§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Sims
I beg to move Amendment No. 11, in page 8, line 28, at end insert—'(g) three months has elapsed since the original consent to adoption was made'.It is many years since the House has considered legislation relating to adoption and it may be many years before it has a similar opportunity. It is a pity that that opportunity has not been taken by means of the law concerning the irrevocability of consent to adoption. The House should give some consideration to this matter, and that is why I have moved the amendment.
The House will be aware of the present procedure whereby, if a mother decides that she wishes her child to be adopted, she signs a written consent to that effect. The child is then in due course placed by a proper agency for adoption. When the child has remained with the adoptive parents for at least three months and possibly longer, there is a court hearing for an adoption order to be made. At that time, the mother is again asked whether she still gives her consent. This may be several months after she first gave her consent and she then has the power to withdraw it. If the court feels that she is unreasonably withholding that consent, it may overrule her and go ahead with the adoption order. The mother may then appeal. As a result it may be some time before the matter is finally resolved.
I will not burden the House again with the details of the case I mentioned in Committee, when 13 months elapsed between the time when the child was first placed with the adoptive parents and the time that the adoption order was finally made. I accept that that may have been exceptional, but I suspect that 1453 many hon. Members will be familiar with cases in which a number of months have elapsed.
The procedure that I have just described is the present procedure and there is nothing in the Bill to alter it. It is true that the Bill introduces the new option of freeing the child for adoption, but the present procedure remains should the natural mother prefer to follow that course. In my view this procedure imposes uncertainty and unnecessary strain on all the parties involved. It is unfair on the natural parent, the prospective adoptive parents and on the child, bearing in mind that the child involved in any sort of change that may arise from these procedures will possibly be at the vulnerable age of 12 months.
It seems that three months is an adequate period in which the mother could reconsider her decision. It is a period which caters for all the sorts of problems raised by post-natal depression. If three months have elapsed since the mother originally gave her consent to adoption, at that point that consent should become irrevocable.
I notice that the Association of British Adoption Agencies in its commentary on some of the amendments being discussed suggests that my amendment could be punitive to natural parents. I suggest that the present system is punitive to natural parents with its "Do you or don't you?" approach. Since I raised this matter in Committee I have consulted other bodies and individuals concerned. Needless to say there is not unanimity on this. I have been surprised at the wide range of people who share my views—people who are much involved in this work. I quote from a letter from my local director of social services who says that his views are supported by his senior officer, who has been working with adoption matters continually for 10 years. He says:It will be acknowledged that adoption is an irrevocable step and crucial to this is the giving of consent on the part of the natural parents. With the improved service now being given to more adequately informed parents they are tending to agree that, having given their consent, this should, in fact, be regarded as final. From experience it is on the whole the caring parent who gives up her child for adoption. Her need to finalise the process of adoption is as great as the prospective adopters. They are both anxious that 1454 the adoption procedure shall be completed within a reasonable space of time.I, too, am equally anxious. That is why I have tabled this amendment.
§ Mrs. Knight
I support my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). I have been impressed by the number of people who are very close to this problem and who are strongly in favour of the principle of irrevocability being inserted into the Bill. I could mention many bodies but I single out of those to whom I could pay tribute the justices clerks, who have had a tremendous amount of experience in this area. They feel that the principle of irrevocability is immensely important.
For the parents there is the long-drawn-out peculiar sort of torture which ought not to be encouraged by legislation. There is nothing in this clause which would cover irrevocability. Subsection 2(a) talks about the parent or guardian not being able to be found or being incapable of giving agreement. Perhaps the parents would be quite capable of giving agreement. How does one decide whether agreement is being withheld unreasonably? Three months seems to be a reasonable period of time. If it were written into the Bill it would be a great deal easier for parents and for those who have to make the decision whether the agreement is being unreasonably withheld or whether a person is incapable of giving agreement. It would be easy to decide whether a child has been neglected abandoned or persistently or seriously ill treated. There is, however, nothing to help a person who simply is incapable of making up his mind. The trouble for such people can drag on for so long.
I therefore ask the Minister to listen, if not to our words then to those outside the House who regard this whole principle as important and helpful to adoption matters.
§ Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)
There is little I should like to add to the lucid arguments advanced by my hon. Friends. This is an excellent Bill and I congratulate the Minister on his personal authorship. The motivation behind the Bill is the well-being of the child and the advancement and protection of its interests. Of all the contributions which can be made to that well-being in this initial stage, surely the element of stability is the 1455 most important. By fixing a finite period, as we suggest in the amendment, we are making possibly the most important contribution of all to that stability.
We all know of instances when the possibility of a reversal hangs over the new family, and this can cause stress and strain at a particularly critical stage. I believe that paragraph (g), which we should like to insert, is every bit as important as those categories already incorporated in paragraphs (a) to (f). The House should seriously consider whether this is not the most important contribution we can make.
§ Dr. Owen
The amendment embodies a major issue of principle which we discussed at length in Committee. There are people who believe that the Bill offers the opportunity to put an irrevocable agreement into law. I accepted in Committee that in future years such a proposal might prove much more acceptable. There are at present, however, a number of reasons for resisting it.
I do not find a major body of support for such a principle at this stage. It was specifically looked at and rejected by the Houghton Committee. The Committee has produced a new procedure of freeing which might or might not change the climate of opinion to make it easier to introduce in later years what the supporters of the amendment argue for now. It would not be right to make such a provision now.
We are here making decisions on a balance of judgment, a balance between parental rights and duties and what is good for the child. We are all agreed that in the Bill we wish to shift towards giving a far greater priority to the best interests of the child than hitherto. However, we must be careful not to swing that balance too far. I should prefer to see the new procedure for freeing operated for some years before moving on to irrevocable consent.
I know how strongly hon. Members feel about this issue, but I urge them to leave the Bill unamended at this stage so that we may all have open minds in future years about the introduction of such a proposal.
§ Amendment negatived.