Orders of the Day — Adoption

– in the House of Commons at 9:54 pm on 30th January 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Dowd.]

Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 10:01 pm, 30th January 2001

I am very grateful to have this opportunity to debate the criteria for adoption and, in particular, appeals. There is a great deal of activity regarding this subject in the media. In addition, the Government have produced the performance and innovation unit report, the White Paper and the ministerial statement. A great deal of attention is being paid to the issue.

Along with many other hon. Members, my focus has been narrowed, to some extent, by my experience of constituency cases. Very often, adoption cases arouse great emotion among the families concerned and among the wider media when they get into the public domain. I started life in the House with a difficult case that brought to a head issues of age bars and overseas adoption. The case was satisfactorily resolved through the intervention of the then Under-Secretary of State for Health, now the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The right hon. Gentleman intervened personally and resolved the case to the family's satisfaction and happiness.

More recently, my constituency has been the centre of attention in a high-profile adoption case. There have been weekly serials in The Mail on Sunday and a great deal of television attention, much of it very distressing. I do not wish to go into the pros and cons of that case because an independent inquiry has been set up. Indeed, it is partly with the help of the Minister and his officials that the inquiry is taking place, and it would be wrong of me to pass judgment on the rights and wrongs of the case. That case, along with others with which I and other right hon. and hon. Members have dealt, illustrates some of the problems in the process.

I can put my specific remarks in a more general context. The Government have produced a White Paper, based on the Cabinet Office report and the Prime Minister's personal intervention in the matter. All the feedback that I have had from the adopting community—the adopters, the professionals and the social workers—is very positive. It is felt that a lot of progress has been made and that many of the policy prescriptions that have been offered are extremely helpful.

We are in a very positive environment—the one cloud on the horizon is that we have been here before. As the Minister knows, the 1993 White Paper expressed—probably less well than the present one—many of the hopes for future legislation. However, that White Paper never became legislation. I sincerely hope that the current White Paper does not go the same way. The Minister is not the master of parliamentary business—none the less, the context is positive.

I wish to start with a general proposition. It might help to promote the ideas in the White Paper if a little more support were given to the role of the adopters and, as a separate group, the foster parents who work on a paid basis for local authorities. There is a clear and positive statement in the White Paper and the associated regulations as to the primacy of the child. That is absolutely right; the language is spot-on and none of us would have any quibbles about it. However, the "Introduction to prospective adopters" in the draft adoption standards document includes a passage that the Government intend should set the tone. It states: People who want to adopt will be responded to promptly, given clear information on the recruitment, assessment and approval processes and treated fairly, openly and with respect. There is absolutely nothing objectionable about that; it seems to be carefully drafted and entirely proper.

There is an important omission, however. There is no sense in that document that adopters are valuable, valued and important. Indeed, if they do not come forward in greater numbers, it will not be possible to realise the objectives of the White Paper. It would be helpful to show a little more warmth and commitment to adopters as a group.

I make that point for two reasons. The first is that—unlike social workers, doctors or teachers—adopters are a scattered community. They are not a profession; they cannot express their frustration, lack of morale, problems, difficulties over bad publicity and so on. That is all the more reason for the Government to acknowledge publicly that they are an important part of the process.

Secondly, there is a problem of adopter recruitment. Two years ago, there was an enormous profusion of interest in adoption after several harrowing television programmes; 24,000 people expressed interest. Of course, many of those expressions were flippant or had not been thought through. Few of them ever bore fruit. That has never been fully explained to me, but it suggests a lack of receptiveness in the system.

The appeals process is absolutely crucial to the confidence of adopters. The Government have obviously given much thought to that issue. The White Paper contains a helpful passage—paragraph 6.23—that seems to represent a clear commitment to the appeals process. However, I have some concerns on the matter and some suggestions as to how the system might work.

Having seen some difficult cases, I think that there is a role for a system of independent appeals for adopters who have difficulties with the approval process; for birth parents, who are also important actors; and for third parties. I am thinking especially of the recent Klinsky case, in which a doctor had independent evidence that something was seriously remiss, wanted to be a whistleblower, but had no access to a suitable process. Appeals could encompass the concerns of all those stakeholders.

The starting point for discussion has to be the fact that most adoptions work extremely well and smoothly; about 95 per cent. of approvals occur without difficulty. However, the remaining 5 per cent. of cases often generate enormous bitterness and frustration. Because local authorities operate self-regulation systems, there is no outside appeal process so people turn to the law—as in the celebrated case to which I referred earlier.

As we know, the law is a cumbersome beast; it is slow and expensive. Adoption law is extremely complicated and requires expensive legal advice that people of ordinary means cannot afford. The legal process peters out, so people turn to the press and statements are made that compound the problems. The lack of an independent appeal process crystallises the difficulties.

Does the Minister agree that there is probably not the same enthusiasm for independent appeals in the professions—in the system and in social work departments—as there is among adopters themselves? Indeed, there is some resistance to appeals. That is why I press my case and hope that the Minister will confirm his commitment.

Why does self-regulation not work? The problem is partly inherent in all such internal complaints systems. For example, despite all the good intentions, the police complaints procedure rarely produces satisfactory remedies, which is why the Home Secretary wants to make it more independent. There is an additional problem with adoption. I do not know whether the Minister will confirm this, but insurance is a particular problem. If a social services department admits liability, it blows its insurance cover. That serious technical problem prevents the openness that would be expected in an internal, self-regulating complaints process.

Such difficulties lead people to conclude that a proper, stand-alone independent appeals system should deal with the relatively small number of cases that produce a breakdown. I do not know how far the Minister has thought through the practical problems of operating such a system, but various suggestions have been made. The first suggestion is that the system should be broadly based and open to birth parents, adopters and third parties. An obvious requirement is that it should have a gatekeeper, so that frivolous complaints are not allowed and only serious investigations can take place. Clearly, there should be pre-selection, as with the ombudsman and similar schemes. The appeals need to be dealt with very quickly, otherwise the system would defeat the objective of speedy adoption—the key to the policy.

I do not know whether the Government have considered the suggestion that they will have to set up a body or a formal structure to deal with the ratification of the Hague convention—an issue that arises from the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. That structure could provide a vehicle for an independent complaints appeals procedure. That is the main point that I want to make based on my own experience and discussions with the various adoption groups.

I am sure that the importance of speed is recognised in fact, it is stated explicitly in the White Paper but I want to make two specific points, the first of which is about infants. I understand that 2,200 children under the age of one are currently awaiting adoption, 770 of whom have waited for more than six months and 990 between two and six months—very young babies. Has any thought been given to creating a fast-track procedure for infants, as opposed to other categories of children?

My other question about speed relates to the text of the draft standards. The Government are clearly committed to six-month time horizons, making the process quicker. That is welcome, but how will they work? How will local authorities be required to report whether six months has been exceeded? Many of the emotive difficulties with inter-racial adoption are not about race, but about time periods. Everyone accepts that same-race placements are almost invariably best, but it is a matter of how quickly they can take place. The issue is very much one of speed and how time limits can be set and made meaningful.

I became involved in such problems in the first place because of overseas adoption. Apart from the difficulties of domestic adoption, we have a culture that is resistant to overseas adoption. For example, last year in this country, 350 such cases were approved; in France, it is 10 times that number. In talking to people in the social services profession, not necessarily those in my area, I have sensed a certain sniffiness and suspicion of the people who opt for overseas adoption. That is wholly unjustified; we live in an increasingly globalised environment. People have voluntary and paid jobs abroad and marry foreign husbands and wives, and it is often very natural to want to adopt from overseas. However, the system is extremely resistant to that.

As I understand it, the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), will make the process easier. However, without something to facilitate overseas adoptions to ensure that the proper channels are used overseas and in the United Kingdom, such adoptions will not become easier, or, if they do, they will happen in a highly irregular manner. The recent internet case is a good example of people using irregular or inappropriate channels. If there were a proper system of accredited agencies or an official agency that was supported with at least its start-up costs, there would be a proper, recognised and regulated procedure. That would help to avoid abuse.

I should be grateful for the Minister's reaction to those points, and I thank him for staying to reply to them.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health) 10:15 pm, 30th January 2001

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing a debate on the issues relating to the criteria for adoption. I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has presented his case with his customary skill and precision. He has put forward a strong case and made some important points.

The hon. Gentleman raised several issues to do with the White Paper and he also referred to the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. He was right to say that his hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) introduced this important Act, and we are very pleased that he did. One of the things that it will do is impose an obligation on local authorities to provide a proper inter-country adoption service. The hon. Member for Twickenham asked whether a proper agency would facilitate the process; in future, that will be done by local authorities or approved adoption agencies. That is an important safeguard for the quality and the integrity of the inter-country adoption procedure. I know that he and his hon. Friend support that very much, as we do.

The hon. Gentleman was right to say that the Act has not yet been brought into effect. I know that some Members will ask why not, since it was enacted in 1999. We have already brought one section of the Act into effect, and that relates to ensuring that people who want to adopt a child from abroad conduct a proper home assessment study in this country which has not been privately commissioned. Several concerns have been expressed about privately commissioned home study reports, and we have made sure that that practice will come to an end.

However the main thrust of the Act is to provide the legal platform to allow the United Kingdom to ratify the Hague convention. We have to ratify it as a United Kingdom, so the equivalent regulations and legislation have to pass through both the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Scottish Parliament has completed its processes but, unfortunately, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not yet done that. I understand that it will do so later this summer, but we are not able to ratify the convention until the Northern Ireland Assembly has completed its deliberations. I hope that will be done soon, and I want to dispel any suggestion that we might be dragging our feet on ratifying the Hague convention. That is not so, but we have to ratify the convention as a United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman raised several important points about aspects of the White Paper that relate to national standards. He asked us to ensure that there is a bit more warmth, as regards the national standards, towards prospective adopters, and raised several important points about the appeal process. I am sure that he understands that the standards have been issued for consultation. We have not yet made any final decisions on what they will look like, and we shall have to wait to see what suggestions people make during the consultation exercise. We shall consider ways of improving the operation of the standards, and we shall examine carefully his comments about prospective adopters.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to reaffirm our commitment to the introduction of an independent appeals system for prospective adopters who might have been turned down by an adoption panel. As the White Paper made clear, we are fully committed to introducing a proper independent appeal system. There are number of reasons for doing that, and I shall mention two tonight. First, such a system would support good decision making in local authorities. I do not subscribe to the view that an independent appeal system will impede the process of coming to a speedy decision on adoption or will give rise to bad decisions because people are looking over their shoulders at the person standing behind them. It is important that people know that there is an independent and effective appeals procedure, and I believe that that will support, not impede, good decision making.

The second reason is simple. Concerns have been expressed about the process by which people are approved for adoption. The hon. Gentleman referred to that. Although national standards will help people to be confident that they are being treated fairly and properly, if an adoption panel decides to reject an application, the person concerned will have the right to go to an independent appeal process. It is important that we put behind us the arguments that people have been treated arbitrarily or unreasonably, because such claims are likely to impede our attempts to create greater confidence in the system. We want more people to offer themselves as adoptive parents.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fast-tracking for infants. The adoption standards in the recent White Paper made it clear that we will ensure that voluntarily relinquished infants are placed for adoption, wherever possible, within three months. Disagreement would make that task harder, but we should be able to proceed more quickly if a child is voluntarily relinquished.

There is significant interest in the general matter of adoption. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the press and wider public interest in the adoption process which has been sparked by a long-running concern, as expressed by hon. Members, about the failures of the looked-after care system. We know that many children who leave care have limited prospects of employment and few educational qualifications. Many of them will experience periods of homelessness and joblessness. That is unacceptable. People in care deserve the same opportunities to enjoy a stable and secure family life as any other child. Unfortunately, they have been denied that because of the way in which the care system has worked. The Government are clear that adoption holds out a positive opportunity for young people in care to enjoy the opportunities that we have taken for granted for our children.

For those reasons, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister initiated a thorough review of adoption in February. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend commissioned the performance and innovation unit in the Cabinet Office to consider the evidence and make recommendations. The report was published on 7 July last year. Following extensive consultation, we published the White Paper "Adoption: a new approach" on 21 December. It outlines the most radical overhaul of adoption law and practice in more than 25 years and sets out a vision for high-quality public services that offer new opportunities for looked-after children. It is based on placing their needs first and designed entirely from their perspective.

We know that adoption works and want more children to benefit from the generosity and commitment of adoptive families. The White Paper sets a new national target to deliver a minimum 40 per cent. increase in the number of lasting adoptions by the year 2005, although I hope that the Government's measures will help to achieve a 50 per cent. increase in that period. Our aim must be to give many hundreds more looked-after children the chance to live as a permanent member of a stable, secure and loving new family.

To meet that target, we must attract more prospective adopters. The hon. Gentleman is right about that. We must attract adopters who are suitable to meet the needs of children in the care system. We need more ethnic minority and black adopters. We also need more adopters who are able to take on sibling groups, because that is a particular issue. We also know that there is widespread concern about the fairness, clarity and consistency of the adoption process. Many people have explained that that could be deterring many potential adopters from coming forward.

To help to address those problems, we published the first ever set of national adoption standards. They will help to drive up the standards of service for children and adoptive parents in all parts of the country, making adoption services faster, fairer and more transparent. They have been written to ensure that looked-after children, prospective adopters, birth families and the general public understand what they can expect from the adoption service. They will also set challenging new targets to speed up the adoption process. I shall say a little more about that in a moment, because the hon. Gentleman expressed concern about that aspect of our proposals.

The draft national standards are underpinned by a clear set of values that govern the way in which adoption services should be managed. Most importantly, the national standards clearly spell out that the welfare, safety and needs of children must be put at the centre of the adoption process. It is important for us all to remember that adoption is about meeting the needs of children, not the needs of adults.

The Prime Minister's review of adoption identified many concerns about the current adoption process. In particular, many concerns were expressed about the assessment process for prospective adopters. At the moment that is widely perceived to be too slow, too intrusive and too bureaucratic. We are tackling those concerns.

The standards will set out how prospective adopters will be welcomed and treated in an open and fair way. In future, written eligibility criteria will be provided. People will not automatically be excluded on grounds of their age, health or other factors. There must be no blanket bans based on arbitrary criteria, because they are unfair to children who are waiting to be adopted and to prospective adopters.

The standards also make it clear that the best family for a child will be one that reflects their birth heritage. I know that the hon. Gentleman was concerned about a constituency case in which that was a controversial issue. However, no child should be denied a loving adoptive family solely on the grounds that the parents have different racial or cultural backgrounds. The primary consideration in determining a child's adoptive parents must be the child's needs, safety and well-being.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, as I was, that current research—such as that recently published by Rushton and Minis—has confirmed that although a same-race placement is preferable, it should not be pursued at the expense of a child drifting in the care system. Our guidance to adoption agencies strongly reinforces this view.

The draft standards also propose new time scales for processing applications from prospective adopters. They can expect a written response to a first inquiry within a week; a follow-up interview and an invitation to a preparation meeting within two months, and a decision within six months of making an application to proceed. That will be a substantial improvement on the current arrangements.

We accept that delivering that will be a challenge for local social services departments. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have found, as I have, that some social services departments are able to achieve that already. The issue, as in the national health service, is consistency of performance and of raising the standards of all authorities to those achieved by the best. We know that that can be done because some authorities are doing it already. Clearly, the hurdles are not insurmountable. Social services departments will need to be supported by clear direction of public policy and backed up by investment of new resources. I hope that we are providing a clear lead on that.

For foster carers who want to adopt a child, when it is in the child's interests to do so, the application will in future be processed in just three months.

We need to recruit more adopters, however, and from more diverse ethnic backgrounds, and that is a priority too. In future, information on becoming an adoptive parent will be provided promptly, and will include details about what is expected of adopters. The assessment process will be faster, fairer and more transparent, with prospective adopters being given the opportunity to attend preparation meetings, to learn more about the children waiting for adoption and to talk to others who have adopted children. I hope that the measures will help us to treat adopters better and to support them better so that we can attract more adoptive parents to adopt more children successfully.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, prospective adopters will have, for the first time, a right to a wholly independent review of their application, should they be turned down by an adoption agency. The PIU report recommended that an appeals mechanism for potential adopters should be put in place in all local authorities, whereby applicants who have been rejected could have their case reviewed by a panel in a neighbouring area. Feedback from the consultation exercise on the report showed that many people were concerned that this would not be independent enough. I agree.

That is why we have decided to introduce a new independent review procedure for potential adopters whose application is rejected. For the first time, prospective adopters who are to be turned down will have the right to a fully independent review of their case. We will establish an independent body, appointed by the Secretary of State. Its role will be to set up a new adoption panel to look at all the evidence again, and to make a new recommendation to the agency, either in support of the original decision or against it. The agency will have to take account of that new recommendation before making its final decision. The new panel will be entirely independent, with no representation on it from the original panel. I accept that the Department will need to do more work to finalise the details of how the new independent appeals system will work. We will bring forward our proposals in the near future.

This year the Government will carry out a fundamental review of the adoption assessment process and the operation of adoption panels, including consideration of streamlining the assessment of "second time around" adopters, to explore what improvements could be made, with a view to implementing improvements during 2002.

In the meantime, we will be working with local authorities to review current assessment practice and to identify areas of best practice. We will also be consulting stakeholders later in the year on how the assessment process could be tailored for different groups such as foster carers, friends and families, and those who have adopted previously.

The White Paper also spelled out that a clearer legal duty will be placed on local councils to plan for and provide comprehensive support services for adoptive families. That will apply equally to all adopters, including those adopting children from overseas. Families adopting children will be entitled to have their needs for support services properly assessed. They will have access to a comprehensive package of post-adoption support, including adoption allowances, in a way that is more consistent throughout the country—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.