than it is in this country. Furthermore, many couples in this country make up for the complete absence of proper independent advice in this country about overseas adoption by approaching an American agency. Very often, American agencies can assist British couples in adopting children from countries outside America and Britain.

Taken as a whole, the amendments make a number of sensible changes to improve the administration of overseas adoption. We are minded to support them, but we still feel that there should be a little more carrot—a little more positive assistance for people who bring children into this country, often from the most appalling conditions, and give them a loving home.

4 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

When the Minister sums up the debate, will she tell us her assessment of the Bill's likely effect on the volume of inter-country adoption? Will there be significantly more of it or significantly less, or will the level remain about the same?

I have no professional interest in adoption, whether overseas or domestic, and I have no personal experience of it. However, I have dealt with the casework of constituents who have attempted overseas adoption, and they have found the procedures in this country amazingly negative and labyrinthine. First, they go to the local council's social services department, where they find that social workers are unremittingly hostile because they seem to feel that there is something not quite correct about adopting children from another culture. They fear, often completely wrongly, that they may be stolen or that there may be profit involved. Cases may go, on appeal, to the Department of Health. I was involved in one such case, and found that there was hostility there too. If the case gets through that hurdle, it has to go through immigration control, where such adoptions are viewed very negatively, as a loophole in immigration regulations.

There is not only anecdotal evidence of that approach; there is evidence of it in the number of such adoptions. We seem to have one of the most restrictive regimes for inter-country adoptions in the western world. I understand that there are about 300 applications a year, fewer than the number of inter-country adoptions in small countries such as Norway and about a tenth of the number in France. There may be technical reasons for that, but in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I assume that it is the result of our extremely restrictive philosophy.

Most of the Minister's introduction was about strengthening restrictions and tightening controls. She said nothing to imply that there was anything worth while about inter-country adoption. However, in many cases it may be a very desirable activity. There are people who are genuinely humanitarian and who wish to give children a home, and if one of the partners has a link overseas, inter-country adoption may be a perfectly natural thing to do. I would hope that the Minister would be a little more positive about the spirit behind such adoptions.

I sense that my sentiments are echoed by many of the countries with which we deal. For example, India and Colombia, which have developed sophisticated domestic monitoring systems to prevent abuse and profiteering, have found this country absolutely impossible to deal with because our philosophy is so negative. South American countries such as Peru have followed the same route. This country is clearly sending out the message that it does not want inter-country adoption, so it makes it as difficult as possible for parents to pursue that course. I hope that the Minister will make her approach clear.

I listened to some of the debates that took place last week. The philosophy behind much of the Government's thinking, on unmarried couples for example, is that it is better to have an imperfect relationship than to leave a child in an orphanage, and surely that is even more the case here. There are many children in dire circumstances who would benefit from adoption. If the right procedures and proper protections are in place, why cannot overseas adoption be not merely tolerated but actively encouraged?

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

Will the hon. Gentleman please explain to the House what an imperfect relationship is?

Dr. Cable

I do not want to reopen the debate that we had last week. I happily supported the principle of giving unmarried couples the right to adopt. The Government seemed to say—I fully supported them—that it was often better for unmarried couples rather than married couples to adopt because that widened the pool of adoption and brought more people into play. I am simply asking them to follow through the same logic in relation to the very specific problem that we are considering.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I did not intend to speak in the debate on this amendment, but I am stimulated by contributions from the Conservative Front Bench and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable).

I have grave doubts in principle about overseas adoptions. Last week, I mentioned the circumstances that I witnessed in Romania. I know nothing about Baroness Nicholson's report, which I have not read, but I share her concern about procedures for removing very poor children from Romania. I believe strongly that our contribution in such circumstances should be to try to work with the authorities and the children and their families to ensure that poverty and deprivation are addressed in their own country.

I mentioned my visit 10 years ago to a nursery in Romania containing 100 children below the age of five. I remember the children climbing all over me while I stood. On starting in child care work, I found that when somebody goes into a children's home, children who do not know them climb on to them for love and for the sake of touching somebody. My experience in Romania was the same. The nursery was supposedly an orphanage, but, as I said last week, when I asked the woman in charge how many of the children were without families, she told me that only one out of 100 was an orphan. The rest had families, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who loved them dearly, but could not afford to bring them up.

I passionately believe that we need to tread carefully in relation to overseas adoptions. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that we will consider how this country might assist in protecting youngsters in countries such as Romania who are removed from their families. It can happen for what might seem the very best of reasons. Indeed, I and one or two other members of the Select Committee on Health had contact with a previous scheme in which poor children were removed from this country to the other side of the world for the very best of reasons. When they came back, a number of them asked, "Why did you do it, Britain?"

Would we honestly argue that children in this country who are in poverty and are deprived and living in very difficult circumstances should be sent overseas and adopted there because we cannot look after them and support their families? I do not think so. I hope that we will tread very carefully in dealing with these matters.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Broadly speaking, I fully support the amendments, which are a useful step forward.

Mention has been made of the Kilshaw case. I am not here to use parliamentary privilege in an unfair way either, but I point out that the case highlighted numerous problems that are addressed by the amendments, which are most welcome. Many criticisms are made of social services. It is obvious that they are under a great deal of pressure, but the Flintshire social services moved rapidly indeed in that case and deserve credit for what they did. Equally, the Government have listened to the evidence taken in the Special Standing Committee. The amendments are welcome and the Bill is far better now than a few months ago.

The hon. Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) referred to youngsters in Romania. I visited Belarus not so long ago and saw similar circumstances in which children were seemingly being offered to all and sundry, which is completely unacceptable. The comments made by the hon. Member for Wakefield were absolutely right: we need better liaison between UK authorities and those in other countries.

The memorandum submitted by the Adoption Forum to the Special Standing Committee states, among other things:

There is no provision for help or advice beyond the home study. Prospective adopters will still be on their own battling with the bureaucracies of two countries—their own and the country of origin of the child. Here is the crunch: How are people to find reliable contacts and agencies abroad when there is so little official help on offer?"—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 21 November 2001; c. 171.] I fully support the contention of the hon. Member for Wakefield that we need to make it possible for these countries to address their problems rather than offer their children for adoption. Will the Minister consider this point, however, in the cases where adoption is a viable alternative—perhaps the viable alternative? This argument was put to various bodies during the evidence taking, and, as far as I can see from the Bill, we have not progressed much further since then. I am not levelling criticism unfairly or casually; many of the amendments have plugged the gap that existed, and they are welcome. I would, however, like the Minister to address the small point that I have just raised. Apart from that, I am very pleased to support the amendments.

Jacqui Smith

We have had a short but useful debate, in which different views have been expressed on whether the Government should further restrict inter-country adoption or take an even more positive approach to it. This partly represents the sensitivity and the concerns of people engaged in such adoption; it also reflects a failure to understand some of the progress that is being made in the Bill.

To return to the point pressed by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about the use of the word "natural", I am not sure that I am going to be able to satisfy him today, so to speak. The Government considered other terms, but they were all seen to have problems attached to their use, some of which have been mentioned today. Perhaps I could write to him about why "natural" is the most appropriate term.

Several hon. Members have understandably mentioned the Kilshaw case in relation to safeguards. I note the presence in the Chamber of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson); he was, of course, the Kilshaws' constituency MP. I understand that he supports the views of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) about the important contribution made by Flintshire social services, and about the importance of ensuring—as we are doing in the Bill—that significant changes are made to protect children from the kind of events that we saw in the Kilshaw case. This will be assisted by the Government's decision to restrict the bringing into the country of children adopted in other countries within the last six months. As I suggested in my introduction, that is quite an important loophole that the Bill will enable us to close.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the need for more support for those engaged in inter-country adoption. The hon. Member for Canterbury talked about the need for inter-country adoption agencies. I believe that some agencies already concentrate on inter-country work, and it is also possible for inter-country adoption agencies to be set up under the Bill. I would say to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) that it is not the intention of the Bill either artificially to increase or artificially to hold back the number of inter-country adoptions. It is not clear whether the number will increase, although it has risen steadily over the last couple of years. The Bill will, however, improve the quality of procedures for those wanting to adopt from overseas. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham that there is hostility in the system to inter-country adoption. I shall outline some of the action already taken by the Government.

We have introduced the provisions in the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 that place a clear duty on local authorities to establish an inter-country adoption service. Those adopting from abroad are already eligible under provisions relating to adoption support, which we have debated at some length. However, procedures are necessarily tight in order to protect and safeguard children. Given the concerns that hon. Members have expressed and what we know about some cases, it is important that those safeguards are in place.

4.15 pm

We have fewer inter-country adoptions than some other countries, but we have 10 times the number of domestic adoptions than in Norway, for example. There is an important cultural issue to be considered. In many countries, there is nothing like the emphasis—if any emphasis at all—on the adoption of children out of care that there is in this country. Hon. Members will recognise that it is a very important priority for the Government not only to maintain but to increase the ability to adopt out of care. That is quite often the reason for discrepancies in adoption figures among countries. In addition, The Hague convention, against which I have not heard any hon. Member argue, requires that we tighten controls in order to proceed with our ratification. Prospective adopters have the support both of their agencies and of the Department of Health's adoption unit in finding out the information that they need to help them adopt children from overseas. I do not quite understand the accusation made by the hon. Member for Twickenham that, somehow, Government officials are attempting to make life more difficult for those who want to adopt from overseas. I have evidence of people thanking officials in my Department for the assistance that they have been given on inter-country adoption.

The hon. Member for Canterbury suggested that the provisions in the Bill were weaker than the 1999 measures. In fact, clauses 81 and 84 are tighter in the sense that the Secretary of State will have to prescribe the requirements that ought to be met by local authorities in discharging their responsibilities to those adopting from overseas. Without that provision, the Secretary of State would not have any criteria to work to and would therefore be more likely to be challenged.

We recognise that a balance needs to be struck between enabling parents who have a genuine wish to adopt and a contribution to make in adopting a child from overseas, and the very important need to ensure that our legislation protects children not only in this country but overseas. As we have made clear throughout proceedings on this Bill, whether we are considering domestic or inter-country adoption, we must ensure that the needs of the children are at the centre of policies. I commend the Government's amendments to the House.

Amendment agreed to.

It being forty-five minutes after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of the Bill, MR. SPEAKER, pursuant to Order [16 May], put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour.

Amendments made: No. 60, in page 44, line 22, at beginning insert "natural".

No. 61, in page 44, line 42, at end insert—

(b) if notice of intention to adopt has been given, impose functions in respect of the child on the local authority to which the notice was given'.—[Jacqui Smith.]

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