Orders of the Day — Adoption and Children Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:27 pm on 26 March 2001.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health) 4:30, 26 March 2001

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has written to you, Mr. Speaker, and to Dr. Fox to express his apologies for being unable to be present due to a long-standing constituency engagement.

The Bill represents probably the most radical overhaul of adoption law for 25 years. It is long overdue. By common consent, the current legislation is considered to be outmoded, out of date and unsuitable for the kind of adoption service that we need today. As a result, it is failing to meet the needs of children and families and, therefore, the needs of society as a whole. The need to recast both the law and the practice of adoption so that they better serve the interests of children is clear and obvious. The Adoption Act 1976 is based on legislation dating back to 1958 and it is not consistent with the Children Act 1989. There is an overwhelming case for bringing the framework of legislation up to date. That is precisely what the Bill seeks to achieve.

Adoption legislation is vital to our society because children get only one chance to grow up. As every Member of the House knows, the opportunity to grow up in a stable and loving family environment has often been denied to children in care who, for one reason or another, cannot live with their birth families. The children are not the only ones to have lost out as a result--society as a whole has paid a heavy price for that failure.

At any one time, local councils look after almost 58,000 young people, seven in 10 of whom leave care at 16 without an educational qualification of any sort. Almost four in 10 male prisoners under the age of 21 have been looked after at some stage in their lives and 25 per cent. of the people sleeping rough on the streets of London have also been in care. That is a failure not of the children in care, but of the system of care. We in the House must put such failures right.

Those children, perhaps above all others, need the safety, stability and security of a permanent new family. They need that stability as quickly as is humanly possible, but that is not what happens at present. Children remain in the care system far longer than they should. More than 28,000 children have been in care continuously for more than two years. Too often, despite the best intentions of all involved, they are passed from pillar to post.

Nearly one looked-after child in five has three or more placements in a year. Some have six or more. For those children, the care system frequently fails to provide the stability that they need to build a successful future. They need a better chance in life. They deserve a better deal. Today, with this Bill, we are laying the foundations for a better future for thousands of young people in care.

The Government firmly believe that adoption can often be the best solution for children in care who are unable to return to their birth families. Too often, it has been considered to be a last resort when it should have been considered as a first resort. In some council areas, 10 per cent. or more of looked-after children are adopted every year. In others, the figure is less than 1 per cent. Those wide discrepancies in performance are unacceptable and unjust.

Overall, we know that the existing law and practice, including the practice in the courts, can be slow, cumbersome and unfair as a result. Of course, the safety of every child should be of paramount concern, but, on average, children wait nearly a year and a half before it is even decided that adoption is best for them. Even after a decision is taken that they should be adopted, they wait longer still. Overall, the average time taken to adopt a looked-after child is more than three years, which is an eternity in a child's eyes.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

The Minister has just given some disturbing figures about the variation between local authorities dealing with adoption. Does the Bill give the power of adoption to local authorities? One of my constituents has said that, because of the great differences between local authorities, it may be better for a national agency to deal with adoption.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we seriously considered that proposition in the report produced last July by the performance and innovation unit. The idea has been knocking around for some time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituent will understand that the adoption and fostering services, which are closely linked, are also umbilically connected to the wider child protection agenda, for which local authorities rightly have the principal legal responsibility in England and Wales. If we were to erect a barrier between local authorities' child protection functions and their adoption and fostering functions, that would not be a terribly sensible way to proceed. We have certainly considered the proposition, but we have discounted it as a way forward.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises from my remarks that I find the discrepancy and wide variation in performance completely unacceptable. However, I do not think that the problem can be solved by creating a new agency. We have tools at our disposal to improve the performance of local authorities. I shall later refer to the new default powers in the Bill to address the problem of local authorities that fail to provide an effective and proper adoption service. We do not currently have such powers.

People who want to adopt children from the care system need a better deal as well. There is a shortage of adoptive parents, but the system sometimes deters people from applying to adopt. It is slow, intrusive and sometimes inappropriate. I am aware of cases in which potential adopters have been told that they cannot adopt because they are too old or, in one case, because they were too middle class. Such blanket bans fail to put the needs of children first. Families who adopt children overwhelmingly do a brilliant job for them. It is not an easy job, because many of the children are not easy. They and their adoptive parents deserve more support.

Our adoption White Paper, published last December, set out an ambitious programme to tackle these related problems, to encourage greater use of adoption, to deliver at least a 40 per cent. increase in the number of looked-after children who are adopted, to transform adoption services and to put the interests of children at the centre of the adoption process. The Bill will play an essential part in underpinning the programme that we set out in the White Paper.

First, it will put the needs of the child at the centre of the adoption process by aligning adoption law with the Children Act 1989 to make the child's welfare the paramount consideration in all decisions to do with adoption.

Secondly, it will help to encourage more people successfully to adopt looked-after children by ensuring that the support they need is available. There will be a clearer duty on local authorities to make arrangements to provide an adoption support service, and a new right to an assessment for new adoptive families, as promised in the White Paper.

Thirdly, the Bill will also support our efforts to build confidence in the adoption process, and encourage more people to come forward to adopt, by enabling the Secretary of State to establish an independent review mechanism for applicants who consider that they are being turned down unfairly. Many of those who commented on the performance and innovation unit report identified that as a key and pressing issue. Clause 9 will address those concerns.

Fourthly, the Bill will support our efforts to cut harmful delays in the adoption process. We have already set out challenging time targets for decision making for children and for the adoption application process in our draft national adoption standards, which were published alongside the White Paper. The Bill makes provision for the Secretary of State to establish a new national adoption register to reduce delay for adopters and children waiting to be adopted. It also includes measures requiring courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases, to help to cut delays in the legal process.

Finally, as we promised in the White Paper, the Bill introduces a new special guardianship order--

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I welcome the measures to speed up adoption procedures, but may I draw the Minister's attention to a danger? The magic six-months point at which everything is triggered may be seen as a threat by local authorities. Indeed, it should be seen as a threat. It is most important for authorities not to have an incentive to "churn" children when about five and a half months have passed, and then begin the process all over again when the children return to care.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I entirely agree, but we do not see the six-months time scale as a threat. We think that it will support good decision making by local authorities. If there was any sign that authorities were behaving in the way described by the hon. Gentleman, it would of course be a serious matter. We expect authorities to apply proper child care procedures and practices to all decision making.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that after five and a half months a child should no longer be considered to be in care, and should be reunited, perhaps inappropriately, with other persons. That would be unsafe and unsound, and the social services inspectorate--and I--would be very concerned. I think, however, that we will be able to deal with such issues by means of the effective monitoring arrangements that we wish to introduce.

The new special guardianship orders will provide a more legally secure permanent family than can be delivered through foster care or residence orders. That will apply particularly to children who do not want to sever all legal ties with their birth families.

In addition to all that, the Bill thoroughly overhauls and modernises the legal framework for adoption in England and Wales. It replaces the existing Adoption Act 1976 and consolidates the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999. It also includes important changes to the legal process of placing a child for adoption, and to adoption itself. It builds on the work done in the adoption law review in the early 1990s and on important proposals in the draft adoption Bill prepared by the last Administration in 1996, which was endorsed by both major parties and published for consultation.

The Bill represents a huge step forward in making the adoption system fairer and more efficient. Although we want to maintain the momentum for reform, the Government are also conscious of the need to maintain the widest possible consensus on the direction of change. We do not have the chance to legislate on this subject very often--once in a generation, perhaps--so it is vital for us to get it right.

That is why we are building on the consultation on the 1996 Bill; that is why we consulted on the new proposals in the Prime Minister's adoption review, which led to our White Paper; and that is why we now propose that the Bill be referred to a special Select Committee, so that there will be ample opportunity for proper scrutiny of the new measures as well as the fullest possible consultation with outside interests and organisations.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

One of the most disturbing aspects, which the Minister mentioned at the outset, is the frequency with which young people in care are "churned" around in the fostering system. The Minister has not so far mentioned any way of dealing with the problem; there may be no such mechanism in the Bill. Will the Minister tell us how he hopes to minimise the damage that must be caused to already damaged children by the process of "churning" and short stays in foster care?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I shall certainly explain to the right hon. Gentleman how we intend to do that. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to write to him with specific details.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the Bill's main focus is on adoption. The improvements that we seek to make in the fostering service form a substantial part of the quality protects initiative that we launched in 1998, which became effective in 1999. For the first time, we set a target for reducing the number of avoidable placements to fewer than three a year. We are making progress, and I hope that later in the year we shall be able to publish new figures showing that we are on track to meet the target. It is desperately important for us to do so.

The Bill is only part of the programme of wider reforms that we seek to introduce. We have always made it clear that, as an important part of the work that we need to do to improve children's social services, we must focus on the practice of child care in local authorities throughout the country. That is what the quality protects initiative seeks to achieve. We have also--crucially--tried a number of initiatives for the recruitment and employment of more foster carers. That will be a fundamental part of reducing avoidable and unnecessary changes in foster care placements. In 1997, there were about 28,000 foster carers in England. That figure has risen to about 32,000 and, although we need to do much more--we need many more carers--we are, I hope, heading in the right general direction.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I have pressed the Minister on this matter for some time. I believe that he is right to go down what is effectively the special Committee route: the proposal is for the Bill to be committed to a Select Committee. However, in practical terms, it is possible that the election will intervene. I address my question to him and to those on the Conservative Front Bench. Will a future Government of either persuasion ensure that the Select Committee stage is picked up immediately on return after an election?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I am not trying to be shy. It is a serious point. I am grateful to Mr. Davis for raising it. He is a former Whip, so he knows that there is a system--a magical, unknown system--whereby those things are resolved. I am not privy to any of the secret workings of this place. I am sure that a way will be found--I hope that it will be found--to maintain the momentum that we are setting in train. If my party is re-elected, we will certainly seek to make further progress with the legislation.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

My hon. Friend has outlined one of the areas that can cause delays in the process, with children being moved back and forth between foster homes, but there is another: attempts to reintegrate a child into its own family. During the consultation, will he liaise with those representing natural parents? There needs to be a balance between the natural parent who may wish a child to come back home and the needs of the child. Guidance needs to be offered to social workers about the point at which they should give up trying to integrate a child back into its natural home and look at the future of that child instead.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I agree with my hon. Friend. These are difficult and sensitive issues. We are trying to be fair both to families and to children in care who have been let down by the way in which the system operates and who, as I have said, are denied the opportunity to grow up in a loving and secure family. That is not acceptable. There is an opportunity for us to look at ways in which to reinforce good child care practice and good social work practice in those areas. I hope that the social care institute, the creation of which we announced recently, might be able to look at issues to do with precisely the point that my hon. Friend has raised. Having said all that, we are trying to maintain the right balance. It is desperately important that we keep the children at the top of our list of priorities. That is not how the system works at the moment, but it is how it must work in future.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that clauses 8 and 9 cover the regulation of adoption agencies and the independent review of determinations made. Can he confirm this afternoon that the regulations in question will be subject to the affirmative procedure, so that there is a full opportunity for the House to debate them? Alternatively, if that is not possible or the preferred option of the Government, can he confirm that a draft of the regulations will be available to hon. Members before the passage of the Bill?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

It would be a very brave Minister who made the latter pledge. We are not planning any surprises. We have no tricks up our sleeve. We want to consult fully not only with hon. Members, but with outside organisations on the best way to develop the regulations that we have in mind. We have an open mind. I think that the Bill as it is currently drafted envisages the negative resolution procedure for regulations under the clauses, but if the hon. Gentleman, those on the Conservative Front Bench or others outside can make a convincing case as to why there should be a different procedure, we genuinely have an open mind. As I said, we want to proceed with the widest possible consensus in all these areas.

Following the hon. Gentleman's point, I stress that we accept that further work needs to be done on the Bill. I want to say a few words about some specific aspects that fall into that category in a minute. We want to hear if additional changes and improvements should be made to ensure that we produce the best possible Bill. That is a duty that we owe future generations of looked-after children.

I come to the specific details of the Bill. Clause 1 is a key overarching provision. As we made clear in the White Paper, the Government believe that adoption is first and foremost a service for children, and the child's interest and welfare should be at the centre of the adoption process. The Bill makes the child's welfare in childhood and later the paramount consideration for a court or adoption agency making any decision relating to the adoption of a child. That brings adoption legislation into line with the Children Act 1989.

Clause 1 also provides the court or the agency with a welfare check list of issues that it must consider in determining the child's welfare. The issues include the child's wishes and views, according to his age and understanding; the child's needs, age, sex, background and any other relevant characteristics; the impact on the child of being adopted--of becoming a member of a new family and leaving an old one--and any risk of harm to the child.

The Bill makes the child's welfare the paramount consideration in all decisions, including whether to dispense with birth parents consent to the adoption of their child. That is a change from the current position. The courts will be explicitly obliged to consider the impact on the child of ceasing to be a member of his birth family and the change in his relationship with that family that adoption would inevitably involve. The courts will consider each case on its merits, applying clause 1 and having regard to article 8 of the convention and Strasbourg case law. However, we believe that it is right that the focus of that decision should be on the child's welfare. The court may make an adoption order only when it considers that it would be better for the child than making no order. Again, that is in line with Children Act principles.

The Government are determined to bear down on harmful delays in the adoption process. Clause 1 also obliges courts and adoption agencies to bear in mind at all times that, in general, delay in making a decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare.

In placing a child for adoption, agencies must also give due consideration to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. Taken with the provisions on avoiding delay, that gives effect to the policy that we set out in the national adoption standards--that the adoptive placement of choice for a child is one that reflects their birth heritage, provided that one can be found without unnecessary or harmful delay.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I apologise for intervening twice in the Minister's speech. However, a requirement to match the religious background of a child with that of would-be adoptive parents has previously made it difficult to find adoptive parents. Would there be such a requirement for children who are less than two years old, for example, who may not yet know their own religious background?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

The short answer is that I do not know. However, I think that that is an issue on which we shall have to take advice. We have always made it very clear that we want the system to operate as efficiently and speedily as possible, and that we shall not allow issues to do with political correctness to get in the way of a child's best welfare interests. That is why we have made the position on inter-racial adoptions as clear as we have, both in circulars to local government and, now, in the national adoption standards.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. Just now, he was absolutely clear about the need to eliminate unacceptable delay in the process. However, clause 1(4) omits anything about that need. Instead, that subsection includes the words "due consideration", which, legally, are not absolutely clear cut. Could not those words make it possible for courts to return to the very political correctness against which he has rightly and repeatedly spoken?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

The hon. Gentleman--for whom I have the greatest respect, and who speaks very strongly in the House on these issues--has a very good point. However, I would draw his attention to the parts of the Bill that deal with the obligation on the courts to consider the effect of any delay on the child's welfare. I think that the issue is already addressed properly in the Bill--which, of course, should be considered with the guidance and circulars on the issue that we have issued to local authorities.

I am also sure that we shall be able to explore that issue in Committee and elsewhere, and that it will be up to the House to decide how to proceed on it. However, I think that the Government have made our position on the matter pretty clear. It is a difficult issue on which many people have very strong views. Ultimately, however, we have made it very clear that we believe that there should not be unnecessary and unacceptable delay in the process. If that is one of the issues that can give rise to delay, the Bill should address it.

The next set of clauses deal with the adoption service and particularly with support for adoptive families. The Bill requires each local authority to provide an adoption service designed to meet the needs of children who may be adopted, as well as adopted children and adults, and their adoptive and natural parents and former guardians. As now, facilities provided by local authorities as part of their adoption service must include making arrangements for the adoption of children, including assessing prospective adopters and placing children for adoption.

Local authorities may provide services by arranging for them to be provided by voluntary adoption agencies or other parties prescribed in regulations. That will enable them to draw on the voluntary sector, which has a huge groundswell of expertise and resource.

The White Paper made clear our commitment to promoting greater joint working with the voluntary sector in providing adoption services, and the Bill will ensure that that happens.

Adoption is of course a challenging process. Adoptive families must be supported at all stages and helped to meet the challenges. It is unacceptable that, at present, provision of adoption support services across the country is patchy and inconsistent. Lack of support can put people off coming forward, when they otherwise would, to adopt looked-after children, some of whom have special needs and challenging backgrounds. As many as one in five adoptive placements break down before the child is legally adopted. That is simply not good enough. It is a further trauma for the children themselves. This is a crucial area in which we need to secure real improvements. The Bill will help to tackle the inconsistency.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

Is it the Minister's intention that under the Bill prospective adoptive parents will be given far more information than at present about the background of the child whom they are considering adopting? Many placements break down because, for reasons of confidentiality, parents are not fully informed about often very traumatised children whom they are expected to bring up.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

There are certainly such measures in the Bill. I will set out later the provisions on access to information. The issue that my hon. Friend raises is a matter of good social work practice. We have many things to say about that, to encourage the greater success of adoption placements.

The Bill places, for the first time, a clear duty on local social services authorities to put in place arrangements for the provision of adoption support services, including financial support. That requirement will provide a basis for our new framework for post-adoption support services, in line with our key White Paper commitment.

The Bill also gives adopted children and their new parents a new right to request and receive an assessment of their needs for adoption support services. Too often, adoptive families tell us that they feel they have to fight against the system to get access to help. That cannot be right. The right to request an assessment will tackle the problem. It will run until the child reaches the age of 18. The provisions are also flexible enough to allow, for example, for the assessment to be made available from the point when a child is placed for adoption, before the final adoption order is made.

Adoption support will be planned jointly with the national health service and local education authorities. If at any time during the assessment it appears to the local social services authority that the person being assessed may need NHS services or services provided by the local education authority, the authority will be obliged to notify the relevant health authority, primary care trust or LEA. The aim is to identify, where it is needed, a co-ordinated and joined-up package of support across all the public agencies.

Local authorities will have a duty to co-operate in the provision of their functions in relation to assessment for adoption support. We will encourage them to work with each other and with voluntary adoption agencies to provide adoption support services through local consortiums. Financial support may be made available to adoptive families as a result of the assessment. The form of support and criteria will all be set out in the new framework for financial support that we will develop as we promised in the White Paper. The Bill also enables voluntary adoption agencies to make financial support available to those affected by adoption, as under the existing arrangements.

The Government are backing up these new measures with new investment, to help put in place the adoption support service that we all want. That is why we expect that a substantial amount of the extra £66 million for adoption announced in the adoption White Paper, to be made available over three years, will be used by councils to improve their adoption support services. The additional resources for adoption should be seen against the background of substantial and continuing increases in social services spending planned for the next three years.

The new provisions for adoption support are among the most important in the Bill. They will play a key role in supporting greater use of adoption for looked-after children, and I am glad to say that they have already been widely welcomed. In response to the publication of the Bill last week, the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering said:

"We believe that this will make a real difference to adoptive parents who often parent troubled and challenging children and that this will encourage more prospective adopters to come forward".

The Bill also covers arrangements for registering adoption agencies. It takes account of the fact that voluntary adoption agencies are to be inspected and approved by the new National Care Standards Commission in England and by the National Assembly in Wales. It makes provision for the transfer of functions where a voluntary adoption agency ceases to be registered.

We are committed to ensuring that prospective adopters are treated fairly at all stages of the assessment process. Clause 9, to which Mr. Bercow referred, provides for the introduction of a new independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who feel that they have been turned down unfairly--we made that clear promise in the White Paper. They will be given a truly independent right of review in cases in which the adoption agency has indicated that it is minded to turn down their application to adopt.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Can my hon. Friend clarify what will happen under the independent review system when advice of a confidential medical nature leads to the prospective adopters, or one partner, being turned down?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I am not sure what would happen in such a case. The independent review mechanism is there to reassure prospective adopters that they have been considered fairly and properly by the local adoption agency. There is a sense--which I am sure my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe has detected--that prospective adopters do not always get that impression. There will be an opportunity, perhaps in the Select Committee and elsewhere, to discuss in greater detail how the review mechanism will work.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

To be more explicit, I know of situations--I will refer to one in my contribution, if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker--in which couples were turned down on the basis of information received in confidence from a medical authority. My point is that when an independent review takes place, will that information be communicated to the family concerned, regardless of the impact on that family?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a very difficult issue. I do not want to attempt to provide a definitive answer to that question today--I will have to reflect on what my hon. Friend has said.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

This issue has been raised by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, among others. It is not unique to the Bill. For example, since Dunblane, when shotgun licences are applied for, medical information is now available. So there are existing mechanisms that could be considered by the Select Committee.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.

An independent body appointed by the Secretary of State will convene a review panel to re-examine the evidence and make a fresh recommendation to the agency. The adoption agency must then consider both the new recommendation and the recommendation of the original agency panel before making its final decision. I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield that the decision will remain the responsibility of the adoption agency.

The independent review mechanism will not replace the right of prospective adopters to have the matter referred back to the original agency panel; it will be an alternative. Prospective adopters will be able to choose which method of review they prefer.

The Bill requires each adoption agency, magistrates court, county court and the High Court to give the appropriate Minister general information relating to adoption. That information will be used for statistical and performance management purposes.

The Bill also gives default powers to the appropriate Minister when a local authority has failed, without reasonable excuse, to comply with any of its duties in respect of adoption--a point made by Mr. McLoughlin. It empowers the appropriate Minister to hold an inquiry into any matter connected with the functions of an adoption agency, and provides for a person authorised by the appropriate Minister to inspect any premises where a child placed for adoption is living, and to inspect adoption agencies' records.

Chapter III deals with placing children for adoption and the making of adoption orders. It introduces important new changes to the current process for placing children for adoption through adoption agencies, which flowed from the recommendations of the adoption law review and built on the proposals in the 1996 Bill.

The aim of the new system is to ensure that decisions around whether adoption is the right option for the child, whether the parents consent and, if not, whether their consent should be dispensed with, are made earlier in the adoption process than at present, with court involvement where necessary.

The current process can leave too much to be resolved at the final adoption order stage. The new system is intended to provide greater certainty and stability for children by dealing as far as possible with parental consent before they have been placed with their prospective new family; to reduce the uncertainty for the prospective adopters, who possibly face a contested court hearing at the adoption order stage; and to reduce the extent to which birth families are faced with a fait accompli at the final adoption hearing, if the child has been placed with the prospective adopters for some time. The placement proposals were widely supported in principle in the consultation on the 1996 Bill, produced by the previous Administration, and in the performance and innovation unit report.

There are two routes for placement. Birth parents can give consent to placement for adoption or the adoption agency can secure a placement order from the court. The parents may consent to placement with specific adopters or consent to allow placement with adopters that the agency selects.

Where a child is placed with consent, the birth parents can, at any time until the point that an application for an adoption order has been made, request the return of their child. The agency and the prospective adopters must comply, unless the agency still thinks that the child should be adopted, in which case it must apply for a placement order. However, once an application for an adoption order has been made, the court's consent is required for the removal of the child. Where a parent has consented to placement for adoption, he or she may oppose the final adoption order only with the leave of the court, and the court may give leave only if there has been a change of circumstances since the parents gave their consent.

The Bill also introduces new placement orders. An adoption agency must apply for a placement order where it is satisfied that a child should be adopted but the parents do not consent to placement or have withdrawn consent. Where a child is subject to a care order and the care plan recommends adoption, the local authority may apply for a placement order or, if the parents consent to placement, go down the new route. Where a child is under a care order, that order will be suspended for the duration of the placement order, but would automatically revive if the placement order were revoked.

Placement orders authorise the agency to place a child with any adopters whom it may select. Agencies need not go back to court if an initial placement fails. Placement orders last until an adoption order is made, the child reaches 18 or the order is revoked. The parents may not apply to revoke the order unless a year has passed since it was made, the child has not been placed and the court gives leave. The court may give leave only if the parents' circumstances have changed since the order was made.

The placement provisions will replace the current system of freeing orders, which has been widely criticised, partly because, once made, the orders leave a child without any legal parents. The new placement- with-consent route allows birth parents to agree to their child being placed for adoption, while placement orders can be sought where consent is not forthcoming. In either case, the birth parents remain the child's parents until the final adoption order.

The Bill also allows birth parents to give advance consent to the final adoption order, either at the same time that they give consent to placement or at any time afterwards. That is a means of allowing people to give up their child voluntarily for adoption.

Clauses 34 to 44 set out the process for applying for adoption other than through an agency, the conditions on making adoption orders and the effect of adoption orders. I shall simply highlight the main changes that we intend to make.

Where someone wishes to apply to adopt a child other than through an adoption agency, and it is not a step-parent adoption, the child must have lived with the person for three years before an application may be made, or one year in the case of local authority foster parents. We are not making any changes to who may adopt. As now, single people may adopt and, as the adoption law review recommended, only married couples may adopt jointly. That is absolutely right.

We are changing the law to remove the anomaly by which, for a parent and a step-parent to adopt jointly, the birth parent must first adopt his or her own child. That is frankly ridiculous. Finally, as I described earlier, we are changing the provisions around dispensing with birth parent consent to adoption in line with clause 1.

Clauses 47 to 49 implement our promise in the White Paper to deliver greater consistency of access for adopted people to information about the background to their adoption. All adopted people should have the right to find out about their family history and background when and if they wish to do so. All adoption agencies will be required to keep information on their files in accordance with requirements to be set out in regulations.

The Bill also provides for a package of information to be given to adoptive parents when an adoption order is made in order to help new adoptive parents understand about the child's background. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend Helen Jones. Adopted people will, on reaching 18, have the right to receive a copy of the information previously provided to their adoptive parents and to information from their court records.

The Bill requires adoption agencies and courts to inform adopted people of the counselling services available to them before they access information from their agency or court records. Of course, the Bill does not oblige adopted people to undergo counselling if they do not wish to do so; it will be their choice.

Sometimes, adopted people and other parties may be refused access to information about themselves for no good reason. Alongside the Bill, therefore, we will ensure that those who are refused access to personal information about themselves that is held in adoption agency files will have the right to apply to the Data Protection Commissioner for a review of that decision.

Clauses 51 to 60 mirror most of the provisions in existing legislation on the legal status of adopted children. Chapter V deals with the Registrar-General's duties concerning maintaining the adopted children register and the adoption contact register. With some minor amendment, it will reaffirm existing provisions.

Chapter VI deals with adoptions with a foreign element. The Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999 made provision for intercountry adoptions. It enables the UK to ratify the Hague convention on protection of children and on co-operation in respect of intercountry adoptions. Most of the provisions of the 1999 Act as regards England and Wales will be incorporated in the Bill--save the sections covering regulations to give effect to the Hague convention and associated measures, which will remain in force.

The House will know that the Government have decided to bring forward the implementation of regulations under section 14 of the 1999 Act. Those will be laid and made this week, and will come into force next month. It will then be an offence for British residents to bring a child from another country into the UK for the purposes of adoption, unless they are already approved adopters in this country. On conviction, the penalty will be imprisonment for up to three months or a fine of up to £5000, or both.

Those provisions are mirrored in the Bill. In addition, we are considering whether it would be appropriate to make other changes to primary legislation to improve the safeguards on intercountry adoptions; we may make further proposals to the House for inclusion in the Bill as it goes through its parliamentary stages.

The key measures in chapter VII cover controls on who may make arrangements for the adoption of children and who may advertise children for adoption. It is essential in the interests of children that only approved adoption agencies or certain individuals are allowed to arrange adoptions. The Bill tackles that by recasting the definition of the Adoption Act 1976--restating what is permitted and by whom and defining what making arrangements actually consists of. Anyone who makes arrangements for adoption but is not authorised to do so will commit an offence. The Bill includes provision for the definition to be modified to take account of future developments so that the legislation can remain up to date.

The chapter also deals with controls on advertising. As we all know, there is a shortage of adopters throughout the country. Advertising for prospective adopters to come forward is often an effective way of encouraging more people to consider adoption. However, that activity must be properly regulated in the interests of the children concerned. We also need to ensure that we cover all emerging technologies where they might be exploited to circumvent the safeguards approved by the House.

The Bill restates and amends the existing restrictions on advertising in the 1976 Act, but it goes further--imposing a new restriction on the distribution of such advertisements and on the publication and distribution of information about how to make arrangements for the adoption of a child. It also makes it explicit--an important point--that printing and distribution include both traditional and electronic media, and should be carried out in a manner compatible with the European Union e-commerce directive. The Bill provides for future developments by giving the Secretary of State a power to make amendments if there are technological developments relating to publishing or distributing information by electronic means.

To support our drive to cut harmful delays in adoption, clause 89 includes a new provision to impose an obligation on courts, where they are dealing with any matter where there may be an issue of whether a placement or adoption order should be made, to draw up a timetable and to give any directions necessary to ensure that that timetable is maintained. That will help to tackle delays in the system. It mirrors similar provisions in the Children Act 1989.

Clauses 96 to 99 provide for the national adoption register, which will be a key means of cutting delay in the adoption process and should help us speed up the matching of children with prospective adopters. We are already working to establish an adoption register for England and Wales under existing legislation. We aim to award the contract in the spring, and the first stage of the register will be operational by July. The Bill will, however, underpin the register and place it on a proper statutory footing, helping it to expand and develop in the future.

The register will provide a national infrastructure for adoption services. It will hold information on children waiting to be adopted and on approved adoptive families from across the country. The information held on the register will be used to suggest families for a child in cases where a local match is either not in the child's best interests, or cannot be found within an agreed period. The register will also be used as a valuable source of national information on the adoption process itself.

Councils will be required to place on the register details of all children waiting to be adopted and of approved adoptive families. We will encourage voluntary adoption agencies to make full use of the register. That will help to ensure that as many children as possible are matched with suitable adoptive families.

Prospective adopters will of course be included on the register only if they have given their consent. Children will also be asked for their consent--subject to their age and understanding--before being placed on the register. However, the register will not be open to public inspection or search. The privacy of adoptive families and children will be our first priority. To ensure that their privacy is respected, the unauthorised release of information held on the register will be made a criminal offence.

The Secretary of State for Health will be able to delegate the establishment and operation of the register to another body. The Bill provides that that may be a public body or a private or voluntary organisation.

Part II deals with amendments to the Children Act 1989. Clause 91 makes an important change to provide that unmarried fathers who jointly register their child's birth acquire parental responsibility without further formality. With one in three children born to couples who are not married, it is important to encourage the commitment of unmarried fathers. We announced our intention to legislate on that in July 1998 and are pleased to be able to deliver on it.

We are also making further changes to enable a step-parent to acquire parental responsibility for a child of his spouse without having to go down the route of adoption and to allow courts to extend the duration and enhance the security of residence orders as a means of providing permanence for children who cannot be cared for by their birth parents. Most important, clause 94 amends the 1989 Act to introduce the new special guardianship orders.

Special guardianship is intended to meet the needs of children who cannot return to their birth parents and for whom adoption is not appropriate. That could include older children who are being looked after in long-term foster placements who do not want to be legally separated from their birth parents but who could benefit from greater security and permanence. Adoption might also not be the best option for some children who are cared for on a permanent basis by members of their wider family. Finally, some minority ethnic communities have religious or cultural difficulties with adoption as provided for in English law because it involves the permanent extinction of the legal responsibilities of birth families.

Special guardianship orders are to be made on application to the court by someone who is 18 or over. The Bill sets out who may apply for an order. That includes any guardian of the child, anyone who holds a residence order with respect to the child and anyone with whom the child has lived for three out of the past five years. If the child is in the care of a local authority, anyone may apply with the authority's consent.

Two people can apply jointly for a special guardianship order. They do not have to be married. If an application is made for special guardianship, the local authority must complete a report to the court about the suitability of the applicants to be special guardians. Regulations will prescribe matters to be covered. They will ensure that a proper assessment process is followed for special guardians. A court can also make a special guardianship order in family court proceedings without an application if it thinks it is in the interests of the child's welfare to do so. When a court makes such an order, it must also consider whether a contact order should be made.

A special guardianship order gives the special guardian parental responsibility for the child. It also makes it clear that the special guardian exercises those rights and responsibilities to the exclusion of others with parental responsibility--principally, the birth parents--except in exceptional circumstances when the law requires the consent of all those with parental responsibility, such as certain forms of medical treatment, including the sterilisation of a child.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I am grateful for the detailed way in which my hon. Friend is outlining the Bill's provisions, especially as they relate to special guardianship. Will there be a difference between a child who is placed under a care order on a long-term basis with foster parents and the arrangements under a special guardianship order? Will care reviews still take place and will local authorities continue to have a role?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

No. My understanding is that once the special guardianship order has been made, that is the end of the care order. The special guardians will be responsible for the child who is placed with them.

The order retains the basic legal link with the birth parents, unlike adoption. They will remain legally the child's parents, although their ability to exercise their parental responsibility will be limited. They will retain some basic rights, such as the right to consent or not to the child's adoption or placement for adoption. Unlike adoption orders, applications may be made to discharge or vary special guardianship orders, but only a limited list of people can apply, including the child's parents, again in restricted circumstances.

The White Paper set out that special guardians would have access to a full range of support services including, where appropriate, financial support, to help the placement succeed. That is reflected in the Bill. The introduction of the new order will provide an important new way of delivering legal permanence and security with a new family for children who cannot live with their birth parents. We look forward to hearing the views on our provisions in the special Select Committee hearings.

I realise that I have been speaking for a long time, but I am about to conclude my remarks. [Interruption.] I could continue. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire poses a challenge, to which I might respond.

The Bill is complex; it is a substantial piece of legislation on a matter that has generally attracted great interest and is of necessary importance. Comprehensive reform of adoption law is long overdue and will benefit thousands of society's most vulnerable children who, for far too long, have been let down by the care system. The Government are committed to just such modernisation and reform, and the introduction of the Bill demonstrates the strength of our commitment.

Our focus today is on improving adoption, but that does not mean we are ignoring the needs of young people who will remain in care--far from it. We will continue to invest new resources and effort in improving the outcomes for those children. Our ambitions for those young people need to be as high as our ambitions for children who will benefit from the Bill. All children in care, whether or not they can be found a new adoptive family, deserve the best opportunity to thrive and do well in life. The Government will continue to take action to see that that happens. In introducing the Bill, we have acknowledged that changes need to be made during its progress through the House. We have an open mind about the ways in which the Bill can be further improved and shall listen carefully to any serious suggestions about how that can be done.

Today we have the opportunity to do something that will prove to be of lasting value to thousands of children in future. We have the opportunity to say loudly and clearly that we want the best for them and the chance for them to belong and to succeed in life; we want them to have a second chance to grow up in a loving, secure family. I therefore hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading tonight. 5.21 pm

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Adoption is a subject that naturally attracts more consensus in the House than many other subjects. We have said that we will give the Government full support for any measures that put the interests of the child at the centre of the adoption process.

Most Members in the House today will have had constituency cases of couples who have faced the heartache of trying to conceive, but who must then travel a long, difficult journey in trying to create a family by adoption. We tend to see cases in which things are not going well because, by definition, people turn to Members of Parliament when other routes have failed. For example, we see the birth parents, from whom the child has been separated against their will; other members of the family; good neighbours who step in to take a child when something has gone wrong in the birth family; and adoptees who are still searching for their birth families.

We are under no illusion that the system needs to be overhauled, but hon. Members who have had a chance to get the Library brief--currently available only by e-mail--will know that, curiously, ever since 1926, we come round to reforming adoption legislation once a generation. The group whom, unfortunately, we rarely see and to whom my heart goes out today, is the vast number of children who languish in care, longing for permanence and a family to belong to. Unnecessary bureaucratic delay means that they wait too long for their own good, which is why we want all children in care to have access to an outside body, such as a charity, Church organisation or family to enable them to experience the full range of cultural values in society. If we want children to play a full part in society, they must be given something more than the limited cultural ethos of the care environment.

The state has not proved to be a good corporate parent and we must all share responsibility for failing many children. From the outset, Conservative Members have said that we want to play a constructive role in the expedient introduction of legislation that will improve that situation. However, we cannot let this legislative stage pass without placing on the record the fact that the delay is partly of the Government's making. It is not just me saying that; the Library brief opens with a factual statement and says:

"The present Government did not come to power committed to adoption legislation."

The best that the Government offered was a review of the present system.

The catalyst for change was the desperate Waterhouse report, which, for those of us who had to read it, revealed more clearly than ever before how vulnerable children are in care and how urgently we need to act to protect them better.

The Opposition's response was to establish a Conservative commission on adoption and fostering, to which I pay tribute for the help that it has given me in preparing my speech. The commission was chaired by my right hon. Friend Mr. Davis who, I expect, will make an important contribution to the debate. Some time later, in response, the Prime Minister undertook a review, thereby signalling his personal interest in, and responsibility for, the matter.

Co-incidentally, we were debating the relevant clauses on adoption and fostering in the Care Standards Bill at precisely the moment that the Prime Minister published the conclusions of his review. In a spirit of co-operation, I tabled a new clause to that Bill on Report, which would have given the Prime Minister what he wanted--a national adoption register and standard eligibility criteria for adoption. The clause was rejected on 12 July on the ground that the Government would introduce their own adoption Bill in the Queen's Speech.

However, to the great disappointment of all of us who wanted adoption law reformed, the delayed Queen's Speech in December contained no adoption Bill. Foxhunting was there, but not adoption. History will record that choice for posterity. As the Adoption Forum observed:

"We wouldn't like to think, given that foxhunting is on the legislative agenda but not adoption, that the Government believes children to be less important than nice little furry animals."

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

We usually have a consensus and a non-political debate on issues relating to children. I am sad that the hon. Lady has chosen to make such cheap points. I could respond with a cheap point about the Government whom she supported being in power for 18 years and never bringing a Bill on adoption before the House, as the present Government are doing.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not need reminding that the Conservative Government had their own White Paper, a comprehensive consultative procedure and a draft Bill, which, as the Minister pointed out, his Bill closely mirrors. Therein lies the consensus. Governments past and present have worked together to produce legislation that will bring about change.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

No. We have dealt with that point.

When I had the chance to introduce legislation by coming sixth in the ballot of private Members' Bills, small wonder that I chose adoption as the subject. I even went so far as to offer my slot to the Government to introduce their Bill. My hope was to embarrass the Government into action, and the Bill today is proof that we succeeded. I had some help from the Prime Minister who, under pressure from my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague, said on 17 January that legislation would be introduced during this Session, when it was patently obvious that there was no room for it.

Here we are, on the eve of a general election, with a Bill containing more than 100 clauses, which is, by the Minister's own admission to the all-party parliamentary group on adoption, "a first draft". He also said that

"the door is still open for suggestions."

The scramble at the Department to produce the Bill and get the Prime Minister off the hook is apparent from the Minister saying that the Government will have to table a number of amendments to correct their own draft. [Interruption.] The Minister says, "Oh dear."

In one respect, we are pleased that common sense has prevailed. The motion on the Order Paper today indicates that the Government anticipate that at least two months will be needed for a special Select Committee to scrutinise the Bill properly. We commend that. Those of us who were involved in the Food Standards Bill know that it benefited from detailed scrutiny in a special Select Committee. However, one wonders about the Government's sincerity, as we know full well that the Prime Minister is striving hard to hold a general election on 3 May.

I have made the point that adoption was not a Government priority. It will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members that the timing of Second Reading is just a touch malign for the hon. Member who will present a private Member's Bill on the same subject in four days' time.

We must ask whether, in preparing the Bill, the Government correctly defined the problem of adoption. Problem definition is not the Government's strong point, as we saw with the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill. Although we all want to reduce the prevalence of smoking, it is not obvious that banning tobacco advertising will succeed in that aim without closing the floodgates on smuggled cigarettes, which the Bill failed to do.

In respect of adoption, I urge the Minister to read the case studies in a document produced by the North American Connection adoptive family support group. Although its focus is on difficulties with intercountry adoption, it correctly diagnoses one reason why people resort to overseas adoption. As it states, in this country, there is

"slow, cumbersome bureaucracy, a system that hinders rather than progresses and helps, misplaced political correctness, and a negative, distrustful atmosphere."

One particularly bad case--case C--in the report, which I recommend that the Minister reads before work starts in the special Select Committee, states:

"Couple C applied to the local authority, expressing an interest in adopting a sibling group, below the age of 5--one of the hardest categories to place. This local authority currently has 800 children in foster care.

The couple was welcomed, and told that, despite a staff shortage, the assessment process would start as soon as possible. But a full year later, nothing had happened other than a few [accepted] invitations to information evenings, about the type of children awaiting adoption. There appeared to be only around 20, who were being actively considered. However, since the couple had also been told that it would take at least a year to get to the approval stage, then probably a further 2-3 years to be placed, frustration set in.

The couple adopted their child abroad."

In his opening remarks, the Minister said that there was not a great deal of evidence of political correctness. Unfortunately, however, hon. Members know that such cases are all to often brought to us. For the record, I shall read another case study from this very interesting document.

"Couple H were a farming family with 2 dogs and a country lifestyle. Although most children love farms, their social worker appeared to have difficulty relating to a rural way of life and did not like dogs. She objected to their ownership of dogs and the fact they had a legally licensed shotgun, although it was kept in a locked wall cabinet in accordance with the law. They were rejected."

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

Before my hon. Friend moves from that case, which involved constituents of mine, it is worth observing that, in hedging around the rejection, a number of other factors were produced, at least one of which was easily shown to be wholly untrue. That shows that political correctness in consideration of adoption is very often in the background and not overt. There is a real problem.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. It shows how important an independent review procedure will be in properly and objectively establishing the causes of rejection.

These case studies help us to understand some of the present problems, but until we define them correctly, we cannot hope to get the legislation right. Applicants need to feel confidence in the ability of those assessing them. One of the Bill's main purposes should be to restore confidence among all parties in the adoption system.

If we stand back and think what we are legislating for, we may conclude that it is in no small part due to big changes in British society. The advent of new methods of contraception has meant fewer babies for adoption. There is also less of a stigma attached to a young mother who raises a child on her own, although that is still not easy. As the Institute of Economic Affairs report states:

"The unmarried mother is now asked to choose between abortion and lone parenthood, with adoption scarcely mentioned as an option."

All such trends have contributed to a dramatic reduction in the number of babies who are adopted, and the total number of adoptions fell from 20,000 in 1970 to 4,100 in 1999. That is against a background of declining fertility in society. The total number of children in care fluctuates at about 100,000. As the Minister pointed out, local authorities' success rate in getting such children adopted varies hugely.

Those are some of the key trends that form the context against which the Bill should be considered. I should like to deal with some of the aspects that the Minister highlighted. The Bill's success or failure will lie in our skill in striking the right balance in the eternal triangle of the birth family, the adopters and the adoptee. We must decide whose needs take priority. The Opposition welcome the statement in clause 1 that

"The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare".

However, we recognise also that the Bill contains other provisions that may nibble away at that apparently unequivocal statement of the paramountcy of the child. The over-arching provision contained in clause 1 may be compromised if the Bill is not seamlessly melded with the Children Act 1989. The Bill uses the word "must" to convey an imperative, but the 1989 Act uses the word "shall". Some lawyers will make hay--and, I fear, a lot of money--out of the difference between such provisions, and the child at the centre will suffer a delay.

I am not sure whether those discrepancies are deliberate or were caused simply by the rush to introduce the Bill before the election. Nevertheless, the delay described in clause 1(3) is significantly different from that described in the Children Act 1989, and problems about its meaning are likely to generate a lot of litigation. The Bill states:

"The court or adoption agency must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the child's welfare."

However, the 1989 Act states that the

"court shall have regard to the general principle that any delay in determining the question is likely to prejudice the welfare of the child." Surely the wording should be tighter, to avoid unnecessary litigation. Clause 89 contains provisions to ensure that questions are determined without delay, but different wording is used in section 32 of the 1989 Act. The legislation needs to be synchronised more carefully, and the Opposition will help the Government to try to achieve that in Committee.

As an aside, I should point out that the needs of the child's siblings or half-siblings are given no prominence in the Bill. I believe that special mention should be made of the other children, as a child undeniably derives security from his or her siblings. Today's edition of The Times contains an article about adoption, with the headline "Adoption chiefs are advised to split up siblings". The person interviewed in the article, who represents the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, recognises that

"it was very often beneficial to keep brothers and sisters together as sibling relationships often prospered", but states:

"If no family has been found for a sibling group within nine months of searching and if a group of children has been advertised unsuccessfully . . . then the local authorities should cut their losses and try to find two families living close to each other."

What is the Minister's view of that statement? In the Opposition's view, it is important to keep siblings together. The weakness in the proposal made by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering is that it addresses the problem's symptoms, but not its cause. We are short of families to adopt, but that difficulty should not be resolved by jeopardising children's welfare and the security that they could gain from being placed with their siblings.

We have sought to help the Government to introduce a national adoption register to improve and speed up the matching process. When we sought to provide such help with regard to the Care Standards Act 2000, the Minister was uncertain whether the matter needed primary legislation. It was my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) who pointed out the need for such provision, but it will not prove to be a delay-busting measure without two things.

First, local authorities should be under a statutory duty to place their approved prospective adopters on the list. The Bill would achieve that. Secondly, there should be a method of passporting money with the child. Without that, a local authority would have little incentive to seek the best match from the national register. It is critical for the money for recruiting adopting parents and for post- adoption support to follow the child from the local authority where the child was in care to the local authority where the adopters live. Without that, one of the old barriers in the system remains firmly in place.

We should not skate over the genuine problem that social services departments are struggling to provide services, yet the Bill imposes considerable extra requirements on them. I appreciate that the Government have allocated an extra £66 million, but there is no guarantee that it will be spent on adoption. The new requirements under the Bill create extra work, such as making timely assessments of the needs of not only the child, but the prospective adopters and even the birth family. Given the current shortage of social workers, it is difficult to understand how some local authorities will cope with that.

Although assessments of post-adoption support may be carried out, thereby raising expectations, many social services departments will simply be unable to provide what they assess that they need. The Bill leaves it open for a local authority to decide that it simply cannot provide the necessary support. The nationwide target of a 40 per cent. increase in adoptions of looked-after children is meaningless when local authorities' performance varies so widely.

We are therefore pleased that clause 12 provides for default powers for dealing with a failing authority. However, how will they complement the best-value principles in local government legislation? Will the Care Standards Commission have a role in monitoring performance, and perhaps impose penalties for non- compliance?

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I hope that I am not reading too much into the hon. Lady's words, but perhaps she will explain whether the Conservative party believes that the local authority should remain the agency that is charged with responsibility for adoption and fostering. I get the impression that she is saying that that should not be the case.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

When we discuss independent review procedures, perhaps the Minister will realise what we have in mind for granting a greater role to the children's rights director and the children's commissioner. However, I participated in discussions on the Care Standards Act 2000 and, as the Minister was keen to point out to me then, he has powers to monitor carefully the role of the local authority; he also has powers over the voluntary agency. He said:

"If the hon. Lady wants an assurance that we will use our best-value powers if necessary, I give her such an assurance. We will use those powers when necessary to protect the welfare and well-being of children in the event of a local authority failing properly to meet its statutory responsibilities.--[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 22 June 2000; c. 447.]

Adoption allowances undoubtedly need an overhaul. The subject has long been unclear and the Bill does little to clarify it. When a local authority applies for a placement order and places a foster child with prospective adopters, do they get an allowance? If so, how much? Foster families who decide to adopt appear to have to pass up on three months' worth of allowances when they have tendered for adoption. Low-income families are already under-represented among adopters, and that will not help. We are generally short of couples who are willing to foster, and money can be an important factor. Those who foster informally, such as other family members or close friends and neighbours who take children in, are provided for especially poorly.

One of the most controversial aspects of adoption is the parting process, when a child leaves its birth family. Many birth parents feel sore about children being taken from them against their will. We acknowledge that it is sometimes right to do that. The Bill establishes a new method of doing that through placement orders, which replace the freeing orders of the Adoption Act 1976.

Clause 17 states that an adoption agency can

"place a child . . . with any prospective adopters who may be chosen by the agency." That provision needs to be tightened up if we are to prevent the kind of drift that currently occurs at this stage. We must avoid the situation in which children risk being held in limbo if no adopter is found. There are also loopholes in the provisions for returning children to their birth families before adoption.

We must also assist those who voluntarily consent to their children being adopted. However, clause 21 prevents people who have given advance consent to the adoption of their child from withdrawing that consent. That is utterly draconian and will make it very unlikely that advance consent will be given in most cases. There are also inconsistencies between clauses 21 and 39, which might be as a result of the haste with which the Bill was prepared.

We understood, from the Minister's presentation to the all-party parliamentary group on adoption, that special guardianship was designed to cater for children from particular ethnic backgrounds, and from particular religious backgrounds such as Islam, in which parental rights cannot be revoked. It was also designed for older children who do not wish to sever their ties completely. I would be interested to hear the Minister confirm that, when a special guardianship is an end in itself, the placement order is a step towards adoption.

Hon. Members have raised the matter of information. Although the Bill represents an improvement on the present provisions in that respect, it could be improved further. Clause 48 provides for information to be given to an adopted person when he or she attains the age of 18, but the procedure in Scotland gives an adopted child the right to that information at the age of 16. With a copy of his or her birth certificate--easily obtained, with some recognised form of identification, from the General Register Office for Scotland--a child can obtain access to court records and thereby trace, for example, any agencies involved in the process. Also in Scotland, information is held under the child's original and adopted names.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that, in many local authorities, it is already good practice for adoptive parents to work through a life story with the child whom they have adopted? Throughout the growing-up process, adopted children are told about their birth family and given appropriate information at an appropriate age so that, by the time they are adults and leave the adoptive family, for whatever reason, they already know all the background information on their birth family.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

There is a world of difference between good practice and what happens in reality. For the unfortunate children in authorities that do not pursue that kind of good practice, access to information should be improved in the way the Bill envisages, but we should also go further and ensure that children in England and Wales have the same opportunity as children in Scotland to obtain that information statutorily from the age of 16.

On information, I would like to ask the Government to consider a duty of candour. Many adopters' experience has been that, although information is given, it is often inaccurate and out of date, and important information is often withheld. My hon. Friend Mr. Brazier mentioned the importance of adoptive parents knowing key background information about a child's experience so that they can better deal with any difficulties that the child might bring to the new relationship.

Appeals are perhaps the most serious casualty of the haste with which the Bill has been prepared. Clause 9 provides for a review procedure. The explanatory notes--which, incidentally, were not available until six days after the Bill was published--state that

"A person . . . may apply to a panel established by the appropriate Minister" and that all the detail will be in regulations. My hon. Friend Mr. Bercow, who has now left the Chamber, pointed out that it is important, given the lack of clarity on this issue in the Bill, that such a provision should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We should like to debate this matter in considerable detail, with a firm assurance from the Minister that he will put the regulations up for consultation before implementation. We feel strongly that there should be a clearly defined, independent complaints procedure.

Currently, complainants complain to the people about whom they are complaining, which is nonsense. The Bill's review procedure seems to consider only a complaint from a prospective adopter, but what about the other side of the equation--the birth family and the child? Without trying to make work unduly and without creating new layers of bureaucracy, why not give the task to the newly established Children's Commissioner for Wales or the children's rights director for England and create a proper ombudsman system for adoption? We have independent watchdogs for health, for electricity, for gas and for water. Why not for children?

Here we are, at the 11th hour of new Labour's first Administration. As an afterthought, a substantial Bill on adoption law reform has been introduced with, it seems, no time left to debate it during this Session. Children see right through adults' priorities. They know what we regard as important by the way that we allocate our time. Through a child's eyes, the Government have an odd set of priorities, having chosen to legislate on foxhunting ahead of the needs of children in care and the families that are willing to give them a permanent home. It is cynical to produce a 100-clause adoption Bill a day or so, or perhaps a week, before the Prime Minister goes to the country.

We accept that legislation falls and there will have to be sacrificial lambs, but why children's legislation? The Government could have amended the Care Standards Act 2000 last July, as we suggested, but they dismissed that chance. They omitted adoption from the Queen's Speech in December and were then embarrassed by my private Member's Bill and by the Prime Minister's slip of the tongue into rushing out legislation just before the election. However, their priorities have been recorded for posterity and they can never expunge the stain of putting foxes before children.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

No. The moral high ground was lost on the day of the Queen's Speech. Although we share the aim to reform adoption law, we decry the way in which the Government have left it until last. 5.53 pm

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. Opposition Members who know a good deal about adoption will make telling contributions, but the previous speech was not such a contribution and, as I said in an intervention, it has cheapened the debate. I am sorry that Mrs. Spelman chose to play politics with an issue of such fundamental importance to vast numbers of vulnerable people in our society. I make that point because--

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I have hardly drawn breath, but go on.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman said that he regrets the remarks made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman. Will he explain why the Bill was not in the Queen's Speech?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

If the Government who were in power for 18 years from 1979 had taken the issue seriously--

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I shall refer to that, but had that Government taken the issue seriously, we would have had in statute long ago legislation that worked for those young people who need adoption. I honestly feel that it takes brass neck to make the point that the hon. Member for Meriden made.

The previous Conservative Government deserve commendation for the Children Act 1989 and I had the great good fortune to serve on the Standing Committee that considered it. The hon. Lady criticised my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing a Bill that needs to be fine tuned, but she should consider what happened to the 1989 Act in Committee. The Minister who steered the Bill through the House, David Mellor, the then Member for Putney, listened to a range of points raised by Labour and Conservative Members and amended the Bill accordingly. Where there is a broad consensus on issues of this nature, that is exactly how the House should work. That is the House at its very best, and I hope that that will happen in this case.

I made my Opposition Front Bench debut on the previous Government's 1992 adoption law review. They were in power until 1997, but they did not get as far as this Government have got in their first four years. I am not making a political point but simply responding to what I thought was a pretty cheap shot from the hon. Lady. In preparing my remarks, I read my 1992 speech. I described the adoption law review as

"the unfinished business of the 1989 Act."--[Hansard, 12 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 1050.]

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I do not want to ruin any prospective consensus in the House, but that is the point that I tried to raise with the Minister. I asked him for an undertaking that a similar measure would be in the Queen's Speech should the Bill not complete all its stages before a general election and should his party win it. I asked the same of my own side. Is not that a reasonable request?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

It is a perfectly reasonable point, but, with respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, it is not one that he can answer. However, knowing the Prime Minister's views and the way in which he has championed the cause of change, I am certain that such a Bill would be on his list of priorities when the Government--in the not-too-distant future, I hope--are re-elected.

I pay tribute to the previous Government for introducing in the Children Act the key legislative principle of the best interests of the child. That has proved to be fundamental. Perhaps the most important element in the Bill is the Government's establishment of that same welfare principle as the central aspect of adoption legislation. I very much welcome that.

I chuntered when the hon. Member for Meriden spoke because I was thinking of the 20 years that I spent in local authority social work before being elected. When I listened to some of her criticisms, the word "naive" came to mind. She portrays the issue as so very black and white, but she has not had the experience, as I had on numerous occasions, of dealing with the shades of grey that one must face up to in considering the human issues raised by the adoption process.

I spent a considerable amount of my time in local authority social work on approvals of potential adopters. I took that job very seriously--it is extremely difficult--although I suspect that I was not adequately trained. Perhaps we can return to training, which is an important issue. Although my hon. Friend the Minister did not mention it, I welcome the fact that the Government have considered it and the White Paper certainly says that it will be an important element of the adoption reforms.

I was also involved in arranging adoption placements, another skilled and difficult process that is not black and white. It always involves shades of grey. I worked as a guardian ad litem--an independent referee--on other authorities' placements of children for adoption. On behalf of the courts, I considered whether those placements were appropriate and in the best interests of the child.

One of my most valuable experiences outside my involvement in professional social work was sitting on a different authority's adoption panel as a local councillor, considering how that authority dealt with adoption placements. I believe that it did so skilfully and in such a way that many local children were placed in appropriate situations and given a chance in life that they would not otherwise have had.

It has been a great privilege to chair the Health Committee in this Parliament and consider adoption and child care issues from a number of perspectives. Our inquiry into looked-after children reinforced the importance of adoption as part of the process of ensuring that youngsters who end up in local authority care are given a chance in life in an ordinary family setting.

I must also refer to our report, which Opposition Members may not have read, on British child migrants who were taken out of the care system and sent abroad. It is worth reflecting on because it contains a number of lessons that we drew from the experience up to 1967 of many thousands of British youngsters who were sent from our care system--in what was supposedly their best interest--to all sorts of highly questionable placements in other parts of the world. When I hear the hon. Member for Meriden talk about increasing the role of voluntary bodies and Church organisations, I worry. Some of the Church organisations that took part in the British child migrants scheme left a great deal to be desired.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I read the Select Committee report--and a good report it was too. No one is proposing uncontrolled subcontracting of the management of adoption to such bodies without any measurement of their performance. The point of the quality protects scheme is that it provides the option of comparing the public sector with the voluntary sector.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who does a thorough job in the House. I draw his attention to the comments of Lady Thatcher a couple of years ago. She said that child care should be placed in the hands of Churches and voluntary organisations. At the time, I was instructed by the Select Committee on Health to write to her and to draw her attention to what happened last time our society did just that. I have heard the Leader of the Opposition make the same point. Perhaps I have misunderstood, but Mr. Davis knows that hard lessons were learned from that child migrant experience, and I hope that we never repeat it.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

The role of Church bodies, such as the Catholic Children's Society, in placing some of the most difficult children in the care system is second to none. Child migration was a Government policy, and however unsatisfactory some of the placements by Church organisations may have been, it is unfair to suggest that only they were to blame for what went wrong. The House was well aware of the process and successive Governments approved it.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I was not suggesting otherwise. The Health Committee report made it absolutely clear that successive Governments and all three parties were involved. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Children Act 1948 should have provided a clear duty to check on the placements of those children, even though they were in Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the world. I am not denigrating all voluntary and Church organisations: I have worked with many of them, and have the greatest respect for them. However, a bland suggestion that we hand over this difficult, sensitive function to such organisations should be thought through. Some of the comments that I have heard--not from him but from members of his party--have not addressed the problem.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

To clarify that point, I was talking about lay visiting and access to the outside world. Under the Care Standards Act 2000, voluntary agencies are regulated in the same way as local authority agencies, so that would provide some protection.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's clarification of that point, but to hand the child care function to some of these organisations wholesale would not make sense. If that is not what she meant, I am happy to accept her reassurance.

I am concerned that adoption has become a political issue, as it never has been before in the House. It has been hijacked by people who occasionally give the impression that children are commodities who can be accorded to people who have a need because they cannot have children themselves or see their families as incomplete. That worrying process has been going on for some time. Its logical end result is people getting children for adoption over the internet, as in the obscene case that occurred recently. I appreciate that my comments on that case may be ruled out of order because it is sub judice, so I shall be careful about what I say, but most hon. Members are aware of the circumstances. I hope that hon. Members from all parties would not want that practice to be pursued further. I welcome the measures that the Minister has outlined, which will address the circumstances of that case.

What worries me about some statements and press coverage is that concern for the welfare of potential adopters has overtaken concern for the welfare and best interests of the child, which should be the central issue, and is at the heart of the Bill. The Bill is right to make the key point that the welfare of an individual child should be the central consideration in any practical steps towards adoption.

I am interested in the comments that have been made about political correctness. The term is bandied about by the tabloids time and again. It is often impossible for the people who are being accused of political correctness to defend themselves against the accusation. I have been accused of being politically correct on these issues.

We should consider in detail how to place children for adoption. Is it wrong in principle to try to find adoptive parents with physical similarities or common ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic backgrounds? From my experience, I do not think that it is politically correct to suggest that, when appropriate, that should happen. When I was on an adoption panel, we tried to do what we believed to be in the best interests of the children so that they fitted into the family and did not stand out. Many children of that age cannot handle it if they are in school or wherever and are publicly seen to be adopted. In later life they may be able to deal with it, but not as youngsters.

I do not think that it is unreasonable to try to find adoptive parents who are likely to be alive while the child is growing up. It is reasonable to try to ensure that people who adopt a youngster are likely to live long enough to ensure that the child is eased through adolescence and into adulthood. I do not think that that is politically correct.

Surely it is also right to try to find adoptive parents who are in good health. Does not a child have that right? Is not it appropriate to attempt to place a youngster with people who are in good health and will be able to offer the care that a child with a difficult and traumatic background will need? That child's behaviour will occasionally challenge those parents.

Is it wrong to try to ensure that a child is not sentenced to a life of passive smoking? We have been criticised for not placing children with smokers. A youngster may be placed with people who smoke day in, day out. Do we not have a duty to that child to ensure that he is brought up in a more healthy environment? The state says that it will take account of the child's interest, but is it in the best interests of the child to be placed where he or she will be exposed to the commonly known health effects of passive smoking through living with people who smoke like chimneys?

Those issues should be addressed. People may think that it is all right to place children with heavy smokers. It would be interesting to hear their arguments if those children grew up and sued the authority that placed them because of those health implications. Those issues need to be thought through. It is not political correctness: it is common sense.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

The hon. Gentleman is developing his argument in his customary carefully thought-through fashion. Surely in each of his examples, the point is about what options are available. Of course, if an Afro- Caribbean family is available for each Afro-Caribbean child, that is where such children should be placed. If there is a gross shortage of Afro-Caribbean families for children to go to--as there is in London--and there is a large number of Afro-Caribbean children for adoption, it becomes political correctness if adoption is stopped because the option of going to white parents is ruled out.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I think that it has been accepted on a cross-party basis that what concerns us is what is in the best interests of individual children. I certainly accept that a child should not be placed with a family who accord with that child's cultural background if such a placement is not in the child's best interests; I have no argument with that. My argument is with those who make political points about all the children whose placements are held up by lunatic social workers who are being politically correct. That is a convenient hanger on which to hook various prejudices against social workers, which, generally, has no basis in fact.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The hon. Gentleman began by saying that there seemed to be more concern for the adopter than for the child. The intention is clearly to secure as many adopters as possible, and it is easy to confuse the two sets of interests.

I asked the Minister a question about practicality. He could not answer it--understandably, as this is a big Bill. My question concerns the requirement on religion. A child may be too young to know what religion is. The case that I had in mind involved a Turkish Muslim child. What if there are no Muslims around? Race and religion are specified in the Bill; in the circumstances that I have described, would it be possible to find a non-Muslim adoptive parent for that child? In my view, the answer should be yes, but I fear that the Bill will not allow it.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I keep returning to my experience of meeting child migrants--placed under a scheme with which he is familiar--who were deeply offended that their background had been ignored, even in the case of babies or young children aged two to five who could not express their views.

In certain circumstances, we should also take account of the views of natural parents. Increasingly--and rightly--attempts are made to consider their views during the adoption proposals, and the Bill will enable that to happen even more. A provision near the end, which the Minister outlined, will deal with such issues.

Social workers see people when they are grown up who ask damned awkward questions about why certain things were done when they were five. We need to think about what children who are adopted will ask us in years to come. During the child migrant inquiry, my good friend Audrey Wise and I used to wonder whether, in 20 or 30 years, people would ask us why we, as Members of Parliament, had acceded to certain proposals.

Let me make a final point about political correctness. The hon. Member for Meriden mentioned case C and case H, or whatever they were, which were contained in a document that I have not seen--although I shall be happy to have a look at it. She spoke of people who were not told why they had been turned down. I know of a number of instances in which it was not possible to give reasons. In those instances, information had come to light during investigations of prospective adopters, which, had it been passed on, would have had an appalling effect on those involved--would, perhaps, have ended their marriages.

I can give a good example. This is why I intervened on the Minister to mention medical information. A colleague of mine asked a doctor for a medical reference, and was told that the male partner was being treated for a sexually transmitted disease. The information clearly showed that he was having a relationship outside his marriage. Would it have been appropriate to place a child with that couple, given that the facts were known? We thought that it might not be appropriate.

Would it have been appropriate to tell the couple why we had not approved the placement? The hon. Member for Meriden might say that it would, but although she may portray all the issues as black and white, they are various shades of grey. Nothing is straightforward: in many cases people cannot be told why they have been turned down.

There are medical checks. There are police checks. Prospective adoptive parents give the names of referees whom they may know well, and those referees sometimes tell social workers all sorts of things that the prospective adoptive parents would not expect them to. It is, however, a very good way of obtaining information that ought to be available when a child's placement is being considered. Telling people why they have been turned down may be more damaging than leaving them in ignorance.

Social workers are often criticised. People say, "We were given no information", and the press report it, because it is good tabloid stuff. I have talked to members of social services departments who could not say why people had been turned down, but I know for a fact that there were damned good reasons. It is naive to suggest that people should always be told why they have been turned down. If we legislate for that, some interesting situations will arise. Those who work with adoptions pick up background knowledge that some people do not want to be made public even to their spouses.

I fear that we misunderstand the role of social workers. I have not been a social worker for some years, but I recall cases with which I used to deal, and wish desperately that there were more people in the Chamber with similar experience. As the Minister may know, on Friday I attended a ceremony in my constituency at which Wakefield council, which had been granted beacon status for its policies in respect of children leaving care--I am proud of that--gave awards to those involved. Some were youngsters who had been in care.

A social worker who was present told me that it would be nice to hear Ministers and other Members positively recognise the work of local authority social workers. Social workers feel that debates such as this are all about attacking their work. Although the vast majority of adoptions are organised skilfully and successfully, we never hear about that. We never hear about the positive results that social workers obtain; social workers are mentioned here only when something goes wrong. It is time we changed that, because political ignorance about what social workers do is harming the development of coherent policy, here and elsewhere.

I have made suggestions before. The Industry and Parliament Trust enables Members to spend six months in Boots, for instance. They can spend time in the Army, the Navy or the Royal Air Force. Why not place a few in local authority social services departments? Six months in an inner-city social services department would do some of them a power of good.

I have spoken for a long time, mainly because of all the interventions. Let me end by saying that there are delays, and that some are due to bureaucracy; but there are other reasons for the delays, and sometimes the delays are appropriate. It is entirely wrong to rush adoptions. Moreover, as the Minister probably understands, delays are often beyond the control of local authority staff. Locating natural parents may take time, for example. I would want to ensure that the rights of the natural parents were appropriately considered. I have seen situations where they have not been treated seriously, as they should be. Sometimes, time is spent wrestling with the rights and feelings of natural parents, and working out the right thing to do in particular circumstances.

Time is spent dealing with the child's own wishes. Sometimes, a lot of work needs to be done on what the child feels. That cannot be bounced through in six weeks. It does not work that way. We can have all the targets and tick off little boxes, but the time that will need to be spent with people on what is a huge issue in a child's life will differ.

Many local authorities are short of social workers. They are short because people put the boot into social workers so much. People have to be asking for trouble to go into social work nowadays. The career prospects are such that I wonder about the motivation of the people going in. They get so much flak from the media that it is amazing that we still get people training to be social workers. We should look at why many areas have a shortage of staff and a lack of resources, which cause the delays. I recognise--the Minister has picked up the point--that, in many areas, there are delays in the court process, too. I appreciate the fact that the matter is looked at in the Bill.

I turn to the detail of the Government proposals. The welfare principle is perhaps the key point. I welcome the fact that that is central to the legislation. I also welcome the way in which the Government are providing additional resources; that picks up my point about shortage of staff and problems in social services departments.

I welcome the fact that the Government want to introduce initiatives on training, but, in her response, the Minister may wish to comment on whether we should seriously consider extending basic social work professional training from two years to the three taken virtually throughout Europe. This is exactly the sort of matter for which social workers need more preparation.

I welcome the new framework for adoption allowances. I say that because I had a case a little while ago where a couple in my constituency who had adopted two siblings could not afford to adopt the third because the local authority involved was not prepared or able to pay adoption allowances to cover the absence from work of the adoptive mother. The proposal in the Bill recognises that situation. It is in the best interests of the children concerned.

I welcome post-adoption support. There has been a gap there. I recall dealing with cases--not my cases, fortunately, but cases from predecessors--where things had gone wrong. The adoptive parents did not feel able to turn to anyone. They were told, "Hard lines. Little Johnny is your kid now. He is your problem." We should be more sensitive about that problem, which does occur. I welcome the way in which the Bill deals with it.

I am interested in the special guardianship option where full adoption is inappropriate. The special Select Committee will want to look at that. The Government's proposal that the Bill be examined by such a Committee is common sense.

On overseas adoptions, I have felt strongly about the way in which, until quite recently, the emphasis has been on the needs and desires of potential adopters, not the background of the children concerned. In 1991, through a charity that my wife was involved in, I went to a nursery in Romania where there were 100 children. They were supposedly orphans. When I asked the woman in charge how many were actually orphans, she said that, out of 100, 99 had their own families who could not afford to feed and care for them.

At that stage, there was huge emphasis in this place to get all the children over here and adopted. The pressure should have been on getting those kids back to their natural families, fed and properly looked after in their own countries. I welcome the way in which the present Government and indeed the previous Government addressed the issue. It is wrong for people to remove children in those circumstances. The real issue is addressing the circumstances of those children in their own homes.

I turn that point around to children in our own country. I see far too many cases where adoption is the option that families eventually get into when what is needed is intensive support and work with those families. Sometimes, it is a lot easier and cheaper to move for adoption. I am dealing with a case where a family are having difficulty functioning. They came to me because the children had been removed and were in care. They may be placed for adoption. What they need is intensive care and support. What that family offer is love. That counts for a lot. We should do more in supporting such people to enable them to bring up their own children, where that is possible.

I welcome the Bill, but I end on a perhaps cautionary note. The Select Committee on Health considered looked-after children. We made the point not only that adoption was important, but that, sometimes, children positively chose to stay in residential care. We were surprised to find that out in talking to children in the care system. Some of them saw it as a positive choice, so I hope that our emphasis on the legislation today will not give the impression that alternative options may not be appropriate and in the best interests of the child.

The message that goes out from the Bill is that the best interests of the child should be central to all decisions. I welcome the fact that that principle is central to the Bill. I hope that, after the special Select Committee looks at it, we will have a Bill that hon. Members in all parties can be proud of.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey 6:27, 26 March 2001

My initial reaction was to extend a cautious welcome to the Bill. For all the reasons described by the Minister, it is much needed. As I have said before, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get things right, but the caution was because my first impression was that the Bill had all the hallmarks of a rushed job. Therefore, I welcome the acknowledgment that that is perhaps the case and that some aspects of it are not quite right. I support the decision to refer it to a special Select Committee.

I am beginning to suspect that the Government have a certain sentimentality. The long-awaited White Paper was launched a few days before Christmas and we are discussing the Bill as near as we can get to Mothering Sunday. I do not know whether that was deliberate, but it is nice timing.

The Bill was not in the Queen's Speech. Although there are many good things in the Bill, the overriding question is one of balance. No one would argue that the needs of the child are not paramount, but there are other people in the picture. Mrs. Spelman described it as the eternal triangle. We must consider the natural parents. While we are talking about natural parents, the relatives who always seem to miss out somewhere in the process are the grandparents. They are often overlooked; their needs are not addressed in any way. It would have been nice to see something in the Bill to help with that point.

We must also think about the would-be adoptive parents. Is the balance exactly right? Those people have rights, too. We must consider carefully the right to family life under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. That aspect has been raised by some adoption charities.

It is imperative that we set down clear parameters and have a clear definition of what the criteria are before parents can lose their relationship with their child against their wishes. In such situations, not all parents wish entirely to lose their relationship with their children.

Parents come in many shapes and sizes, and some may not be very good at parenting. We should have a clear protocol so that all parties in the equation know what has to be done to try to resolve the situation. As Mr. Hinchliffe said, we have first and foremost to try to help parents to become good parents, and we should consider adoption only after every other possible action has been taken.

We also have to consider the position of adoptive parents. Delay after delay is an in-built characteristic of the current system, but nothing could be more agonising for adoptive parents and children. However, although I welcome action to speed up the process, we have to remember that 67 per cent. of children in care have mental health problems. I should therefore like there to be greater emphasis on properly assessing all children's needs. As the hon. Member for Wakefield said, the process should not be simply a matter of allowing six weeks to tick all the boxes. For the sake of the children, we have to get everything right.

As drafted, clause 4 is both unclear and worrying. As I said, I favour local authorities taking time to assess a child's situation properly. However, the Bill seems to contain a most peculiar get-out clause. It states that, after a local authority has decided that someone requires adoption support services, local authorities

"must then decide whether to provide any such services".

Clearly, if services are required, local authorities should have a duty to provide them. Although I believe from the Minister's comments that that is the intention, the Bill does not clearly state that that is a requirement.

We all know that many children in care have complex needs, which may require the input of a health authority or local education authority. Although the local authority is obliged to notify the health authority or local education authority of those needs, again the Bill seems to contain no provision to assign a duty of care to the local authority, to ensure that children receive the best possible services. I have been greatly concerned about that issue since I first read the Bill, and, in subsequent conversations, charities and other organisations involved in adoption work have told me that they share that concern. We desperately need some joined-up thinking on the issue. I hope that we shall be able to achieve that in Committee.

The issue of financial support is related to the other issues I have mentioned. The White Paper states that, over three years, a £66.5 million package will be provided. However, if we are to do the job properly, we have to be clear about how money for the children will be allocated not only over three years, but year after year. Will money follow the children, as it does for children with special educational needs, or will local authorities have discretion in deciding how it is allocated? Across the country, most social services departments are struggling to make ends meet. They need to know that there is a formula to ensure funding.

The White Paper also said that the Government would improve the system of adoption allowances. Again, however, the Bill does not clearly address that issue. It also does not clearly address the issue of providing the necessary financial support for special guardians. We seek clarification on that issue.

I think that all hon. Members accept that we have to widen the pool of prospective carers. As has been said, caring is not the province of the rich, and a carefully worked out financial package would be helpful in assuring people that they can afford to adopt. Moreover, in the long run, such a package would save money. It would also remove part of the financial barrier for those who wish to become adoptive parents.

The provisions in clause 9 on the appeals process are also causing concern for some people and some adoption agencies. The Bill lacks detail on the type of determination with which the provision is supposed to deal and on the type of action that would follow a review if the review panel and an agency reached different conclusions. We need clarification on that issue.

There also seems to be a requirement for agencies themselves to fund such reviews. That requirement, and the fear of financial penalties, could deter agencies--particularly small, voluntary agencies--from making decisions that best reflect the interests of the child. Additionally, agencies could be financially crippled by funding the costs of appeals. The Government may have already addressed that issue. However, if they have, the Bill does not make that clear.

Adoption agencies have also expressed concerns about clauses 15 to 26, on the extremely complex issue of placement orders. I am heartened, however, that we shall have a special Select Committee to consider the Bill, as that will allow us to consult on the provisions on placement orders and other issues. Further work will have to be done before the Bill is passed, and I urge the Government to accept that we have to get it right initially.

On balance, therefore, Liberal Democrats Members welcome the Bill. Although I have outlined some issues that particularly concern us, what we really want is a clear national strategy. Currently, strategies differ from one local authority to another. Prospective parents who have been rejected by one authority as being too old, at 30, have had to go in search of another authority that may have different adoption criteria. Illnesses, too, have been treated differently by different local authorities. I differ from the hon. Member for Wakefield on this issue. Although one needs good health to be a good mother, one does not need to have perfect health. Someone who is 25 and diabetic, for example, can be a good parent throughout his or her life.

Liberal Democrat Members believe that we need sensible national standards. However, we do not think that we should become preoccupied by targets. Although it is laudable to set as our goal the adoption of 40 to 50 per cent. of children in care, and we would support such a goal, adoptions have to be arranged properly. We have to minimise the number of adoptive placements that break down. It would be far better to miss that target and have 35 per cent. of children happily settled in a home than to hit the target with a higher breakdown rate. We would also like there to be monitoring of adoption placements, to ensure that we are arranging them properly and not rushing ahead simply for the sake of hitting a target.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South 6:37, 26 March 2001

It is a privilege to speak in this debate. The common feature in the Bill is the clear statement that children are the main priority and that their welfare is the paramount consideration in all adoption decisions. Absolutely appropriately, that statement is the Bill's theme. I am very pleased also that the procedures and structures established in the Bill encompass the need to engage with the public and to encourage public involvement. The Bill is creating an openness and putting it at the heart of the adoptive process. Those features are crucial to me, as someone who has had the privilege of being an adoptive parent.

I was very disappointed to hear the speech by Mrs. Spelman. I say that as someone who has spent a year as a member of an all-party group that has worked on achieving a Bill that sets right the whole adoption process. In that year, there has been both consensus and a serious partnership in order to achieve this Bill. When the White Paper was published, pleasure and congratulations permeated the entire House. No one should want to kick that into touch, as I think the hon. Lady was seriously attempting to do. She will not succeed.

Everyone in the House knows that far too many children are in care. There could be 58,000 children in the care of local councils at any one time. I am not complaining about the councils or about social workers. Before I went to university, I was a house mother in a reception centre, so I know how caring, loving and disciplined such organisations can be--but the straight fact is that no council home or centre can ever replace the personal relationship that is part of home life.

There is no room for a political football. There is definite concern that consensus about the principled way in which we pursue this issue should always be to the fore. We know that many of the children who come out of council care develop mental health problems or have few formal qualifications, and many enter relationships with adoptive parents that break down. We know what an institutional life can do. We see it too readily, and it shames us all. That is why we should not gibe at each other, but work together.

I was seriously pleased with much of the Bill, but I want to question one or two aspects. It introduces the independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who believe that they have been unfairly turned down. I have serious personal experiences--the House was most tolerant and supportive of me when I spoke of them on publication of the White Paper--that tell me that it is absolutely crucial to have an independent review mechanism that encourages people to come on board and want to be adoptive parents, because they know that they will be treated fairly and understand what the process is all about.

That is very welcome, but I hope that the Minister will take it on board that I believe that the children require an equally independent review mechanism. It does not matter what we call it--a children's ombudsman or a commissioner--but we must give children the opportunity to express their concerns to someone who will listen. Far too many children are lost and buried in the process of trying to find them a place to live and people who will love them.

The Bill does not seem to achieve--I shall be delighted if the Minister tells me that I am wrong--a tracking system that will show us where the child has been at every stage, how the child has been treated and what the child has had to cope with. Such a system is absolutely crucial. It will help to reduce the problem of children feeling that they have been left in limbo. They want adoptive parents, and many prospective adopters want them, but somewhere along the line the link has not been made.

The Bill contains clear statements about post-adoption support. Again, that is crucial. When we adopted a beautiful baby of five weeks--I know that this is borne out by others who are privileged to be in the same position--no one came to see us, check that all was well, offer advice or help, or find out whether the beautiful, healthy child we adopted was still beautiful, healthy and full of beans. In fact, she was--and remains so.

It is ridiculous that I have had the privilege of looking after another woman's baby, but nobody came to check that I was doing it effectively and that the child was developing well. I did not need regular visits, but if there is a problem and people need help, it should be available immediately and without question. Of course, no one would willingly break down a loving, supportive relationship, but children of three, five, nine or 14 come out of institutions with serious problems, and parents need support in looking after them. Post-adoptive support is an excellent innovation.

The Minister is determinedly setting targets in the Bill. The target to increase adoption from care to 40 per cent. is a very sizeable requirement. Considering the numbers, and the difficulties involved in placing many children, it will place a serious strain on many social services departments. The Minister has been very generous in adding £66 million to the £46 million already used by local authorities, but I ask him to consider topping up that amount if it proves insufficient.

I also ask the Minister to consider the work of both the new and the established voluntary adoption agencies. They comprise individuals who are often possessed of considerable experience and expertise. Their work load is significant: they are asked to do an awful lot, often including home checks for intercountry adoptions. If the 40 per cent. target is to be achieved, they will be an essential part of the process.

Many of us will have worked with the voluntary agencies--I certainly have--and one is quickly and forcefully struck by the fact that they regularly have to do serious fundraising. I ask the Minister to consider the fundraising gap and the qualities that they bring to the process, in an effort to find ways of supporting them.

I sound less positive than I am about the Bill. I am incredibly positive about it, but I would like to persuade the Government to include one or two other measures. There is no fast-track process for pre-school children. It is essential to consider such an approach. I need not labour the point that it is infinitely easier to develop binding, loving and permanent relationships with children who have not been in care or in the care system for an excessive period of time. A permanent relationship is easier to achieve by reducing the period in which a child is in care.

When I worked for Lancashire county council, I witnessed children under three who were stuck in the system It is totally unacceptable. They are loving, vulnerable little individuals who should be with families. They should not be in a dormitory along with 12 other children, however caring and loving the care home. It is very important that small children are placed in families as soon as possible.

I have a final request. Local authorities that do not at present give counselling to women with unwanted pregnancies should provide that service. Those women need someone to whom they can turn. They need someone to support them and help them decide what is best for them and their baby.

My support for the national register is without question. I believe strongly in the consultation on national standards. The introduction of an adoption taskforce for failing authorities is vital. Allowing courts to set a timetable to reduce delays in adoption cases is crucial.

Much of the Bill is valuable and should be prized by all of us. I have asked for other valuable measures to be included, such as an independent children's commissioner, resourcing for voluntary and adoption agencies and effective tracking. The Minister said that he has an open door and that he is listening. I believe that we can add to the Bill in the special Select Committee to make it first class. We must ensure that people realise that the Bill makes it clear that children must always be our first priority.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 6:52, 26 March 2001

It is a pleasure and privilege to follow Ms Taylor, who is the new chairman of the all-party group on adoption. I am the group's treasurer, which may explain why it has no money.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have talked about giving the Bill a cautious welcome; I shall give it an uncautious welcome. It is an extraordinarily important Bill which, as the Minister said, comes once in a generation. I have objections to the Bill's timing--I would have liked it to come forward earlier. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman. If her private Member's Bill, down for debate this week, helped to provoke the Minister--good. I know what it is like in Whitehall. As the Minister pointed out, I have been a Whip and I know that it is difficult to get Bills into the system, so if my hon. Friend helped in the process, that is wonderful because it means that we have a Bill that comes once in a generation, and that is worth having.

We can all pick holes in the Bill. I could pick a number of holes in the drafting--parts of it do not agree with other parts, but that will be sorted out, one hopes, in the special Select Committee. I also have some arguments about strategy, but they are not so much iron-clad as probing. Whatever one thinks of the detail, if the 58,000 children in care knew about the Bill, they would probably all be cheering, if not for themselves then for their successors.

The Bill's success will rely on resolving a number of major problems--almost paradoxes--of children in care. "In care" is a lovely phrase--it sounds warm, comfortable and beneficial. In practice, for most children, going into care is an awful prospect. We should recognise that. Indeed, the legislation was triggered, at least in one respect, by the Waterhouse report on abuse by paedophiles in north Wales. We know that that was not unique--there have been other organised abuse rings in other homes. We also know of non-sexual abuses such as pindown, and related issues. The fact is that vulnerable youngsters sometimes attract evil people, and we have to protect them.

This tale of neglect varies enormously according to the local authority. Mr. Hinchliffe said that most social workers do a fabulous job of looking after the children, and others, in their care. However, this sector is often the Cinderella of social work. It is underfunded and under-resourced, and often the youngest and least experienced social workers do the job. What is more, they are often poorly controlled, resulting in many poor outcomes. For example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden said, a lot of children are moved many times. That leads to a very poor outcome for them.

The starkest example that I have come across was the case a couple of years ago of Aliyah Ismail, the 13-year-old child who died from a drugs overdose, having taken up prostitution to feed her habit. That happened while she was in care. There is no excuse for that. There is even less excuse for the fact that that young child had been moved between homes 60 times in her life.

When I wrote about that sort of issue, I received a number of letters from people such as directors of social services departments and professors. They contained many attacks and might as well have been signed "Disgusted of Islington" in green ink. They said that the situation was not intentional and the social workers were not the ones making the moves. That was not true, as it happened, but that does not matter--we, as a society, have a duty of care to these children. They are our responsibility. The way that we look after our most vulnerable members is the acid test of a civilised society.

More generally--the Minister touched on this point--typical youngsters in care face a disproportionate prospect of homelessness, crime, jail and drugs dependency and, for girls, pregnancy. Some 0.5 per cent. of the country's population is in care. They make up 22 per cent. of the prison population, and 39 per cent. of those prisoners are under 21. One in three of the young people sleeping rough in London has come out of the care system, and one in four children in care over 13 does not attend school, so "in care" is at best a paradox and at worst a singular misnomer.

This is not due simply to the failure of the individual social service departments and the social workers. As the chairman of the all-party group on adoption, the hon. Member for Stockton, South said, institutions cannot replace families. Cold charity, however well intended, cannot replace the stable, loving homes that adoption provides. That is why adoption, rather than council care, is the preferred option and, quite rightly, the main thrust of the Bill.

The second problem, or paradox, relating to children in care is that the longer youngsters are in care, the harder it is to get them out of care. It is very simple, and an obvious characteristic. The absence of parental love is psychologically damaging and destabilising. Studies have been made of children in their teens who continue in the care system and those who are adopted in their early teens--the most difficult group. They show clearly that all of them, pretty much, have some degree of psychological damage. Those who are adopted at that point are not instantly cured--we should not kid ourselves about that--but, generally, they stabilise and their decline is arrested.

Those who stay in care, on the other hand, become worse. Statistics mean nothing, but they are about 50 per cent. worse off in terms of the conditions that they suffer from. We, and the Government, must break that vicious circle. Difficult children, often from cruel backgrounds, go into care, the very fact of which makes them more difficult and harder to place. The longer that goes on, the worse it all becomes.

The test of the Bill will lie in whether it can break those problems by favouring adoption. We know that adoption leads to better results. Adopted children, when they are adopted young, enjoy outcomes as good as or better than those for children from natural families. There is a 20 per cent. failure rate, as measured by break ups, but that failure rate is near zero among the under-fives, and nearer 50 per cent. for the over-10s.

Speed therefore matters more than precision, particularly in the selection of parents. Speed matters more than almost anything. I shall offer a crude example of a decision that social workers almost never have to make, but if one had to choose between having an imperfect parent quickly and a perfect one two or three years down the line, I would go for the former. After all, I am an imperfect parent myself, as I am sure my children would agree.

Much lip service is paid to that point about speed. In her response to the Bill, Moira Gibb, the president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, said:

"Despite the creation, rightly, of new targets and increased through-put, social service departments must make sure that their attention isn't drawn too rigidly towards those children deemed 'easier' to adopt at the expense of those who, despite being older, still have a right to a happy and fulfilling family life".

That is just plumb wrong. We should not have to choose between the two groups, but, as the hon. Member for Stockton, South said, we should fast-track children before they are too long in care. We can do most to rescue those children from the problem before us.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

My right hon. Friend makes such a powerful case that I am embarrassed to interrupt him. Surely, however, we must put a stop to endless statements by people such as Moira Gibb about the age profile of children in care. We should be discussing the age profile of children at the time they came into care, which, in many cases, was four, five or six years earlier.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

My hon. Friend is right. I shall cite for him some statistics about young children, for which I am grateful to the Adoption Forum.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way first?

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

The right hon. Gentleman has not yet mentioned the process of returning a child from care to his or her natural family. Indeed, that issue seems to have been sketched over generally in this debate. As one who worked in social services, I can say that one of the most difficult decisions to take is whether to place a child back in his or her natural family environment. That is where the skill of the job comes in. Frankly, it is easier to have a child adopted than to face some of the tasks involved in returning a child to his or her natural family and to work with and support that family. Where does the right hon. Gentleman think the balance lies between those two things?

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The hon. Gentleman is drawing me off to one side. One cannot deal with that point with statistics. One can only consider cases, and in those that I have examined, several futile attempts were made to reconstitute damaged families. In some cases, that went so far that it constituted institutional cruelty to the children involved as attempts were made to push families back together. They were pushed back into families in which they had been damaged--physically, in some cases--and they went back and forward like yo-yos between various homes. All that probably made it impossible for the children involved ever to form a serious bond with an adult.

Often, such action is taken with the best of intentions. Perhaps a young social worker wants to reconstitute a family and is challenged by the idea of doing so. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is tough to do that, but it is, in many cases, so tough that it is impossible. The hon. Gentleman was also right to say that that is one cause for the delays about which we have spoken.

Photo of Mr David Hinchliffe Mr David Hinchliffe Labour, Wakefield

The right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned that in many cases where an attempt is made to rehabilitate the child, the child wants to go home. I asked about the balance between the natural family, adoptive parents and remaining in care because it is a real issue that many people have to face. We may talk about the best interests of the child, but we must also talk about the wishes of the child. Frequently, children have a deep affinity with and love for their natural parents.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

That may be so in some cases, though it was not highlighted in the cases that I studied. One of our problems is the question of control. We must ask about the extent to which senior members of social services departments know what is happening, and one problem is that we have few statistics relating to the failure rate of the attempts to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Such figures would be important. Much of what the House will do in the special Select Committee will be designed to find out what maximises the odds of a good outcome for the youngster. That is all that we can do, and if it sometimes means a bit of rough justice, that justice must favour the child. That is why paramountcy is so important.

I was about to give my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier some figures that I had received from the Adoption Forum. In 1999, of 2,200 looked-after babies under one year old, 200 were adopted, 930 had been in care for between two and six months, and 770 had been in care for longer. Most were in care for more than eight weeks, in other words. How likely is it that those children will return to their birth families? Only 930 were awaiting adoption, which leaves me wondering what happened to the rest of them.

Those are the type of figures that we must deal with. Not all of them relate to the question of returning to a family. Some of them relate to what is colloquially called "lost in care". That phrase refers to children who had not been properly tracked and were floundering in the system, but who were, of course, still being harmed while they floundered and lost precious parental love at an important time of their lives.

Social work specialists often argue that there are not enough adopters. Along with the reason mentioned by the hon. Member for Wakefield, that is the other main reason for delay. In my view, however, the argument that there are not enough adopters is flawed. First, a large proportion of adopters are turned down--my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden tells me that it is as much as 90 per cent. in some cases.

Secondly, we can learn from statistics going back decades. We are often told, in a comfortable way, that not many baby adoptions are available these days, because of contraception, abortion and changes in social attitudes. There were 20,000 adoptions a year in the 1960s, which implies 20,000 families of one sort or another at that time. It is hardly surprising that many families have withdrawn from the prospect of adoption. Prospective adopters must be prepared to submit themselves to lengthy, intensive and intrusive scrutiny of their habits, health, age, weight, race, class, attitudes, number of books read and you-name-it. Any of those things could disqualify them, and that is a deterrent, a sort of non-tariff barrier to adoption. Cases can be overplayed in some tabloids, but the simple fact is that if I were considering adopting, I should think hard about opening not just myself but my family to that scrutiny.

Another point that I do not understand is the argument that would-be parents only want babies, as if that were mere sentimentality. It is not--it is an important piece of emotional wisdom. Most people recognise that it is an easier, faster and stronger process to bond with a baby, and that works in both directions. It is not just that the parent thinks the baby cute, but that a strong emotional bond is easier to form with a baby than with a child of 11, 12 or more. After all, those of us with children of our own know that when they reach the age of 11 or 12 they can be difficult enough--it is a difficult time. It is thus no surprise that if children arrive damaged and have psychological problems--that is so in 60 per cent. of cases, as was pointed out earlier--due to long institutionalisation or changes in their home life, there will be incredible difficulties. There is an inherent wisdom in the fact that would-be adoptive parents look for younger children.

To repeat the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton, South, one of our strongest aims should be to fast-track younger children. That is how we shall bring that 58,000 down to a number that is tolerable rather than a shame on our nation. The national adoption register will help in that process; I commend Ministers for that.

The measure still includes provisions on race and religion. That is not necessarily sensible drafting. The question of the paramountcy of the lifetime advantage of the child ought to deal with such matters. As the hon. Member for Wakefield pointed out, when a child or siblings need to be placed with a family, we should pick the family who offer the best likelihood of success. Whether an Afro-Caribbean child is placed with an Afro-Caribbean family, a Muslim child with a Muslim family, or whatever the background, if there is a match, that should derive straight from the paramountcy consideration--it should not need to be provided for in the Bill.

I make that point because of my concern that a number of social workers interpreted some of the aims of the Children Act 1989 in ways that turned out to be unhelpful. In the special Select Committee, we might discuss the whole question of the interaction of such guidelines. Hard cases make bad law, but we do not want to find ourselves in a position in which a Muslim child of Turkish parents cannot be found a set of Muslim adoptive parents for love nor money. We must avoid that if we possibly can, especially--as I shall argue--if we want a large increase in the number of would-be parents.

That relates to a point about overall adoption strategy. I am not a great approver of President Clinton, but one has to admit that his initiative on that front was successful. He encouraged great diversity of effort, energy and imagination to increase the scope and the number of would-be adoptive parents. Startling outcomes have been achieved; for example, in three or four years, the number of adoptions in Idaho doubled. Along with the introduction of the Bill, we should look hard at the American experience for ways of extending the active search for parents, without silly rules.

On placement orders, I am rather a hawk on freeing orders. The courts have been hyper-cautious in their use of such orders. There is a simple reason for that, which sounds sensible: it is not a good idea for a child to be without a legal parent. However, given some of the parents that we are talking about, to have no legal parent is better--it may be untidy for the courts, but nevertheless better for the children. Given the reticence of the courts, the placement order route is probably correct.

I shall not be in the Chamber to hear the Minister's response--I shall have to read it tomorrow--but will she tell the House what the subsequent relationship of birth parents will be? That is not clear in the measure. In some cases, birth parents continue to have contact with the child after adoption. Will that practice end under the measure or will there be a change? What is the Government's intention? In general, however, the provisions should lead to a good outcome.

It would have been useful if a stigma-free consent route had been clearly set out--I could find no detail of that in the measure. A problem that often faces single mothers is the feeling that they have failed if they sign away their child, even though the best thing would be to give the child the prospect of a better upbringing than they can manage. An awful emotional wrench can be made worse by the stigma of having to sign away a child. If such matters are not already covered by the Bill, perhaps they could be considered in the special Select Committee. We should explore that route.

I very much welcome the paramountcy of the child's life interest although I am worried about the interpretation. We need to think hard about the relevant guidelines. Some aspects of the Children Act reinforce social workers' obsession with birth families, so we shall need greater clarity about the meaning of paramountcy.

Much of the Bill will be dependent on regulations. The drafting is poor; even to my amateur eye, parts of it do not seem to agree with one another. Much scrutiny and consideration will be necessary. Like most Members, I carry as a scar the aftermath of the Child Support Agency, which went through the House as a largely bipartisan--or accepted--measure. The result of that bipartisan approach was that perhaps we did not scrutinise the legislation well enough.

I should hate this, once in a generation, important Bill to suffer the same fate, so I make this point to the Minister--it is not meant as point scoring: the process of challenge is important. If ever a Bill needed not to be timetabled, this is it, but if it has to be timetabled, please, please make that timetable generous so as to allow proper consideration. Will the Minister please review the matter halfway through the timetable? No one in the House will filibuster the Bill; I hope that everyone will give it proper support. Furthermore, as I probably shall not be a member of the special Committee, I make a plea for the affirmative resolution procedure on the guidance rather than the negative resolution procedure currently proposed.

My next two points do not relate directly to the Bill, but to its surrounding strategy and resources. The first is on funding. Several people have been generous in their comments on funding, but I think that it is inadequate. The US experience was that there was great expense initially, but it quickly got cheaper as children came out of the care system and those costs were saved. The measure offers a classic case for a limited period of ring-fenced funding--I am talking not of tens of millions but of hundreds of millions of pounds for one or two years. We must bear in mind the fact that we are talking not only about allowances or support, but about recruitment costs. Normally, social service departments assess recruitment costs alone at about £3,000 a child; for the voluntary agencies, the actual cost of recruiting adoptive parents is more like £14,000 a child. For difficult children, the cost is even greater. We are talking of dramatic--order of magnitude--changes.

Many of the problems thus hinge on the fact that adoption is the Cinderella of many social services departments. The youngest and the least-trained social workers are involved. It is important that we produce enough money for the measure in its first two or three years. The House does not often hear me talking about spending more money, so I shall make one point--as an aside--in self-defence: a cost-benefit analysis of bringing a high proportion of those 58,000 children out of the care system would undoubtedly show that value could be measured in many, many hundreds of millions of pounds. Homelessness, crime, prison sentences, drug dependency, unwanted young pregnancies--all those social ills are hugely expensive.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

And mental health problems.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Indeed; my hon. Friend is quite right. The sum involved might be large, but it will be justified by the social benefits that it will bring. It will not be an issue for long because if it works--and it must work--the savings made elsewhere will pay it off.

I have one mild rebuke for the Government. I do not think that the target of a 40 per cent. increase is enough. The simple fact is that the Americans, working to a similar timetable, managed a 65 per cent. increase in adoptions. The most successful states--I accept that they are the smaller ones--have managed to double the numbers. The rate of adoption from care must be greater than the number of children who come into care by a significant amount to reduce the 58,000. That is what we want to achieve. I hope that Ministers intend to hit their targets and exceed them by a large margin. I shall do all I can to support anything that they do to achieve that end.

The Bill is important. As the Minister said, such legislation is produced once in a generation. It is not easy to get such Bills into the House. The 1926 legislation started with a commission in, I think, 1920. In one respect at least, this Bill has been introduced quickly. We owe it to those 58,000 young lives to implement its provisions. It may not rescue their life chances, but I hope that it will rescue those of succeeding generations so that when the Minister comes back to the House as Secretary of State after the next Tory Government, he can tell us about the 5,000 children in care, not the 58,000.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash 7:21, 26 March 2001

At the start of the debate, I found myself wondering what the House would be like if it operated as a supermarket in which people with small amounts in their baskets could pass easily through. I am glad that it does not, because I have been privileged to hear the quality of the contributions of hon. Members who have a vast experience and knowledge of the subject. some of whom have worked in the sector. Indeed, my hon. Friend Ms Taylor shared her experience of adopting a child.

I am pleased that the Bill has been introduced. I am also pleased by the speed with which Second Reading has followed the White Paper. If it was prompted on its way by the Waterhouse report, so much the better. With regard to what Mrs. Spelman said, I do not think that that is a political point. Some reports are so severe and damning that the Government have to pick them up and run with them.

I mentioned the basket-only express counter in the supermarket because there is not much in my basket. I do not have a vast knowledge of adoption, but a couple of years ago two constituents raised a specific issue with me and it is their case that prompted me to speak. They had two sad experiences of the adoption process, both involving the same issue, which is important to the process.

My constituents are a married couple with a child. For medical reasons, they cannot have any more children. They chose to adopt because they believed that they had a loving family to offer to another child. In 1998, having been accepted as approved prospective adopters, they linked up with a northern local authority. Although they constantly asked for detailed information on two small children, it was either withheld or insufficient. They ended up going to the area and spending four days with the two children. The behaviour of the younger child, who was very tiny, was challenging. It upset the parents, their child and the little boy concerned. My constituents believe that if they had been given more information, they might have made a judgment about the adoption before they got into that situation.

Last year, they hoped to adopt a small girl from a London authority, but encountered the same scenario. Information had been collected on her when she was two months old, but it had not been updated for 11 months by the time they became involved in the process. Again, they were provided with little information and, although they asked for it to be disclosed, it was not. After three months, they were told by telephone that the adoption had gone ahead with other parents. They were not told why they did not get further through the process.

In her letter to me, my constituent said:

"We believe that it is vital that adoptive families are in possession of every possible piece of information about a child before they commit themselves. After all, how many of us would enter into marriage knowing little, if anything about our future partner?"

That is how that couple felt about their experiences of the adoption process. Their evidence is anecdotal, and I know that there is superb work on the subject, but it raises the fundamental issue of disclosure.

When the adoption process breaks down, the disruption that it causes is extremely painful for all concerned. One of the main reasons for disruption is the lack of information that is given to adoptive parents. When parents are in possession of sufficient information, they should feel no shame in saying that they do not have the necessary skills to make a good home for a child, especially if he or she is challenging, perhaps because of severe abuse or neglect. Different parents offer different skills. It is not fair to decide that parents cannot be good adoptive parents in the right circumstances.

I hope that my hon. Friend can clarify one matter. Clause 47(2) deals with the point at which information is imparted to the adoptive parent. The explanatory notes state that

"an adoption agency must give the adopters as soon as practicable after the making of the adoption order such information as is to be prescribed in regulations. This information is likely to include personal information about the adopted person and information about his background, such as birth details, details of his early development and medical history and non-identifying information . . . as prescribed under subsection (2)".

That is fair and fine, but it clearly states that the information is to be provided after the adoption order has been signed. What about parents who are in the process of adoption? What guarantees of disclosure do they have before they reach the final stage of being accepted as adoptive parents?

The Bill does not appear to cover that. It deals with the provision of information when orders have been signed, but my constituents did not get that far. Some parents are not given enough information to enable them to decide whether to adopt a child or, as with my constituents, do not have sufficient information to decide whether to withdraw from an adoption because of a child's challenging behaviour with which their family cannot cope.

In a poignant letter, my constituent described her bad experience of trying to adopt. She said that she and her husband were frightened of being identified as a problem family because they had asked for information. She said:

"But we do feel that it is important that the problems faced by families who are trying to adopt must be highlighted in some way. Our keeping quiet would not help to relieve the silent anguish which many families experience, but feel unable or afraid to complain about. Nor would it improve the care which is taken to provide vulnerable children with the best possible family for them to be nurtured in."

We do not want an adoption system that deters prospective adoptive parents. It has been pointed out several times that there are more children in care than there are prospective parents. We want to encourage parents to come forward; one way to do so is to ensure that those who do are provided with full, good-quality information on children who are available. We will then have an adoption system of which we can be proud.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury 7:31, 26 March 2001

Liz Blackman is far too modest in likening herself to someone pushing a small trolley to the till. She made a valuable and useful contribution, based on her constituency experience.

I should like to praise the Minister who opened the debate for his tireless work in developing, first, the White Paper and the Bill. I do not detract at all from that by saying--this is the only partisan note in my speech--that, like my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman, I was disappointed that the Government's business managers did not give the Bill higher priority and that it was not in the Queen's Speech. Instead, it has been introduced on the eve of an election.

This is a good Bill, a tremendous amount of which has been welcomed by Members on both sides of the House. The points that I shall make in the next few minutes are designed to respond to the Minister's welcome and open statement that he would seek detailed contributions on the contents of the Bill. The spirit in which he has twice visited the all-party group of which I am co-chairman and the open-minded way in which he has been willing to discuss the broadest principles through to the smallest details is very welcome. On that note, I am sad that Mrs. Golding will retire from the House, not only because she has been my co-chairman since the group was founded, but because the House will be the poorer for losing her. However, she has an excellent successor in Ms Taylor.

I shall offer one more congratulation before getting on with my speech. The Adoption Forum has played an extraordinary role in co-ordinating many special interest groups and keeping the issue prominent in the media, and that should be minuted.

In his opening speech, the Minister made the strong point that the situation is intolerable. Outcomes for children in care are awful: 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 spent part of their childhood in care; a quarter of all girls in care become pregnant; huge numbers of children who have been in care are out on the streets; a third of homeless people were in care; and a proportion of children in care become drug addicts and end up paying for their habit by prostitution. All of that has been touched on in our debate.

I am sorry that Mr. Hinchliffe is not in his place because he might have wished to respond to the point that I am about to make. He made a powerful speech in which he made a number of interesting points, but he asked one question that went to the heart of the debate. If we make mistakes on adoption and children's futures, what will we say to those children years later? I tell him and the House that he is right: one day we will have to justify every decision to those children--but how much more do we have to justify the failure to take decisions on adoption for a generation. That should shame every Member of the House.

I shall give a specific example. I shall come to a couple of constituency cases later, but the saddest direct experience that I have ever had of adoption was a delightful girl who--and this is relevant to the story--was Afro-Caribbean. She came to me as the result of a good scheme by Kent social services to give children in care an opportunity to visit an MP's office and help out for a day. I asked her whether she would have liked to have had the opportunity to be adopted. She said, "Yes, I would. I was taken into care when I was five, but my mum objected, so I wasn't considered for adoption." I asked her how many times she had seen her mother since the age of five. She answered, "Not at all for 10 years, and then only once." I am afraid that that single case epitomises why I am fed up with people putting the case for the rights of birth parents. I shall come to worse cases later, but that was my most direct experience of adoption.

I want to look at five areas where the Bill could be strengthened or, if regulations are introduced, elucidated. First, however, may I deal with one matter that runs across all those areas? One is always a little nervous about introducing political philosophy into a subject as practical as adoption, but as a strong conservative with a small "c", as well as a Conservative with a big "C", I believe that decisions are best made closest to the ground, wherever there is local accountability. I am deeply unhappy about the idea of vast amounts of hugely centralised measures--which began under the previous Government and have increased under the present one--for services and yardsticks that local government should provide. In most cases, local electors are the right people to decide that.

The key question is whether there is genuine local accountability. Of all the services that local authorities provide there is perhaps no more extreme example than children in care, for whom there is no local accountability. Children in care do not have votes; they do not figure in the minds of the vast majority of people, even those who would be concerned about them if they raised what was, or was not, going on. That is why I shall argue unashamedly that we need far stronger central controls and guidance. In seeking to strengthen the Bill's welcome provisions, I make no apology for that.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's arguments. Does he believe that local authorities should give up their role as local adoption agencies, and, if so, should that role be taken centrally?

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I stand by the position that I have always taken: we should allow local authorities to maintain their current role when they are doing a decent job, but the process of stripping that role from authorities that consistently fail should be greatly accelerated. It should be given either to a neighbouring local authority that is doing a better job or a voluntary agency--[Interruption.] I am sorry, I am not sure whether the Parliamentary Secretary wants to hear my reply or not.

That is the short answer, but there is a further point. The regulation of adoption should be kept separate from the provider, which is why I envisage a central structure of regulation with a local structure of providers--but with the caveat that local authorities that are doing a bad job should have their responsibilities removed and given to neighbouring authorities or voluntary organisations. That has been the view of the all-party group since it was founded. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Newcastle- under-Lyme nodding.

On political correctness, I shall be brief--the subject has been covered several times. Clause 1 is a strong measure, which states:

"The paramount consideration of the court or adoption agency must be the child's welfare, throughout his life."

That is correct. The clause lists all the right considerations, including the wishes of the child. However, subsection (5) causes a number of us concern. It states:

"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."

My right hon. Friend Mr. Davis argued forcefully that that should not be written into the Bill. It could be covered satisfactorily by earlier subsections. If the Government feel strongly that the provision should remain, I draw to their attention two aspects of the wording that cause me great concern. First, as the Minister rightly made clear, to prevent the provision from becoming mere political correctness, it must not cause inordinate delay. People such as me would feel greatly reassured if those very words were written into subsection (5).

Almost every Member who has spoken has agreed that the existing system is failing children miserably. We all want to speed up the procedure. That subsection could be used by vindictive birth parents again and again to hold up perfectly valid adoptions.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Does he believe that the provision could be used to stop children being placed with adoptive parents who have strong religious beliefs? If a child does not have strong Christian beliefs, that could be used by agencies to prevent him or her from being fostered or adopted by someone with strong Christian convictions?

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There is genuine worry about that. I received a letter from a retired clergyman in which he described an experience from a long time ago--it must have been 20 years previously--when he had been refused, because the social services department thought it inappropriate to place a child with him as a strong practising Christian. Of course, I have only his word for that.

A further point about the wording of subsection (5) is that I do not know what "due consideration" means. Lawyers whom I have asked do not know, either. It would be unfortunate if lawyers could seize on such a vague phrase and read different meanings into it.

The second of the five points on my checklist relates to the need to protect damaged children, about which the Minister spoke at length. We are all present because we are concerned about children in care, almost all of whom, apart from babies, are there, sadly, because they have been damaged by abuse or long-term neglect. The hon. Member for Erewash made a powerful point in that regard. She said that if we are short of adopters, as we have long been, it is no good saying that we are considering the best interests of the child. If the best interests of the child are to find parents, we must also consider the interests of the parents. I shall reinforce that point with a further example.

There has been a trend in the courts towards open adoption, whereby the birth family is allowed to know the name and address of the adopters. That is deeply unwelcome to potential adoptive parents. Who could blame them? If the child whom they are taking on has been damaged by the former family, do the adoptive parents really want the family to know where they live?

I have constituents who took on two little boys and who are seeing that adoption through. They have had the children for several years. One of the children was kept locked in a cellar for so long that he had not developed the power of speech when he was adopted, aged seven or eight. The other child was left out in the cold for so long that the amputation of his feet had to be considered. Eventually, the gangrene was cured and he was saved. Once again, I find myself totally out of sympathy with those who appeal for the interests of birth families. Neither of those cases was an open adoption.

My reservations do not apply just to the more extreme cases. To see what a destroyer open adoption is, we need look no further than experience in Australia and New Zealand. Australia has much to teach us in many other areas of family policy, but in respect of open adoption, its views are seriously wrong. Adoption has virtually collapsed there since the courts started to make almost every adoption an open adoption. The numbers are down to pitifully low levels--300 last year, from memory.

Unfortunately, the Bill does not address the issue. It is a long Bill, and I apologise if I am wrong, but I have found in it nothing to say that the courts should be wary of breaching secrecy. I welcome the sensible though rather complicated measures in clause 15 onwards, which provide for matters to be speeded up through the courts by advance placements of children while they are awaiting outcomes, and the change in the freeing order system. Unfortunately, that will all be negated if the identity of adopters is not protected while those procedures are under way.

I come to the third point on my checklist. The Minister said, rightly, that the national register would be compulsory. Clause 9 introduces the independent review, for which we on the all-party group have argued repeatedly. We feel strongly that it is essential, but it has been left entirely to regulation. I shall discuss two aspects that are fundamental to the regulation.

The Minister made it clear that independent review would be open, in principle, to people who have been refused a place on the national register--the clause uses the words "a qualifying determination". I shall consider the case of people refused individual matching. There clearly cannot be an appeal in every case where a matching is refused, as that would place an intolerable strain on social services and inspectors' time, which is already heavily overstretched. However, if no appeals are allowed on individual matching, couples who get on to the national register will have no better chance of getting any further if there are silly objections to them.

I suggest that there are two cases in which an appeal should be allowed. The first is where a foster parent wants to adopt the children. One of the saddest conclusions that emerged two years ago from the marvellous study by Murch and Lowe at Cardiff university was that, unbelievably, some miserable local authorities had incredibly low adoption rates. There are a number of good local authorities, but some of the miserable ones, as a written policy, never allow foster parents to adopt children in their care. Strong messages have gone out about that. Where the child has been successfully placed with foster parents, whatever the local authority is planning, the foster parents should automatically be entitled to appeal if they are not allowed to adopt the children.

The second case is where a couple on the national register are refused an appeal, and the child is not placed with anyone else within a sensible time frame. That, too, should trigger an appeal. It could be a two-part appeal--a quick paperwork sort, to check that there is no obvious factor preventing the adoption, before a full appeal is undertaken.

My fourth point also involves appeals. The child has no appeal anywhere in the system. I do not mean to embarrass the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme by continually referring to her, but she has repeatedly argued eloquently for a children's commissioner. I would go halfway. There is an overwhelming case for a commissioner purely for children in care. That post would be a way station for appeals to the Minister from children.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned lay visitors. One of the best measures in the Children Act 1989 was the requirement on local authorities to ensure that children who have no visitors are appointed a lay visitor. The case for that is overwhelming. I heard a brave presentation by a lady social worker last year who had been a whistleblower in a particularly horrible scandal. That ruined her professional career; she is now out of social work. The great thing about lay visitors is that they have no career at stake or concern except for the interests of the children.

The saddest failure of the Children Act is that the vast majority of local authorities have not bothered to implement that requirement. I would like something to be done, either in the Bill or through administrative measures already in the law, to make councils appoint lay visitors. That would tie in with the idea of giving children a route of appeal. A lay visitor could tell a child that he or she could write to the children's commissioner, who could then decide whether it would be worth passing the case to the ministerial appeals panel.

My fifth and final point is on the linked subjects of statistics and structure of finance. I shall not detain the House by repeating the cogent appeal made by my right hon. Friend--a man who, as he said himself, seldom asks for such pump priming. A generous sum up front would produce huge savings down the line. What has happened in America genuinely proves that. I shall focus instead on the structure of finance.

It is easy on Second Reading to get lost in the wind, bang on and lose the attention of the House, but one fundamental point must be considered: children are disappearing in care. Surely people remember that some of those murdered by the West couple were children in care. I heard a Labour Member, whom I will not name because I am not sure whether he has made such an appeal publicly, state eloquently in private that he believes that children have disappeared in care in his constituency. They had been sent there by outside social services without local social services knowing.

I firmly believe that central Government should hold an internal register of children in care. It should be the statutory duty of every local authority to inform the Government of any child held in care for more than a very short period of, say, one or two months, so that children cannot disappear from the system. That should be central to the great scope for collecting statistics under the latter part of the Bill, which will inevitably depend on regulations. I make a financial proposal to hang on that.

There is so much in the Bill to pull together practice--to try to raise the performance of the vast number of badly performing local authorities to that of the small number that are performing very well, which are dotted around the country and are of different political affiliations. One of the best contributions that the Government could make under the Bill and as a follow-up to it would be to move the financial packages from social services departments--leaving them still to administer them--and to attach them to children. Thereby, local authorities, or foster parents where they apply, would be directly reimbursed for the services that they provide for children, instead of having to operate under an all-embracing budget that covers everybody from the youngest to the oldest and does not earmark. That would provide an incentive for people to do things for children.

I raised a specific example in an intervention on the Minister. Nobody supports more strongly than I do the provisions on timing, particularly the provision that the ball starts to roll after six months. As far as I can see, as the Bill stands, the clock is reset each time. Therefore, a social services department--it may not be badly led but just desperately short of cash--faced with an evenly balanced decision whether to send a child back to the birth family after five and a half months might consider the financial consequences of keeping that child in care for another two or three weeks, compared with the huge financial saving from giving the birth family one more try. That might produce some very bad outcomes. Moving towards more portability or, as a second best, towards particularly close monitoring of that factor, would be best for such children.

I end where I began. This is a good Bill. I congratulate the Minister on the huge amount of work that he has put into it. In order to do the best that we can for the children concerned, as I know the whole House wants, the Bill needs to be strengthened. I have suggested five ways in which we could do so.

Photo of Mrs Llin Golding Mrs Llin Golding Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 7:56, 26 March 2001

First, I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. I was whipped off by the Whips to serve on a Committee considering a statutory instrument. It is a great pleasure to follow the speech of Mr. Brazier. I know that he has worked long and hard to improve the status of children in care and up for adoption, and for this House to give more priority to taking action to improve the adoption system.

The Bill is yet another step taken by this Labour Government along the long road to improving the lives of all our children. Only those children who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to live with their parents can know the feelings of hurt, rejection and bewilderment of being placed in care. To be adopted, to be wanted, can give them a second chance in their young lives and a real sense of their own worth.

The Bill sets out to deal fairly with all the people and organisations involved with the best interests of the child--be they birth parents, adopting parents, pre-adopting families, voluntary agencies, social workers or the courts. The over-arching need of the welfare of the child is at the heart of the Bill. For far too long, we have lacked permanence and a clear policy on adoption. That has led to the wide variation in local authority standards that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Bill will provide a strong and clear basis on which to consider a stable future for some of our most needy children. That, linked to the Government's commitment to taking children out of poverty and easing the stress on families with programmes such as sure start and quality protects, together with the work of the social exclusion unit, should help to keep families together. Prevention is far better than cure.

There is much to welcome in the Bill. A national register has long been needed and should solve problems such as those in a case about which I recently heard. A couple had been waiting three years to adopt a child whose nationality rarely features in adoption cases. At long last, they adopted the child whom they had wanted for so long. Within five months, they received a phone call from another area of the country asking them please to adopt twin boys of the nationality in question. Those twin boys had been in care all their lives and it had not been possible to find somebody suitable to take them together. That should never have happened. They were prepared to take on the twin boys, but were told that they could not do so because they had adopted the previous child more recently than six months ago. I have no way of knowing whether the boys are still in care.

The couple also faced significant costs when they tried in their desperation to adopt from their country of origin. They had been vetted for adoption locally, but when they approached the local authority and explained that they could no longer wait for a suitable child and wanted to adopt from another country, they had to pay another fee of £2,000 or £3,000. Application to the country of origin seems no reason for having two lots of vetting. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend Jane Kennedy, will examine the problem and consider the need for an international agreement in respect of children who are suitable for adoption in this country.

The question of keeping in touch with the wider family of children put out for adoption is a thorny one, as the hon. Member for Canterbury explained. I would welcome stronger guidelines, as members of a child's wider family, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, often give strong support to try to prevent him or her from going into care. When I first came to the House--it now seems a long time ago--my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Sir R. Powell) spoke about grandparents' rights, and a grandmother rang me to tell me about her problems regarding adoption. She said that she was virtually looking after her daughter's child. She gave him his breakfast and looked after him when he came home from school, and he also slept at her home, but her daughter had a new boy friend who had decided that he should go into care. The decision was that the grandmother was to have nothing to do with the child, who was to be sent into care and put up for adoption. She had absolutely no rights. When she suggested that she should adopt the child, she was told that she was too old to do so. In any case, the daughter would not agree to such a decision because her boy friend would not allow it. It seems to me that the Bill should tackle such problems.

Another case has been brought to my attention in which two children whose parents were killed in a car crash were immediately looked after by their grandparents. They had little money, however, and none was given immediately by the local authority to help them to care for the children. They had to buy new school uniforms, as the children were changing schools, but had very little money to do so. When they approached the local authority, it took some time to provide financial assistance, as the children were not being fostered and were not up for adoption. Of course, the local authority had the money to give to the grandparents, who wanted to adopt the children because they had no legal responsibility for them. However, the grandparents desperately needed a right to instant financial help while the process was under way.

Many children are so severely damaged that it will be a very long time before they can be considered for adoption. I remember visiting a voluntary organisation in Shropshire, which was run by Madge Bray and which cared for badly damaged children. Such care cost a lot of money and local authorities could afford to provide it to one or two children at most. It would have taken a long time even to stabilise the children whom I met. I spoke to some of the very caring social workers who looked after them and we discussed many of their problems, which were confidential and obviously cannot be repeated here.

The Bill should take into account children who cannot go into care. Positive action is needed, and the voluntary organisations that care for such children must be listened to. They need strong rights to decide when the children can be brought forward for fostering or put into care. We cannot judge all children who are covered by the Bill as being ready for adoption.

We are considering yet another Bill from a Government who genuinely care for children. I look forward to seeing it progress swiftly through the House, although the timing does not matter. Whatever happens, it will have been introduced. Yes, we would have liked it to have been introduced many years ago, but it has now been provided by this caring Labour Government. The sooner it is enacted, the better.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 8:05, 26 March 2001

It is an honour to follow Mrs. Golding. I understand that she was one of the co-founding chairmen of the all-party adoption group. If we have just heard her last speech in the House, we shall be all the sadder in the future when she is no longer here.

I want to raise a couple of issues that have been brought to my attention by constituents. I should like to give an overall welcome to the Bill, although I want also to congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman. Without any doubt, it was she who ensured that the Bill was brought before us. It is perhaps a coincidence--I put it no more strongly than that--that no adoption Bill was mentioned in the Gracious Speech, which set out the legislative programme. Furthermore, no such Bill was mentioned before my hon. Friend did especially well in the ballot for private Members' Bills. This Bill then somehow materialised, and she deserves credit for shaming the Government into introducing it. It is some coincidence--we all know that coincidences happen in this place--that my hon. Friend's substantive Bill is scheduled for debate on Friday, while the Government have timed Second Reading for today.

A number of hon. Members have pointed out that councils in England look after approximately 58,000 children at any time. Below that headline figure, however, many other facts form the true picture, although some of them are unimportant in themselves. Citing only the 58,000 figure does not provide a proper picture, especially as 40 per cent. of looked-after children return home after less than eight weeks. More than 28,000 of the children looked after in the year up to 31 March 1999--about half of all those who were in care at any one time--had been in care continuously for more than two years. These are some of the other statistics: almost 12,000 children have been looked after for five years or more; and by the time a child has been looked after for 18 months, he or she has an 80 per cent. chance of remaining in care for four years or more.

I pay tribute to the wonderful foster and adoptive parents who give so many children a fresh start or even a glimpse of what a happy family means. One such person came to my advice surgery on Friday. He and his wife had fostered many children during a number of years. Towards the end of their time of fostering, however, a vindictive child made an allegation against them that put a cloud over them and all the wonderful work that they had done. It is a matter of some regret that the social services department took up seriously a charge that was made maliciously, although I understand why it did so, and that a cloud hangs over the family as a consequence. I am not sure whether there is a way of avoiding such problems. Perhaps social services should be just a little more supportive to foster parents, especially when a challenge turns out to be vindictive.

Several hon. Members have pointed out that the Bill follows Mr. Justice Waterhouse's report, "Lost in Care". It originated from a report that was prepared on Clwyd county council by John Gillings, former director of social services for Derbyshire. The Gillings report could not be published for legal reasons.

We often hear about social services getting it wrong; we never hear about the times when they get it right, because they are taken for granted. Social services getting it wrong makes headlines in national newspapers. It is right to hold inquiries when matters go wrong, but we should recognise that social services operate under tough conditions. Some of the families with whom they come into contact must make them wary when placing children for foster care. However, they may also be prejudiced when they come across people with strong views, perhaps middle-class views, which they do not believe to be right.

Strangely, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under- Lyme raised a point that I want to develop: the role of grandparents. I believe that grandparents sometimes suffer, and I have two cases that I want to share. Those who foster children who are not relatives rightly receive a package of financial assistance. It may include: a weekly allowance of between £55 and £112; birthday allowances to pay for presents and a party; a clothing and school uniform allowance that covers a winter coat and shoes; and a holiday allowance to take the children on holiday or to cover school trips. Some local authorities provide a settling-in bursary and a travel allowance to take the child for family contact. If the child has particular behavioural problems, a further allowance may be granted. That is right and proper.

However, if the child is a relative, the carers receive only child benefit. If they have a small occupational pension, the grandchildren for whom they care may not even receive free school meals.

A retired senior police officer in my constituency has taken on the care of his grandchild. He received a letter from Derby city council, which stated:

"This Department does not usually enter into long term financial arrangements with individual carers as we are not a benefits agency."

Another letter stated:

"The Department does not accept financial responsibility for" child A. I shall not use the child's name because I do not want to identify her. In January 1999, I wrote to the Minister of State who opened the debate. In a letter, he admitted:

"If the children were in care of the local authority then they would be placed either in foster care or a children's home."

I wonder who provides the better care and who is likely to give better protection.

Child A is one of two children. Her sister J has had to remain in the care of Derby city council because the grandparents cannot cope with two traumatised children. She is entitled to full financial support. When she is old enough, she will be able to go on school trips and have a new school uniform while her older sister might not. Is that fair? Would any ordinary parent want that?

The grandparents sent me a letter, which states:

"Where suitable parents for adoption have been identified Social Services should have the power and be encouraged to put a financial package around the child if . . . parents are deemed to need financial help until such time as the child ceases full-time education. In my experience many foster parents would adopt children if they were supported financially throughout the school years of the child, this would provide a much more stable upbringing and a sense of permanence and belonging to the children. Indeed such a package could be offered to grand-parents and other close relatives of children who suffer at the hands of criminal and drug addicted parents. In the present climate the Social Services seemed loth to offer such support when such support could bring a great sense of permanence and belonging to many abandoned children."

I understand why the Minister has rejected that suggestion, but I want to put it on record in case the Bill does not work or go far enough.

The letter continues:

"Consideration should be given to setting up a specialised adoption unit. Instead of adoption experience being spread thinly over the Social Services Department, adoption experience and problem solving and adoption initiatives should reside in a special squad, who would draw on a huge depth of knowledge to deal quickly with adoptions, which should aim to resolve all the issues within a reasonable time scale".

The Minister rejected that suggestion earlier, but perhaps we should keep it in the back of our minds. Should the Government's proposals prove less successful than we hope, we could reconsider that method of spreading best practice.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I echo my hon. Friend's comments. However, does he agree that, as a first step, responsibility should be taken away from the few very badly performing authorities and given to better ones so that we can at least try to make the existing structure work? I agree that the suggestion that my hon. Friend has outlined should be the last resort in the long term.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Minister explained in his opening speech that there are great differences between social services departments. Perhaps the problem is not the item that is highest on the agenda of politicians who run local authorities; performance often depends on officer practice and the way in which chief officers perceive the problem. However, if the Government take a far stronger line with authorities that fail to act, that will encourage social services departments to move adoption up the agenda.

While preparing for the debate, I looked at some of the websites that are devoted to adoption. I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme that none of them mentioned grandparents or other family members as foster or adoptive parents. Yet more and more grandparents are being asked to care permanently for their grandchildren.

In two cases in my constituency, the drug addiction of adult children has led directly to their parents having full-time care of their children. In each case, the natural mother's drug problems mean that she is unable and mostly unwilling to care for the children herself. However, the mothers cannot recognise that, and make repeated failed attempts to try again. Each time they try again, the grandchildren are further traumatised and the grandparents have to cope with the problems when the children return to them.

Another lady, Mrs. P, has spoken to me about

"the emotional and physical drain on our whole family."

She looks after her grandchildren in a Derbyshire village, yet the social services department involved is not that of Derbyshire but another department in a different part of the country.

In that case, the initial estimate of a residence order was approximately £1,200. So far, the family has spent £10,000 at the request of the social services department, which believes that the child should be kept from her mother. There are particulars of that horrendous case that I do not want to discuss in the Chamber. The stability of the child or the grandparents is not guaranteed. At any time, the mother can change her mind and the process has to begin again. An additional problem is the fact that the grandparents are not funded, whereas the mother is funded by legal aid.

The grandparents have to pay twice. They have to keep their grandchild safe legally at their own expense and they have to pay for her upkeep. They receive only child benefit. It costs them more to bring up their grandchildren than it did to bring up their own children. We must remember that they do not have the rest of their working lives to make up the cost, because they are already on fixed pensions. How many grandparents would find such costs prohibitive? I think that we can all understand that many would do so.

Mrs. P. has suggested that, when a child is deemed by social services to be at great risk from her natural mother, and social services have asked the grandparents to care for the child, the child should be eligible for legal aid. Mrs. P. told me that what her granddaughter needs most is stability, and that

"that's the one thing I can't give her. Not because I don't want to, but because the system won't let me. The Residence Order works only for as long as the mother wants it to."

In a letter to the relevant local authority, Mrs. P. wrote:

"L. needs something permanent. She has no secure or solid base. She has numerous 'sleeping' addresses and must wonder where she is when she wakes. She asks when we put her to bed here at our home, if we will stay in tonight and not leave her."

Those are two families who have put their lives on hold to take on the heavy responsibility of bringing up grandchildren who have been traumatised by their early upbringing. They have given up the hope of a relaxing retirement. There will be no extended Saga holiday for them. Instead, they have been plunged back into a world of disturbed nights and homework supervision, with argumentative teenagers to come. They do not resent that, although they regret the circumstances. They have given the children a fresh start. It is a huge commitment, and one that I fear many other families are called to undertake. It does not seem a lot to ask that society should offer those grandparents practical help and support. They are good people who have done the right thing, however difficult it has been, and they will continue to do so.

I hope that when the Bill goes into Committee, some of the many wide-ranging problems will be addressed. We cannot generalise about the 58,000 cases that we have talked about, because there are different circumstances behind each one. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Davis said earlier, if we get the Bill right, it might cost us in the short term, but the long-term benefits for our country and our society will be great.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood 8:22, 26 March 2001

I apologise to those right hon. and hon. Members who spoke earlier and whose contributions I missed because I had to leave the Chamber for more than an hour because of a previous appointment.

I listened with interest, however, to my hon. Friend the Minister and Mrs. Spelman. I am pleased that the Bill has the support of all parties, because if we could not join together to meet the needs of vulnerable children, we really ought not to be in this place.

I declare an interest as someone who formerly sat on an adoption panel, and I listened with interest to people's observations on the adoption process. For seven years, I sat on Lancashire county council's adoption panel, and I saw the good parts of the service and the rather less good parts. One thing that I saw was how hard many social workers worked to help to find families for children in the care of the local authority.

I also saw many detailed reports produced on prospective adoptive parents. Sometimes, prospective adoptive parents were concerned about those very details, and about the fact that social workers asked what they sometimes saw as intrusive questions. But those questions were asked so that the social workers could, in all confidence, recommend to us on the adoption panel that the prospective adopters could care for the kinds of children who were being presented for adoption.

As other hon. Members have said, it is no longer chiefly babies who are presented for adoption. We now deal mainly with older children, who bring with them the baggage of their backgrounds, some of which is dreadful. Adoptive parents need to be warned of that. They also need particular skills to cope with those damaged children. It is not just a question of caring for bright, shiny little children who will be the apple of their eye. These are children who will present problems, and adopters need to be forewarned, forearmed and prepared for that.

As several hon. Members mentioned, prospective adoptive parents need as much information about children as they can get. They need it to prepare themselves for the task ahead and to help them prepare the children. I listened with interest to Mr. Brazier, who mentioned open adoption. I hope that when the Bill is referred to the special Select Committee, we shall consider that issue in more detail, because there are certainly pros and cons.

One of the disadvantages is that prospective adopters can be put off if they feel that they have either to maintain a link with the birth parents or to share fairly detailed information with the child about his or her birth parents. I have seen cases in which it worked very well. I have seen adopted children who had a recollection of their birth parents. Working with their adoptive parents, they developed life story books so that they did not feel abandoned by their birth parents. It was explained to them that their birth parents had had problems, and that a stage may have been reached when the birth family could no longer look after them. It was also explained that that did not necessarily mean that the birth family did not care for them.

Adoptive parents can work with a child and give a child a sense of identity, as well as an identity within the new family. However, that is a difficult balance to strike. I have spoken to adoptive parents as well as to people who have been adopted, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider the issues of sharing information with prospective adopters before adoption, of working with adoptive parents in the initial stages of adoption, and of examining the implication of open adoption and whose best interest it is in. That might be ungrammatical.

We are here to put the needs of the child first. For many children, having a knowledge of their background that can be developed as they grow older, with more information given to them up to adulthood, will be in their best interest. For some children, however, it will not be in their best interest, so we must always consider the needs of the child and not start the process with hard-and-fast views on what is right and wrong. What is right for me might not be right for other hon. Members, and what is right for one child might not be right for another. Let us, therefore, always remember to put the needs of the children first.

In putting the needs of the children first, I especially welcome the speeding up of procedures proposed in the Bill. When I was a member of an adoption panel, I found the length of time that it took to get the child to us and make a match with prospective adopters desperately frustrating. Often, the birth family wanted the child back, so social workers would go through the process of integrating the child back into the family and supporting the placement only for it to break down, which meant taking the child back into care or arranging a placement with another foster family that the child did not know and perhaps supporting the natural parents again. It went on and on.

I know of babies who would have been snapped up, but, on reaching five, six or seven, they had been damaged by constant moves and were no longer the attractive children who would have been chosen by many prospective adopters. We cannot afford to allow that to continue. Obviously, a balance must be struck between the needs of the natural family, the needs of prospective adopters and adoptive parents and, above all, the needs of the child. However, the child should not be a counter on a board to be passed round to different adults who all want to share him or her for different reasons; that would mean that the needs of the child were not central. Therefore, I especially welcome the fact that we are considering speeding up that procedure not only because it will help children to settle more quickly in a permanent home, but because of my concern for some foster carers.

I have met foster carers who were assessed as being short-term carers and given a child to look after for perhaps two, three or six months only for that child to be with them two years later. By then, they had become attached to the child. I have also met foster carers who were given the rare baby who came up for adoption. They watched the baby grow into a toddler. Two years earlier, they too had been assessed as short-term foster carers. However, they had invested of themselves emotionally in the child and wanted to be considered as prospective adopters, but oh dearie me, they had originally been assessed as short-term carers, so they could not possibly become long-term foster carers or prospective adopters.

It is in the best interests of nobody to have hard and fast rules, so in speeding up the process we must avoid the heartache that so many foster parents encounter in taking on the care of a child for what they believe to be the short term only to find themselves making a long-term emotional investment. Speeding up the process can achieve benefits all round: it is not in the best interests of the natural parents to argue constantly over a child, nor is that in the interests of the child or the foster carers.

Like Mr. McLoughlin and my hon. Friend Mrs. Golding, I want to mention grandparents and the wider family. We must be aware of the fact that family relationships are much more complex than in the past. I know of court cases involving perhaps six or seven adults--blood relatives of the child--with an interest in that child's future. They all turned up for their day in court and argued, so if the new placement order can help with that process, I will very much welcome it.

I hope that we consider the wider family as well as the birth parents in our debates on the placement order because, all too often, grandparents come to see me because the relationship of their son or daughter has broken down and they have lost touch with their grandchildren. For example, a parent may be unable to continue caring for a child, who may enter the care system, and grandparents feel that the system, which should be caring for that child, puts them at one remove from it.

Many grandparents can play a positive role in the care of their grandchildren and we must always bear in mind the fact that the needs of the child must come first. Many prospective adoptive parents have approached me to say, "I have a right to have a child. You should get me a child." I have had to explain that they are offering a service to the child. The child deserves the family--the best possible family that we can provide--and we must always consider the matter from that perspective.

In recruiting prospective adoptive parents, I hope that we involve people who understand that their role will be to nurture and look after the child, providing the love that the birth family may not have offered. They are privileged to be able to do that.

Many adoptive parents do an excellent job. I praise adoptive parents and foster carers in the community who do a remarkable job caring for children, often from dreadful backgrounds.

I welcome the establishment of a national register. The lack of a register was an impediment to placing children and matching a child's background and needs. When I was on Lancashire county council, we did not always have a pool of prospective adoptive parents to meet every child's needs. It will help us better to match children to prospective adopters and speed up the process if we can consult a national register.

I also welcome the proposals on international adoption. I recall a sad case of prospective adopters who tried to adopt a little girl from a Romanian orphanage. Like many of us, they watched the television when the orphanages were opened up to the gaze of the western European media, and they saw with horror the circumstances in which children were living. They went to Romania and adopted the little girl. Prospective adopters in this country may not always be given adequate information about the children they are adopting, but that problem is writ large in the international adoption process. In spite of the hard work that those prospective parents put in, the adoption placement failed.

I hope that the process for approving prospective adopters for international adoption will ensure that they understand the special problems that they will face in adopting a child from another country and culture who speaks another language. I know of other placements that have worked because of the commitment of the adoptive parents, who have given their all to provide a happy home for the child.

I was pleased to hear the Minister give a commitment to all children in care. Not all children in care could or should be adopted. It is not the right answer for some children. The special guardianship orders are an interesting innovation. I look forward to hearing more about that scheme, because it will be an answer for some of these children.

We must recognise the hard work of social care staff in the residential sector. We often hear the bad stories--the reports on tragedies. I visit residential homes for children, and I see the hard work of staff in those homes, who care for young people with a variety of problems. We should applaud the good work that takes place. By putting the needs of young people in care first, we can decide whether fostering, adoption or residential care is the right answer.

We should listen to children in the care system, many of whom are older. They have a voice and they want it to be heard. I have had meetings with them, and they speak their minds loudly. Young adolescents in residential care tell me in no uncertain terms that in no way do they want to be adopted. They have had dreadful experiences of care in so-called families, and they do not want that. They want to remain in a well-run residential setting, and good luck to them. We should listen to children and hear what they have to say.

I welcome this legislation. Many of us, and many members of the public, have been calling for this measure for a long time. It is in the best interests of children, prospective adopters and foster carers. I wish it all speed through the legislative process.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 8:40, 26 March 2001

This is probably the first time since 1 May 1997 that I have been able to stand up and welcome a piece of legislation promoted by the present Government. I have called the Government all sorts of things, and I regard most of their legislation as a load of old rubbish; but I pay tribute to the Ministers who have been involved with this Bill.

In my view, this has been a splendid debate. The House is probably at its best during such debates. It is noticeable and sad, however, that our Benches are not exactly heaving. I am not making a partisan point: throughout the House, we do not see the huge number of Members whom it would be nice to see. Some years ago, when we debated surrogacy--another important matter--there was a similar turnout.

I entirely understand the feelings of my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman. I had the honour of promoting a private Member's Bill last year--goodness knows how we managed to get it through the House, but we did somehow--in dramatic circumstances. My hon. Friend is probably entitled to feel a bit of chagrin about the way in which matters have proceeded. Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill on the basis of its merits.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Brazier for his magnificent efforts, and to Mrs. Golding, who has also done a magnificent job in pioneering the recognition of children's rights in this context. I am very sorry to learn that she is retiring. I do not know what she intends to do if she really is going to retire, but I think any number of us believe that she could start a new career as a tipster--and I should be more than happy to back her.

I pay tribute to all members of the all-party group. I also pay special tribute to the lady mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, who has worked so hard in directing us towards this Bill. It is a huge Bill, and I am not volunteering to serve on the Select Committee, but I think that it is the right way for the Government to proceed.

I do not wish to sound sanctimonious. We love our children, but we do not necessarily like them. Children in care, however, are often neither liked nor loved. We should bear in mind that 67 per cent. of looked-after children have mental health problems of some kind, while 30 per cent. have statements of educational need; between 2 and 3 per cent. of other children have statements. Seventy per cent. of young people leaving care have gained no GCSEs or general national vocational qualifications, and 25 per cent. of looked-after children aged between 14 and 16 do not attend school regularly. Between 14 and 25 per cent. of young women leaving care are pregnant or have a child; in the general population, the figure is only 3 per cent. Those who have been looked after are 60 times more likely to be homeless than members of the general population. Perhaps most tragically of all, 39 per cent. of male prisoners under 21 have been looked after. A huge number of children need our help.

I and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, have strong views on abortion. When we debate the matter on the Floor of the House, the slogan is "Every child a wanted child." People like me owe it to others who may take a different view to work together on this important Bill, so I hope that, whatever happens in the general election, the Government of the day will take the matter forward.

I thought that I would contact my local authority, Southend, to find out what it felt about the Bill, knowing that the Minister of State also had some interest in that. It welcomes it. It thinks that it fits in well with the Children Act, but it has asked me to raise some points.

One provision deals with adopted children and adoptive parents having the right to request a formal assessment of their need for post-adoption support. My local authority feels that it is an excellent proposal. It makes explicit the duty of local authorities to offer any necessary support after the adoption order is made. The local authority feels that that, in itself, is likely to reduce post-adoption breakdowns. However, rightly, from a local authority point of view, it believes that it will have substantial resource implications and hopes that the Government will have some good news in that regard.

The Bill proposes an independent review mechanism in relation to the assessment of prospective adopters. Southend council feels that prospective adopters already have access to local authority complaint schemes. It awaits information on how the proposed process will operate. In principle, local authorities are committed to transparency in assessment and decision-making processes. I am sure that they will welcome the proposal.

The Bill then reaffirms the illegality of anyone other than adoption agencies advertising children for adoption. I am called a bit of a dinosaur. With modern technology, everyone is e-mailing each other on the web, but even the most modern parliamentarians have been appalled at what has gone on recently with the tacky buying and selling of children. If the measure stops all that, local authorities such as Southend will welcome it. However, the council feels that new ways of advertising for would-be adopters need to be found. Local authority and other adoption agencies need assistance from the Government in finding other sources. Southend council feels that that will be essential if the Government's targets are to be met.

I suppose that the core of the Bill is the establishment of a national register allowing speedier matching of approved prospective adopters and children awaiting adoption. Again, Southend council welcomes that. It believes that it will help adoption agencies considerably in their work, especially in relation to children from minority ethnic backgrounds and those who have special needs. Again, it hopes that the Government will adequately resource it. Current opportunities for secure internet access should result in a largely electronic exchange between the national register and adoption agencies, so that information can be quickly accessed and acted upon. I hope that that will happen.

I am proud to say that Southend council was one step ahead of the Government. We joined Thurrock and Havering to establish a successful adoption consortium some two years ago. The three local authorities had already anticipated the proposed register. They already share information and resources to improve the matching of potential adopters with children.

The next part of the Bill deals with targets. Privately--although I suppose that this is public, really--I can tell the House that I am sick to death of targets, which are beginning to get just a bit out of hand. Governments set themselves targets, but Members of Parliament come and go. Who on earth will hold Governments to account on those targets? Targets sound marvellous, but I am beginning to become a little sceptical of them.

Southend council is also becoming a little sceptical. It feels that the target to increase by 40 per cent. the number of adoptions of children in public care by 2004-05 is somewhat optimistic. Although the council hopes that that objective can be achieved, it feels that it is very optimistic. One of the biggest obstacles in achieving the objective is the shortage of would-be adopters for older children and children with special needs. Individual local authority adoption agencies have relatively little control over that aspect of the process and feel that an attempt should be made to encourage and enhance adoption of those children.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

When one considers differences in practice and the fact that the best three or four performers achieve adoption rates that are 10 times better than those of agencies in the bottom decile, one must surely agree that it is possible to achieve an increase of 40 per cent. or more. Indeed, a 40 per cent. increase would leave us just below the rate in America, which has a higher proportion of children with difficulties.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

My hon. Friend seems to think that Southend council should perhaps revise its criticism of the 40 per cent. target.

Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Minister of State, Department of Health, Minister of State (Department of Health) (Health)

I confirm the point made by Mr. Brazier. Mr. Amess may like to know that, in the past two years, adoptions in England increased by about 25 per cent. I therefore think that a target of a 40 per cent. increase in the next three years is well within our range.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I welcome that instant reply from the Minister, with which the local authority will undoubtedly be delighted. I also agree that we must be able to hit a 40 per cent. target if a 25 per cent. target was achieved last year. I suspect that the council was speaking about older children who, as Mrs. Humble said, are perhaps not quite so attractive for fostering and adoption.

Southend council is very keen to have improved incentives, and it believes that there should be a public awareness campaign on adoption. I am not sure whether the Minister mentioned the sums available for a public awareness programme, but I hope that such funding will be made available. All over the place, however, we are seeing the ridiculous posters being put up by all the parties. Although I say all sorts of things in private about politicians--particularly about Labour Members, but even about one or two Conservative Members--I do not think that those posters should be personalised, as the current ones are. It would be so much better if all the parties spent money on posters encouraging people to foster and adopt.

Southend council believes that a much higher national profile should be given to adoption. It says that, rather than rigid targets, it would prefer to have a benchmark that requires under-performing local authorities to analyse the reasons for their performance and to take the necessary action. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has often mentioned that issue.

Southend local authority is very concerned about the adoption allowance--an issue on which some of my constituents wrote to me after the Government announced the Bill. Clause 3(8)(b) mentions "other services", including financial support. My council is unclear whether the provision will cover improvements to the current adoption allowance system. In their White Paper on adoption, the Government indicated that they would improve the adoption allowance system, but I think that that objective has yet to be clearly stated in the Bill.

Every local authority devises its own adoption allowance policy and rate. That gives rise to widely different schemes, with the danger of a postcode lottery. As the Department of Social Security is transferring benefit payments to care leavers to local authorities, will the Government consider making adoption allowances a national payment, paid through the DSS? I am advised that the numbers are relatively small.

The current excitement and interest--I am not sure that we have excited much interest in the House tonight, but the quality is here--must not be allowed to eclipse the valid role of fostering for the many children for whom adoption is not appropriate, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood.

I received a letter this morning from a constituent who had better remain anonymous, saying that the Inland Revenue wants to apply, across the board to all carers, the minimum rates that the National Foster Care Association says should be paid to foster carers to cover the cost of taking the child into their home. Any income that carers receive above those minimum rates will apparently be liable to tax. My constituent feels that that will hit most carers extremely hard, as they are generally paid a more realistic rate than that suggested by the NFCA. Apparently, the Inland Revenue says that these are interim arrangements, so the final proposal could be even worse. My constituent expressed a worry that people might be put off fostering. Perhaps the Minister will get a Treasury Minister to write to me about that.

Southend council feels that when prospective adopters are bought from one adoption agency by another that has a suitable child, a standard inter-agency fee system should be used. Abandoning such an approach in favour of a--gulp--free market approach, under which payments are negotiated case by case, would be disastrous. I know that new Labour embraces the free market, but perhaps it would not be a good idea to go down that road in this case.

I am doing some voluntary work for Barnardos. We have all heard some special pleading from any number of organisations, and it is my privilege tonight to do some special pleading for Barnardos, which we all recognise is a wonderful organisation. It welcomes the Bill, and especially how it fits in with the Children Act 1989. It is particularly pleased that consideration is to be given to the child's religious persuasion, racial origin, and cultural and linguistic background. It is very pleased with the duty on local authorities to publish a plan for the provision of adoption services. It welcomes, too, the new provisions for special guardianship, which could provide a real alternative for children for whom adoption would not be appropriate.

Barnardos also has some constructive criticisms to make. It believes that the reference to financial support is a totally inadequate recognition of the role that adoption allowances could play in widening the pool of families able to consider adopting. Barnardos has campaigned for some time for a review of the allowance system. It believes that the current system is failing to meet the aim of facilitating adoption for more children.

As an agency placing children whom local authorities consider hard to place, Barnardos has been dismayed by how few of those children qualify for an adoption allowance. It says that only 15 out of 52 qualified in 1998-99, and 16 out of 68 last year. It is unable to advise families on what financial support they might receive, as it varies so much from one local authority to another. I hope that the Government will take seriously Barnardos' view on the matter.

Barnardos also points out that, if the Government are serious--which I think they are--about significantly increasing the number of families seeking to adopt, that will mean attracting a wider range of families. Recent research by the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering suggests that parents, single applicants and families on low incomes are under-represented among approved adopters. Having come from the east end, I understand that children are expensive, particularly when it comes to buying shoes. However, to write off people on low incomes as prospective adopters is a great insult. I am not saying that the Government will do that, but I hope that they will bear that in mind.

Barnardos is also concerned at the implications of clause 9, which appears to provide for a right of independent appeal against the determinations of an adoption agency. It is unclear what is meant by determinations as opposed to decisions, and whether the right of appeal will be available only to adoptive applicants. Its concern is that covering the cost of an appeal could be crippling for small voluntary agencies, and is not consistent with policy in other sectors. For example, the right to independent review is well established in the financial services industry, but insurance companies, despite having vastly superior resources to any voluntary adoption agency, are not expected to meet the direct costs of an individual policyholder's appeal.

Finally, Barnardos says that the right balance should be struck between the conflicting rights of children and their birth parents. That is not an easy task, but Barnardos believes that in attempting to address concerns that some children might be denied the security of an alternative home because of a reluctance to act against the wishes of parents, the Bill may be steering too far in the opposite direction. It is not convinced that the grounds for dispensing with parental consent under clause 44(2)(a) are sufficiently rigorous to ensure that such action will be taken only when overriding a parent's right to family life can clearly be justified.

I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the Bill. My goodness, I can hardly believe that I said that. The House should be united on this issue and, although there have been differences in emphasis, I think that by and large we are. It is no good people with strong views on abortion, like myself, not encouraging the adoption route.

When we have difficulty getting our children to bed of an evening, we make all sorts of threats to them, in a joking way. My children are jolly lucky as, no doubt, are the children of all right hon. and hon. Members. However, 58,000 children--a huge number--are not loved and not necessarily liked. I believe that the Bill could change all that.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley 9:03, 26 March 2001

I welcome the Bill and any improvements that it can make for children who are not loved or wanted. While young girls, in particular, decide whether they are capable of looking after children or want to do so, the children are becoming older and more difficult to adopt.

I am sorry that I have come late to the debate. I was giving an address this morning at a service in Keighley celebrating the contributions to society by older people. Time and again, the speakers mentioned how important the contributions of older people are. In my view, the most important contribution that an older person can make is to be a grandparent. Mr. McLoughlin, who has now left the Chamber, spoke at length about grandparents and their capacity to adopt, foster or act as guardians.

When I was first elected, one of the first organisations with which I worked a great deal was Keighley Families Against Drugs. Its members are, to a woman, women; I do not know why dads do not get involved, but those brave women take on the hardship of caring for and supporting daughters and sons who are on hard drugs. Many of them have come to me to seek help in gaining financial support from the local authority, a problem of which I have become increasingly aware. Their daughters may, after a while, have become totally incapable of looking after their children. Social services may agree that that is so, but, because the law is as it is, there seems to be little money in the kitty to help the grandparents.

Those grandparents have told me of their trauma and constant anxiety that the child may be taken into care or returned to her or his mother. They are worried not so much about their daughters as about a live-in boy friend, uncle or whoever he is, who is also on hard drugs and sometimes a pimp or a drug pusher. That is a totally unsuitable atmosphere in which to bring up a child. Those grandparents offer their grandchildren a reasonable life, but it is difficult at my age--61--to take care of grandchildren full time. I have never had to do that, but I had three of my grandsons for just three hours last night, and, without making light of the difficulties, I have to say that I was absolutely exhausted.

In addition, financial hardships make the situation awful for the worried grandparents. They may still work for a meagre wage that has to be spread between their own rent and needs and the needs of their grandchildren. Often, money goes to the daughter, but is lost to drugs without finding its way to the grandchildren. When such expensive items as shoes are needed, the grandparents often have to find the money out of a small wage or even a pension.

Another anxiety arises out of political correctitude, and I hope that the Bill will address it. I agree that we must try to match children for adoption with prospective adopters of the same ethnic background, but that can be taken too far if it means that a child of mixed race, of Asian background or who is black fails to be adopted simply because no identically matching adoptive parents can be found.

I speak from experience: three of my grandchildren are a quarter Irish and three of them are half Asian. I do not think that the three who are half Asian have noticed that I am a different colour from them. I am sure that they have not noticed that their other two grandparents are a different colour, too, or that we are at all different. We are just one family to them; we are Grandma and Grandpa Bains and Grandma Cryer.

We need to allow for children who, for whatever reason, are difficult to adopt. I understand that to some extent: in Keighley, my Asian community tends to adopt within the family. The extended family usually takes on a child who is left for whatever reason. If, however, the extended family breaks down, there is not much tradition in that community of adopting or fostering. Social services encourage it, and a few Asian women have begun fostering and do a good job, but there is no such tradition in the community. We should not allow babies and children to languish in care just because we cannot match their ethnicity identically with that of adoptive parents.

Finally, I touch on the debate that has arisen in recent months about the terribly high rate of teenage pregnancy--ours compares most unfavourably with that of other European countries. It is difficult for a very young teenage girl to cope with a baby unless she can stay with her parents and have their support--another useful role for grandparents. However, if a girl is not given that support--if she is thrown out--it is unlikely that her baby will be given a satisfactory start in life. I do not say that we should remove babies from such mothers, but, at the first indication that the mother cannot cope--when social services are asked to take the child into care--we should rapidly look for adoptive parents.

In Keighley, young girls think it is wonderful to have a baby at first. Often, they come from fairly deprived backgrounds and have not known much love and affection, so their baby--that small person--is for them alone; it is the first time that they have been given undivided attention. That is all right for a while, but sadly, when a new boy friend comes on the scene, the baby is less attractive--perhaps the boy friend does not want the baby. I hope that the measure will encourage social services to keep a more careful eye on such very young mothers to ensure that they do not have a ping-pong relationship with their babies--baby taken into care; the mother wants him back; he is taken back into care; mother wants him back again--every time there is a new boy friend.

That may seem harsh, but I do not want to be harsh because I know how difficult it is to bring up children. However, because we allow young girls to keep their babies--despite the fact that the child keeps being taken into care--when clearly the girls do not know what they want from those relationships, the children are brought up going backwards and forwards between care and home. That becomes a vicious circle. Children brought up in that way become victims of that circle and frequently become teenage mothers themselves.

The Bill could break that vicious circle by making it easier for social services to intervene. I wish the Bill well. I hope that it succeeds where previous measures have failed--in upholding the rights of babies and children and in protecting them from the problems that we all come across in our advice surgeries.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:13, 26 March 2001

I intend to ensure that my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, Jane Kennedy, each have a good 20 minutes for their responses. The debate has been thoughtful, so it is right and proper that they have a decent opportunity to respond.

It is a great privilege to follow Mrs. Cryer whose speech was a model among all the fine speeches that we have heard this evening. She talked a great deal of common sense. It was a privilege to hear her comments--as it was to hear so much of what has been said during the debate, starting with the Minister of State, Department of Health, Mr. Hutton.

In his opening remarks, the Minister was honest about the inadequacies of current legislation. He gave us helpful indications as to how the Government intend to proceed with the Bill. The measure probably exists only because of my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman--the Second Reading of her Adoption Bill will be on Friday. The timing of the two Bills is rather more than a coincidence--there seems to be some dissent among Members on the Front Benches as to that--but never mind, because the Bill is right.

Today's debate will send the wider world a wholly bipartisan message from the Chamber about the importance of the issues with which it deals--as my hon. Friend Mr. Amess noted. My hon. Friend drew attention to the relative lack of interest in the debate--sadly. It is a great shame that a debate has been going on in another place on a much less important issue--foxhunting--where decisions have now been taken. Mrs. Golding and I have also been involved in that issue as joint chairmen of the Middle Way Group. However, we have chosen to spend most of our time listening to the debate in this Chamber because the issues are of much greater importance.

I also want to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Health Select Committee, Mr. Hinchliffe, in his brief and exceptional absence from the Chamber. He made a thoughtful contribution and, by staying to listen to so many speeches, has been a model parliamentarian. That is a compliment to him.

My main reason for speaking is to raise a constituency interest. A heartbreaking case was brought to my attention in November 1999 when I received correspondence from an infertile couple who had tried to get fertility treatment. The postcode lottery means that it is difficult to obtain such treatment in Worcestershire, so they settled on adoption and told me some of the problems that they had encountered.

The couple wrote to the Secretary of State on 25 November 1999. I finally wheedled out a reply on 26 May 2000 which dealt with some of the issues that they had confronted. I then saw them in my surgery to discuss their response. They remain concerned about the obstacles faced by people who want to adopt. Although there is a good and satisfactory framework of legislation and financial support for single mothers and their children, they do not think that a similar framework is in place for adoptive parents.

I hope that the special Select Committee will consider that issue. The couple are especially concerned about maternity benefits. Adopting is an expensive process and the benefits should not apply just because of biological considerations--they should be available for people who wish to adopt because they need time off work, often to settle difficult children. Conventional wisdom dictates that we are talking about three and four-month-old babies, but we are not. Children who are adopted often need a huge emotional input. Parents in full-time work often want to make a strong investment in the child in the early stages of the adoption process, but they are prevented from doing so.

I am delighted to say that that couple have been approved for adoption, having abandoned their bid for a biological child through fertility treatment. I can vouch for the fact that they are delightful, and it was a great privilege to meet them. Sadly, there are no suitable children in Worcestershire for them to adopt. However, there are across the border in Gloucestershire, but cross-border adoptions are not working in our part of the world. They know that there are children for them to adopt in Gloucestershire, but that is not possible. They remain anxious and eager to adopt. They asked me to tell the Minister how much they welcome the national register because that will help to address the problem and stop other parents going through the same anguish.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, I talked to my county council about its approach to the Bill, which it welcomes. It is delighted that the Government have made progress on the issue. However, it is worried that social services are often the only body that is blamed for the delay in adoption. The Government are right to emphasise, as they did in their 1998 circular, the need to avoid delay and to put the child's requirements at the centre of the process. Legal processes can hold up adoption as much as any decisions taken by social services. The council wants me to emphasise that problem and hopes that the Bill will address it.

The Downing street website contains a report of an unusually sensitive briefing by the Prime Minister's official spokesman in February 2000, although he got characteristically robust towards the end of his comments. The report says:

"Responding to a suggestion by the BBC that we were repackaging things we were doing anyway, the PMOS"-- the Prime Minister's official spokesman--

"said he had heard the journalist's so-called flagship programme's pathetic witter about the subject of repackaging this morning. The Government had to govern. That meant legislation and use of public money."

He is right--it does mean use of public money. We think that we get an unfair deal in Worcestershire when it comes to our share of the nation's resources for social services. Money for adoption has to compete with other priorities, especially for the elderly. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden mentioned ring fencing, and he could have a powerful point.

We have to give careful consideration to the nature of adoptive parents, such as whether they are married. I come from a single-parent family. My father died when I was eight and my mother brought me up. I was cared for exceptionally well by my mother, but I do not doubt that I would have been cared for even better if I had had a father or a male role model as well. Frankly, it is generally better if that is a married arrangement; I hope that issue will be looked at too.

Worcestershire county council conducts the adoption process with great skill and thought. I want to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West said about material considerations. In its documentation, Worcestershire county council tells prospective parents:

"Adopters need stamina, patience, the ability to 'stick with it' and a good sense of humour helps! Material considerations are far less important than affection, security and stability."

The Bill seeks to give that to many children who desperately need it.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 9:20, 26 March 2001

My hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman outlined substantially our support for the Bill and how constructively we intend to improve it in Committee. When she related the recent history of events, however, Government Members showed an extraordinary measure of sensitivity; one might even say that they were touchy.

I do not want to dwell on that because we have had a good debate and I want to concentrate on the areas on which we agree. The Minister of State spoke for 52 minutes, holding my attention throughout his excellent exposition of the Bill. From his experience in Committee, he will know that that is an achievement, as I tend to have momentary lapses of attention, which can be prolonged at times. However, he gave an excellent exposition of the Bill, and that standard continued throughout this evening's proceedings.

Mr. Hinchliffe commended the previous Conservative Administration for the Children Act 1989 and the constructive way in which the then Minister, David Mellor, proceeded in Committee. We all hope and pray that the Minister of State will have the opportunity to emulate Mr. Mellor and that the special Select Committee will proceed.

The hon. Member for Wakefield gave us the benefit of his great professional experience in these matters over many years and stressed that it was a question of emphasis--not a question of black and white, but of shades of grey. I agree, although my shade of grey is slightly different from the hon. Gentleman's. His point about Churches was answered properly by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden in an intervention. The hon. Gentleman was also concerned about the political issues that arise. Clause 1, which makes it clear that the interests of the child are paramount, provides a perfect safeguard against that politicisation.

Sandra Gidley spoke about the need for balance and, early in the debate, raised the issue of grandparents, which was developed later; I shall come on to that. She said that there should be an assessment of needs, particularly in mental health, and mentioned finance.

Ms Taylor spoke with quiet passion, born of her own experience, which carries great weight. She, too, stressed the need for concern about the child, for the child's welfare to be paramount and for public engagement and involvement, which would be promoted by a sense of openness. I do not always agree with her, but I do so this evening to a surprising degree. I agree entirely about the importance of an independent review mechanism. The hon. Lady also said that it is crucial to track children through the system. She said that she came with a shopping list, but I thought that it was a commendable list. She said that a funding gap had to be addressed and that there was a desperate need for a fast-track process for pre-school children and for local authority counselling of women with unwanted pregnancies.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Davis gave the Bill what he called an incautious welcome. He gave us an insight into the awful prospects that institutional care often involves for many children. With that, he brought back what I suppose psychologists call retrieved memory.

I had sat through the debate feeling somewhat inadequate--so many hon. Members had spoken from their great experience of the issues. It was only when my right hon. Friend described care that I suddenly remembered--I retrieved the memory--that I had some limited experience of it. I do not know how I had managed to sublimate the memory--perhaps it was so awful. I spent a year between school and university in an institutional care home. It was not a local authority home, but a private home. The experience was pretty awful. We were all untrained. Some of my colleagues were unstable, and many were quite uncouth. We must do a great deal to make sure that we raise the standards and the status of those who carry out that vital work with so many of our children.

Liz Blackman was pleased by the speed with which matters had moved from the White Paper to the Bill. She came to the debate with what she called an express basket, but her contribution was weighty because it was based on the experience of constituents. That is important for much of the work that we do. It anchors us in the reality that ordinary constituents face. She spoke of the need for full information as a means of encouraging prospective adoptive parents to come forward.

My hon. Friend Mr. Brazier has an enormous track record. I pay tribute to the work that he has done on the subject. He thanked the Minister for his tireless work on the White Paper and the Bill, and spoke of some of the awful outcomes of our care system. He mentioned, for example, that 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 have emerged from the care system. He gave us an insight into some harrowing cases, which point to the tyranny that birth parents can sometimes exercise over the prospective life chances of their own children.

My hon. Friend was concerned about the provision to take account of religious backgrounds. I am sure that the Committee will return to the topic at some length. He also raised the important point that foster parents are often not allowed to adopt. That is crucial. How can we honestly expect those parents to put in such an investment of time, effort and, yes, money without any expectation that they might have possession? People may deprecate that, but it is a genuine human emotion, which cannot just be wished away.

Mrs. Golding, who also has an enormous track record on the subject, muttered under her breath that she was planning to go fishing. Debates such as this, and the House in general, will be much the worse for her having gone fishing. She brings a great deal of common sense and wisdom to our proceedings. She discussed difficult cases, and spoke of the levels of vetting and bureaucracy that need to be addressed. She also dealt with the need for international agreements and the role of the wider family, particularly that of grandparents.

My hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin expanded that point with great care and concern. He spoke of the iniquitous financial position of many grandparents, with the huge costs that they face, sometimes including legal costs, and the fact that they receive only child benefit. My hon. Friend's speech was a tribute to foster and adoptive parents. He drew attention to the Gillings report, and focused our minds on the times when social services get it right and do things well. That is an important consideration.

Mrs. Humble told us that she had sat on an adoption panel for seven years. She brought great experience and weight to her speech as a consequence of that experience. She spoke of the need for information about damaged children to be made available as a means of giving adoptive parents an inkling of what they are letting themselves in for, and of ensuring that they have the skills to deal with the situations in which they will find themselves. She spoke of a need for case-by-case flexibility focused on the needs of the child, and of her frustration at the time that many adoptions have taken.

The hon. Lady was also concerned about the birth family wanting the child back and having to re-initiate proceedings. I hope that the Bill's provisions will address that enormous problem. Babies who could have been snapped up, she said, were unadoptable years later. That is a tragedy. Adoption delayed is often adoption denied. It is vital that our children have the chance of a normal family life.

My hon. Friend Mr. Amess said that this was a splendid debate and, in a first in this Chamber, congratulated the Government on introducing the measure. He paid gracious tributes to all members of the all-party group on adoption. He said that the Bill was huge, and I notice that he significantly did not volunteer to serve on the special Select Committee.

My hon. Friend said that children in care were neither liked nor loved, and there is much truth in what he said. He gave a raft of statistics to bear that out. He pointed out that his local authority welcomed the Bill and, although it raised concerns, it was in some respects ahead of the Government in its reaction to the situation. He also made some special pleading on behalf of Barnardos in respect of allowances.

Mrs. Cryer spoke late in the debate but nevertheless made a measured and welcome contribution, again reinforcing the importance of the role of grandparents, particularly with reference to her experience of Keighley Families Against Drugs. She drew on her experience of managing her grandchildren, which is an entirely valid way of measuring our experience and participation in these debates. She spoke with common sense, and that was most welcome.

My hon. Friend Mr. Luff made a short and pithy speech, stressing the importance of a bi-partisan approach and reinforcing our deliberations with the importance of a constituency case, which concerned the question of cross-county adoption and the important contribution that a national register will make to that process.

Adopted children are harder to rear than natural children, but adoptive parents are more resourceful than natural parents. They are, after all, the only parents who have to prove their ability to be good parents before undertaking the task. As I have said, it is reasonable to expect full parental involvement and investment, but not without satisfying that deeply held human desire for parental possession. This Bill, with its aim of increasing the number of adoptions and tackling the frustration and delays, which so many Members described as legion, is therefore welcome.

The lesson that we have learned is that adoption works. When considering how it works, we must not measure it against the ideal biological family. We must consider it against the reality that the child who is adopted would otherwise have experienced. Some have developed a mentality of taking no chances and search for the ideal family. There is no such thing as the ideal family, just as there is no such thing as the ideal child. One hundred per cent. expectation of success is monstrous. There is no such success in my family, never mind in other ones. That is where I differed in my emphasis, in my shade of grey, from the hon. Member for Wakefield. People who speak about the risks of adoption often fail to take enough account of the countervailing risks of keeping children in long-term care. Adoption is a success story. We have heard statistics about the relatively small number of adoptions that break up, but family restitutions have a much higher failure rate.

I believe that the human being has a tremendous ability to overcome early disadvantage. However, the later the placement, the more likely it is that problems will develop. In that respect, adoption delayed can be adoption denied. One of the most groundbreaking findings to emerge from adoption research is the high level of attachment that can exist even in respect of very late adoptions. In so far as any solution works, the only replacement for a family in bringing up a traumatised child until adulthood is a substitute family. Adopted children end up with fewer problems than non-adopted children from similar circumstances.

The available alternatives are much less suitable. We heard about the failure of local authorities to protect children from abuse, whether it is sexual, physical or otherwise. We know that children in care are more prone to psychiatric disorders, that their education and health suffer and that they graduate from care lacking in some of the most basic life skills. We are also aware that young people and young adults in care are deprived of the kin support systems that families provide. Of course, families are concerned about where their children are and keep track of them. One can go back to one's family as a young adult for love, for advice and, yes, for money. The state cannot take on that role in the institutional care system. Children in care are more likely to be unemployed and pregnant under age and to suffer a series of disadvantages because they have not been given the chance of adoption.

I believe that adoption must be considered against the possibility of family restoration, in pursuit of which social workers have often sought to enter a partnership with parents to provide a form of shared care whereby the local authority provides institutional or foster placement while the family is under stress. Perhaps that is what the hon. Member for Wakefield meant when he spoke of intensive support. Such care is an entirely proper consideration, but we must take into account what hon. Members have said and not allow parents to be pushed into keeping their children when they have rejected them. We should remember Rikki Neave.

Neither should public policy tolerate the sometimes limitless irresponsibility of a minority of natural parents who think that as long as they maintain some measure of contact, they can disturb the child and prevent the formation of new parental relationships. We must be equally realistic about the dreams of serial mothers who fantasise about a time when they can gather their children together and raise them in some ideal circumstance. We must be firm when such a fantasy is held at the cost of the life chances of children.

Adoption is not easy and will never be. The Bill will make it easier, which is a great step forward, but only one thing can alter the reality for the child of somebody having given him up. That one thing is love.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department 9:39, 26 March 2001

It gives me great pleasure to bring this debate to a close. I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to hon. Members for my earlier absence. I apologised to Mrs. Spelman in case I missed her speech. My absence was unavoidable; I shall explain it shortly.

First, I compliment Mr. Swayne on an extremely competent and able resume of our debate, which was largely well informed and wide ranging. The hon. Gentleman's contribution leads to me to conclude that he will enjoy a long and successful sojourn on the Opposition Front Bench, and I wish him all the best. His speech contrasted sharply with that of the hon. Member for Meriden, but I shall deal with some of her comments later.

We all acknowledge the overwhelming need to legislate on adoption and I am grateful to hon. Members for their keen interest in, and contributions to, our debate. I shall try to respond to all the questions that they asked. Many hon. Members made the point that every child deserves the same life chances. We are determined to promote and enhance children's opportunities in all our policies. As many hon. Members said, one of the fundamental needs of a child is a stable and strong family that provides loving care and safety, and which nurtures the child's development as an individual and as a member of society.

The damage inflicted on those who have been neglected or harmed as children is all too evident. Hon. Members may not know it, but I started my career as a residential child care worker, and I saw at first hand the sort of damage, which Mr. Davis described, that can happen in the so-called care system.

When children cannot live with their birth parents, we have a duty to ensure that other families are found for them or, if that is not possible, to provide the next best alternative. Adoption can help provide a stable and secure family life for many children who are looked after by local authorities. My hon. Friend Ms Taylor made that point and spoke movingly and with great passion about her feelings on the matter. She complained especially about the tracking system for children in care. In a thoughtful, well- composed and interesting speech, Mr. Brazier made the same point.

Although it is not a problem for legislation, and it is not covered in the Bill, the Government are taking action to improve record keeping and planning for children. In the next year, we shall develop an integrated children's system, which will bring together planning and record keeping for children in need in the community and those looked after by local authorities. It will provide a single, coherent record of the child's case history until adoption. That will help planning and decision making. I am not talking about a national database; the aim is to improve individual local authorities' information and record keeping. It is a key theme of the quality protects programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South argued strongly for children at the centre of proceedings to have a voice. Through the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, we shall reform the role of guardians ad litem and the family court welfare service. It will provide precisely the voice that children need in the care system.

Several hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden, asked about fast-tracking adoption procedures for younger children. Our draft national adoption standards set challenging targets. They are currently out for consultation, which will end this month. Our objective is that a plan will be drawn up for a child no more than six months after entering care--sooner if appropriate for the child. If adoption is the plan, a decision should be made in six months and a match with parents made in a further six months. Those are the targets on which we are consulting. It is important for younger children that that should happen as soon as possible. We accept the points made on both sides of the Chamber on that matter. We recognise that, for babies and infants, speed is extremely important, which is why the adoption standards propose that adoption panels should meet at 48 hours' notice, if necessary, to take decisions on babies and infants.

I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for his warm and generous welcome for the Bill. I agreed with almost everything that he said--speaking as one former Whip to another--and I contrast his constructive contribution to that of the hon. Member for Meriden. I particularly enjoyed the exchange between the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend Mr. Hinchliffe on the judgments that social workers and adoption agencies have to make.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden questioned the degree of scrutiny that a putative adoptive family--a set of adoptive parents--will have to go through. From my own experience, I think that that is a necessary part of the process. If we are to protect children, it is right that the benefits of a detailed scrutiny of adoptive parents should be obtained. That scrutiny ought not to be overly intrusive, but it is a necessary step in protecting children. It is important to strike a balance in all such interventions.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the American experience, and he questioned placement orders and the relationship with the birth parents once a placement order had been put in place. We believe that the child's welfare should be the paramount consideration in all decisions relating to adoption. However, it is not true that the courts will not consider the child's birth family. The child's birth family remains an important factor.

The courts will also be explicitly obliged to consider the impact on the child of ceasing to be a member of his or her birth family, the relationship that the child has with his relatives and any change that the adoption would bring. When considering the child's relationship with his relatives, the courts must give specific consideration to the wishes and feelings of the child's relatives regarding the child. However, it is right that the focus should be on the child. I believe that the provision will bring adoption law into line with the Children Act 1989, as promised in the White Paper.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about targets. Here we are caught in a bind, because Sandra Gidley felt that our targets might be too tight and should be abandoned when necessary, but the right hon. Gentleman took the opposite view and felt that they might not be tight enough. I am sure that we shall debate those issues in greater detail in the special Select Committee.

The hon. Member for Meriden suggested that the Bill had been timed to frustrate her own private Member's Bill. I compliment and congratulate her on the progress that she has made with her Bill, but my hon. Friend Maria Eagle approached the Vote Office and found that it had not been printed yet, so perhaps there is some confusion there.

The hon. Member for Meriden wasted at least 10 minutes of her opening speech on a badly judged party-political statement. She then raised a number of issues. She asked about the use of the terms "must" and "shall", and suggested that they might introduce unnecessary confusion between the Bill and the Children Act. "Must" and "shall" are interchangeable words in legislation. It was a shame that she wasted valuable time on that rather fatuous point.

The hon. Lady also raised a number of important points, and I shall take a little time to answer them. She asked why we should not give adopted people the right to access information about their backgrounds when they reach the age of 16. Under the Bill, adopted people will be entitled to access such information when they reach the age of 18. We shall explore, in the special Select Committee, the proposals that the hon. Lady has made. However, in some cases, the information in question might be of a sensitive nature and it is vital that adopted people are able to make an informed decision about accessing it. They must do that when they are legally adults. In practice, adoptive parents are and will continue to be encouraged informally to share information with the children about their background while they are growing up.

The hon. Member for Meriden raised the question whether sibling groups should be split up. We are determined to improve adoption services in the best interests of all the children involved in a particular case. She will agree that evidence shows that siblings generally do better when placed together and we would expect there to be a very good reason for placing siblings separately. Sometimes, splitting up brothers and sisters can be the right decision--for example, in cases of inter-sibling abuse--but it must be up to the professionals involved to judge whether that is necessary.

Like a number of Members, the hon. Lady asked about adoption allowances, making the point that they are too variable. We agree with that analysis, which is why we promised in our White Paper to develop a new, fairer and more consistent framework. Over the coming year, we shall back that proposal with £66 million.

It is important for the House to know that that is not the only resource, as we are providing record funding to children's services. Conservative Members complained about inadequate resources for social services and pleaded for adoption allowances in a range of different cases, but we might take those comments more seriously if they stood up and said that they would match the resources that we are making available for social services. They will not do it, however, and their crocodile tears on resources should be disregarded and treated as exactly that.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

The Minister knows that I do not speak as a Front-Bencher, but the simple fact is that the American experience shows that high early expenditure gives a fast return because of reduced spending on children in care. Does not she accept that that same model could apply here? It might lead to rather more expenditure than £20 million or £30 million a year--perhaps well over £100 million a year--but in such circumstances that would be well worth it in terms of the social benefit and the payback within two years.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. We are putting up front £66 million to be spent on adoption. That spending will be closely monitored and local authorities will be set tough performance targets so that the resources that we provide them with are spent effectively and properly to help the children who are the focus of our debate.

Several hon. Members referred to poor-performing local authorities. Action will be taken and we are determined to follow through the complaints that we heard this evening.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I put it to the Minister that willingness to make an example of one or two of the worst local authorities through an early removal of adoption powers is crucial. That would have a salutary effect on the others.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments.

I understood the hon. Member for Meriden to say that there is no duty to provide post-adoption support as a result of an assessment. To clarify the point, local authorities are best placed to decide about the provision of services for individuals within local priorities and within local resources. We shall set out in our new framework the range of services that local authorities will have to put in place and we shall back that up with resources, which should ensure that many more families receive adoption support.

A number of Members made thoughtful contributions and my hon. Friend Liz Blackman and the hon. Member for Canterbury made fair and well argued speeches that welcomed the Bill. A number of points that they made will be dealt with in the special Select Committee.

What can I say about my hon. Friend Mrs. Golding? Her contribution was spoken of warmly by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, and I wish to associate myself with their comments. I shall let her into a secret. I, too, was whipped off to take part in a statutory instrument Committee earlier this afternoon, so we both missed the same period of the debate. She welcomed the measures, especially the provisions that strengthen the arrangements for international adoption, and she gave us some telling case studies for our consideration. I am grateful for her warm welcome for the Bill.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Humble talked about open adoption, and she was not the only Member to raise that issue. Special guardianship orders will play a role, and courts will have to balance all the factors in each case and make a judgment of Solomon. Special guardianship offers a flexible option for children who do not want to be adopted. It may also meet the concerns of my hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer, who referred to young mothers and the heavy decisions that young women who are still children themselves have to take. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood for paying tribute to the staff in children's homes.

Mr. Amess welcomed the Bill and gave us an effective statistical breakdown. It was a sad litany of facts. I shall bring his comments on the taxation of fostering allowances to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Treasury. I am sure that the points that he raised about Barnardos will be exhaustively examined in the special Select Committee. I am pleased that he was able to screw himself up, spit it out and for once congratulate the Government on introducing this welcome measure.

Mr. Luff welcomed the national register and complained that the legal process causes delay. That matter will be further examined in the special Select Committee.

I am up against the clock, but I want to refer to one or two other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield made a telling contribution. He has given long and respected service to children in care whose lives are in crisis. He has impressive experience in that field. He discussed the review mechanism and how it will work, and gave us some serious issues to consider. He also said that there is nothing in the Bill on the regulatory process.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government will consider increasing social worker training to three years. I should declare an interest as my partner is a social worker with Liverpool's fostering and adoption unit. I am well aware of the sensitivities of social workers when dealing with these issues, especially about the language we use.

A confident and well-trained work force is central to the improvement of adoption services. There is no question about that. We are committed to improving the training of social workers. More than 300 social workers started the new post-qualifying child care award in January 2000, and a further tranche started the programme in January this year. Local councils can apply for funding from the training support programme for staff attending the award.

I compliment the hon. Member for Romsey on her thoughtful and constructive speech. She referred to mentally ill children in relation to clause 4. The local authority is best placed to decide which adoption support services to provide as a result of the assessment in each individual case.

It has been a real pleasure to reply to this debate. I believe that the Bill will be a significant step forward, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.