Official Report: Tuesday 05 October 2021

The Assembly met at 10:30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Speaker: Mr John Blair has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member has up to three minutes in which to speak.

Mr Blair: I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, the House and colleagues on the Business Committee for providing time during a busy schedule to allow me to present this petition. The petition, which received 10,529 signatures, opposes a badger cull as part of a bovine tuberculosis eradication strategy in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, badger culls have been implemented in other jurisdictions on these islands, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of healthy badgers. The culls have been highly contentious and divisive, both publicly and politically, and have, in fact, had minimal impact on the prevalence of bovine TB in these countries. I am therefore disappointed that more ethical alternatives, such as badger vaccination and test and vaccinate or remove, have not been proposed in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs' strategy. That is especially relevant considering that, over a five-year period, a test and vaccinate or remove approach was used by DAERA in trials and was shown to be effective at eradicating the disease. It is also frustrating that fuller discussion on the consultation options, along with a conversation on that which was not included in the consultation, was restricted by the fact that the Department brought the consultation to the AERA Committee one day before the Assembly's summer recess, thus leaving no opportunity for the Committee to consider it further until after the consultation had closed.

I welcome the public backing for the petition to stop the badger cull. The huge response to it shows the strength of feeling on the issue. The suggestion of needless slaughter of healthy badgers is contrary to public opinion, and the petition is clear evidence of that.

Finally, I extend my thanks to the USPCA, Ulster Wildlife and the Northern Ireland Badger Group, which joined forces to launch the petition.

Mr Speaker: The Member knows that I would normally invite him to bring his petition to the Table and present it. In the light of social distancing, however, I ask the Member to remain in his place, and I will make arrangements for him to submit the petition to my office electronically.

I thank the Member for bringing the petition to the attention of the Assembly, and, once I receive it, I will forward it to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and send a copy to the Committee.

Executive Committee Business

That the Second Stage of the Adoption and Children Bill [NIA 37/17-22] be agreed.

Mr Speaker: In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit to the debate.

Mr Swann: I am delighted to finally open the debate on the Adoption and Children Bill. It represents the first overhaul of adoption legislation in almost 35 years and has been long awaited by all involved in the adoption process. Likewise, the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, the key body of legislation for children's social care, is now more than 25 years old. There have been many challenges and delays in bringing forward the Bill, and we now have an opportunity to make a real difference, not only for children who are adopted in Northern Ireland and those connected with adoption but for the 3,571 children in care, children on the edge of care and care leavers.

Unlike the situation 35 years ago, the vast majority of children who are adopted today are adopted from care. Also, our care population has grown over that time. There has been a 30% increase in 10 years and, significantly, a 6% increase during the pandemic. That demonstrates the strong connection between trauma and its impact on children being taken into care.

Every effort is made to keep families together. Over the last five years in particular, we have been investing more in earlier interventions to try to make that possible. Sadly, however, that is not possible for some children and young people. When they are taken into care to protect them from significant harm, trusts make every effort to find a permanent home for them. For around 90 children a year, their route to a permanent home is through adoption. The decision to recommend adoption for any child is hugely significant. For that reason alone, it is crucial that we have a robust legislative framework around it. Likewise, the decision to take a child into care in the first place is an onerous one for the social workers and their managers, who have to make care decisions daily. Our expectations of them, when those decisions are being made and subsequently, must be clearly set out in law.

The Bill will strengthen the current legislative framework around adoption and care. For adoption, it introduces greater safeguards and mandates much-needed support. For care, it will enable additional support to be provided to children on the edge of care; it will keep children with a disability, who need regular short breaks, out of care; it will provide greater support to children in care; it will enable some children to leave care; and it will increase support for care leavers.

The Bill has been a long time in development, and that is due to a number of factors. They include legal challenges concerning the eligibility criteria to apply to adopt, the absence of a functioning Assembly for three years and, more recently, the reprioritising of work arising from the pandemic. However, in developing the Bill, my officials considered legislative developments relating to adoption and children in other jurisdictions of the United Kingdom. The Bill introduces measures similar to those in place in England and Wales since 2005 and since 2007 in Scotland. However, we have also sought to deliver legislation that addresses the needs of children and young people in Northern Ireland and a number of challenges specific to Northern Ireland.

As many of you are aware, I published a strategy for looked after children in February this year. The strategy aims to improve the well-being of children and young people who are already in care, those at risk of entering care and those who have left care. The Bill will give legislative effect to the aims and objectives of the strategy and to many of the commitments made under it.

All the Bill's provisions were subject to two public consultations, one in 2006 and the other in 2017, and extensive stakeholder engagement. Respondents to both consultations included key stakeholders from the statutory and voluntary sectors, as well as care-experienced children and young people. Respondents to both consultations indicated overwhelming support for the Bill and the policy underpinning it. I thank those who took the time to respond to the consultations or attended any of the consultation events. As the scrutiny process begins, the Assembly can have confidence that the Bill has had the benefit of extensive stakeholder engagement and input by the stakeholder groups that met on many occasions to consider policy proposals.

The Bill is substantial — it has 160 clauses and five schedules — so I beg Members' indulgence while I take them through its main thrust. It has three distinct Parts: Part 1 updates, strengthens and consolidates the law governing adoption in Northern Ireland; Part 2 makes amendments to the Children Order to extend and strengthen provision, with the aim of enhancing services and improving outcomes for children and families in need, looked-after children and care leavers; and Part 3 contains miscellaneous and supplementary provisions.

On adoption, as is the case with the Children Order, the Bill puts the welfare of the child front and centre of adoption decision-making by courts and adoption agencies. It introduces a welfare checklist that contains things that must be considered when deciding whether adoption is in the best interests of the child. Among other things, the list prompts decision makers to consider the value of a stable and harmonious family to a child, what the child wants and feels and his or her particular needs. Importantly, welfare and connection with adoption means lifelong welfare because adoption is a lifelong commitment. Unnecessary delay in the adoption process is and has been an issue for some time. Despite my Department setting targets on timescales for adoption, existing processes can be slow. The average age of children adopted is four years and two months.

Ms Dillon: I thank the Minister for taking an intervention and for coming to the House today. Given what he just outlined about delays, does he agree that, with the Bill, there is an opportunity to table an amendment to deal with mother-and-baby homes, on which a report will be launched today, to ensure that those who were children and are now adults and who are deeply traumatised have access to their own information? We need to ensure that issues are addressed for those adults who have been left with a legacy of not knowing where they came from or do not have the most basic information on their health history. Minister, will it be possible to table an amendment on that matter?

Mr Swann: I thank the Member for her very sensitive point, especially today, when we will consider the published report and where we are at the Second Stage of the Bill. Parts of the Bill will cover the provision of information, but, if the Member or her party feel that that needs to be strengthened in any way, I will look to her to table amendments through the Health Committee. I caution that she should look to what is already in the Bill because it may contain adequate provision for what she is asking for at a serious time for people who have been through a traumatic process. That report will be published later today.

I was talking about the average adoption age and delays in Northern Ireland. The average age of children adopted is four years and two months, although the latest published statistics show that that is beginning to fall. Overall, the average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is slightly more than three years, which is such a long time for a young child. Without compromising the safety and well-being of any child and ensuring that we are at all times acting in their best interests, we need to tackle unnecessary drift or delay. The Bill will do that by introducing a statutory principle of no delay in adoption decision-making, and it will require courts to draw up timetables for resolving adoption cases without delay. The current adoption regional information system (ARIS) is a vital tool in ensuring the timely matching of approved adopters with children waiting to be adopted within and across trusts. The Bill will place ARIS on a statutory footing and enable my Department to set out in regulation the framework within which it should operate. That includes the supply, retention and disclosure of information.

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The Bill will place a duty on each trust to provide a fit-for-purpose adoption service that meets the needs of everyone connected to adoption: the children to be adopted, the adopted children, the adopted adults and their adoptive parents, birth parents or guardians. The service must be effective in its assessments, placements and provision of support services. It will be possible for trusts to engage voluntary adoption agencies registered with the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) for the provision of adoption services. That will enable them to draw on the extensive expertise in adoption within the registered voluntary sector. An unregistered voluntary organisation may also provide adoption support services on behalf of a trust. We will specify that in regulations.

The Bill will enable some adoption functions and services to be undertaken or delivered on a regional basis by, for example, one trust on behalf of the region. That could have the benefit of greater efficiency and equity of access to services, and it may also give a more consistent service user experience. Access to effective services will be critical. We know that adoptive children and their families are likely to have a range of additional needs, not just before adoption but afterwards. Good support can be the difference between an adopted child flourishing or his or her adoption breaking down. Under the Bill, adoption support will include financial support, access to counselling, advice and information relating to adoption, but, importantly, it will be possible for the Department to further specify in regulation other support services that must be provided.

When the new legislative framework is in place, it will be possible for any person to request an assessment of needs for adoption support at any time before or after an adoption order has been made. Trusts will be under a duty to undertake such an assessment if that is requested by a child who is to be adopted, their parents, prospective adopters, adopted adults, their parents and natural parents. In all other cases, the trust will have the discretion to decide whether to undertake an assessment. Following an assessment, if the trust decides that support services should be provided, it will be required to prepare a plan and keep it under review.

Trusts will have a duty to provide information about the types of adoption support services available in their areas. That should ensure that those interested in adopting and adopters are better informed about adoption support services, their rights and other services that are available to them. That has the potential to increase the number of prospective adopters or make adopters more open to adopting harder-to-place children.

The Bill also makes provisions relating to the process of adoption, from when a trust considers that adoption is in the child's best interests through to the final adoption order being made. Important process changes will be made, and the aim is to ensure, at every step along the way, that adoption is the right decision for each and every child.

There are two routes for a child being placed for adoption. The adoption agency can secure a placement order from the court, or the child's parent can give consent to their child being placed for adoption. Placement orders are new and will replace freeing orders under current arrangements. Freeing orders have been widely criticised, partly because, once made, parental responsibility for the child transfers completely from the child's parents to the adoption agency.

Placement orders will authorise a trust to place a child with any adopters it selects. The trust will not need to go back to court if an initial placement fails. Placement orders will last until an adoption order is made, the child reaches 18 or the order is revoked. The parents will be able to apply to revoke the order, but only if the child has not been placed with prospective adopters and only with the leave of the court. Leave will be given only if the parent's circumstances have changed since the order was made. Therefore, unlike freeing orders, when a placement order is made, the parents keep parental responsibility for their child until the final adoption order is made. It will be shared with the adoption agency and may be restricted by the adoption agency. Once the child is placed for adoption, the prospective adopters will also share parental responsibility.

A parent can also give consent to their child being placed for adoption, and where that happens, the adoption agency will not need to apply for a placement order. Under the Bill, parental consent will replace parental agreement. Under current arrangements, parents give their agreement to the child being adopted, but not to being placed for adoption or being adopted. Also, the scope to withdraw an agreement is extremely limited. Under the new provision, the parents may consent to placement with named adopters or with adopters unknown at the time their consent is given. It is expected that the adoption agency will provide ongoing support and counselling to the parents to help them to come to terms with the eventual adoption of their child.

The Bill enables parents to give advance consent to the final adoption order at the time they give consent to the placement or at any time afterwards. Even though parents may have given consent for their child to be placed for adoption, they can, at any time until the point when an application for an adoption order has been made, request the return of their child. If an adoption agency remains of the view that the adoption continues to be in the child's best interests, it will have to apply to the court for a placement order. However, once an application for an adoption order has been made, the court's consent is required for the return of the child. Where a parent has consented to placement for adoption, he or she may oppose the final adoption order in the course of proceedings only with the leave of the court. The court may give leave only if there has been a change of circumstances since the parent or parents gave their consent.

It is intended that the new system will be fairer to parents, allowing them to continue to have shared responsibility until the making of the adoption order and the opportunity to withdraw consent up to the point at which an adoption order is applied for. It will also minimise the risk of a contested court hearing at the adoption order stage and will provide greater certainty for children and prospective adopters by dealing, as far as is possible, with parental consent before the child has been placed with them.

As is the case under current arrangements, a court may dispense with parental consent when making a placement order and when making an adoption order. However, only two grounds for dispensing with consent will apply: where the court is satisfied that the parent or guardian cannot be found or is incapable of giving consent or that the welfare of the child requires the consent to be dispensed with.

The emphasis is on the welfare of the child, reinforcing the point that all decisions around adoption should centre on the child. It is also important to mention that it is vital to ensure that any consent by a parent is given freely, unconditionally and with the full understanding of what it will mean. To ensure that it is, court rules will specify what is required. As is currently the case, it is expected that the giving of consent to adoption will have to be witnessed by a lay magistrate.

The Bill sets out the process for applying for an adoption order other than through an adoption agency — that is a non-agency adoption; the condition for making adoption orders; who is eligible to apply; and the effect of adoption orders. In non-agency adoption applications, the child must have lived with the person for three years before an application for an adoption order may be made. Where the person applying is a step-parent or an authority foster parent, a one-year requirement applies.

The current law on who can make an application to adopt has been carried through in the Bill. Applications can be made by single people and couples. That includes married couples, civil partners or two people living as partners in an enduring family relationship. Applications can be made by men or women, including those in same-sex relationships. That was addressed by the courts a number of years ago as a result of a judicial review.

Eligibility to apply to adopt and suitability to adopt are very different things. Prospective adopters are currently, and will continue to be, subject to a rigorous assessment process to ensure that only persons capable of providing a loving, safe and secure home are approved to adopt. The welfare of the child will always be the overriding consideration. The matters to be taken into account when determining whether a person is suitable to adopt a child will be set out in regulation.

Under the Bill, it will be possible for someone whose application to adopt was turned down to seek an independent review. That is new. There is currently no review mechanism that operates independently of adoption agencies. The establishment of such a mechanism will also support our efforts to build confidence in the adoption approval process and, hopefully, encourage more people to come forward to adopt.

Currently, the arrangements for contact are made informally and, generally, work well. It is anticipated that that practice will continue in the majority of cases. However, it is important to provide effective recourse to the courts for when such informal arrangements are not appropriate or not adhered to. When making a placement order or a final adoption order, the court will be required to consider any contact arrangements that the agency has made or proposes to make. The policy intention is that there should be no presumption either for or against contact, and the welfare of the child will continue to be the paramount consideration of the court. The court will be able to make an order for contact during the period in which a child is placed or is waiting to be placed for adoption. A children's court guardian will be appointed to represent the child's interests in such proceedings. Following the making of the adoption order, the court will also be able to make a further contact order that either requires an adoptive parent to allow the child to have contact, to visit or to stay with his or her natural family or prohibits contact following adoption. Again, it will depend on what the court considers to be in the child's best interests.

I will turn to access to information for adopted adults and the disclosure of adoption information and access to records. That was the point that Ms Dillon made. All adopted people should have the right to find out about their family history and background when and if they wish to do so. Adopted adults will continue to be able to obtain a copy of their original birth certificate from the General Register Office (GRO). People adopted before the Bill is commenced, which I will refer to as pre-commencement adoptions, will continue to request that information directly from the GRO. For people adopted after the Bill's commencement, which are referred to as post-commencement adoptions, the adoption agency, not the Registrar General, will be the main gateway for access to that information. Any adopted person seeking access to their birth record will be advised that a counselling service is available to them, and if a person was adopted before 18 December 1987, which was the date on which the current adoption legislation came into operation, they will have to attend a counselling interview. That interview will be available through the adoption agency and will take place before the Registrar General can provide access to the original birth record. If they are living elsewhere in the UK, other bodies, for example, the local authority or adoption support agency, may provide counselling services.

The existing adoption contact register will continue to be available and maintained by the Registrar General. It enables adopted adults and their relatives who want to make contact to register their willingness for contact. The Bill will make this change: it will be possible for adopted adults to indicate who they do and do not want to have contact with. Relatives will also be able to indicate whether they want to have contact with the adopted person. Not every adopted adult or natural parent will want contact, and we have to respect that. It is important to balance the privacy rights of natural parents and the wider family with the identity rights of adopted adults.

Adoption case records held by adoption agencies also contain relevant information that an adopted adult and others may wish to access. For pre-commencement adoptions, there will be no change to the way in which people will be able to seek access to such records. The current framework under the Adoption Agencies Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989 will continue to apply so that adoption agencies can retain the discretion to disclose as much information from the records as is reasonably possible. That is subject to their legislative requirements and considerations, such as data protection legislation.

As a result of the ongoing work on the historical mother-and-baby institutions, work is also under way to develop guidance for adoption agencies on the disclosure of adoption records that they hold. That work is being taken forward on a co-design basis, and survivors of the institutions are working alongside social workers. I am advised that it is going well. I understand that it is acknowledged in the report of the truth recovery design panel, which, as I indicated to the Member, will be published today. That guidance will make it clear that, as far as possible, each agency should operate from the premise that all information relevant to an adopted adult's birth and adoption should be disclosed to them subject to the impact on the other parties being fully considered and the necessary supports being put in place for each adopted adult seeking disclosure.

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For post-commencement adoptions, the Bill will enable any person to access adoption case records held by an adoption agency and set out how that should happen. That includes a power to specify arrangements and requirements in more detail by way of regulations. Where the information requests include protected information — that is, identifying information about another individual — the adoption agency will have to take a number of factors into account when deciding whether to provide the information. Those factors will include a consideration of the adopted person's welfare and the views of the person whom the information is about. Where the information is about a child, the adoption agency must consider the child's welfare and take account of the child's views and those of any parent or guardian of the child.

It is intended that the independent review mechanism that I mentioned will extend to decisions about disclosure of protected adoption information relating to an adult. Individuals will be able to ask for an independent review if they are not content with a decision made about the disclosure of such information, including a decision not to disclose.

Intermediary services and counselling services will be made available to support people wanting to access information or make contact. Such services will be available to adopted adults and natural parents and relatives and to people who are not natural relatives but are related to an adopted person by blood, marriage or civil partnership or by virtue of the adopted person's adoption. That includes, for example, the children, grandchildren and other relatives of the adopted person.

Mr Allister: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Swann: I will, yes.

Mr Allister: I understand exactly what the Bill says about the rights of adopted persons to information. On the issue that the Minister now touches on, will he bring some clarity in respect of the offspring of an adopted person who wants to find out about an adopted parent or grandparent — now probably dead — but who, until this moment, has not been able to find out that information? Does the Bill do anything for that family?

Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for giving way. I will make a different point on the same theme. Although it is not entirely in the Minister's gift, will the same disclosure and support be available for adopted persons from, perhaps, an international context to gain information regarding birth parents or, indeed, disclosed records?

Mr Swann: I thank both Members for their questions. As I said in my statement, Mr Allister, the intermediary service will be available to adopted adults and natural parents and relatives as well as to people who are not natural relatives but are related to an adopted person by blood, marriage or civil partnership or by virtue of the adopted person's adoption, including the adopted person's children, grandchildren and other relatives. Access to such a service will enable those relatives to make contact with the adopted person's natural parents and wider family. I will get further information on the specific point for the Member.

The Bill also deals with foreign adoptions. It will strengthen safeguards for children being brought into or out of Northern Ireland through an inter-country adoption. All prospective adopters in Northern Ireland will be subject to the same rigorous preparation, training and assessment, regardless of whether the child whom they seek to adopt lives in the United Kingdom or overseas. The Bill introduces a power for my Department to charge a fee for the administration of inter-country adoption casework. I hope that that covers Mr Buckley's point.

We will be able to establish a specific Northern Ireland list of designated countries outside the United Kingdom that have sufficiently robust adoption procedures and safeguards to justify adoptions in that country being legally recognised in Northern Ireland. We will also be able to place countries on a restricted list in circumstances in which their adoption legislation, practice or procedures are insufficient to ensure the proper protection of children and their families. We will move to establish our own designated and restricted list for Northern Ireland, and it is anticipated that all UK jurisdictions will remain closely aligned in their decision-making regarding that list.

That is a summation of the Bill's provision that is specific to adoption. I turn now to what the Bill will provide for children in need, in care or on the edge of care and for care leavers.

The Bill will give social workers more flexibility to provide financial support to children and families in need. My Department will also issue statutory guidance for trusts to ensure that there is a regionally consistent approach to making such payments. Disabled children will be able to benefit from a residential short break without having to become looked-after. There will be guidance to help social workers to decide the safest and most appropriate way of supporting each child in those circumstances. The Bill also includes a power to extend the provision to other groups of children if required in the future.

Through the Bill, we will give a stronger voice to children and young people who are in care, have left care or are at risk of coming into care. It will support children and young people who receive social care in raising issues or making complaints about the service that they receive and to have their views responded to appropriately. Statutory independent advocacy services will be available to support each child through that process. The Bill will introduce into law a set of principles, referred to as "corporate parenting principles", that trusts must follow when looking after children in care. The principles include having and promoting high aspirations for them, delivering safety and stability and preparing them for adulthood and independent living; in short, giving the opportunities and life chances that any good parent would seek and provide for their child. That includes the same learning opportunities and outcomes. Unfortunately, the educational outcomes of many children in care are poor by comparison with those of their peers. The impact of the early trauma that the majority of them have experienced on their ability to learn can be compounded by multiple school moves. The Bill will require trusts to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children and prevent disruption to their education and training when providing them with accommodation. The Bill will give the Department a power to require or impose additional measures that are considered necessary to address the educational deficits that many such children experience.

Assessing the needs of children and deciding how best to meet those needs is a fundamental part of social work and care for looked-after children. That process is known as "care planning", and the Bill will place a duty on trusts to prepare a care plan for a child within a timescale set by the court and to keep it under review. We will set out in regulations how the care plan is to be drawn up and the information to be included in the care plan.

Fostering panels make decisions about whether a person should be approved to foster. The Bill will enable my Department to make regulations setting out the functions of fostering panels and how they should operate. Individuals who disagree with a decision about whether they should be approved or continue to be approved to foster will be able to ask for an independent review of the decision. That is similar to the review mechanism being introduced for adoption decisions. The Bill will put dually approved placements on a statutory basis. That enables a child to be placed with approved prospective adopters, initially on a fostering basis. The intention is to facilitate earlier attachment and, potentially, to reduce the number of placements that a child waiting to be adopted may experience. If adoption is the proposed plan, trusts will be required to consider the placement of the child with dually approved carers. Dually approved carers will have access to adoption pay and leave arrangements, including shared parental leave and paid time off for attending pre-adoption appointments.

Most young people are supported emotionally and financially on the road to university, and, as they make the journey out of the family home for the first time, looked-after children likewise should continue to be supported as they take those steps into adulthood. Provisions in the Bill enhance the support provided to care leavers. The Bill will recognise in law the Going the Extra Mile scheme that enables care leavers to continue living with their former foster parents up to the age of 21. Support provided to care leavers who are in education or training will be extended to the age of 25. Care leavers aged between 21 and 25 will be able to apply for further assistance to start a new course of education or training and to request advice and support. That advice or support may continue beyond the age of 25 if a trust considers that it is needed. Young people receiving support, advice or assistance will have a personal adviser and a pathway plan, replicating arrangements that are currently in place. It is vital that young people be aware of the support that they are entitled to when leaving, and the Bill will place a duty on trusts to publish information on the services that they offer for care leavers in preparation for adulthood and independent living. That will be known as the "local offer for care leavers".

The Bill will also introduce some new court orders and make adjustments to existing court orders. Currently, a residence order, which is an order stipulating with whom a child should live, is granted until the age of 16, unless there are exceptional circumstances in which to extend it to the age of 18. The Bill will provide that residence orders made in respect of a looked-after child will automatically be extended to the age of 18, unless a court determines otherwise. The Bill will also amend the period for which a child has to have lived with a foster carer from three years to one year before the foster carer can apply for a residence order in respect of the child. That amendment will ensure consistency with the residence requirements for adoption and special guardianship orders (SGOs). That reinforces the point that there are different routes to permanence for individual children.

A special guardianship order is a new order that is being introduced in Northern Ireland, although SGOs have been operating in England and Wales since 2005. The options currently available to children and young people to leave care include going home to their parents, living with family under, for example, a residence order and adoption. We know that adoption is not suitable for all children. For example, an older child may not want to be legally separated from birth parents, even though that child may not want to or be able to live with them. Moreover, with support and greater legal certainty, some children may be able to be cared for on a permanent basis by members of their wider family. At present, permanence and legal certainty outside of the care system can be offered to children only by way of adoption. An SGO will offer a new option for those children and young people. Unlike the position with residence orders, special guardians will have full parental responsibility for the child's day-to-day care, and, unlike the position with adoption, the legal ties between the child and their birth family will remain in place. While the Bill's SGO provisions are similar to those in operation in England and Wales, we have strengthened some of the requirements, including the requirement that the child has to have lived with the person for at least one year before that person can apply for an SGO. Those additional residence requirements have been introduced to ensure that, before an SGO is made, the child has lived with the proposed special guardian for long enough to enable a proper assessment to be made of whether the arrangement is in the child's best interest and more likely than not to work for them and their carers.

Trusts will be required to prepare a court report about an applicant's suitability to be a special guardian. That includes any support that will be required. It is anticipated that, for looked-after children, regulations will place a requirement on trusts to submit reports to a panel for review. That will be done prior to submitting the report to court in order to ensure that a robust and comprehensive assessment has been carried out.

Under the Bill and where required, special guardians and the children for whom they care will be provided with support. That is similar to adoption. There will be a right to request an assessment of need for SGO support services. Support will include counselling, advice and information and financial support. Regulations will set out additional support services that are to be made available. It is anticipated that they may include mediation to assist with contact arrangements; access to support groups and therapeutic services; and training for the special guardian to meet the needs of the child. We are in no doubt that the introduction of the additional order will enable some children and young people to exit the care system, with relevant support and assistance continuing to be provided to them and their special guardians.

The Bill makes other, miscellaneous amendments to the Children Order. The definition of "harm" will be amended to cover harm caused to a child from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another person. As a result, courts, police and trusts will be required to consider the effect on a child of witnessing domestic abuse when making critical decisions about his or her care or upbringing.

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The definition of "family proceedings" will also be amended to include proceedings for female genital mutilation (FGM) protection orders. As a result, a court, when dealing with an application for an FGM protection order, will be able to make other orders at the same time to protect a child. They include an interim care order, a care order or a supervision order, and that change will enable a court to act quickly and effectively to protect girls who are at risk of FGM.

The guardian ad litem, who represents the interests of children in specified proceedings, will be renamed the children's court guardian. That will, among other things, address the concerns that children and young people had about the current title. The Northern Ireland Guardian Ad Litem Agency will be known as the Children's Court Guardian Agency for Northern Ireland. The services provided will not differ, but the proceedings in which a children's court guardian are required to be appointed will be extended to include applications for the making of, or the revocation of, an adoption placement order, orders for contact during placement for adoption and applications for the making of a special guardianship order in respect of a child who is subject to a care order.

The Children Order will also be amended to enable children's court guardians to be directly employed and appointed by the courts to represent children in family law proceedings. Currently, any person who proposes to foster a child privately is required by law to notify the appropriate trust before the arrangement commences. However, to date, no such notifications have been received. The Bill will introduce a new duty on trusts to raise public awareness of the requirement to notify the trusts of such arrangements. My Department is currently required to produce an annual report on the operation of the Children Order. Taking into account the other reporting mechanisms that we have, which are now well established and working well, it is considered that the production of a report under the Children Order would replicate or duplicate other reporting mechanisms. The duty in the Children Order will therefore be repealed.

Finally, the Bill contains five schedules. They deal with the registration of adoptions; the disclosure of birth records by the Registrar General; minor and consequential amendments; transitional and transitory provisions; and savings and repeals.

I thank everyone for their patience while I provided the overview of the main provisions. I hope that Members will agree that it is vital that this substantial and complex legislation proceeds in order to enable us to achieve the adoption reform that is required and strengthen the support and services for children in need, children who need to remain in care and our care leavers. The work is only beginning. The Bill provides the overarching framework. Most of the operational detail will be set out in a substantial number of statutory rules and guidance. Following the successful enactment of the Bill, implementation will be on a phased basis from 2023.

I am proud to be able to introduce the Bill in the House, and I commend it to Members. It is long awaited and much needed to better serve the needs of some of the most vulnerable children in Northern Ireland, and it is even more important as the number of vulnerable children continues to grow. I am in no doubt that the Bill's provisions will improve outcomes for them. It will keep them safer, improve their life opportunities and, importantly, give them access to family, with the comfort of knowing that it is intended to be permanent and that everything possible that can be done will be done to make it work. It will also give those who offer a permanent family home to children, and who might otherwise be denied that opportunity, the confidence that their commitment will be matched by a commitment to properly support them.

Mr Gildernew (The Chairperson of the Committee for Health): Before I start, I extend my best wishes and solidarity to the Minister in the face of the disgraceful and appalling threats that were made. I extend my best wishes to him and his family. It is disgraceful that a Minister, in the course of his duties, is threatened in such a way.

I also declare an interest in relation to issues arising from the Bill. Previously, I worked as a social worker, and I continue to be on a career break from one of our health and social care trusts.

It is particularly poignant that we are discussing the Bill this morning at the same time as the truth recovery design panel's report is being launched. That is poignant and salutary with the issues that face us today in considering a complex and deeply important Bill for those whom it will impact.

It is worth bearing in mind that, while the title of the Bill is the Adoption and Children Bill, this is really the adoption of children Bill. We need to keep that to the forefront of our minds as we move through.

I welcome the opportunity to make some initial remarks on behalf of the Health Committee outlining the Committee's consideration of the Bill before speaking as my party's health spokesperson. The Committee welcomes the Bill being brought forward by the Department. It has been a long time in the making, going the whole way back to the draft strategy, Adopting the Future, in 2006. The Bill seeks to implement the proposals in that strategy and to make amendments to the Children (NI) Order 1995.

It is therefore frustrating that, after such a long wait and delays, the Bill, with 160 clauses and five schedules, was introduced in the Assembly with less than six months until the end of the mandate. In order to allow the Bill to pass through its stages, the Committee will have three months at most to consider it. That is on top of the Committee considering at least another five pieces of important legislation over the coming months. That provides the Committee with very limited time to scrutinise a detailed Bill that will have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable children and young people, and, indeed, foster parents and adoptive parents, in our communities.

The Committee was briefed on adoption by the Assembly's Research and Information Service (RaISe). Members were advised that there has been a 30% increase in the number of looked-after children in the North since 2010, and there have been between 91 and 168 adoptions a year over the past five years.

Members were also advised that there are formal targets for the completion of the adoption of children in care. The current target is that 90% of all adoptions of children in care should be completed within three years of their last entry into care. That target has not been met for a number of years. The last data that we received showed that, in 2019-2020, only 57% of adoptions were completed within three years. Members were advised that the average duration was three years and one month, which compares with one year and 11 months in England and two years and two months in Wales. That shows that significant work needs to be undertaken to improve our services and processes.

As the Minister outlined, this significant Bill changes the adoption landscape and brings forward much-needed reforms in the system, which, hopefully, will improve outcomes for children, young people and families. The Bill seeks to do some key things, including aligning adoption law with the relevant provisions of the Children Order to ensure that the child's welfare is the paramount consideration in decisions; and providing a new right for adopted children and adoptive parents to request an assessment of their needs for adoption support services.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Member for giving way. I want us all to commit to no longer using the term "looked-after children" because it has an unfortunate acronym. I have identified that and addressed it in the Education Committee. It would be more positive for us all to identify those children as being "children looked after" because of the implications of the acronym. Members should all commit to doing that.

Mr Gildernew: We should all be careful with our language. However, at times, there may be legal requirements whereby certain terms are recognised, but I take the Member's point on board.

The Bill enables the Department to establish an independent review mechanism for the assessment of prospective adopters and introduces a new legal framework for disclosure of information and establishing contact.

The Bill makes a number of changes with regard to extending and strengthening the Children Order to enhance services to children and young people. Those include reducing the time that a child is required to have lived with a foster carer from three years to one year before a foster carer is permitted to seek a residence order, which stipulates the person with whom a child should live. It introduces a special guardianship order, which is intended to provide greater permanence for children who cannot return to their birth families; statutory advocacy services for looked-after children and former looked-after children; a power for authorities to provide accommodation to a disabled child for the purposes of short-term breaks; and a new important requirement for authorities to promote the child's educational achievement. It also amends the definition of harm to include harm caused to a child by seeing or hearing ill treatment of another person.

Due to the size of the Bill, departmental officials briefed the Committee on its principles over two weeks: the first week was on adoption services and the second on the Children Order. Officials provided a detailed briefing over the two weeks, a number of matters were discussed and officials agreed to provide the Committee with further information on a number of other matters. I will outline some of the matters that were discussed at the briefing.

First, members asked about the resources that would be required to bring forward the proposals. The Committee understands that significant recurrent funding would be required to take forward the proposals, including the new provision for an assessment of need. The Committee was advised that the estimated cost over the first three years would be £38 million. Departmental officials agreed to provide a further breakdown of the resources that would be required for the adoption and children's needs provisions in the Bill. The Committee looks forward to receiving that breakdown at the earliest opportunity.

Committee members were briefed that significant consultation and engagement with stakeholders had been undertaken by the Department over a number of years. The Department agreed to provide further information on the consultations that it had undertaken and to outline the clauses that stakeholders had indicated concerns with.

Committee members discussed definitions in the Bill and, specifically, its definition of "harm". The Committee welcomes the change to include harm that is caused to a child by seeing or hearing the ill treatment of another person. However, Committee members asked further questions about why it did not include the definition of harm as per the recent Domestic Abusive and Family Proceedings Act. I will return to that point in more detail later. Officials stated that they are considering tabling an amendment to that clause that would change the definition. The Committee will consider that during its scrutiny of the Bill.

During the briefings, there was discussion about what is meant by:

"a duty to promote the child's educational achievement."

The Committee is all too aware of the significant disruption that there can be to the education of children in care and that their educational achievement can suffer due to that. Although it welcomes that duty, the Committee is keen to see what it means in practice for children and young people. It would like to know how that will be measured, how the outcomes will be reviewed and what continued and ongoing scrutiny there will be to ensure that that happens in a positive way.

The Committee is aware that there are informal and formal care arrangements in place for children, especially in border regions, where many families are split across the border. At the briefing with officials, I and other Committee members raised the issue of cross-border care and asked how the Bill will provide the best care outcomes when families reside across the border, in some circumstances only a few hundred yards away. Officials advised that any official cross-border arrangements would be classed as inter-country adoptions and would require a different set of rules and processes. The Committee will consider that further during evidence. The key to providing the best care that we can to vulnerable children and young people is to place them in the best and most appropriate form of care. That may include placing them in existing family structures — sometimes referred to as kinship care — including those that may be across the border. We need to see how we can best support children, young people and families in those situations, and officials have committed to providing the Committee with a written briefing on that matter.

Committee members raised many other issues during the briefings. Providing the Bill passes its Second Stage, the Committee looks forward to engaging with stakeholders and scrutinising it in further detail.

I would now like to make some remarks in my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. A chairde, this is a substantial piece of legislation that has been long overdue since the initial Adopting the Future draft strategy. We in Sinn Féin welcome the opportunity to speak about the Bill, given its importance and the effect that it will have on so many children and families. While scrutinising any legislation that deals with potentially vulnerable children and young people, it is essential that we focus our efforts on making sure that the process is transparent and that those in adoption agencies, and the Department generally, are accountable and that their efforts are focused on the best interests of the child, as set out in the legislation.

There are only six months left of this Assembly mandate and, given the workload involved, that does not give the Health Committee a great deal of time for scrutiny. Adoption is one of the most emotive situations that a child or family can experience, and it is often a great source of tension in family units. The work done in that regard by social workers and others who work in the field cannot be commended highly enough.

It is often cited as one of the most difficult and stressful tasks for any social worker to be involved in, due to the competing priorities of parental rights and the paramountcy of the child's best interests. Often, those are difficult decisions and complex balances to be wed. We must ensure that there is circumspection, support and that everyone is aware of the impact on everyone, particularly the child who is at the centre of the proceedings.

11.30 am

I referred to the inter-country adoption issue. Regulations that are made under section 1 of the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 2001 provide that:

"The Department may charge a fee to adopters for services provided or to be provided by the Department in relation to adoptions".

That has the potential to adversely affect those with familial ties to a child who resides in this jurisdiction if the adopter lives in the Twenty-six Counties. It is incumbent on the Minister and his Department to make sure that those who have familial ties in the Twenty-six Counties are not disadvantaged. I include especially the primacy of the child's best interests in that issue should people potentially have to pay a fee or to cross other barriers or hurdles in order to progress an adoption. Due consideration must be given to those in border areas who may have formal or informal care arrangements in place.

As we all know, many families in border communities are separated by that border yet may live only a few hundred yards apart, potentially on the same road or indeed even, on occasions, on the same farm. To suggest that additional barriers being placed on those potential kinship adoptions would be in the child's best interests is not credible. The average estimated cost of an inter-country adoption, as identified by RaISe, is over £5,000. While the Bill states that the Department may determine the fee or, indeed, waive a fee, as it sees fit, it is unclear what principles would guide the Department in making that decision on fees.

As well as that, the addition of clause 82 makes it an illegal offence to bring a child into this jurisdiction without prescribed procedures. Given our unique circumstances, it is important to ensure that there is alignment on that North and South and an understanding that there are many families who live less than one mile apart but are technically in two different jurisdictions on the island. We must ensure that those who live in border areas and those with family ties are not placed at a disadvantage.

On the definition of harm, which I have touched on, clause 133 amends the definition of harm in the Children Order to make it clear that harm to a child who may be at risk of suffering includes any impairment of the child's health or development as a result of:

"seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another"

person, such as in domestic violence. Ill treatment is already defined in article 2 of the Children Order. It is broader than physical violence and includes sexual abuse and forms of ill treatment that are not physical. The effect is that any harm that a child suffers because a parent is being harassed or intimidated is included in the definition of harm. The amendment will apply to all proceedings where the court applies the welfare checklist that is set out in article 3(3) of the Children Order. That includes proceedings for contact or residence orders. While it is welcome that the definition has been broadened to encapsulate the witnessing and hearing of harm that is done to others and the impairment that that may cause to a child's development, it remains an issue of concern that the definition of harm in the Bill has not taken cognisance of the further definition in the domestic abuse legislation at this point. Officials confirmed to the Health Committee that they are considering an amendment on that. I welcome that indeed.

Domestic and sexual abuse are amongst the worst causes of child developmental impairment. Children must be protected from that as a priority. As the Minister said, work is only beginning on what is a hugely important and complex Bill. I look forward to further scrutiny of it.

Mrs Cameron: I, too, want to express my solidarity with the Minister of Health in the face of the abhorrent threats that he has had to endure in recent days.

My party and I welcome the debate on the general principles of the Adoption and Children Bill. It is a long-awaited Bill. Current legislation is almost 35 years old. It is, however, an advantage to have the experience of the English, Welsh and Scottish legislative changes and, hopefully, to learn from their experiences in a positive way.

The Bill is a huge piece of proposed legislation, with 160 clauses and five schedules. It will undoubtedly be a challenge to scrutinise and process it in what is left of the mandate. It is an extremely comprehensive and sensitive piece of draft legislation. It will, of course, require detailed scrutiny and effective and regular engagement with advocates, health professionals and representatives of looked-after children. The Bill will supersede a significant number of other pieces of legislation that make up the adoption framework. It is important that, in streamlining the Bill into a new framework, there are no unintended consequences.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)

I know of many families who have adopted children and offered them secure, safe, happy and loving homes, yet those parents testify to an arduous process that has so many obstacles and moments of false hope, where hope can be dashed and those without the greatest patience and determination will give up. I also know people who just could not take the process any longer but who would make fantastic parents. We need to ensure that the law encourages those people while providing all the necessary protections to keep children safe.

The DUP strongly supports the overriding aim of the Bill, which is to place the welfare of the child at the heart of every stage of the adoption process. Vital aspects of that include ascertaining a child's wishes where appropriate before decisions are made and ensuring that better support is available in court proceedings.

Over recent years, there has been a decline in the number of adopters coming forward. Interestingly, reports suggest that that trend was reversed during the pandemic, so we need to seize on that and promote legislation that radically improves efficiency at every stage of the adoption and fostering process.

One of the biggest challenges we face is reducing the time it takes to complete the process. Our timescales are much longer than those elsewhere in the UK. The proposal to enable courts to impose time limits on adoption proceedings is a constructive step toward addressing unnecessary delays in the process. Current targets suggest that 90% of all adoptions in Northern Ireland for children in care should take place within three years of their last entry to care. However, as we are aware, that target has not been met for several years. Timescales for that process must be urgently and sustainably addressed. The provision of tools to allow courts to take that forward by imposing time limits on proceedings is extremely welcome. It would be interesting to know whether there will be accompanying training requirements for those in the judiciary to deliver on that aim. I welcome the statutory principle to prevent delay with the requirement for courts to drop timetables for resolving cases, as we all recognise the negative impact delay has on a child's welfare.

When we consider that most children going through this process are from the care system and the hurt and harm they will have been subjected to in their short lives, we see that we should be seeking to find them that caring, loving home in a timely manner. It is good to see the provisions of the Bill that place a duty on trusts to provide information about the types of adoption and support services that are available in their areas, and it is particularly welcome that adoption support will incorporate financial support and access to counselling along with advice and information relating to adoption.

A vital aspect of that will involve drawing on the extensive expertise of the third sector; therefore, giving trusts the option to engage with voluntary adoption agencies that are registered with RQIA to draw on their extensive expertise is a much-needed move forward. However, it is important to learn from the difficulties in implementing similar legislation elsewhere. The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW) has highlighted that the local authorities in Scotland have had difficulties in fully funding the adoption support aspects of the 2007 Act there, so I look forward to engagement with the Minister on how that aim will be best achieved.

Northern Ireland has the highest levels of post-adoption contact in the UK. Research by the Northern Ireland strand of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) found that some adoptive parents feel a sense of pressure from courts to facilitate face-to-face contact and are fearful that any opposition to that could harm the status of their application. Therefore, I welcome clause 135, which enshrines the principle that contact can be refused between a child and their birth parent if such contact is not consistent with a child's safeguarding or well-being. I thank Women's Aid Northern Ireland for its contribution on the issue. It emphasised the need to focus on domestic and sexual violence as a key safeguarding issue, and I also welcome the protection against the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation.

The inclusion of a new duty to consider dually approved carers in adoption decisions is a positive step forward and as the potential to reduce the number of moves a child has to make and to promote continuity of care and circumstances for those involved. We recognise that not every child will want to go down the route of adoption, and, in some cases, a secure placement, such as a special guardianship order, may benefit their long-term well-being.

At every stage, the welfare and wishes of the child must be taken into account. However, the arrangement does not extinguish the legal link to birth parents, and there are issues in relation to that that warrant further investigation. There is a need to address children's advocates and health professionals' concerns that the concept might ultimately be used as a cost-saving measure.

The Bill will strengthen the provisions for looked-after children and care leavers, by extending the age of entitlement to 25, placing an emphasis on corporate parenting and promoting educational achievement. We welcome those provisions. There is a need to support every child, regardless of their pathway or circumstances.

The proposal to establish adoption registers covering contact with children currently on an adoption pathway raises issues about data protection and safeguarding. It is important that those provisions be evidence based and rights compatible, particularly where prospective adopters are to be granted access. It is right that adopted persons are able to access information on their birth families. The Bill makes provision for that information to be retained, updated and accessed.

The provision in the Bill for an independent review mechanism against adoption panel determinations is welcome. The opportunity to dig deeper into the potential eligibility criteria for requesting such a review and the provision of an overview of how appeals or complaints by prospective adopters are dealt with presently are positive steps forward and help the entire process to become more robust. It is right that those who have invested so much time and emotion in the process have that right of appeal and that it is dealt with independently.

The specific provision in clause 5 inserting the right to an assessment for post-adoption services is a welcome step forward as well. It is important that we take a holistic and rounded approach to how we support adopted children and those who adopt. It is vital that ongoing support be available to help all parties to adapt to their new life. By ensuring that such support is in place, better outcomes will undoubtedly be supported.

We point out the need to ensure that the plans to place duties on trusts to provide information places sufficient focus on issues such as advance consent for adoption. We want to ensure that those who are pregnant are able to make fully informed decisions regarding adoption at an earlier stage. There is a need to ensure a collaborative and joined-up approach to that among health services.

In conclusion, it is vital that the process be robust and helps to secure happy outcomes for all those involved. We understand that the process to reach that goal is complex, as is the law around it. The process must therefore be right.

Ms Hunter: I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Second Stage of this very important Adoption and Children Bill, and I thank the Minister for moving it. My thoughts are with him, given the threats that he has received. That should be neither an accepted nor a normalised part of public life. I therefore offer my support and solidarity to him.

The SDLP welcomes the legislation, which will see adoption law become fully aligned with provisions in the Children Order 1995, and which sets out that the child's welfare is paramount. That is at the heart of the Bill. I also welcome the fact that that will ensure that our law fully adheres to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I welcome the expansion and commitment in the Bill to supporting the rights of children, including clause 120, which ensures that the wishes of children are ascertained; clause 121, which places a duty on authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need; and clause 122, which places a duty to promote educational achievement and prevent disruption to education and training. That is an issue of great importance, and I am absolutely delighted to see it included. Disruption to the lives of children who go through adoption must be minimised wherever it can be. The fact that that commitment will be enshrined is therefore most welcome.

I welcome that the Bill will play a significant and positive role in reforming the adoption process and place care planning and advocacy services on a statutory basis. Reforming the adoption process will, in turn, improve support for families in need and children in care. I particularly welcome the Bill's emphasis on providing further support for care leavers.

The introduction of this legislation in the North will bring our law into line with changes made across the rest of these islands in 2002 and 2007. The current legislation appears outdated, given that it often causes unnecessary delay and uncertainty throughout the adoption process.

11.45 am

Looking through the clauses, I seek further detail and clarity in order to outline exactly how the legislation safeguards and promotes the rights of individuals and same-sex couples to adopt. For example, clauses 47 and 48 mention civil partnerships, but I am mindful that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission:

"recommends that the consultation and proposed Bill outline in detail specific measures to be taken to ensure non-discrimination against same-sex couples and individuals in the adoption process."

I would like to hear a little bit more about that. It is important to highlight and make clear to all those who are involved, including trust employees and prospective parents, the rights of same-sex couples to adopt. The National Adoption Service in Wales, for example, states:

"Adoption is open to people who can meet the needs of children waiting for adoptive families, and we welcome enquiries from all different types of adopters, from across the spectrum of sexuality or gender identity."

I hope that as, we progress the Bill, we can see that same enthusiasm and language of inclusivity.

I also welcome wholeheartedly the inclusion of stopping young women and girls from undergoing barbaric FGM.

Lastly, I urge the Department to outline how the additional services in the Bill will be resourced and to ensure that consultation and engagement with the Department of Justice and the Courts Service is maximised so that the changes are implemented with minimal disruption. Along with Barnardo's and the Chair of the Committee, I have some concerns about clause 133, "Definition of harm". The definition should be expanded in order to recognise that children do not need to witness ill-treatment by sight or sound to be affected and impacted by it. That would bring us in line with other legislation, such as the provisions in the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act (Northern Ireland) 2021.

While I regret that the legislation is a long time coming — Paul Goggins unveiled the Adopting the Future strategy in 2006, which set out some of the changes that were needed — I am very grateful that we are here today. I thank the Minister for bringing this important Bill forward. Each year, 85 to 90 children are adopted in the North; that is a lot of new beginnings. I hope that the Bill will go as far as possible to support them and their families in the new chapter of their lives.

Mr McNulty: Will the Member give way?

Ms Hunter: Yes, go on ahead.

Mr McNulty: On a personal note, my uncle is adopted but we do not think of him as our adopted uncle. We think of him as our Uncle Padraig. He is such a loved member of our family — a wonderful father, an adoring husband and a brilliant example to his children. He is a wonderful part of the community and a Trojan hard worker. I just want to recognise the important role that adoptive parents play in our society and to recognise the pain that families who give up children for adoption go through, probably through no fault of their own but because they have met circumstances in which the child is put up for adoption. I want to recognise that so many adopted children are placed in loving, caring homes and thrive and grow to be wonderful people in their own right.

Ms Hunter: I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree; any families that I have spoken with want more support post-adoption. Hopefully, the Bill will do that.

Mr Butler: I associate myself with the Health Committee Chairperson's comments about the threats that have been made against our Minister of Health. The COVID pandemic has thrown up many anomalies in society and, sadly, one of those has been those who seek to diminish the people who are carrying the burden on their shoulders and trying to lead us through this life-threatening pandemic. What has happened is absolutely disgusting, whether it is online or in person, and people need to desist from what they are doing. In effect, not only are they causing hassle and stress for the Minister of Health and his family but they are endangering other people's lives with the nonsense that they are peddling.

I thank Mr McNulty for his comments about his Uncle Padraig. It is really welcome to hear someone speaking on the Bill from a position of experience. In the first instance, I thank the Minister for prioritising the Bill. As the Committee Chairperson said, we have a compressed time period in which to deal with it, but that is because we did not have a legislative process for three years. The Minister has seen that this is an issue that needs to be prioritised.

I will declare an interest at the outset, if that is OK. My wife and I have been foster parents for over 15 years now, and we have probably had in the region of 23 or 24 children through our home in that time. At the moment, without disclosing too much information, we are privileged to have three children, who are six, four and two years old and whom, we hope, will, in the very near future, be with us permanently. So I have an interest in the Bill.

I will not speak too much to the technicalities of the Bill. I normally do not, so Members will say, "There's no surprise there, Robbie". I will not speak to its technicalities because, although it is —.

Mr McNulty: I thank the Member for giving way. I applaud him for the important role that he and his wife are playing in society by fostering children. That is of huge importance.

Although this is not necessarily directly linked to the Bill, I recognise that there is a crisis in foster care at the moment. Agencies are reaching out to families to see who is available to help a child shine. It is important that we note that a crisis is going on and that we say to families who want to help a child develop and shine to come forward to offer that service to children.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): I remind Members that, although it is good to give some personal experience, we are here to debate the Bill.

Mr Butler: No problem, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Member for his kind comments.

The Bill talks to many of those issues. If not in technical terms, it is OK to speak to the Bill in terms that are not technical, because part of its purpose is to encourage people to foster and to adopt, so, when I say that I will not talk to its technicalities, I pray that you will indulge me, Mr Deputy Speaker, because this is very pertinent to the Bill.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): General principles.

Mr Butler: OK. As the Member said, we have a problem. The number of children living in care has increased every year for the past 20 years. Almost 3,000 children have been in care over the past 12 months. I talked to Foster Care NI, which told me that roughly 16 new children enter the care system every week. It is a very real and pressing issue that we must deal with. We need to ensure that the homes and the supports that we create for those children are as good as they can be, and I hope that the legislation will have an effect on their lives as quickly as possible.

The majority of adoptions in Northern Ireland are of children who are currently in the care system. Figures have been given of between 91 and 168 over the past five years. That shows the absolute need to facilitate them. We need to make it as safe as possible but relatively seamless for families who want to step into the gap to provide care for those children. There is also an understanding that a lot of those children come from homes that have been disrupted or are finding themselves in difficulty.

The other thing that I want to put on record from my lived experience, which, I hope, the legislation will pick up on, is that it is right and proper that we thank the people out there who provide adoptive and foster homes to looked-after children. We have to recognise, however, that, in those families, there are sons, daughters, extended family and friends who are part of the package and also provide some assistance. They therefore need to be included in the conversation as well. I think of my own son and daughter, who are 22 and 20 respectively. They have played an incredibly important role in facilitating what we have tried to do with the children who have come through our care.

The legislation will put care planning and advocacy services on a statutory footing. It will create a duty to promote educational achievement and to diminish disruption to education. It will provide a framework and principles for those who are responsible for children in care to ensure their safety and stability, as well as promote high aspirations and prepare those children for adult life. I am absolutely delighted about that Part of the Bill. It is an indisputable fact that a good start in life very often pays out in the form of a more stable and successful later life. Life is inevitably harder for children and young people who are exposed to trauma or dysfunctionality. The support services therefore need to be in place, and that need must be recognised as early as possible. The Minister has ensured that they have been included in the Bill, and their importance cannot be overemphasised. For instance, on the Education Committee, we are currently looking at the pathways for 14- to 19-year-olds. Those pathways can be difficult enough, even for children who have that stability at home and do not have additional difficulties. For those children who perhaps did not get the start to life that they deserved or who had a traumatic start that has led to, for example, attachment disorders or behavioural issues, the Bill has the potential to address those issues at the earliest stage of their life. That will make the difference for those young people. I really look forward to seeing Part 2 of the Bill be developed at Committee Stage.

Adoption of any child ultimately happens only because something has gone wrong, whether that be the breakdown of parental care or perhaps even because of tragic circumstances. Children in care come from less than ideal situations. Whilst adoption can provide a safe and stable home for them, it is not at all straightforward. Often, adoption can place a large and unexpected burden on that family unit. The legislation will further enable the health and social care trusts to provide greater financial and professional support to families, and that will help them to provide the safe and stable environment that is critical to children's successful upbringing.

My final point is that 13% of children in care have a recognised disability, and 25% of those of compulsory school age who are in care have a statement of special educational need. Those percentages are significantly higher than for those not living in care, meaning that many prospective adopters need additional support, or even specialist input, to create a safe and stable home environment.

The legislation will also set out a viable avenue for health and social care trusts to provide short-term respite care to children with a disability without requiring them to become looked-after. Throughout the COVID pandemic, we have seen the absolute need for respite care, and we have done our absolute best. However, when we come out of this, we must realise that that pathway is vital.

As I said at the outset, I am deeply interested in this legislation, and I am delighted that it will mean a much-needed updating of our adoption legislation. I hope that, like me, everyone in the Chamber can see the positive impact that this will have and will join us in voting for it.

Minister, I put on record that I missed the piece on SGOs when I read through your statement, but I was delighted to hear you mention them. Special guardianship orders exist across the water in mainland UK, and it is really good to see an alignment that will facilitate children who come from there to a family unit here, or vice versa, depending on how it happens. Sometimes, that has been an issue. I believe that it will be better under your ministerial guidance.

I ask everyone in the Chamber to support the Bill.

Ms Armstrong: I join everyone else, Minister, in expressing solidarity with you. The faceless cowards who often bring these threats to many members of our Executive are shameless. We all stand in solidarity with you.

I declare an interest — Mrs Cameron stole my thunder — as one of the parents who joined the adoption system but left it. I may go into that later. The subject is close to my heart. By the way, I chose to withdraw for personal reasons; I was not kicked out.

The Alliance Party, of course, supports the Bill. 'Adopting the Future' was an adoption strategy published 11 years after the Children Order, and it is frustrating that we are now 15 years on from that. This is the vital work that we are elected to do, so let us ensure that we do it with no further delay.

Let us be clear about why the Bill is so important and urgent: we need to align adoption law to make the child's welfare the paramount consideration in decisions relating to adoption; we need to ensure that there is a statutory duty for an adoption service; we need to provide a new right for adopted children and parents to request an assessment of their needs for adoption support services; we need to introduce a new legal framework for disclosure of information and establishing contact; we need to amend the definition of "harm" to include seeing and hearing the ill treatment of another person; we need to make sure that parents bringing an adopted child into Northern Ireland have followed the appropriate procedures; and we need to establish a regional register to provide matches between children waiting to be adopted and prospective adopters.

We have left children who wish to be adopted in foster care for longer than necessary. We need to be clearer about ascertaining the wishes of children around investigations and child protection. We must act to ensure that children feel permanency in their new adopted home, and we need to provide reassurance in law, through statutory advocacy services, for children who are looked after.

I welcome, in particular, the special guardianship insertion at clause 119. I should have declared another interest: I am a former chair of Kinship Care. As such, I encourage the taking of further evidence on kinship care from that organisation. In particular, one of the Bill's provisions is that a special guardian should be at least 18 years old. It does not include protections or support that could be offered to a sibling, for instance, who is almost 18 and could be their younger sibling's special guardian.

The legislation is aimed at ensuring that many of the children who have the toughest start in life will have their interests prioritised. Among other things, the Bill places the Going the Extra Mile scheme on a statutory footing, meaning that care leavers can stay with their foster parents until the age of 21.

Will we as legislators now go the extra mile to ensure that the legislation progresses swiftly in the interests of protecting children from harm and giving them security?

12.00 noon

I am not here to argue that the Bill is perfect, but it is obvious that it is important legislation covering, vitally, adoption provisions with reference to children entering Northern Ireland from abroad and amendments to children and adoption legislation. In that regard, it serves to modernise and secure our adoption framework. Figures showing that, during the pandemic, adoptions halved only make this more urgent.

Clause 1 places into law what should be obvious but, in practice, may not always be so: the welfare of the child is paramount. That is specifically applied to a court or an adoption agency, but, of course, it needs to apply broadly to everyone involved. Thankfully, that is then threaded throughout the Bill.

Chapter 2 covers the statutory requirement for an adoption service, including, importantly, a statutory right to request an assessment for adoption support. Regarding clause 3, I ask the Minister why there will be five adoption authorities instead of one. If the Bill is to take a child-centred approach, having five adoption authorities creates boundaries in the process and can limit the number of potential adopters available to be considered for a child. Northern Ireland is a small place. Why not enable and expand the pool of adopters with whom to place the child by having one authority that covers all of Northern Ireland instead of children being adopted across boundaries that have been created by the process? Are those boundaries in the best interests of children? I appreciate that there is a discussion about a regional register, but why have those boundaries been included?

In clause 5(4), I am delighted to see a plan for the provision of adoption support services, but the Bill does not specify whether that plan will include checks and balances to ensure that support is provided in a timely fashion and not delayed by resourcing issues. In the past, children have stayed in care longer than necessary, and adopters have been delayed in the process due to staff shortages and staff changes. That must be managed, and I sincerely hope that the detail of the plan will include a measurement of effective service provision.

In the Bill, there is no discussion of support for foster carers. Foster carers will have come to many of our offices particularly concerned about allegations having been made. Those allegations may have been unfounded, but it takes a significant time for them to be taken from a foster carer's record, thus harming their ability to have other employment or to foster children. There is no clarification of that.

On the clauses on the disclosure of information, it is vital that people who are adopted have access to information. Many victims of mother-and-baby homes, with whom my colleague Paula Bradshaw MLA has been working, have extreme difficulty with what should be a simple process of retrieving information about their past. The Bill defines access to information for adoptions that will take place after the Bill receives Royal Assent: it will be difficult for people adopted before the Bill is enacted to wade through the current system to access their information.

Clauses 7 and 8 are silent on the assessment of the effectiveness of the adoption authorities. Should the adoption authorities also be held to account to ensure that, in a child-centred approach, no child or adoption is delayed through staffing issues or adopters lost through elongated processes? I left the process because, after three and a half years and having finally completed courses and after having many social workers, we faced a further three years before we would be able to adopt. We decided that enough was enough. We do not want to lose adopters because of the elongated process. Clause 9 regulates adoption agencies but does not clarify regulations for adoption authorities. Perhaps the Committee will consider that. Clause 10 talks about the management of adoption authorities and voluntary organisations but not regulation of performance. Through the adoption process, one key thing that has come forward from people who have been adopted is the time that it takes and the performance of statutory agencies.

Clauses 28 and 29 clarify the number of days when a child has to be returned to parents in particular circumstances. That may be 14 days or seven days. However, it does not give any consideration to the upheaval for the child. If this is child-centred legislation, perhaps the Minister can confirm why the number of days cannot be amended to take account of how long a child has been living with foster carers? That will allow a period of adjustment and preparation for the child when they are being returned to their parent.

I have some issues with Clause 42, and it ties in with what Ms Hunter from the SDLP said. Clause 42 confirms that regulations will be provided to confirm the suitability of adopters. The regulations will be made by negative resolution. Is that the best way to do that? If we are to ensure effective equality in the system, would it be better to make the regulations through a positive resolution process? In my experience, prospective adopters are not provided with a list of the regulations. They are welcome to have the list of regulations, but the variance across the trusts has been astonishing. Prospective adopters have been asked to lose weight because they are too fat to be a parent. They are asked to be employed or not be employed. Where there is a marriage of people of different religions, the couple must decide which religion the household will choose. None of that information is provided in advance to potential adopters. I would like to see the adoption application process become more transparent and those systems brought forward. It would be worthwhile to move from negative to positive resolution. The Assembly needs to use its scrutiny role to ensure that prospective adopters are fully aware of their requirements and that each adoption authority agency follows the same scheme.

I do not doubt that chapters 4 and 5, which provide clarity on status and the establishment of a register, will be warmly welcomed, if considered long overdue.

Part 2 makes important amendments directly to the Children Order, notably on residence and education. That includes, at clause 120, an important requirement to ascertain children's "wishes and feelings". That phrasing is important as it is a change from "will" or "expressed will" to the actual wishes and feelings of the child.

Clause 123 is on corporate parenting principles. Minister, that issue, perhaps, needs to be expanded or amended. It mentions:

"children who are looked after by an authority",

and how they are treated. I am aware of children who are being trafficked out of care homes. Will there be effective guidance to ensure that teenage girls and boys in care —.

Mr Swann: Will the Member give way?

Mr Swann: I hope that the Member has brought that to the appropriate authorities, if she is aware of it.

Ms Armstrong: I have, certainly. Unfortunately, it is an ongoing issue.

There must be effective guidance to ensure that teenage girls and boys in care are parented and protected, so that, for instance, they cannot walk out of a home at 10.00 pm. Social workers and staff should be supported to act as parents and take responsibility for the children in their care. I would not let my children leave the house at 10.00 pm, so why would a child in care be allowed to behave in a way that puts them in danger from people who will ply them with drugs or alcohol and, sadly, lead some of them into prostitution? I have all the time in the world for social workers who deal with children who have difficulties and present difficult behaviours, but we need to support those social workers so that their first action is not to report that child to the police. I encourage the Committee to talk to organisations such as Invisible Traffick that work with care homes and children to warn them about the perils of the big bad world.

I will draw clause 127 to the Minister's attention. The clause is about the right to contact. What happens if the contact is not working right? Will a child's thoughts on the matter be brought into play? For example, what if the parent or person who has applied for the contact does not turn up? That has a devastating impact on children. We need to consider whether the legislation should make it clear that birth parents can have contact but cannot let children down. Children cannot be left feeling abandoned again. They cannot be left to think they have done something wrong when a parent does not turn up.

I welcome clause 141 regarding the public awareness of fostering.

I draw attention to the need for the Legal Services Agency to be prepared for the orders for contact during placement and for post-adoption contact, which will have legal aid implications. Of course, those situations are not always easy.

I will conclude with general remarks on the context in which the Bill is being brought forward. First, it could conceivably be dovetailed more effectively with the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act, particularly concerning children being impacted by domestic abuse even where absent. I am hopeful that a way forward can be found in that regard. Secondly, I remain concerned that, where a child was conceived as a result of rape, the father would still be able to apply for access. That is extremely worrying, as the application alone could cause considerable distress to the victim, and that is intolerable. I am unconvinced that we should leave that to a legal process in a court when we can act now to prevent it in the first place. Thirdly, I am concerned that the consultation supported the Children and Young People's Strategic Partnership being placed on a statutory footing, but complexities have led to it being excluded from the Bill. I am sure that my colleague Paula Bradshaw MLA will seek further information on that, while recognising that it may involve significant amendments to different legislation.

It is time that we enabled children with the security of a forever home. There may be work to do on the detail, but I broadly warmly commend the Bill.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Like other Members, Minister, I convey my support and solidarity with you and your family and, indeed, your parents and wider family.

It has been mentioned quite a few times — I am sure that this will not be the last time that you hear it, Minister and, to be fair, you mentioned it yourself — that this legislation and reform of adoption procedures is long overdue, so it is welcome. It is not lost on any of us — the Minister mentioned it yesterday in response to a question for urgent oral answer from my colleague Emma Sheerin and in relation to a question posed by Pam about adoption — that the report that we will hear about today, particularly in relation to mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries, will probably outline the worst examples of how things were done.

I appreciate that this legislation will try to amend not only the practices but, as Kellie and others have outlined, the whole process around adoption. It is a stressful journey, to be honest. Even in relation to the mother-and-baby homes from partition to 1990, I know of such — I am loath to call them "homes" — facilities that were in my constituency of North Belfast.

The preamble was good, but I want to touch on some of the absences. This is not about nitpicking; it is just about clarity. This is a substantial Bill; it has 166 clauses. There are constant references to the 1995 Children Order, which had 177 pages to read through, and, trying to cross-reference both, I still did not get an answer to my query. Like many others, I am used to reading legislation, and I will certainly scrutinise the Bill in the Health Committee, but there is a lot to be said for plain English. The less ambiguity around legislation, the better, because we need to ensure that people have a clear understanding.

Minister, I commend you for bringing the Bill to Second Stage. As the Chair, Colm, outlined, the Committee had discussions with and presentations from officials. I want to come back to those at a later stage.

I would appreciate "private fostering" and, indeed, "private adoption" being outlined in clause 1. I would like there to be further explanation of what those private arrangements may entail, because that is really important. That is not to say that it will be as it was in the case of mother-and-baby homes and Magdalene laundries, but we need to have quite a lot of detail.

Clause 3 refers to the regional adoption board.

My understanding is that the adoption authorities are the five health and social care trusts. The regional board and its relationship to each of those trusts needs further definition. As has been raised, and I will touch on this again later, there needs to be a seamless link between each adoption authority and their procedures. The guidance on that needs to be clearer and seamless as well.

12.15 pm

Colm and other Members mentioned kinship. If kinship is special guardianship, the Bill needs to say so. I know it is not the intention of the Minister and his officials, but the lack of mention of kinship undermines the work involved in and the value of kinship. I know that is not intentional, but, when we are correcting previous legislation and guidance through the Bill, we need to reflect that. If kinship is not special guardianship, fair enough, but I want to know exactly what it is.

Clause 9 covers the general power to regulate adoption agencies. Again, I want to know the differences between those adoption agencies that are under the guardianship, care or the scrutiny of the regional health and social care boards and those agencies that are not. What regulates them? Further on, the Bill talks about RQIA's role, but I want to know what the differences are. The Minister and Members across the House will fully appreciate that I want to see additional clarity on those differences when it comes to private fostering and adoption arrangements.

I referred to the role of RQIA and the management of adoption agencies in clause 9, but I will turn now to the management of agencies in clause 10. What role, if any, will the statutory advocate have? Again, I welcome that advocate having statutory power and vires, but the role is not clear to me, even though I read clause 10 quite a few times.

Clause 12 is headed:

"Independent review of qualifying determinations of adoption agencies".

Again, while the clauses are almost deliberately going into each other because of their connection, I believe we need greater definition, because it is not there. For me, clause 12 also presented some concerns about, arguably, clause 60 and 61, which are on disclosure. I will touch on that again. I ask for additional information on that because I want to know what the rights of adopted children are, and the Bill is not very specific on them. Colm made the point about how the Adoption and Children Bill should be called the Adoption of Children Bill, because it is a bit misleading. I accept that that is not deliberate; it is probably the nuance of language.

The Minister mentioned data protection, and I welcome that, but I have looked across each chapter and clause, and data protection is not mentioned once. I think that is a mistake, because data protection has, as the term suggests, legal protections that are very clearly laid out. If they are not clearly laid out, there are implications for the Bill under articles 8 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Clause 17 is headed "Advance consent to adoption". It cross-references with clause 51, which covers provisions that allow a parent to relinquish their child for adoption if they wish. In order to do so, they must have no further involvement with their child. Clause 51 should have a bit more of a focus on consent. I know there are additional and separate categories of consent. As with any massive Bill, you go back and forward. I am not complaining about that; that is what we are here for. I am not being pedantic or nitpicky, but when talking about clause 17, the explanatory and financial memorandum (EFM) uses language that we need to look at as it talks of a parent's consent to "his child" being adopted. As recently as yesterday, we mentioned that a woman has choices, and one of those choices is the adoption of her child. That needs to be reflected in the Bill. The terminology might be something archaic in the law that has been transported, but I do not think it is right.

Clause 18 relates to placement orders, and, again, it references the Children Order. The alignment of adoption law with the Children Order 1995 is very welcome. However, the 1995 Children Order will probably need to be amended, if not fresh legislation brought forward, because it needs to take into consideration and include reference to the Domestic Abuse and Family Civil Proceedings Act 2021. I will make reference to that when I reach clause 133.

I found clause 32:

"Return of child in other cases"

and clause 33 difficult to read. We are talking about human beings here, but it reads as though we are talking about returning items. I know that that is not where the Minister or officials are coming from. Legislation is dry and devoid of emotion at times, but, to be honest, I found that wording a bit inappropriate. That is not what any of us want to see.

Clause 38 concerns recovery orders. The reasons for those have been listed in the context of breaches that are outlined in clauses 15 to 37. Again, we need to look at the definition of harm in clause 133, and at the introduction of subsequent legislation.

We need to consider a welfare checklist. I looked for such a checklist in the Children Order and in the Bill, but I could not find it, even though children's welfare is mentioned throughout the Bill. Perhaps social services, the police or others have such a checklist, but we will need to see it when we scrutinise the Bill. It is important that the concept of consent be included in the checklist. It is mentioned in clause 1(4) and is relevant throughout the Bill, particularly in clause 52, which concerns the modification of the Children Order in relation to adoption. The welfare checklist is important in every clause, but certainly in relation to kinship, which has been missed in that clause and should be included.

Clauses 60 concerns disclosing protected information about adults. Jim Allister raised a point about that at the start of the debate. Often, as I know from some of my constituents who found out that one of their grandparents had been adopted as a child, people want to know about their family history. They want to find things out. That facility is crucial, notwithstanding the implications of the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Public Records Act 1923, for people researching history, particularly that before partition. We need to look at that. While we need to protect people's rights, people need to be able to access information. That is vital.

I ask for additional information about clause 61, which concerns disclosing protected information about children. Subsection (2) says:

"The agency is not required to proceed with the application"

for disclosure for information

"unless it considers it appropriate to do so."

I want to see the guidance and criteria for that. I understand that people are coming at this from a good place, but, in the past, particularly in the Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes, information was power. That power was used to control people and prevent their access to information. An awful lot of power was in the hands of one or two people. It is hard to legislate for that, but we have an opportunity to ensure that that is not repeated.

Clause 65 concerns the meaning of adoption. It is laid out in chapter 4, and Colm touched upon it. When you look at areas around the border — Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, Derry, Donegal — you see that some parishes there are all-island. That includes not only Catholic but Church of Ireland parishes. I am not sure about others; pardon my ignorance. In the past, some of the religious institutions were adoption agencies, and those parishes were referred to on birth certificates as well as some of the paperwork that people were subsequently able to retrieve. It is important that that is reflected.

I will raise an issue on clause 68. The legislative position has been that:

"it must be presumed that once a woman has attained the age of 55 years she will not adopt a person after execution of the instrument".

As a woman who is just over — well, a good bit over — 55, I wonder what that means. Does it relate to the life expectancy of an adoptive parent? What is that? Our life expectancy is, thankfully, slightly longer now. Given that there is a shortage of people who can foster and adopt, it is important for that to be clarified.

Will the Minister provide further detail on clause 76 on the adopted children register, specifically in the context of clauses 12, 60 and 105 in relation to privacy and disclosure? They are all connected and related to each other.

Colm mentioned clause 88 in the context of inter-country and all-island adoption as I have done.

I mentioned the welfare checklist that is specified in clause 119 on special guardianship. I appreciate that this is new and that it will be improved, but I looked for references to welfare checklists in article 3 of the Children Order, and they are not there. I assume that that is with the statutory authorities, but, when you scrutinise legislation, you should not assume anything; you get it clarified.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): Order. I remind Members that the Second Stage of a Bill is about the general principles. Many valid points and queries have been raised, but there will be opportunity at Committee Stage, should the House agree to the general principles of the Bill. I encourage Members to discuss the general principles of the Bill. I have given considerable latitude. I ask the Member to take that on board.

Ms Ní Chuilín: I appreciate that, LeasCheann Comhairle. You are right. I am doing this to give people advance notice; in the absence of clarity, I will repeat it at Committee Stage. I hope that the officials who are listening will have that information when they come to the Committee.

In relation to care plans, I was delighted to hear the Minister say that the Bill takes into consideration young people between the ages of 21 and 25. I considered bringing forward a private Member's Bill on this issue because, having worked with the Children's Law Centre and, indeed, with children who came through fostering and with looked-after children in the system, when it comes to statutory responsibilities, the fact that the age of 25 was not recognised, particularly when children were trying to access housing, made it very difficult. We all know that children who grow up and are reared through a corporate system by corporate parents are really disadvantaged. Personally, I am delighted to see the age of 25 recognised, as it is in Europe. It is great that it has happened, because it will mean an awful lot to those young people. It is really important that, when we look at the legislation, we check it against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I have no doubt that that will happen.

12.30 pm

I ask the Minister to look at contact arrangements and contact centres. They need to be age-appropriate. I know many in social services who try their best, but arrangements sometimes do not suit estranged parents or other siblings, particularly when they are trying to get everybody together and there are gaps in age. I ask for greater flexibility. The fact is that there are massive pressures on social services now as there were well before COVID. When we look at workforce planning and at the roles and the guidance that will be needed for the legislation to be understood, we definitely need to look at the resources that are to be attached. If someone with the best will in the world and the greatest compassion wants to do their job but is not able to execute their duties, they are, although it is not their fault, in breach of their statutory and corporate responsibilities. No one — none of us here and no one in Health and Social Care — wants to be in that position.

I referred to the fact that the guidance needs to be very clear. I have worked with social workers over many years. They know who they are, and I know that they are listening. I put on record my thanks and gratitude to them. They have done what they were asked to do and then some and in very difficult circumstances. They have put themselves at risk on many occasions, particularly when children have kicked out at them and been violent. I also put on record my gratitude to Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) and other organisations concerned with the rights of children who are looked after. They have been waiting for legislation such as this for years. Many of them have been the voice of the voiceless. I know that they will be delighted that the age will be extended to 25 as a result of the Bill; indeed, there are clauses that talk about adult children who have been through the system. That will be well recognised.

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to Second Stage.

Ms Flynn: The importance of this long-overdue legislation has been mentioned numerous times already. You said, Minister, that current legislation dates back 35 years, which is longer than my lifetime. Most of the measures in the Bill are around modernising the current framework, which is outdated for dealing with the adoption process.

The Chair said that we had only six months left in the Assembly term. The Assembly and the Health Committee are pushed for time for giving the Bill the scrutiny that it deserves. It is essential, however, that we use the limited time that we have to treat the Bill with the utmost care and attention, which, hopefully, will allow it to complete its legislative passage and ensure that children and families are supported.

As the Chair mentioned, when scrutinising any legislation that deals with vulnerable children and young people, it is essential that we focus on making sure that the process is transparent and that those in adoption agencies and in the Department are accountable. The Minister said that there was some feedback from the sector in the consultation that was carried out. I spoke to some groups in the sector. Barnardo's reached out to MLAs in advance of today's debate. Like many other stakeholders, it is keen to see the passage of the Bill through the Assembly as quickly as possible.

Some of the elements in the Bill that I will focus on are the child's welfare; the right to an assessment of need for a parent, child or guardian; the importance of the advocacy services; and the requirement for authorities to promote the child's educational attainment. I will address a bit more generally the mental health impact that the complex process can have on families.

The Bill aims to bring adoption law into line with the Children Order to ensure that the child's welfare is the main focus in decisions. That is crucial. Some Members have spoken about their personal experience of the adoption process, but whether it be personal experience or engagement with constituents or social services as they go through the process, which, I am sure, we have all had, the most important factor and number-one priority is the child's welfare, safety and best interests. I welcome the fact that that is contained throughout the Bill and, rightfully, takes its place as a priority.

Another important aspect of the Bill is the provision of a new right for adopted children and adoptive parents to request an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. The Bill provides that that process will also be available for special guardians who might need additional counselling, advice or information. As has been stated, adoption is an extremely difficult process for everyone involved. The process of gaining a child by removing him or her from another family can and does trigger a range of emotions — positive and negative — and those emotions can be difficult to process, particularly for the child. The advantages of a safe, stable home where the physical and emotional needs of the young children are consistently met are critical, as research has shown that adoptees are, sadly, more likely than non-adoptees to be diagnosed with mental health issues. Additionally, research suggests that adoptees are more likely to abuse substances and even attempt suicide than their non-adopted peers. Some of that is, obviously, due to the trauma that some of the young people and kids have experienced earlier in their childhood. When it comes to the relationship between adoption and mental health, knowledge and prevention are power. Access to the right support services at the right time is an important first step for a parent or a child. I welcome that particularly for children who, commonly, are unable to vocalise or identify what they feel. The assessment of needs could address and identify multiple issues. I think that it was Kellie Armstrong who made the point about identifying needs early enough to prevent what could happen down the line. That better support for the parent, child and guardian is welcome.

Unfortunately, little research has been done on the prevention of adoption-related mental health issues — the Department might consider that — but implementing the practices and the needs assessment is a good place to begin. That is a positive. According to the World Health Organization, a variety of evidence-based programmes can reduce the risk of mental illness, and intervention strategies can target the parent and the child at the different developmental stages. The strategies vary on the basis of the type of mental health you are dealing with, but most focus on the likes of developing social skills and emotional resilience and having general, healthy coping mechanisms. Hopefully, some of those worldwide and international strategies are already entwined in our local support services to support some of the parents or kids who might be struggling.

Another factor to bear in mind when considering an assessment of need for parent and child — Mr Butler is not in the Chamber now, but he touched on this — is having some thought for the rest of the family. You probably do not think about that unless you have been close enough to the experience of adoption, but it is about reaching out to the wider family. Other children in the home might need additional help or support if a sibling struggles to settle into their new environment. Even the youngest of children, no matter their age or how well they are able to comprehend what is happening with their new brother or sister, can pick up on stress and tension in the family, if there is any. We must be mindful of the other siblings in the transition process: they are part of it too.

I will move on quickly to the statutory advocacy services for current and former looked-after children. Mr McNulty made a point about the language around looked-after children. I thank him for that because, to be honest, it has never been brought to my attention. However, like a lot of things and from dealing with suicide prevention, I know that some of the language needs to be dealt with sensitively, so I will bear that in mind. He referred to "children looked after". It is a subtle difference, but it may make a difference to someone watching the debate.

Advocacy is vital for children and young people, who, as we know, often have a lot of major decisions in their lives taken on their behalf. Many children who are looked after in care or are in the child protection system often have choices made for them. A statutory advocacy service should ensure that they will have a say about some of the care that they will receive. As we know, the ultimate goal is always to ensure that all our children are happy, healthy and safe, but the advocacy services can help to champion some of their rights. Hopefully, they can help to support them and play a role in promoting equality issues and in keeping an eye on current services to ensure that no young person is discriminated against for whatever reason. Hopefully, they should also be able to give confidential help and advice quickly as and when it is requested. The most important part of this is that children and young people will have a statutory service that works exclusively for them and is dedicated to them and their needs. Such a service will help to guide any child through the adoption process and act on their behalf to communicate their needs and wishes.

It is vital that children and young people feel supported. We know that children who feel that they are listened to are more likely to be honest and to open up about things like abuse or other horrible things that might be affecting them. A couple of Members touched on that. We all want the same goal: to protect children from harm and ensure that they are safe: the advocacy role can provide that opportunity.

The Bill proposes a new requirement for authorities to promote the child's educational achievement. As I said, the adoption process is difficult for the parent and, in particular, the child, which is why the requirement for authorities to promote their educational achievement should be the bare minimum in order to give those children and young people only what they deserve, which is the best chance of a happy and successful school journey, followed by a future career or job prospect of their choice if they are supported in the right way, which is, hopefully, what that will lead to.

In many cases of adoption and transition between families, the emotional and psychological distress felt by a child can lead to behavioural challenges at home and at school. Sometimes, that can essentially set them on a course to academic underachievement. Although some do well, the educational achievement of looked-after children or children looked-after as a group, unfortunately, remains unacceptably low, which is clearly why the Department has included the duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child.

I will bring my remarks to a close, but I am conscious that there are many more important clauses and aspects of the Bill that I have not touched on. Other Members mentioned some of them, but, as I said in my opening remarks, it is important to get the Bill passed at Second Stage today and for the Assembly and the Health Committee to use whatever limited time we have to progress it as quickly as possible.

Mr Durkan: I welcome the legislation and commend the Minister for bringing it forward. I assure him of our support in getting the legislation through and our solidarity against the faceless cowards who threatened him and his family.

12.45 pm

The right to family life is fundamental in any society. It should be accepted as a right in 2021, yet that right has been denied to thousands of children and young people here. In March last year — other Members referred to it — there were well over 3,000 children and young people in care, the highest on record since the introduction of the Children Order 1995. Over the past year and a half, it has become clear that increased societal and economic pressures have placed growing pressures on an already struggling system, with more and more children unable to stay in their birth homes for a variety of reasons. Although I welcome the fact that the number of children being adopted has risen — the Minister referred to that — it is lamentable that the structures of support have not been available.

As outlined, the North's adoption legislation is almost 35 years old. This is the only jurisdiction across these islands that has been left without legislation that has been updated and made fit for purpose, or, at least, fitter for purpose, and that has been available elsewhere. It is therefore shameful that hundreds of families, perhaps even more, have been denied that support and set at a bit of disadvantage to their counterparts for decades. That has, no doubt, compounded families' frustration at weaknesses in our existing legislation.

It is vital that children are placed in a system that caters to their individual needs and ensures that both those in the care system and adopters are sufficiently supported through every step of the adoption process, not simply left to their own devices post-adoption. I spoke to one parent, who noted that when she sought support after she had adopted her young son, her social worker asked, "Do you want us to come and take him?". That is outrageous. I certainly do not want that incident to tarnish the work or the commitment of our social services workforce, nor do I want to appear in any way incognisant of the major and unimaginable difficulties of their work. Indeed, I echo Carál Ní Chuilín's gratitude to those who work so hard as social workers in those extremely difficult situations. However, we must and can do better. As such, the inclusion of a post-adoption process assessment that considers the needs of adoptive families is very welcome, if not long overdue.

It is important to bear in mind that some of those children and young people have complex behavioural needs and may have experienced trauma in their early childhoods. Any prospective adopter must have the legal assurance that they will be equipped and assisted to deal with any issues, should they arise. I have no doubt that the framework of support and protections will go a long way towards encouraging more people across the North to consider adoption, and many of the Members who spoke referred to that as central to the Bill.

There is no denying that this is a long-awaited piece of legislation and one that does and will mean a great deal to many families, some of whom have, as I said, contacted me to outline what the gift of adoption meant to them. They were also open and honest about the difficulties that they have faced. One example came from a constituent of mine. She wrote:

"This piece of legislation really matters to our family as it will provide better post adoption [sic] support services. Although adoption brings so many positives and so much happiness, it is the best thing that has ever happened us, there is also negatives and loss connected to it. There is a lack of post adoption [sic] support and we have found ourselves in a difficult position as our address was breached and our child's birth mother was allowed to move 4 minutes away from our home. Both ourselves and others have felt very frustrated through the whole process that the child's rights and safety are not paramount as they should be."

Clearly, families here have been failed. However, like other Members, I hope that the Bill will make a significant and positive difference.

I would like to touch on a few elements of the Bill, particularly its focus on supporting children in care and care leavers and the inclusion of greater opportunities for older children to benefit from the permanence and stability that is offered by adoption. Other Members have gone into much more detail, much to the Deputy Speaker's chagrin, but we look forward to going into even more detail as the Bill progresses and to ensuring that we collaboratively build as robust a piece of legislation as possible. We certainly welcome the broad principles of the Bill, as well as the strengthening of the relationship between social services, parents, educators and, of course, the children themselves. We are hopeful that the work will remove uncertainty and unnecessary delay for everyone who is involved in the adoption process.

At this point, I want to pay tribute, like others have done, to all those organisations that work in the field and have worked with the Department to inform and shape the Bill. I am sure that they will be on hand to shape it even better and to streamline it further, if required, to make sure that it will be as good a piece of legislation as possible. Most of all, I want to thank the families and children who have first-hand experience of the adoption process for how they are feeding into it. Their insight and assistance will be vital and their contribution has been invaluable. It is important that we take it on board if we really want to know how to make those services work. We look forward to the Bill's progression. I commend it.

Mr Carroll: I want to join others in condemning unequivocally the threats that have been made against the Minister.

It would be remiss of me not to mention briefly the report on mother-and-baby institutions and Magdalene laundries, which is being published today. People have referred to it. I have yet to read the details of the report, but one thing that we knew before its publication is that the state and religious institutions not only failed young people and their families but treated them barbarically. I hope that they can get justice, and how that is defined should be up to those victims and survivors.

Quite glaringly, historically, there has not always been a child-centred approach to adoption issues or putting people supposedly into "care" — I use that term in inverted commas. Whilst it is important to recognise that it is in the Bill, it would be foolish not to mention that that has not always been the case — far from it. I share the view of other Members that the delay to the draft legislation has been frustrating and disappointing for those who wish to adopt and those looked-after children and young people themselves.

Frankly, I am quite astounded that some aspects of the Bill are not already in law. For example, clause 1(5) states that:

"In placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background."

That sounds sensible, reasonable, rational and fair. Why is it being legislated for only now? I raised that question in the Committee. The Minister and Department may say that it was already happening and that that is a tidying-up exercise. That may well be the case. However, I am concerned because it appears that many people could have been let down if due consideration was not given to those issues.

Clause 6 relates to a duty to provide information on adoption services. Obviously, that is welcome and important. Again, though, people may ask why something so simple and straightforward was not already happening. If it leads to an increase in people adopting and seeking services, it is welcome and important.

Clause 14 relates to inspections of premises where a child or young person has been placed by an adoption agency and allowing the Department or RQIA, as I understand it, to inspect those premises and to request records etc. I hope that the clause increases the safeguarding of children and young people, although I have concerns — I raised them in the Committee as well — about the way in which it is worded: "reasonable time" and "reasonable assistance". My concern is that it could be used or, effectively, abused to delay inspections in cases where young people or children are at risk or are not being protected or safeguarded. I would like the Minister to address that.

Clause 121, which is headed:

"Provision of services to children in need, etc.",

talks about the need to safeguard and promote children's welfare. Again, that did not always, or often, happen, but it is welcome that it is in the Bill.

Most of the Bill seems fine, and I look forward to hearing the views of the organisations, many of which have been referred to, that are affected by it. I hope the Bill can be strengthened and condensed for them. With so many clauses, it is hard for MLAs to go through the Bill and it is probably even harder for organisations that have a lot on their plate, so I hope the Minister and his Department can take that into consideration and maybe provide a version that is condensed or easier to read.

Like I said, the Bill is long overdue, but I welcome it today and ask for further clarity on the issues I raised, either from the Minister today or from his officials at the Committee or in writing.

Mr Chambers: As others said, this is a long overdue Bill. For too long, Northern Ireland has been operating in the shadow of improvements in England and Wales from two decades ago and from 14 years ago in Scotland. Whilst the Adoption Order has served its time well, there is no doubt that the legislation relating to adoption in Northern Ireland needed updating. Its purpose could be summed up as making the entire process more efficient but, more importantly, cutting out some of the unnecessary delay and anxiety for children. Whilst I absolutely understand why due process and checks would be carried out, there has to be an acceptance and recognition that the process of adopting a child in Northern Ireland can take far too long. Setting new timescales for adoption proceedings will be a novel but hugely welcome step forward.

It is a largely technical Bill, but if you scratch its surface, you will see the tangible benefits it will deliver for children and their adoptive parents and carers. For instance, at last, post-adoptive support is recognised. There is also now greater recognition of the need to improve the longer-term outcomes for looked-after children. Importantly, it will formalise the support for adoptive parents through the legal duty to provide it. After the Bill is enacted, never again should a new parent feel that they have been abandoned.

As the Minister pointed out, the proposed legislation has been extensively consulted upon with the public but, more importantly, with the dedicated professionals who deal with this complex and sensitive issue on a daily basis. It will improve and streamline the process of matching up children and adoptive parents. The creation of an appeals process may also help to encourage more potential adopters to come forward.

The new legislation should not in any way be seen to undermine or criticise past work on adoption; it just puts into place a better and more expedient process with clear and uncomplicated guidance. As the Minister said, it will put the interests of children front and centre, and, as I mentioned, it will create circumstances where adoptive parents will receive more ongoing support, as, indeed, will the child as it grows into adulthood.

Today is an opportunity to place on record our appreciation for the people who take on the selfless task of providing a caring and loving home to a child in order to allow them to be fully encouraged to develop their talents and go on to become an important and valued member of society. I commend the Minister and his officials for bringing this very important Bill in the middle of all the other challenges his Department has been dealing with, but it does not reflect very well on the House that it has been residing in the pipeline since 2006. I pray that political developments outside the control of the Minister do not prevent the Bill coming into legislation during this mandate. As the Health Committee scrutinises the Bill, I look forward to helping to address the concerns expressed today. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and fully supports the Bill. It is reform that is long overdue.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Business Committee has arranged to meet at 1.00 pm today. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time, after which we will return to this debate.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.59 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —

2.00 pm

Oral Answers to Questions

Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs

Mr Speaker: Before I call John Blair to ask the first question, I wish to point out that the length of time taken by Members to ask a question has increased in recent weeks. I ask Members to put their speech away, turn their laptop off and ask their question as quickly and as succinctly as possible. The downside of it is that you are taking time away from other Members who want to ask a question, many of whom are your party colleagues. I ask that Members keep their questions as short and as succinct as possible. I call John Blair; give us a good example.

Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to group questions 1, 6 and 7.

I am acutely aware of the labour problems facing our meat processing sector and the growing shortages, particularly in the number of slaughter plant operatives and butchers in our abattoirs and processing plants. I have engaged extensively and held numerous meetings with stakeholders across our food processing sector about their concerns and how best to resolve the issue.

Despite employers offering competitive wages and other incentives, they have struggled to recruit all the workers that they need, because insufficient appetite exists amongst our domestic workforce for those types of jobs. For a significant period, we have relied on migrant workers to fill the labour gap in the agri-food industry. Stakeholders, however, have indicated that the new UK immigration system has removed a previously existing route to filling vacancies. The new system, while offering a route to filling skilled vacancies, is cumbersome. Firms report that it is extremely difficult for them to identify migrants who meet all elements of the eligibility criteria and have identified the English language requirement as a particular barrier to entry.

I am obviously very concerned about the situation and am committed to doing what I can. As you know, immigration policy is a reserved matter, so my focus has been on ongoing communication with the top levels of Government in Whitehall. I have written to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and George Eustice to highlight the severity of the problem in the hope that we can remedy the situation as quickly as possible. We have seen some movement with the recent announcement of additional temporary visas for HGV drivers and poultry workers, but that is not enough, and I will keep pressing for more.

Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the detail in that reply. Given his contact with senior officials in Whitehall, has any request been made for an extension to or a review of the previous EU settlement scheme and the time frames for that? Is all of that worth revisiting?

Mr Poots: As a supporter of Brexit, I wanted to see an end to the open-door policy on immigration. However, we should be in a position where we can bring people in where we need them, and we certainly need them in the food industry. I have repeatedly made that point to the UK Government, who have indicated that a lot of people at a local level are still unemployed and that they wish to have them in this well-paid employment. Again, I will point out to them that these are skilled jobs and that you cannot just lift someone out of unemployment and put them straight into a job like butchery or HGV driving. There has to be training and, in some instances, considerable training that takes years. Whitehall needs to look at that yet again.

Mr McHugh: I am sure, Minister, that you will not agree with me, but, at the end of the day, this is as a result of Brexit. What pressure will you bring to bear on the British Government to ensure that EU workers, in particular, can come to the North of Ireland to work and live and to help to rescue us from the impending crisis in the agri-food sector?

Mr Poots: I would have thought that a gentleman who lives so close to the border would know what is going on just across it. The chairman of the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) national pigs committee, Roy Gallie, has said that the pig meat sector is under extreme pressure, due to a lack of suitable labour at processing level and on farms. The shortage of large-animal vets was raised by the Veterinary Ireland president, on the back of concerns recently expressed by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Paul Brophy, who is one of the largest growers of broccoli in Ireland, described labour issues in the sector as "chronic" and that it will be the "unwinding of the industry" if it is not addressed.

The Member may have some glowing report that nobody else knows about, describing how good things are in the European Union on this issue, but it is an issue that has been piling up in the European Union as well as in the United Kingdom. We are actually in a better position to respond because we can go to places like the Philippines and other countries where workforces are available. We just need an adjustment in government policy to do it. The Irish Government are stuck with EU rules, which, thankfully, we do not have.

Ms McLaughlin: Unfortunately, skills shortages in the sector were entirely predictable, with EU workers going back to their homeland. What preparations has the Minister made in order to ensure that a pipeline of skills is available to those industries? Has he discussed apprenticeships and traineeships in order to fill the gaps that have been left by our European friends who have left this country because they are no longer welcome?

Mr Poots: I really do have to pull the Member into line for that last comment. Who says that EU workers are not welcome in Northern Ireland and that they left here because they were not welcome?

Ms McLaughlin: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit.

Mr Poots: They have been here for many years and were very welcome to continue to stay in Northern Ireland. The people who supported Brexit voted for it so that we would not have uncontrolled immigration. Perhaps the Member wants uncontrolled immigration, because that keeps people's pay down and ensures that people work on minimum wage. I am glad to see lorry drivers, digger drivers and people who work in meat plants getting an uplift in their pay, because they work hard and they deserve to be well paid for the work that they do. I welcome those aspects that Brexit has delivered that mean higher pay for lower-paid workers. Perhaps the SDLP will catch on that that is a good thing for the community.

Mr Beggs: The shortage of skilled labour is creating a potential difficulty for animal welfare. Has the Minister been made aware of any concerns, particularly from our pig and poultry farmers, who have limited space capacity? How urgent is the situation and how is it going to be addressed in the short and long term? Has he been in touch with the Minister for the Economy?

Mr Poots: The situation is extremely urgent. We have engaged extensively with the industry and we are actively looking at our options. One of the options includes slaughtering pigs at birth so that the backlog that is building up does not continue unabated. Another option is to slaughter animals on-farm at some stage. However, that does not particularly deal with the instantaneous problem, because we have a backlog now.

One of the other areas that we could look at is putting pigs into cold storage. The problem is not the capacity for slaughter but the capacity for butchery. The processing companies would have to want to do that, but we are open to suggestions from the industry. The industry is best placed to come forward with solutions, and we will work closely with the industry to try to achieve them.

Mr Irwin: The previous Member mentioned pigs on-farm. I heard from a pig producer last night who is concerned that, as the weeks go by, his pigs are backing up on-farm. He has difficulty in relation to that. Does the Minister agree that, while Members in the House blame Brexit, the Republic of Ireland has the very same problem and it is still in the European Union?

Mr Poots: I indicated to Mr McHugh — clearly, Ms McLaughlin did not take it in — what the farming and veterinary communities are saying down there. There is a shortage of key workers, and a lot of that has to do with EU policy, in that they can only bring people from the European Union. We had this problem in the health service many years ago, and we still have it. Many doctors used to come from India, Malaysia and countries like that, but we could not get them and we had to close hospital units because of a lack of doctors. The same applies in this instance. The workers are out there in the world, and we can bring them in. What I am saying to the UK Government is that we are not looking for tens of thousands of people here; we are looking for thousands — a relatively small number.

That number will not throw immigration out of control. Rather, it will ensure that the food on our farms can be delivered to local people right across the United Kingdom.

Mr O'Toole: In January 2021, the Minister tweeted Arron Banks, one of the main drivers behind the Leave.EU movement, to thank him for all that he did to make Brexit happen. Leave.EU notoriously put up a poster that said "Breaking point" and carried a picture of hundreds of thousands of migrants. What about Brexit did the Minister think was not about ending migration? Would he like to apologise to those who are suffering as a result of the labour crisis in this country?

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Poots: What is very clear is that we had uncontrolled immigration. I have no problem with immigration. I have no problem with bringing in people whom we need. Uncontrolled immigration is entirely different, and I welcome the fact that we no longer have that. I also welcome the fact that our workers at the lower end of the scale are now better paid. If the Member is not aware that lorry drivers, digger drivers and people working in food factories have all had significant wage uplifts, the Member is not living in the real world, because the rest of us do know that. I welcome the fact that low-paid workers have had their pay increased since we left the European Union. That is part of the policy of not having uncontrolled immigration, which resulted in a situation in which everybody who worked in those types of jobs was on minimum wage. That was an unacceptable situation.

Mr Poots: With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will group questions 2 and 11 for answer.

I firmly believe that, where persons have been convicted of animal cruelty offences and banned by the courts from keeping animals, all actions that can reasonably be undertaken to reduce the risk of reoffending should be pursued. As such, I welcome the recent public petition on the potential for an animal cruelty register and am keen to explore how such a register would operate in Northern Ireland. I have already engaged with the Minister of Justice on the topic. My officials have been liaising with their counterparts in her Department. Officials have also been reviewing the effectiveness and impact of similar registers already in operation elsewhere.

Over the past number of months, significant progress has been made on identifying the key issues that need to be addressed if such a register is to be implemented and maintained in Northern Ireland. The issues include compliance with data protection legislation and the appropriate disclosure of, or access to, conviction data. I have requested that my officials take those efforts forward and develop proposals on potential next steps before the end of this year.

Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his answer. The animal cruelty register is a very important subject. I would like to see one come into operation. Would the Minister like to expand on any conversations that he has had with the Minister of Justice and tell us more about any issues that have arisen through those conversations?

Mr Poots: We have had correspondence. We have also had verbal communication in meetings on the issue. It is an important issue that we should progress and move forward.

I do not quite get all the issues around the data. Most of the offences are published. The cases have been through court so are already in the public domain. I am therefore not so sure that we need to be as cautious when it comes to the whole data protection element. If the information is already in the public domain, from what are we protecting individuals? Ultimately, we need to ensure that individuals who have been found guilty of cruelty to animals do not have the opportunity to do it again. The more people who are aware of that, the better. I encourage people to question the Department of Justice on the issue as well. We are very keen to move it forward. It will not be in the lifetime of this Assembly, but I believe that we will get there nonetheless. I believe that the public want and desire an animal cruelty register, as I do this House.

Ms Bunting: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. It is a serious issue that is of concern to many in Northern Ireland. As the Minister outlined, the problem is that, if somebody is given a sentence of not being allowed to keep an animal but there is no means of implementing or enforcing that sentence, it becomes immaterial.

I am aware that, a couple of weeks ago, in response to Mrs Kelly, the Justice Minister said that some of the delay was in DOJ. On that basis, will the Minister outline the impact of the delay on progressing the issue? What can be done to address the impasse between the two Departments?

2.15 pm

Mr Poots: The issue was raised with me earlier in the mandate, and I have been prepared to move forward on it, but we have not yet been able to do so. In the Department of Justice, there appear to be considerable issues and concerns about how we can handle the data and engage in compliance with existing procedures. I think that we can overcome all those things and move forward. I hope that, before we get to the end of this mandate, the Department of Justice will be in a position to give the new Minister room to move this forward in conjunction with a future AERA Minister.

Mrs D Kelly: I am aware of the Minister's commitment to delivering on the animal cruelty register. However, the petition had an all-Ireland dimension, and some of the animals sold come from obnoxious puppy farms in Scotland and elsewhere. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss the possibility of a shared register not only with the South of Ireland but with England, Scotland and Wales?

Mr Poots: We need to get it over the first hurdle, and that is what we can do here. I have no problem whatsoever in sharing information with colleagues in any of the jurisdictions that the Member mentioned. It makes logical sense. Mr Newton has a private Member's Bill that would outlaw large-scale puppy farms and the production of animals purely for profit. I support that legislation, and I hope that the Assembly will support it and facilitate its delivery. The Bill will go through the House over the next number of months, and it is one of the private Member's Bills that, in my mind, stands out in its importance and in what it can deliver. It will leave a good mark for this Assembly mandate as it comes to a close.

Ms Sheerin: Further to Mrs Kelly's question, does the Minister agree that an all-island animal cruelty register would be the most effective way of preventing repeat offenders — those who have been convicted in one but not both jurisdictions?

Mr Poots: I recognise that the movements of people who engage in animal cruelty can be very fluid. Establishing a register in the first instance would be very positive, and the ability to share that register with others would also be a positive move, whether on this island or throughout the entirety of these islands.

Mrs Barton: The Minister spoke about compliance with data protection and said that he wants a register that can be shared with others. Is he indicating that the register will be available to the public to check, if they want to buy a puppy, that they are buying from an appropriate source?

Mr Poots: That needs further thought. The register should certainly be available to dog wardens and to people who look after the well-being of animals and monitor compliance. Therefore, the register should be available to veterinary services, dog wardens, police and other bodies. Whether it is made totally available to the public will not be in my hands. That will be a consideration in discussion with the Department of Justice. However, I see merit in it.

Mr Poots: I reiterate that the protocol is unacceptable and unworkable, as was recognised in the House yesterday, even by those who previously wanted rigorous implementation of it.

The movement of pedigree cattle is yet another example of how the protocol disadvantages Northern Ireland farmers. The movement of livestock, including pedigree cattle, from Northern Ireland to Great Britain for agricultural shows, sales or exhibitions is a long-standing tradition for local farmers and breeders, and it provides an opportunity to access markets and demonstrate the quality of our specimens and bloodlines, which are internationally recognised as excellent.

Since 1 January 2021, additional animal health requirements, as prescribed by European Union legislation in the protocol, have been applicable to Northern Ireland livestock returning to Northern Ireland following a temporary movement to Great Britain. Since then, it appears that cattle movements for breeding and production purposes from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from January to September have decreased by about a third when compared with 2020. That may well be related to the new animal health requirements, such as the residency period.

I am completely opposed to any additional requirements for the re-entry of livestock to Northern Ireland from Great Britain under the Northern Ireland protocol and firmly believe that they place our farmers and breeders, including pedigree breeders, in a disadvantaged position while negatively affecting their livelihood and business. For that reason, I have already written on a number of occasions to Maroš Šefcovic, the vice president of the European Union, and to George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to highlight the burden that the new requirements impose on our local industry. I continue to make representations to the EU Commission and to the UK Government, urging them to find long-term, sensible solutions that take into account the actual biosecurity risk to the EU single market, and I continue to make representations on the position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK. I also recently took the opportunity to stress once again the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol is having on our livestock breeding sector when I met George Eustice and Lord Frost at the Balmoral show. My officials continue to engage with EU officials and with their counterparts in DEFRA to seek a solution.

Dr Aiken: I thank the Minister for his remarks so far. Minister, what you describe sounds very much like a diversion of trade. Will you explain how that could possibly be seen by anybody in the House as the best of both worlds?

Mr Poots: I cannot see how it is the best of both worlds. I see how we could have the best of both worlds, but this is not it, it cannot be it and it will not be it. Therefore, I encourage colleagues from the other side of the House to recognise that and to start to work in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of their views on Brexit. We are now in the circumstance that we are in today. The protocol applies, and it is causing misery to this sector and to a whole series of other sectors.

Mr Allister: If the Minister is unable to do anything about this other than make representations, does it not demonstrate the tyranny of the protocol and his folly in respect of an issue that he could do something about: continuing to implement the checks that keep the iniquitous protocol alive?

Mr Poots: The Member talks about folly, and, for quite a number of years, he has decried the House and the Northern Ireland Executive. If we do away with the House and the Northern Ireland Executive, we then take our executive authority from Westminster.

Mr Allister: You had better tell Jeffrey.

Mr Poots: I remind the Member —

Mr Allister: You had better tell Jeffrey.

Mr Poots: I remind the Member that this is Westminster policy, not Northern Ireland Executive policy. This is Westminster policy that has been imposed on Northern Ireland, and the Member knows that very well because he tested it in court, where he lost his case.

Mr Allister: You are coordinating the checks.

Mr Poots: I also remind the Member —

Mr Allister: You —

Mr Speaker: Order, Members.

Mr Poots: We will not win this battle by going on the streets, by violence or by anything else. We will win this battle by good politics, and that is what I have engaged in: good politics. If we win this battle, it will be through qualitative politics, not through people shouting and carping from the sidelines.

Mr McAleer: The Minister will be aware that this has come about because Britain diverged from EU regulations and rules. Will he agree that the best way to resolve the situation and get the best of both worlds is through a veterinary agreement that aligns the UK and the EU?

Mr Poots: Again, the Member seems to whitewash actual fact. The protocol was to have been about protecting the single market, so perhaps the Member, when he is on his feet and has the opportunity — he will not have the opportunity now — can enlighten us as to what danger is caused to the European Union single market for a breeder to take a bull or a heifer to Scotland to sell and, if it does not sell, to bring it back home again and sell it in the Northern Ireland market. Maybe the Member, who is Chair of the Agriculture Committee, is not aware of this, but our animals are tagged at birth, and they are followed right through. As a result of the protocol, we now have a situation where animals coming from Britain to Northern Ireland have their tags removed, which is absolutely ridiculous. We have animals that have had the same tag from birth, and the protocol demands that tags are removed in the name of protecting the single market. I have never heard of anything so ridiculous.

Mr McGlone: What is the Minister's opinion of Lord Frost? Lord Frost is currently attacking what Lord Frost negotiated months after Lord Frost praised what Lord Frost negotiated: the protocol.

Mr Poots: I commend the fella — Mr McGlone, I should say — on getting the name right today. Yesterday, I think he called him "some fella". I commend him. It is always good to be respectful and courteous about people even when you disagree with their point of view.

I have engaged with Lord Frost on a number of occasions. I hope that Lord Frost has taken on board the issues that I have raised with him and that he will make those recommendations that will lead us to a much better circumstance than we are currently in. The Command Paper was a significant demonstration that the UK Government are getting the arguments that the DUP, in the main — not alone, but in the main — is putting on the table. I trust that the Command Paper will be followed through into actions that will lead us to a circumstance where we do not have trade barriers. It is not logical to put a barrier between you and the place where 65% of your imports come from. As for the Members on the other side of the House, who called for the protocol and its rigorous implementation, I can understand that they feel a little foolish at this point.

Mr K Buchanan: Minister, in an answer to a previous question, you referred to pedigree transfers across the Irish sea. What issues with sheep imports and movement is your Department aware of? Obviously, there are now a lot of sales in Northern England and Scotland, and that will incur issues.

Mr Poots: My vets have been engaging extensively on that issue. We were hopeful of a resolution by now. A resolution for veterinary issues is on the table; it is now up to politicians to decide to go with that. However, the impact is that 97% of the previous imports are not happening. We have only 3% of the sheep coming in that we had before the protocol. That is having a severe impact on areas, such as the glens of Antrim and the Sperrins, that rely heavily on imports of high-quality Scottish, blackface sheep. They also sell their high-quality blackface sheep to farmers in Scotland. Given the numbers that are involved, it is important for that exchange of bloodlines to take place to ensure that the quality that has been established can be maintained.

Mr Speaker: I call Kellie Armstrong. It is unlikely that there will be time for a supplementary question.

Mr Poots: There is currently a shortage of vets in my Department and, more widely, in the private and public sectors across the United Kingdom. There is also an increasing acceptance that Northern Ireland requires a more assured long-term supply of veterinarians than is available from historical sources. There are a number of options for achieving that, which merit further exploration. I have, therefore, commissioned a formal assessment of the need for vets in Northern Ireland and an independent analysis of the various options for meeting that need.

In the case of my Department’s veterinary requirements, my officials are exploring all available avenues, including taking on more permanent veterinary staff, through Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) recruitment, and temporary vets, through the NICS agency framework. Officials are also investigating contracting the supply of vets with providers of veterinary services, with the assistance of the Department of Finance’s construction and procurement division.

In the meantime, my priority is to ensure that we have sufficient vets to carry out the vital work in our meat processing plants, in field offices delivering TB eradication, to support the agri-food industry and to assure the welfare of animals. The use of scarce veterinary resources to oversee intra-UK trade at Northern Ireland points of entry is unacceptable and unnecessary, just as the Northern Ireland protocol, in its current form, is unacceptable, given the absence of material risk to the European Union's single market as, in so many respects, the standards in the UK's single market equal, if not exceed, those in many parts of the European Union. The protocol is already unworkable and is becoming unsuitable as the number of checks rise to a possible 25,000 per week under its full and rigorous implementation.

Rather than spending scarce resources on checking goods that will, in all probability, never come near the EU single market and with no material risk if they should, it would be preferable that our vets focus on the real priorities facing the Northern Ireland agri-food industry, on animal welfare and on matters of concern to the population.

2.30 pm

Mr Speaker: Members, that ends the period for listed questions. We now move to 15 minutes of topical questions. Questions 1, 3, 4 and 8 have been withdrawn.

T2. Ms Kimmins asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on progress to ensure that the North is included in all-Ireland protected geographical indication (PGI) status for Irish grass-fed cattle. (AQT 1642/17-22)

Mr Poots: There was work done on that. We had requested that that would be the case, so it was a bit disappointing when the Irish Government proceeded on their own. Subsequent to that, we have been pressing for our inclusion. There was one issue that, they believed, we were behind on. It is something that, we believe, can be easily caught up. The EU will p