HL Deb 31 October 1975 vol 365 cc827-38

[Nos. 55–62]

Clause 25, page 16, line 18, leave out from ("(5)") to ("The") in line 22 and insert ("after the word "except" there are inserted the words" in accordance with section 20A of this Act or".

(2) The following section is inserted in the 1958 Act after section 20:—

"Disclosure 20A.—(1) Subject to subsections (4) and (6) of this section,".)

birth records of adopted persons.

Clause 25, Page 16, line 23, leave out ("born in England or Wales") and insert ("a record of whose birth is kept by the Registrar General and").

Clause 25, Page 16, line 27, leave out from ("the") to end of line 28 and insert ("record of his birth").

Clause 25, Page 16, line 30, leave out ("who was born in England or Wales and") and insert ("a record of whose birth is kept by the Registrar General and who").

Clause 25, Page 16, line 35, after ("births") insert ("or other records").

Clause 25, Page 16, line 38, at end insert—

("(3) It shall be the duty of the Registrar General and each local authority and approved adoption society to provide counselling for adopted persons who apply for information under subsection (1) of this section.

(4) Before supplying any information to an applicant under subsection (1) of this section, the Registrar General shall inform the applicant that counselling services are avail able to him:—

  1. (a) at the General Register Office; or
  2. (b) from the local authority for the area where the applicant is at the time the application is made; or
  3. (c) the local authority for the area where the court sat which made the adoption order relating to the applicant; or
  4. (d) if the applicant's adoption was arranged by an adoption society which is approved under section 3 of the Children Act 1975, from that society.

(5) If the applicant chooses to receive counselling from a local authority or an adoption society under subsection (4) the Registrar General shall send to the authority or society of the applicant's choice the information to which the applicant is entitled under subsection (1).

(6) The Registrar General shall not supply a person who was adopted before the date on which the Children Act 1975 was passed with any information under subsection (1) of this section unless that person has attended an interview with a counsellor either at the General Register Office or in pursuance of arrangements made by the local authority or adoption society from whom the applicant is entitled to receive counselling in accordance with subsection (4)."

Clause 25, Page 16, line 40, leave out from ("regulations") to end of line 41 and insert ("made by the Registrar General").

After Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—

("In section 22 of the 1958 Act—

  1. (a) the following words are added at the end of subsection (4)—
  2. (b) the following subsections are inserted after subsection (4)—

"(4A) Where the Registrar General for Scotland furnishes an adopted person with information under subsection (4) of this section, he shall advise that person that counseling services are available—

  1. (a) from the local authority for the area where the adopted person lives; or
  2. (b) if the adopted persons' adoption was arranged by an adoption society which is approved under section 4 of the Children Act 1975, from that society,
and it shall be the duty of such local authority and approved adoption society to provide counselling for adopted persons who have been furnished with information under subsection (4) and who apply to them for counselling in respect of that information.

(4B) Where an adopted person has arranged to receive counselling under subsection (4A), the Registrar General for Scotland shall, on receipt of a request from the local authority or adoption society which is providing that counselling, and on payment of the appropriate fee, send to the authority or society an extract of the entry relating to the adopted person in the Register of Births.")


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 55 to 62 en bloc. While it is generally acknowledged that adopted persons ought to have access to their birth records, the concern expressed in this House about the provisions of Clause 25 extending to persons adopted before the passing of this Bill was shared by the other place. Both Houses felt that, although natural mothers might have been misguided into believing that their anonymity would be preserved for ever, they ought to be afforded some measure of protection against the possible consequences of a change in the law. Following extensive consultatiton, therefore, the Government have decided that persons adopted before the Bill should be required to see a counsellor before they are given the information they seek. We hope that this will reduce the risk of adopted persons thoughtlessly attempting to seek out their natural parents without taking account of the implications.

The counselling scheme will give applicants for information about their birth the choice of being seen at the General Register Office; in the local authority where they live; in the local authority in whose area the adoption order was made; or by the adoption society which arranged the adoption, if that society has been approved by the Secretary of State. Amendment No. 60 therefore lays a duty on the Registrar General, local authori- ties and approved adoption societies to provide counselling for adopted persons applying for information. This will be optional for those adopted after the Bill becomes law, but obligatory for those adopted earlier. Amendments Nos. 56 and 58 take up a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, and apply the provisions of Clause 25 to adopted persons who are British but who were born abroad. I do not think there is any necessity for me to say anything more on this group of Amendments.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 55 to 62 en bloc.—(Lord Wells-Pestell.)

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to make two interventions at this stage, and the first is on a procedural matter. A number of my noble friends are under the impression that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, proposes to go right through the Bill today, and I wish to reassure them that it is my understanding that we are taking only Parts I and II. Therefore the pressure is slightly less than my noble friends may imagine. The device of moving Amendments en bloc can be interrupted at any stage. It has the convenience, where there is no controversial material, of allowing a Minister to save time and refer to the principles on which a group of Amendments are advanced. There is nothing in itself objectionable about this, provided that it is not used to obscure points of importance. The noble Lord will understand, from what I have said previously, that it has not been possible for me, at the very short notice on which we received the revised list of Amendment groupings, to circulate to my noble friends the groupings indicating the blocs in which the Amendments were to be moved. Therefore although this was useful to myself and to my colleagues on the Front Bench in preparing our material, it was not available to other noble Lords who may well find themselves in difficulty picking out the particular points which they wish to raise from the blocs of Amendments which are being spoken to. I hope that it would be convenient to the House if the noble Lord would now care to make a brief comment on this point, after which I can continue with a comment or Amendment No. 60.


My Lords, I am sorry if I did not make it clear that the purpose this afternoon is to deal with Parts I and II, if we can. I understand that this has been arranged through the usual channels, and I thought that this was known. If I am at fault, I apologise to your Lordships for not making it known at the beginning. I understand that it is the intention to take Parts III, IV and V on Wednesday of next week. I also understand that the Amendments will be available in printed form on Monday. The pressure is only in relation to Parts I and II this afternoon. Perhaps I ought to have made that clear, and I am sorry if I did not.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord for making clear the arrangements we have reached. I now wish to draw your Lordships'attention to Amendment No. 60. I thank the noble Lord for his explanation, but I should be grateful if he could go a little further. Many people regard this as emotive and difficult material to deal with, and are not clear what form the counselling, when given, will take. In the Bill it is proposed that there should be numerous categories of people. There are adopted people in Scotland for whom there is no change in the law. There are quite a large number of adopted people in England who are aware of their original names and to whom this provision bears no relation, since they are able to get their birth certificates by straightforward application. In fact, this number is quite large, because adoptive parents normally have the birth certificate of the adopted child through their hands during court proceedings. In England, also, there are those who are adopted subsequent to the passage of the Bill and who will now have to go through the net, and those adopted prior to the passage of the Bill who will go through the net if they wish to. What form of counselling will they receive? The most provocative would be, "You ought not to ask any further, my friend. I am here to stop you finding out something nasty." I cannot believe that it is the intention that that should be the form of counsel, but it suggests itself in many ways as being the end of the line upon which this clause sets out.

More seriously, because it relates to the whole Bill, I should like the noble Lord to turn his attention to the question of costing. In this instance the noble Lord's right honourable friend said in another place at column 1376 of Hansard that this exercise might be expected to cost between £20.000 and £50.000. That was at the top of the column, and at the bottom of the column, as I read it, it said that it might be expected to cost £75,000. I do not doubt that something was lost in the transmission of that information, but when one turns to the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum on the original Bill one finds a steady escalation from approximately £2 million at the outset, hovering on £8 million now and with a general supposition—unvoiced officially as yet, I understand—of £14 million in the ultimate at today's costs. That is of the order of seven times the original cost, and it has considerable bearing on the implementation of the Bill because, as I understand it, not much of the Bill will take effect on the day it passes into law and becomes an enactment. Some of the clauses, mostly regulatory clauses and those embodying restatements of existing law, will come into effect on 1st January next year, and the rest in a manner which I find it extremely difficult to follow—and here the pressure of time was very much against one. It says in the Schedules, and in one of the clauses, that it is to be as and when the money becomes available for implementation. We understand the argument behind this. We are aware that courts are very often faced with the alternatives of placinga child in care in a highly unsuitable corrective institution or leaving it in care with highly unsuitable and risk-implying parents. That was one of the unsatisfactory circumstances which led to the conception of this Bill. But if we do not know what any of these exercises is going to cost we cannot know when they are to be put into effect. The one thing which would be worse than waiting a long time to put them into effect when the resources are available would be to put them into effect when the resources are not, when I am told that harm could be done.

We are, then, up against a question of priorities. I think one of the functions of this House must be to attach a label of priority to the passage of this Bill. Albeit we are not a House empowered to deal with financial matters: we are a House empowered to give our views on the importance of financial matters; and at a time of economic stringency, when almost every service is crying out against the savageness of the cuts being imposed upon it by outside forces beyond its control and trying to establish a favourable position for itself in the pecking order, I think we have to remember that there is a wide spread of increased costs implicit in this Bill. Furthermore, they are not only costs which immediately suggest themselves in terms of cash, which the noble Lord will doubtless have at his finger tips in response to the circular which went out via the AMA on 27th June, in which the various classes of legislation within this Bill were grouped into eight groups, each with a price tag attached to it. It is not only that, my Lords; there is also the question of manpower costs and training costs.

The Bill will impose considerable strains on the social services and welfare workers. Not merely are they going to have more to do—and I have picked this clause because it is the first one whére we come up against this under the Commons Amendments—but they will also require skills which a great many of them have not yet acquired. It is going to take both time and money for them to acquire these skills, and also, in my humble submission, a good deal of recruitment as well. We were horrified to learn from the Report on the now celebrated case of Maria Colwell that it is not out of the ordinary for a case worker to have a case list of 40 cases. You cannot blandly say, "Here is another Act of Parliament; you will have to go up to 45 or 50 cases". You really will have to recruit somebody else to do the work, and you will have to train them, which costs money; you will have to pay them, which costs money; you will have to provide them with a pension, which costs money; and, indeed, you will have to provide them with transport.

So there are hidden costs, my Lords, and I hope I have made a sufficient plea here for the noble Lord to be able to say what priority is given to this Bill, and to different parts of it, in Her Majesty's Government's programme for public finance. Can he, please, at the same time tell us, in the light of that, when we can expect the various parts of the Bill to come into operation? Because, in my view, it could well be a very long time, which, of course, throws the present situation into slightly absurd relief.


My Lords, on Amendment No. 60, which deals with the appointment of counselling officers who shall give guidance to people who have been adopted, I am in rather a state of uncertainty as to how far the use of these counselling officers will extend. Will they have absolute power to give or to deny an applicant the information? Let us take, as an imaginary case, the case of a village maiden in this country in a district where during the war there was an American camp. Let us assume that this village maiden showed her admiration for our gallant allies in a way which subsequently led to the birth of a child. The child will now be grown-up; that child will probably want to get married; that child will probably want to know who his father is. The counselling officer may be in possession of information which shows that that gallant American soldier was really a Chicago gangster. Will he have the power to deny to the adopted child—now a young man—the right to know who his father was; or will he attempt in a tactful way to say, "I do not think that you ought to press your inquiry any farther"? The seriousness of this imaginary situation is this. Will the counsellor often be compelled to disclose to the adopted child his actual parentage, whether pleasant or unpleasant?


My Lords, may I ask two questions? First, who are these counsellors to be, who is to train them? It seems from what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, that there will not be a great number of children who will not be able by normal means to find out who their parents were; but there will always be—and that is the reason for Amendment No. 60—a certain number of children who will want to find out. I think it is terribly important to get the counsellors right. As the noble Lord opposite said, it is going to be a very difficult problem to decide how much information should be given. I should like to know that these people will be very specialised and highly trained.

As I have experienced in my courts—and I have the pleasure normally of granting adoption orders—in many cases one of the parents, presumably always the father, is completely unknown to anybody, very often including the mother. Therefore, in cases where the child wants to know the father and it is not possible to find out because nobody knows including the mother, will the counsellor be able to say or be empowered to say that the father was unknown, untraceable and that therefore they cannot give the information? I think that this is a very delicate matter which I am sure this Amendment will cover, but I wonder if the noble Lord can help me at all.


My Lords, I know exactly how noble Lords feel. Perhaps I can satisfy them as to my own feelings when I say that I was one of a small group who introduced counselling into the United Kingdom some 35 years ago. I was responsible for many years for the selection and training of marriage counsellors. Having said that, I know how important it is that one should select the right people. Often, people who feel they have the right sort of qualities turn out on interview to be not necessarily the right people to do the work.

I think that one must realise that this is a limited form of counselling. If I may jump around for a while, I can say that this is going to be set up initially by the General Register Office who will also work through the local authorities. The counsellors will, in fact, be social workers. I do not know why the noble Baroness reacts in that way. Can it really be thought that anybody is going to let loose on the public unsuitable people to do the job? They must be specially selected. Notwithstanding the fact that they are social workers, they will have to be specially selected as being temperamentally suitable to do this kind of work. It is not everybody's cup of tea.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. It is the specialised knowledge that is of vital importance. The noble Lord has given me the answer I wanted.


I am obliged to the noble Baroness. It will be a limited field of counselling to deal with one particular aspect where a person feels the overwhelming desire to have information as to his parents. Many of us have problems and when we talk them over with somebody the serious worries and anxieties disappear. It may well be when they have talked over their reasons for wanting information they may not want to press this matter.

In reply to my noble friend who sits behind me, I can say this: counsellors will have no power to deny the applicant the information he seeks. Their role is to find out whether or not there is a genuine reason—the word "genuine" is mine—why the person should need this information. If there is a good, valid, genuine reason, the recommendation will be made accordingly. If, in the view of the counsellor, it is not suitable, that will also be passed on; but there the responsibility of the counsellor finishes and it is for somebody else to deal with the situation. I feel we have in our vast and comprehensive network of professional social workers in this country a nucleus; and that is all we need. I would be surprised if we want more than one counsellor in most areas because this is a very small problem, albeit an important one. I hope I have said enough to reassure my noble friend on the counselling point. I would find it difficult to subscribe to any procedure that would let loose the wrong people on the community.

Regarding Lord Elton's question about implementation and cost, let me be perfectly honest; that is difficult to answer. My honourable friend the Minister of State for Health replied recently to a question put to him by a Member in another place. I do not know whether the noble Lord has seen it. Regarding this question, he said something like this: good progress has been made and a substantial measure of agreement reached in discussions between himself and representatives of associations on a programme for the first phase of implementation covering the financial year 1976–77. This takes full account of their assessment of the financial and human resources that will be required.

The associations have shown a strong commitment to do all they can within the resources available to them to implement the Bill and they share the Government's view of the relative importance of the various provisions. Obviously, the timetable—and this is the point the noble Lord raised—has been dictated by the necessity to contain expenditure, though there are many sections of the Bill which do not carry any financial commitment. Discussions are continuing on the detailed timetable, and future decisions will depend on the resource outlook in the summer of 1976 for the financial year 1977–78. My honourable friend went on to say that it would take local authorities at least a full year to prepare for the statutory requirement to provide a comprehensive adoption service, and probably a further period before the necessary high standards are achieved to justify bringing in some sections of the legislation.

I do not think I can take it beyond that except to say, regarding the access to birth records—and I do not want to go over the counselling point again regarding costs—it is difficult to for cast the likely number of applications to be dealt with. But the estimated cost of providing such a counselling service, including social workers and clerical staff—and the noble Lord has to see in that the question of selection, training and consultation—could be between £35,000 and £70,000 a year. The cost of counselling locally in local social service departments is bound to vary. I can only say that it is difficult to give him an adequate answer.


My Lords, by leave, may I ask the noble Lord, before he sits down, whether he can carry out a similar speculative assessment of the cost of the whole Bill, and give a similar approximation when the whole Bill may eventually be working? I do not see where else I can ask this; it is obviously a matter of interest to the House.


I cannot, my Lords; but I will take advice on both these matters. Whether I can give the noble Lord an answer before we adjourn today, I do not know. But if I cannot, the noble Lord will understand that I shall not be available next week and so I will arrange either for somebody to write to the noble Lord or for the necessary information to reach him in some other way.


My Lords, may I ask whether I have interpreted correctly my noble friend's reply to the specific point I put, which was as follows: if an adopted child goes to a counsellor and asks: "Who is my father?" and if the counsellor is in possession of that information, is he compelled to give it to the adopted child?—tactfully of course.


My Lords, the answer is, No; because the counsellor will have no authority to pass on information of that kind to a person who has been adopted. As I understand the situation, it could be possible on occasions that a counsellor might not even personally have that information. I see the counsellor's role as trying to find out why the information is needed and then reporting to the person responsible why it is needed. I would not have thought, although I may be wrong about this, that the counsellor would be in a position to give information: that would not be his or her role.

On Question, Motion agreed to.