Under the changes, potential parents would have the right to question an adoption panel's recommendation to reject an application, to see written reasons and to have it reviewed by the adoption agency.
Adoption panels pass recommendations on who should be allowed to adopt to the adoption agency, which makes the final decision.
Mr Dorrell also set out new rules which will increase the number of independent members on adoption panels to at least three and limit appointments to a fixed term of three years for all members.
Regulations will tell adoption agencies to aim to recruit two independent members who have experienced adoption, either as a parent or child.
Mr Dorrell said:
'Adoption panels play a key role in the decision to allow or refuse an adoption. It is vital that their judgements are objective and open to challenge by people who find that a recommendation has gone against their wish to adopt a child.
'Safeguards are essential to protect children. But dogmatic decisions have sometimes ruled out adoptive parents on grounds of education, age and race. The changes announced today will help to remove political correctness from adoption and introduce more independence and transparency.'
The changes, which come into force on 1 April, will ensure potential adopters:
-- know when their application is going before an adoption panel
-- receive a copy of the assessment report which goes to the panel and have an opportunity to respond in writing to it
If the adoption panel decides to recommend against the adoption application, potential adopters will:
-- see the panel's recommendations before they go to the adoption agency for a final decision
-- have the right to challenge the recommendation, to see written reasons and to have it reviewed by the adoption agency
Adoption agencies, which include social services authorities and voluntary agencies, are required to establish at least one adoption panel which considers assessment reports on potential adoptive parents and passes recommendations to the agency. Panels include some experienced professionals and some independent members.
Currently the minimum composition of an adoption panel is: a chairman; two social workers; one member from an agency's management committee/social services; a medical adviser; and two lay people.
Other changes, which are to the composition of panels, include:
-- each adoption panel will be required to keep a written record of the reasons for its recommendations
-- up to three local authorities may establish a joint adoption panel
-- the panel should include wherever possible an adoptive parent and a person who has been adopted
-- membership of a panel will be restricted to a maximum of two consecutive terms of three years with at least three, and no more than four, members appointed each year
-- membership may be terminated where a member is unwilling, unfit or unable to continue
In future, applicants will receive a copy of the adoption panel's report and will be able to make written comments on it; where it is in the child's interest, parents will be notified when a placement has been identified and the child is to be placed for adoption;
following placement, there will be regular reviews of the child; once the adoption order has been made, an information package will be given to the adopters to be made available to the child when appropriate, but not later than his or her eighteenth birthday. (The package will not provide identifying information for the child; however, once the child reaches the age of 18, he or she will be able to obtain further information from the adoption agency which arranged the adoption or from the court which made the adoption order).
The new regulations replace the Adoption Agencies Regulations 1983 and will apply to England and Wales. The regulations will come into force on 1 April. They follow the publication in November 1993 of the government's White Paper, Adoption - The Future, which announced a number of new proposals to define afresh the balance between the rights and interests of the child, his adoptive parents and his birth parents. These proposals also gave a commitment to reviewing the present structure of adoption agencies' adoption panels and to consult on the new regulations. A consultation paper, The Future Structure of Adoption Panels, was published in June 1994 as a consultation document, the outcome of which forms the basis of the new regulations.
Under the 1983 Regulations an adoption agency is required to establish at least one adoption panel; its composition and duties are also set out in these regulations. An adoption panel has three main functions, to: make recommendations to the agency on the suitability of an applicant to be an adoptive parent; make recommendations about whether adoption is in the best interests of a particular child; make recommendations whether a particular prospective adopter would be a suitable adoptive parent for a particular child.