HC Deb 04 November 2002 vol 392 cc105-7

Lords amendment: No. 39, in page 45, line 31, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b).

Jacqui Smith

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this, we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 40 and 41, Government amendments (a), (b) and (c) thereto, 58, Government amendment (a) thereto, 59 to 61, Government amendment (a) thereto, 92, 93, Government amendment (a) thereto, 94, 95, 96, Government amendment (a) thereto, 97, 102 and 104.

Jacqui Smith

The group focuses on the application of intercountry adoption provisions to parents, relatives, guardians and step-parents, and provides for the time that the child must live with the adopters before an adoption order can be made.

First, let me deal with the time that the child should live with the adopters. Section 13 of the Adoption Act 1976 provides that, when the applicant is a parent, stepparent or relative of the child, or the child is placed by an adoption agency, or in pursuance of an order of the High Court, the child must be placed with the applicants for 13 weeks before the adoption order can be made. In cases of intercountry adoptions, which are not agency placements, the child must live with the applicants for 12 months. Clause 41 sets out the residence periods in the Bill.

For non-agency placements, for which clause 41 does not provide elsewhere, the residence period is three out of the previous five years. However, clause 82(6)(a) enables regulations to provide that clauses in chapter 3 apply with modifications or do not apply to children who are brought in under clause 82. Hon. Members will remember that, to improve the safeguards for intercountry adoption, we intend to use that power to provide that the child must live with the applicants for six months when the correct procedures have been followed and 12 months when they have not.

When clause 82 does not apply, the standard residence period in clause 41 will apply. However, it is intended that clause 82 will apply to all but a limited group of people. The exceptions are likely to be, for example, parents in prescribed circumstances. Under clause 41, the residence period for parents is 10 weeks.

The amendments are intended to make clear the residence periods that should apply to convention adoptions and to ensure that the same modification powers are available for early implementation of the restrictions on intercountry adoption. In summary, whenever the correct procedures have been followed, we intend that the child should live with the adopters for six months. That would ensure that the children had time to adjust and settle with their new families, and that the local authority had been able to monitor the placement satisfactorily before the court made the order.

As I said earlier, when the correct procedures have not been followed, we intend that the child should be required to live with the adopters for a minimum of 12 months to allow the child to settle with the new family and the local authority to assess the family fully in lieu of the checks that should have been made before the child came to live with the family.

I turn now to the amendments that deal with the issue of to whom the provisions on intercountry adoption should apply. Hon. Members will remember the structure of clause 82, which relates to restrictions on such adoptions. In their previous form, the provisions ensured that parents and relatives were excluded from those restrictions. We have received representations from intercountry adoption stakeholder groups expressing concern about intercountry adoption by relatives. They have suggested that, at present, the welfare of the child is not paramount, because these cases are treated predominantly as an immigration issue rather than an adoption matter.

The groups have raised concern about the lack of preparation undertaken by relatives adopting from overseas, and about the fact that relatives do not have their suitability to adopt assessed unless the child's home country requires it. They have made it clear that this means that we cannot be sure that those relatives will provide a safe, secure environment for the child. We have listened carefully to the issues that they have raised, and we believe that this is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Clauses 82, 84 and 128 of the Bill, the transitional provision in paragraph 10 of schedule 4, and section 56 of the Adoption Act 1976 place restrictions on the circumstances in which children may be brought into the UK or taken out of the UK for the purposes of adoption. At present, those restrictions include the requirement for a person wishing to bring a child into the country for the purpose of adoption to be assessed and approved by an adoption agency, and for a person wishing to take a child out of the country for the purpose of adoption to be in receipt of an order permitting this. However, these safeguards do not apply when the prospective adopters are the child's natural parents, natural relatives, guardians or step-parents.

In the light of the concerns that stakeholders have raised, we have returned to the case for exempting those groups, and come to the conclusion that something should be done to address the issue. The approach that we have taken, through the amendments, is to remove the specific exemption of parents, guardians, relatives and step-parents from the provisions that set out the restrictions. Then, in each case, a regulation-making power has been taken to enable us to prescribe that the provisions setting out restrictions on bringing a child in or removing a child are not to apply—or, in the case of taking the child out of the country for the purposes of adoption, are to apply with modification—to parents, guardians, relatives and step-parents. For example, amendment No. 41 inserts a new clause in the Bill containing such regulation-making powers in relation to clauses 82 and 84. This reflects the need to be flexible and to be careful that we do not impose these restrictions inappropriately. Using those regulation-making powers will provide the necessary flexibility to react to changing circumstances. It may become clear through experience and discussions with other countries that it would be inappropriate for certain groups to be included in the restrictions. We intend to consult on who should be exempt from the restrictions, and the use of regulations will allow for the responses to be taken into account.

Amendments Nos. 39 to 41 deal with the position under the Bill. Amendments Nos. 58 to 61 deal with the position under the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978, and amendments Nos. 93 to 96 deal with the position under the Adoption Act 1976. Because the amendments remove the explicit exemption of parents, guardians, relatives and step-parents from the restrictions, this gives us additional powers in relation to residence periods. It means that we will be able to use the regulation-making powers in clause 82 of the Bill, section 50A of the Adoption (Scotland) Act 1978 and new section 56A of the Adoption Act 1976 to make regulations to modify the time a child must live with a parent, relative, guardian or step-parent in intercountry adoption cases.

9.15 pm

These are detailed amendments, but our clear intention is to ensure that children being adopted from overseas by parents, relatives, guardians and stepparents are properly safeguarded. We recognise that such children are vulnerable, that they need protecting and that their relatives may need the same assessment of suitability and/or help to prepare for adoption as a stranger planning to adopt a child from overseas. However, we are also clear about the fact that we do not want to impose unworkable restrictions and that we need to take the advice of those working in the field as to any groups that should legitimately be excluded. That is why we have taken care to include in the amendments regulation-making powers that provide the necessary flexibility to react to experience, changes in practice and the views of professionals.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments No. 40 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 41 and Government amendments (a) to (c) thereto agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 42 and 43 agreed to.

Forward to