Adoption Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30 March 2001.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 9:33, 30 March 2001

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

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for kindly selecting this Bill for Second Reading. I am sure that hon. Members are aware that we debated the Government's Adoption and Children Bill on Monday, but they might be interested in the process that ensued after that debate and the reason for having this debate Today.

Usually, private Members' Bills are of a strongly consensual nature and enjoy large cross-party support. I am sure that hon. Members agree that adoption is precisely one of those subjects on which there is consensus. I do not expect today's debate to be any different in that respect, but hon. Members may find interesting the historical precedents for the situation that we are in, namely, Second Reading of a Government Bill being followed in close proximity by a private Member's Bill.

Such a circumstance has occurred before. It is well documented in "Erskine May" that it arose in the 1994–95 Session with the Disability Rights Commission. A private Member's Bill had been introduced to drive forward the important issue of bringing such a commission into being, but the then Government introduced their own Bill to achieve that. Interestingly, on that occasion also the Speaker ruled that both Bills should be debated.

The criteria for allowing both Bills to be debated in such close proximity is that they should be distinct and different. They may ultimately have the same objective, but they should have different ways of approaching the problem. That is exactly the challenge that fell to me between Monday and this morning: to find a way that was distinctly different from the way in which the Government had chosen to approach the reform of the law, but which may have the same outcome. I assure hon. Members that quite a lot of midnight oil was burned between 10.45 pm on Monday and my Bill going to the printers at 2 pm on Wednesday.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

Does my hon. Friend agree that "complementary" might be the right word? Her Bill skilfully fills in the gaps in the Government Bill—which is basically a good measure—and as such should be seen as complementing and supporting the Government Bill.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. "Complementary" is exactly the right word. I would not dream of using the word "block", particularly on a private Member's Bill Friday. Perhaps it would be wrong to anticipate the outcome before we have had the debate, but I fully expect that the two Bills will result in better legislation in the long run. In searching for complementary aspects of adoption reform, I hope ultimately to see those worked into the reform of the Adoption Act 1976, which is what we are trying to change.

For the sake of hon. Members, I want to explain some acrobatics that had to be performed with my Bill. They may be confused over why my Bill does not refer to the Government Bill, which had its Second Reading on Monday. As I explained, my Bill needs to be distinct and different. Its purpose must be to reform existing law—to all intents and purposes, that is principally the 1976 Act. It cannot specifically refer to legislation that is in the pipeline, but it must take account of what is in the pipeline—the Government Bill—in order not to duplicate it. I hope that it is clear that that is the course that I had to pursue.

I pay tribute to the Clerks for helping me to perform that piece of procedural acrobatics, especially at such short notice. I do not know whether it is in order to mention a Clerk by name, but Nick Walker was extremely helpful in trying to get the Bill right in what was a pressurised time scale. I have relied heavily on his advice. I wonder how it would have been possible to meet the criteria without his advice and assistance.

The historical setting was not discussed during Monday's Second Reading debate, but it is an important dimension to the adoption debate. Interestingly—I would not have been aware of this without the Library's research paper for Monday's debate—we seem to debate adoption only once a generation, or every 25 years, and one or more private Members' Bills have usually acted as the catalyst for change to adoption law.

The Adoption of Children Act 1926 introduced legal adoption in England and Wales, but a private Member's Bill introduced in 1922 started that process. Although that Bill was considered on Report, it had to be dropped on the Dissolution of Parliament. In 1923, two Bills on adoption were introduced, both of which had to be dropped. In 1924, three Bills, including one applying specifically to Scotland, were introduced. Two of them received a Second Reading but were subsequently dropped. In 1925, private Members' Bills made further attempts to change adoption law. Eventually, in 1926, Government adoption legislation was passed.

That history demonstrates an important pattern that was repeated in the post-war years and the passage of the Adoption of Children Act 1949. As history tends to repeat itself, and, at the start of a new century, we seek to reform adoption legislation, it might be helpful to remember that history. I should add that although legislation was passed in the 1960s that slightly amended previous adoption legislation, the foundations for current adoption legislation were laid in the 1976 Act.

Precedents on reforming adoption legislation were set at the end of the previous century. It is generally acknowledged that, in 1996, a draft Bill on adoption reform was prepared. Like the current Adoption and Children Bill, it was preceded by full consultation and a White Paper. In short, therefore, we seem to have reached that point in the generational cycle at which adoption legislation—the 1976 Act—seems to need reform.

It is instructive to note that changes to adoption law have been a reflection of changes in society and that reform of the 1976 Act will also reflect societal change. In the 1970s, for example, 20,000 children were adopted, whereas towards the end of the 1990s, only 4,100 children were adopted. There are major societal reasons for that change, such as the fact that far fewer babies are available for adoption—partly because of the greater effectiveness and availability of modern contraception. Presumably, introduction of the morning-after pill will have an impact on the number of babies available for adoption.

Another reason why fewer babies are available for adoption is that it has become easier, although not easy, for a woman to raise a baby on her own, and the stigma of doing so has largely fallen away. I was quite interested by the fact that last year only two babies were adopted in my neighbouring health authority area in Coventry. I think that that statistic illustrates the great change that has occurred.

Conversely, many children are in care. Although the number has fluctuated over time and occasionally reached 100,000, currently about 58,000 children are in care. I expect that part of today's debate will concentrate on the needs of children in care and the fact that, in many cases, their opportunity to find permanence in a family home has been obstructed by unnecessary bureaucratic delay. Many of those children have suffered because of delay in finding them a permanent home.

A sad litany of statistics demonstrates why it is so important to address the needs of children in care. The statistics show that children in care do not fare well and that collectively, as the corporate parent, we have done a poor job in looking after them. It is a depressing fact that 70 per cent. of young people leave care without having gained a GCSE or GNVQ qualification. Additionally, 25 per cent. of looked-after children aged 14 to 16 do not attend school regularly, may have been excluded, and have no regular educational placement even when they are in care. As the corporate parent, we can look only to ourselves to explain why their educational attendance record is so poor.

A statistic that particularly upsets me as a woman is that between 14 and 25 per cent. of young women leaving care are either pregnant or have a child, whereas only 3 per cent. of 20-year-old women in the general population have a child. I have to conclude that hon. Members, as representatives of the corporate parent with responsibility for looking after children, have dismally failed those young women.

Another important but depressing statistic is that 39 per cent. of male prisoners under 21 have been in care. There is a close correlation between the experience of young children who have been in care and their poor life chances. Although they undoubtedly had difficulties before going into care, their experience of being in care seems only to have added to their decreased opportunities for success in life after leaving care. In many cases, the experience of being in care has clearly been detrimental.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I had not intended to intervene so early in my hon. Friend's speech, but she has raised an issue that concerns me. In east Kent, we have a heavy problem because of the vast numbers of children being taken into care—some of whom have been quite literally dumped there by London boroughs that do not make their own provision, but choose to use out-of-county and out-of-town provision. Anything that she and other hon. Members who support the Bill can do to alleviate that problem and ensure that those children receive a proper family upbringing will, I am sure, have the full support of colleagues in Kent on both sides of the House.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am very sensitive to the extra burden that Kent has borne My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, proportionally, Kent offers more places for children in care than many other counties do. I know for a fact that my own local authority—all the way from the west midlands—looks to Kent to place some of our most difficult cases. Although it is recognised that the particular expertise of some of the care homes in Kent is available nowhere else in the country, I am sure that my hon. Friend would want me to make the point that the resources provided to Kent do not always reflect the fact that it carries that additional load not only for some of the other London boroughs, but it for places as far afield as the west midlands. We should recognise that.

I do not wish to imply, by citing those statistics, that I think that all care provision is bad, as that is certainly not true. Many people work extremely hard with inadequate resources to provide care for children who often are quite damaged and have many difficulties. That is not an easy task, and I recognise that they try their very best in difficult circumstances.

I recognise also that not all children fail because of being in care. That would be a false conclusion to draw from the statistics. Nevertheless, the outcomes are poor for many of those children. That issue is inextricably linked with this debate. I feel very strongly that if more of those children had an earlier opportunity of permanence in a family, their subsequent life chances might be better. That is the point.

In the adoption debate, we must not generalise about adoption provision across the country because it varies greatly from one part of the country to another. Currently, council adoption rates range from between 0.5 and 10.5 per cent. of looked-al after children being adopted each year. The average time spent being looked after before the decision is made that a child should be adopted is one year and four months, and from decision to placement takes another seven months—a total of nearly two years. I know that it is the Government's aim to speed up the process through their Adoption and Children Bill. A clause in my Bill about fast-tracking tries, in a complementary way to improve on that for younger children.

There is another point when considering the issues of children in care and the need to reform adoption. An estimated 14 per cent. of children who are adopted have experienced six or more placements in their care history. That is another feature of our failure as a corporate parent. That is an excessive number of moves for a child who has already had to be severed from the birth family.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

In my experience of sitting judicially in the courts and having to deal with young people, youngsters of 17 and 18 have frequently had half a dozen placements. That results, I am afraid, in their turning to criminal ways and coming before the courts, which has a huge impact on the criminal justice system.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. His experience will make an important contribution to the debate. The magistracy sees a great number of these court orders and has important things to say. I look forward to my hon. Friend's contribution, as some of us do not have his direct experience of such matters.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Does she agree that the emotional and educational damage done by repeated replacements of young people in different settings undermines their life chances in the most serious way possible?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. In human terms, it is bound to be damaging for children to be constantly uprooted from a setting, not to know where they belong and constantly having to reform relation ships. It must get to the point where it is very difficult to form any sort of permanent relationship at all.

Before this debate, I was interviewed by four young people, all of whom had been in care until the age of 16. One of them had been placed in as many as 20 homes. That flabbergasted me—it can be as bad as that, although it is estimated that 14 per cent. of children who are adopted were moved six times. However, this young woman was remarkably well organised. She put some searching questions to me about the care system, and I am confident that she will go on and make a success of her life, but hers is not a start in life that we would desire for any child.

The severity of the problem is great. The frequency of placements and replacements often has to do with the system's failure to provide permanence for the child. One of the objectives of the Government's Bill is to speed up the process so that permanence is achieved much sooner. I hope that my Bill will complement that.

My Bill deals with the important question of finance. Just as there is quite a wide variation in the percentage of children adopted by local authorities, so there is variation in adoption allowances. I know that the Government want to consider that issue, which I think has contributed to some of the problems in the process of adoption. Some 20 per cent. of adoptions, having been made, do not work. Undoubtedly, one reason for such a high failure rate has to do with post-adoption support. Most of us have had constituents, friends or relatives who have tried to adopt and might have gone on to do so. The amount of assistance available to them once the children are received into their home is lamentable.

If children have gone through the very difficult experience of having to leave behind their birth families, it will not instantly be sunshine when they arrive in another family. There is a lot of hurt and difficulty, and much assimilation is required. However, we have been weak when it comes to post-adoption support, and I would like to see that addressed.

I want to present the background to the clauses in a little more detail. Clause 1 deals with finance. I am not asking the Government to increase their spending, as we have to be very careful on that point. How the money is spent is probably the most important question. Despite the Government's Adoption and Children Bill, one significant issue is missing from their attempts to reform the system—the several causes of delay. We agree with the Government that the introduction of a national adoption register will help in certain respects, and we have supported that from the beginning. Indeed, we sought to introduce a provision into the Care Standards Act 2000 that would have brought a national adoption register into being last July.

The register will allow better matching throughout the country because it expands the pool of parents who want to adopt and children who are available for adoption, which is a good thing. However, the difficulty of making a match, which is often a cause of delay, is not simply down to knowing who wants to adopt and which children are available for adoption. There is also a problem with finance. Local authorities are, not unnaturally. deterred from travelling the length and breadth of the country to find the best match because they have to finance that out of their budget.

I suspect that the local authorities of most right hon. and hon. Members present are in the same boat as mine, and have substantially overspent, not for the first year, on social services. The breakdown of the overspend in my local authority of Solihull—and it is the same with neighbouring authorities—shows that it has occurred on children's services. The main reason for that is, sadly, the amount of family breakdown. We cannot run away from the fact that local authorities have to spend a disproportionate amount on services for children because family breakdown is a key feature of British society. Therefore they do not start from a strong position, even given the £66 million that the Government put on the table to support the changes to the adoption process. My concern is that, given that the budgets are already overspent, will that money ever actually find its way to where the Government want it to go and be spent on providing the kind of post-adoption support that is so vital in making adoption matches work well? I seriously wonder about that.

Specifically, clause 1 would passport money with the child. That important proposal is designed to support the national adoption register. Without such an arrangement, it would be difficult to make the register work as effectively as it could. I shall explain that by referring to a local authority—Coventry—that abuts my own. It is interesting that its policy is not to look very far outside its own area when making adoption matches. Coventry city council would not look beyond the A5 and, if possible, not outside north Warwickshire to make such matches, simply because of the cost entailed in travelling to and fro and in making the assessments. The council made a practical point in asking how parents would travel the long distance to the preparation evenings that the local authority would regard as an essential precursor to its assessment and acceptance of prospective adoptive parents.

There is a real practical problem, in that the match is unlikely to be made unless the resources flow with it. We may create the power to make a match, but it is significant that the Adoption and Children Bill, which the Government are proposing, does not contain the power to make the match happen. That Bill includes a requirement to make an assessment, but the local authority can still decide whether to provide the services that need to go with that assessment, so we are not a great deal further forward. If a local authority is strapped for cash, it has to make the assessment, but it may legitimately say that it cannot provide the service. I am trying to break that deadlock, so that the money flows with the child.

At present, responsibility for adoption allowances falls to the authority where the child ultimately resides. That is a disincentive to the matching process. A local authority that has spent resources on recruiting and assessing a set of adoptive parents is unlikely to allow them to adopt a child who is in the care of another local authority, even if the national adoption register exists.

The local authority where the adoptive parents reside will lose money relative to the local authority where the child resides because, first, it will not save money by moving one of its cared for children out of care. I understand that the average cost of that is between £2,000 and £3,000 a week. Secondly, the local authority may have to pay an adoption allowance, depending on the circumstances of the receiving family. Thirdly, the local authority may have to pay for the child's special educational and health needs. A high percentage of the children who have been looked after often have statements and often struggle to find the resources to support themselves through education. Fourthly, the local authority's social workers may have to provide post-adoption support, and they are already stretched by having to undertake the assessments, and so on.

Clause 1 would require the local authority from which a child has been adopted to refund the cost of the adoption allowances that the local authority to which the child has gone has had to pay. I hope that that passporting mechanism will solve the practical problem of resources flowing with the child who needs them to the family who will also need them.

Under the Bill, adoption allowances would be classified as direct payments to the family and support services provided by the local authority. I mention that because, under the procedural acrobatics that I described at the outset, I have had to propose the reform of existing legislation that is not explicit on post-adoption services, and I want to make it clear that the word "allowances"—the plural—embraces the very important concept of extending the financing to post-adoption support.

It may be helpful if I dwell for a second on some examples of those support services. Counselling for the children to help them come to terms with their circumstances is very important, as the failure rate can be high without it. There is little support for adoptive siblings in coming to terms with a new brother or sister, but that is an important dimension. Short-term domestic help should be provided to enable the adoptive parents to spend more time helping the child to settle in.

I was struck by the contrast in the experience of some friends of mine who adopted two children, who, I think, were seven and six at the time. When a woman carries her own baby, she has nine months to get ready for the bombshell that will hit her, and she is helped to prepare for that. She is also helped when she has given birth and is assimilating a new life into the family. However, the life of a couple who adopt can change overnight. They have less time to prepare and less thought is given to how to support them through that process of change. That is one reason why we need to consider the support provided in that very important post-adoption period.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am listening very carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying about the allowances If an adoption were to break down and could not continue, what would be the financial position? Would the original authority continue to pay for the support of the child and take over the care role again, or would the resources go to the new authority in which the child had been placed?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

It would entirely depend on where the child went next. If the child returned to its original local authority, the resources would return with the child. The concept entirely involves the money following the child. Another family may be found in the same receiving local authority, in which case the money would go to them. The tragedy is that that involves the child being uprooted again, which is why it is so important to do all we can to make the match work. Continuous uprooting is disruptive to the child's education and, ultimately, for its well-being.

Examples of needs that might be met by the adoption allowances could include one-off payments to cover the extra resources needed if a couple agreed to take several siblings. The couple might find that their car will not accommodate four children. Although people movers are a wonderful invention, we must recognise that there can be a capital impact on a family who are willing to prevent a group of siblings being split up because they have to cope with a sudden expansion. A traditional saloon car will not take six people legally. That is the kind of difficulty that a family can suddenly face.

Time-limited payments to cover the cost of counselling should be considered, especially if the national health service is unable to meet that cost locally. Counselling for post-adoption support has not been especially strong. Women in birth families who have been parted from their children, and those who have received children, have told me that, in some cases, the counselling makes matters worse, so specialist counselling must be got right. I was struck by the fact that it can be very difficult if the counselling is provided by those who are too directly involved in the matching process, because such counselling is not objective.

I hope that hon. Members will understand what I mean when I say that if the local authority is keen to place to children from care in a particular family, it has a vested interested in that process working. However, if the problems are too great, the family is not coping with the placement of the children, and the counsellor comes from the local authority, the counselling can be insufficiently objective. I hope that I have explained what I am driving at.

If arrangements have been made to allow contact to continue with the birth family, financial support must be given to cover the costs of travelling to visit them, especially as that can sometimes entail large distances. At the moment, lower income families are very poorly represented among foster and adoptive parents, and we must face up to that fact when considering the problem of adoption allowances. The ideal would be a range of adoptive parents representing the full spectrum of society. Finance can be a real reason why families on lower incomes do not put themselves forward for fostering and adoption. Barnardos feels strongly about that. I have no doubt that hon. Members have been briefed, as I have, about the difficulties that lower income families face.

Post-adoption support services are essential for parents who have adopted older children with emotional problems. About 20 per cent. of adoptive placements of older children break down, whereas unsurprisingly, the failure rate for babies is only 5 per cent. We should not be surprised by that. The older child has usually had more problems along the way that need addressing.

Clause 1 is a complement to the existing legislation designed to help make the national adoption register work better. It assumes that the register will be law, even though it does not exist in the Adoption Act 1976. We hope that the clause will command support.

Clause 2 deals with appeals. In his review of adoption last year, the Prime Minister said: Clearly there is a place for a much more comprehensive appeals system which gives all parties within adoption/permanence a louder voice and better representation. There must be provision for the independent scrutiny of and appeal against the—doubtless few—bad or unjust decisions, such as those involving placements. I quote his words because the Government's Adoption and Children Bill contains a provision on appeals, but I remain unconvinced that it is anything like the comprehensive appeals system for which the Prime Minister called.

The definition of a determination of an adoption case is unclear in the explanatory notes to the Government's Bill. It simply says that the term will be defined in regulations, so we are no clearer about it. For the benefit of hon. Members, I should say that I am talking about clause 9 of the Bill. It provides for the establishment of a review procedure. It says: any person in respect of whom a qualifying determination has been made … may apply to a panel constituted by the appropriate Minister.…

  • (3) The regulations may include provision as to—
  • (a) the duties and powers of a panel
  • (b) the administration and procedures of a panel".
That is all the Bill says: it is not clear. The determination procedure lacks independence, which is important.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. If determinations are confined to, for example, obtaining a place on the national register, the prospective parents who are being turned away now would be no further forward. It is essential that the procedure apply to at least some matchings and allow parents to appeal where a child is not to be allocated to anyone else and the outcome would be that the child would remain in care. It is important that the appeals procedure should cover such cases, as my hon. Friend's clause does.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has a great deal of experience of dealing with adoption—far more than me. He describes one of the failings of the present system, which we must address urgently. I want to go even further in my clause on appeals, to an appeals system that deals with what I call the eternal triangle. The three sides of the triangle are the birth family, the child and the adopters. The Government Bill would not deal with all three sides of the triangle. We all know from talking to adoptees, adopters and birth families that feelings run high about the present system. They feel that there is no adequate complaints procedure to deal with their grievances.

At present, each local authority is required to offer its own complaints system, which usually consists of three or four levels, all of which are run by the local authority against which the complaint is made. At level 2, the procedure must include an independent person, but that person is interviewed, recruited and appointed by the local authority. How independent is that person? It is not hard to see that all too often the local authority is found not guilty of the misconduct of which the complainant accuses it. Those who complain feel that the system is insufficiently independent. Adoptive parents are forced to complain to the director of social services whose department they are complaining about.

A lack of independence is a common feature of complaints procedures for public services that do not work well. All too often, individuals who have a complaint feel that professionals close ranks and that they cannot have their case heard objectively and independently. That is reflected in the social services inspectorate survey, which found that 52 per cent. of complainants were dissatisfied with the outcome of the complaints procedure. That is a poor result. Many complained that they had no one to turn to after the procedure was complete.

It is necessary for each establishment to have a few people with unrestricted access to children in care whose purpose is to find out at the point of delivery whether proper care is being provided. I am trying to establish that independent element. I have suggested in clause 2 that we should have a proper ombudsystem for adoption. We have such a system for health, although it could be made to work better. There is a local government ombudsman, but as Members of Parliament know, since we often refer cases to him, only cases that meet the narrow criteria of maladministration can be referred to him. One often sits in one's surgery feeling that people have been dealt with badly and unjustly, but knowing that technically their case cannot be defined as maladministration. We know that they have little chance of justice or even an apology or recognition that something has gone wrong.

We are not yet a heavily litigious society like America, and I hope that we do not go that way. Often, people would be happy with a timely and sincere apology, but they rarely get one in respect of adoption. I would like to see a proper ombudsystem for all three sides of the triangle. I have suggested that at the top should be the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the equivalent children's rights director in England. I am sure that the House is aware that there is pressure from all sides for a children's commissioner for England, so that we have like for like. We are concerned as to whether a children's rights director has the same power and scope as a commissioner. To be at the top of the ombudsprocess would provide the independence that is so important.

I would like to create the opportunity for the child in the triangle to voice a complaint about the way in which they have been treated. At present, the child has no right to appeal against any decision made in the adoption process. My clause would enable the child to appeal through the guardian ad litem, who would have the discretion to filter out frivolous complaints. It is possible that a child, perhaps a truculent teenager, will make a complaint that it would not be a good use of time and resources to pursue. Guardians ad litem do a good job as children's advocates in the present system and are well able to make a balanced decision about whether a genuine complaint should be heard.

I am concerned that the role of the guardian ad litem is restricted in terms of their window of opportunity in the court process. I should like to see their role expanded so that they see the child through the system to a successful placement and permanence, and look out for the child's interests.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government's proposals to cap the fees for guardians ad litem will mean that there are not as many such guardians? If anything, my hon. Friend's proposal, if implemented, would require more guardians ad litem. We are seeing the interests of children being badly damaged by ill thought through proposals, and they would make my hon. Friend's proposal extremely difficult to implement.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am not able to ask for extra spending, but within the resources that are available, I believe that my proposal would be a good use of money. The vast majority of guardians ad litem do an excellent job, very often with good will. It is important to resource their role.

We have learned about these matters through some most disturbing reports about children in care. I and other hon. Members had to read the Waterhouse report. Others who read it will also be disturbed by the poor voice that children have in our society. It is important that there be a voice for vulnerable children in care, and that someone should see them through. Again and again, children are lost in care because the key worker who was alongside them changes jobs, or someone else comes in. There is no continuity. At a key stage, a guardian ad litem would offer continuity.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

When replying to the debate later, it may be helpful if I am clear about what the hon. Lady is proposing. Initially, there was slight confusion about the reference to a guardian ad litem in terms of the appeals system, given that the role of that guardian is to give advice to the courts. Is the hon. Lady proposing a greatly extended role for the guardian ad litem, so that in a sense he or she becomes almost a new statutory caseworker for the child? I am slightly confused about the role that she sees for the guardian ad litem and how that relates to the appeals system.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am not trying to confuse the Minister. I am sure that he is aware that the Children Act 1989 lays out an appeals system. At present, the law focuses very much on the court process. The guardian ad litem does not see the case through to its conclusion, and it is that which I am trying to achieve. I hope that I have made things clearer. My proposal is not to be confused with the special guardianship that the right hon. Gentleman will know is in the Government Bill. That is a completely different concept.

Clause 3 deals with a completely different subject, which is the fast tracking of younger children. The Government's Bill, which was introduced on Monday, does not make a distinction in respect of children, although it introduces the concept of time limits, which we support. The purpose of introducing time limits is to speed up the process, which we all want to achieve.

The House may be surprised to learn that, perversely, it is sometimes taking longer to place younger children following on from care than older children. If someone in social services knows that there are a significant number of older children who will be quite difficult to place, he or she will do everything possible to encourage prospective adopters to take the children who are harder to place. That person will know that it will be easy to place babies and young children. Naturally, those in social services departments are trying hard to place older and more difficult children.

The tragedy is that it is detrimental to very little children to make them wait longer for adoption. Every parent knows that within a year a baby has bonded closely with its parents and other siblings. That is the way of nature. It is then detrimental to young children to be uprooted and moved. That is partly because their power of reasoning has not reached the point when it is possible to explain to them in detail why the uprooting has to take place. Yet it happens; I have seen it happen with my own eyes.

Some friends of mine are foster parents. They are now well beyond child-bearing age. At the request of the social services department, they took in a baby within the first six weeks of its life because mum was not well. That baby was still with them after a year. They felt that they could do nothing other than to adopt the baby. The child was talking and walking, and they knew that it would be detrimental to it if it were taken from them, and difficult for them, having bonded with it. They adopted the child and it has remained with them. However, there was probably an enormous queue of parents desperately wanting to adopt the baby. That opportunity has now been missed. And it happens again and again.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) spoke movingly on Second Reading of the Government's Bill on Monday about her experiences when working in a children's home. She said that she was horrified to find three-year-olds in dormitories of 12 children. That is not an appropriate environment in which to raise a child of pre-school age. I would encourage hon. Members to listen to her moving account if it is carried, after editing, by "Yesterday in Parliament" late tonight.

The hon. Lady said that children were described as five, six, and seven o'clockers because those were their bedtimes. With the best will in the world, in that environment there is not the intimate relationship of parent and child. It is institutional, and we must try to get away from that. I am attempting to do that by complementing the Government's intentions by introducing fast tracking for younger children.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I ask for clarification on the way in which the hon. Lady's proposals would change the situation that she outlined, with the foster family that proceeded to become an adoption family. I am not clear how her proposals addressed that case.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

If fast tracking were introduced for under-threes, the foster family that agreed to take in a baby or toddler would have a clear idea that that would be for a much shorter time than usual, and that efforts would be redoubled to find permanence for that child. They would not be faced with the predicament of having had a young child for so long that they felt almost duty bound to offer to adopt it. In practical terms, that is what my proposal would achieve.

It is understood that it is easier for foster parents to cope with younger children. If the law were changed in line with my proposal, it would be clear that in taking a baby or a child under three, social services or voluntary services would be making an extra effort to have that child permanently placed more quickly. It is an important practical point, which I hope I have made clear.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

In a situation such as the hon. Lady outlined, the child has been placed with a foster family specifically because there is every intention and hope that the natural mother will be able to take the child back after her illness. It was by force of circumstance that the original foster arrangement was extended. By fast tracking the adoption process, we cannot automatically get round such cases, which relate to individual circumstances and perhaps the prolongation of the natural parent's illness.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

If I believed that all delays were due to the legitimate reason that I gave in my example—that the return to the birth family was unclear—I might have more sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. The truth is that that is not the only reason why young children experience delays in the system. The example of a child in institutional care given by the hon. Member for Stockton, South is just one illustration of that.

The parting process from the birth family is one of the most difficult and fraught areas of adoption. On Monday, moving and practical speeches were made by hon. Members who have worked on the placement of children. They would be the first to acknowledge that the protracted parting and to-ing and fro-ing that sometimes occur when a decision is being made about whether children should be parted permanently from their birth parents can cause the greatest damage. It is difficult to legislate for that, and I am not seeking to do so; it is down to the expertise of those who are qualified to work with the birth family to make the process better. We would legislate for that only clumsily, if we tried, but the time limits under the Adoption and Children Bill should help a bit. There is more than one reason for little ones being delayed in the system. Because of the attachment that they form at such a young age it is important and humane to have a legislative incentive to move more quickly with them. We therefore need to address the question of babies and very young children.

At the outset, I said that the reform of the Adoption Act 1976 has a lot to do with addressing changes in society over the past generation. One change is that, for want of a better phrase, adoption has gone out of fashion among young mothers, who may formerly have considered that route. There are various reasons for that, to which I have referred, including the loss of stigma attached to raising a baby alone. However, it is still not easy to do that, and I am sure that, like me, hon. Members have followed cases in which young women have found it extremely difficult to manage raising a baby on their own.

When we talk about the number of children in poverty, often we are talking about young women who find themselves in a spiral of deprivation Having got pregnant young, they miss out on their education, cannot get work and end up at the bottom of the pile. I know that the Government and Members on both sides of the House are trying to address that social change, which is a source of genuine difficulty.

Talking to those young women, I realised that adoption is nowadays promoted far less often as an option for them when they are pregnant. There is some history behind that; more than a generation ago, the reverse may have been true, and it was dealt with clumsily. All of us will have had contact with women who feel that their babies were taken from them in an uncaring manner, but now we have gone too far the other way in not presenting young women with the plausible option of having their babies adopted by families who very much want them and will give them a good life chance. As part of the discussion of reforming adoption, I hope that adoption will be promoted more actively to young women.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

When that issue was touched on in the debate on Monday, I thought that it would be regarded as controversial. However, I was surprised—as I am sure my hon. Friend was—by the unanimity across the House, including especially the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who was strong on that particular point.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is a helpful intervention, and I should like to pay tribute to several Members who spoke with practical experience and a lot of common sense in our debate on Monday night.

On that note of unanimity, I should like to conclude my remarks on the Bill. There is no question but that there is a broad degree of support for adoption reform. I have tried hard not to present my Bill in a partisan way this morning, as that would not be appropriate. I am really pleased that we have got to the point at which a major Bill has had its Second Reading. Given the proximity of the election, we all know that there is probably little chance of its proceeding even to the special Select Committee. However, it is important that it has been introduced, because it means that the subject is out in the open and the debate can develop.

It may be too late for the 58,000 children already in care, but we owe it to those brought into care daily to help them in the search for a permanent family and loving home by reforming the existing adoption law to ensure that they have that life chance. We also owe it to couples who, in many cases, have had to wait a long time for the privilege and pleasure of having children to call their own. I believe that both sides of the House are united on that; I hope that we can weave together my Bill and the Government Bill, and that the outcome will be the best that we can possibly achieve for the children, their prospective adoptive parents and the birth families from whom those children have been severed. That should be our aim, and I hope that my remarks have contributed to achieving it.

Photo of Mr Tom Cox Mr Tom Cox Labour, Tooting 10:36, 30 March 2001

May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on the subject that she has chosen for her private Member's Bill and the way in which she presented it to the House? I listened with great interest to all of her speech, especially her closing remarks; I am sure that there is widespread agreement on the kind of suggestions that she made. Regardless of whether there will be an election soon, the subject is such that, if a Member on either side of the House seeks to reintroduce a Bill on it, he or she will have wide support.

I wish to discuss clauses 2 and 3. I declare an interest as a member of the British delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. For a long time, I have been the rapporteur on the European strategy for children, which deals with a range of issues concerning the care and welfare of youngsters. We have produced reports on child abuse, child labour, refugee children and disabled children. We work closely with the 43 member states of the Council of Europe, have a close relationship with UNICEF and have published a major report on adoption. As the hon. Member for Meriden and others know, legislation on adoption varies enormously from country to country.

This has been a good week in the House for children. On Monday, we had Second Reading of the Adoption, and Children Bill and this morning we are debating the hon. Lady's private Member's Bill. I am sorry that I was not here on Monday to seek to take part in the debate, but from reading the speeches it was clear that there was widespread support for the issue of adoption, irrespective of which side of the House participating Members sat on. We all know that adoption is an important issue, but it can often be complex and, at times, emotive. I am sure that, for all of us, the principal concern of adoption is the welfare and rights of the child. From time to time, I read about disturbing cases of adoption—as I am sure all hon. Members do—including how children become available for adoption. Whether we are Members of Parliament or members of the public, we are all distressed to read, as we have done recently, about cases of children changing hands for money. That is to be deeply deplored.

From time to time we hear of the difficulties facing a person who wishes to adopt. We would all agree that the principal consideration should be placing the child in a warm, loving family relationship. When I was in local government, I chaired the children's committee of the London borough of Hammersmith and served on many adoption panels. I can well recall the anxiety of prospective adopters when we interviewed them. I believe that we have a perfect right to ask questions and to make inquiries of people who seek to adopt. Our concern at all times should be for the future of the youngster whom we are considering placing with an adoptive parent or parents.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden on her wide-ranging speech. She mentioned the Prime Minister's comments about adoption. He is to be congratulated on his deep concern for the matter, and I support much of what he has said about it in recent months. Having read Monday's debate, I share many of the views expressed by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), and by others who spoke, about the need to speed up the process and reduce the time that it often takes for a youngster to be adopted. We all know that some local authorities have good records and others do not, but I would not want any local authority to feel that it was being put under pressure to meet the wishes of the Government or the Department. The overriding consideration must be the welfare of the youngster.

The hon. Member for Meriden touched on another important issue—the number of youngsters who, sadly, remain in care for a very long time. All of us who have been involved in such work know how difficult those cases can be; they can also be tragic. As I have seen on my visits to European countries, one immediately recognises that those youngsters are crying out for love and warmth. In her speech, which I found very moving at times, the hon. Lady emphasised the need for us to work as hard as we can to ensure that youngsters who have been in care for a prolonged period are helped into a loving, tender, caring relationship, to which every child is entitled.

With reference to clause 2, I am involved in the adoption case of a young girl. Her father is serving a prison sentence in Wandsworth prison, which is in my constituency. His relationship with the child's mother has ended, and the mother wants the child placed for adoption. The case is being dealt with by a London borough authority—not my own, Wandsworth. The father does not want the child adopted, but he feels that as a result of the break-up of his relationship with the child's mother and the fact that he is in prison, his views are not being taken into account. I have great sympathy with his views.

From the correspondence that that man has been sending me from Wandsworth prison, my impression is that he and his daughter have a warm relationship. The fact that he is in prison at is obviously an issue, but who can say that when he is released, he will not be capable of bringing up his daughter? From what I have learned from the correspondence, I believe that he has a right to be concerned about the possible adoption of his daughter. It would be interesting to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Meriden on the case, should she catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

In the work that I do in the Council of Europe, I have always made it a policy—which is overwhelmingly supported by members of the committee there—that wherever practicable the young people's views should be sought. When we are dealing with youngsters in care awaiting adoption, their views are not often sought.

As Members of Parliament, all of us visit schools in our constituencies. I find that a wonderful experience, especially visits to junior schools, because the children are so inquisitive and ask so many questions. I believe in being frank with youngsters. They often ask me how much I am paid as a Member of Parliament, and I tell them. That leads to great discussion of the fact that I am earning far more than their fathers, and they wonder how that is possible. That is how one treats youngsters with respect. We should be much more actively involved with youngsters who are in care and waiting to be adopted, to find out what they think and what vision of the future they have. Too often, sadly, that does not happen.

In my constituency I have a large ethnic community, and I deal with a great many immigration cases. There is clear evidence that there are certain solicitors and so-called immigration consultants—I see in the Chamber a former Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who during his time in office will no doubt have come across some of those people—who have little knowledge of immigration law, but rip off my constituents.

There are also adoption agencies that rip people off. The way in which they operate and promote themselves should be much more closely scrutinised. From time to time I hear of cases that make me wonder what right they have to be involved with young children, when their sole consideration is the money that they can make from such cases. I deplore that.

I turn to clause 3. The hon. Member for Meriden and my right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the Hague convention on adoption. It is interesting to note the number of countries that follow it. I listened with interest to the way in which the hon. Lady presented clause 3, as I believe that it could have a bearing on my comments. In March, I tabled a written question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, asking him how many children were allowed into the United Kingdom from overseas countries for adoption by United Kingdom residents … and if he will list the countries from which those children came."—[Official Report, 14 March 2000; Vol. 365, c. 618W.] I was surprised by some of the 26 countries that were listed in the reply. I shall list some of them now, to give the House an indication of the enormous range of countries from which youngsters come into Britain for adoption. As I said, my work in the Council of Europe mostly involves countries that have similar forms of government, but even their adoption legislation can vary enormously. The list that I was given included China, Guatemala, Iran, Jamaica, Libya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ukraine, the United States of America and Vietnam, and those are only 10 out of the 26 countries on the list.

I put it to the House and to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that the adoption laws of those countries must vary enormously. For example, what are the exact procedures that must be followed by somebody who seeks to adopt a child from Iran, Libya or Ukraine? We should be told far more about that. I have been to Ukraine as the chairman of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee of the Council of Europe, so I have seen the appalling problems that exist there. I have visited orphanages in Ukraine where the conditions are utterly deplorable. To their credit, some improvement is now being made, but one can well understand why some countries will say "If we can get our children adopted, our burden will be eased." There may be some merit in that approach, but I believe that we are entitled not only to question deeply people who are seeking to adopt children and to obtain as much information as we can about their background, but to find out a great deal about the youngsters who are entering this country. We must know not only how they come here, but what information about them is available to social services in the areas where they live Sadly, we hear time after time about appalling cases of child abuse in which social services say "We really knew very little about this youngster."

The Committee stage is a great advantage for Bills such as this one. Indeed, it will also benefit the Adoption and Children Bill, whose Second Reading was opened on Monday by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, as we shall have the opportunity to table amendments and new clauses. As the hon. Member for Meriden said, the House rarely has debates about adoption, so I hope that she, the Government and the party managers get together to ensure that the two Bills marry up. It would be a great disaster if anybody said "Well, we have this Bill and we're not interested in yours." We learn from each other, so I hope that the business managers will agree that the two Bills are linked.

All hon. Members who participate in debates such as this share the same overriding concerns. Today is a good day for Parliament, as was Monday. Our discussion will not get a great deal of coverage, but we know that people outside will follow it with great interest, as they did on Monday. This debate is an example of Parliament at its best, because we are discussing a matter that is very precious: the lives of young people, and our duty as the law makers of this country to introduce legislation to ensure the best possible safeguards for them. The Adoption and Children Bill and the hon. Lady's comments go a long way towards achieving that goal.

The hon. Lady made a number of important remarks. She referred to one matter that I thought was very important, and which I see from another angle because Wandsworth prison is situated in my constituency. I refer to contact between birth parents and an adopted child. I ask youngsters about these matters when I visit schools. Of course, some of them will have been adopted. I ask, "If you were adopted, when would you like to know about your real parents and their background?" They say, "When I want to know." I do not believe that youngsters have to be told until they ask.

I take the hon. Lady's point about the need for contact between the birth parents and the adopted youngster, but as she said, costs can be a determining factor in that respect. In Wandsworth prison, I see families who want to keep in contact with somebody who is serving a prison sentence in different part of the country from that in which they live. Their travelling expenses can be horrendous. We all know that it is not cheap to travel in the United Kingdom, and the hon. Lady made an important point about the costs that are involved.

I am about to use an expression that we do not hear much in the House these days. I see on the Opposition Benches colleagues who, like me, have been here for a number of years, so they will know that the phrase "nuts and bolts" was used a great deal in past. I believe that the hon. Lady has put some of the nuts and bolts onto this important issue. I congratulate her on that and wish her Bill success.

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden 10:57, 30 March 2001

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for the compassionate and thoughtful way in which she introduced her Bill. I congratulate her on a dual success: she has not only introduced her Bill, but has helped to provoke the Government into introducing theirs. As she pointed out, her Bill complements the Government's. She has played an important role in moving forward legislation on adoption.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for exemplifying in his contribution the bipartisan nature of this week's debates on adoption. He made important remarks about the international dimension of adoption and the diversity of sources from which children are adopted into this country—an issue to which I shall return in a moment.

Let me explain my interest in this subject. One of the most common mistakes that was made about me when I was Secretary of State for Social Security was the assumption that I was a Secretary of State for social services and that I was therefore responsible for all social services matters. Of course, that was not the case; I was responsible only for social security. When I was investigating and trying to understand the problems that created a need for social security, as well as the characteristics of those who are dependent on the help of the state, I found the same problem time and again. It arose in respect of many people who had been in the state care system, with many different needs and various problems that brought them into contact with the social security system and that could require much more intimate involvement with social services at a local or national level. I became convinced that a major problem arose from the public role in loco parentis. The more I examined the problem, the more severe the failings of our system appeared. The figures are appalling and dramatic.

Between half and three quarters of young people who leave care are unemployed—four times the rate for 16 to 24-year-olds in the population as a whole. Almost three quarters of those who leave care have no qualifications—12 times the average for the population as a whole. Between a quarter and a third of homeless people on the streets of London come from residential care or fostering—60 times the average for the population as a whole. A quarter of all adult prisoners have been in care in their lifetime, and almost 40 per cent. of prisoners under 21 come from the care system. Forty per cent. of young girls who have been in state care become mothers while teenagers, many, alas, while still in care—eight times the average for the population as whole. Their children are 66 times more likely than other children to find themselves in state care. The process is therefore self perpetuating; it is what Keith Joseph called "a cycle of deprivation.

The state has failed as a parent, and we are ultimately responsible for the performance of the state when it has to step in and take over as the parent of children in need who suffer deprivation because of the inability and sometimes unwillingness of their parents to look after them. By contrast, adoption is a success.

It is easier to measure failure than success, and difficult to think of measures of success that are not demeaning. However, by all the standard measures such as success at school, getting jobs, forming settled relationships, getting married and bringing up children, adopted children do far better than those who remain in care, those who are brought up in divided families and even those who are brought up in normal birth families. The dedication and commitment of adopted parents mean that they are often able to bring greater success in life to their adopted children than ordinary parents bring to theirs.

There are 58,000 children in care at any one moment. Many are in care for brief periods before returning to their natural parents. In most cases, that outcome is desirable. However, some 28,000 children have been in care for two years of more. Despite the failure of the state care system and the success of adoption, barely 2,000 children a year are adopted. We must ask why and ascertain what is going wrong.

The care system has been blighted by several scandals, which have been investigated. Ultimately, blame lies with the individuals who have abused the children in their care physically, sexually and psychologically, but blame also lies with us for not being sufficiently rigorous in ensuring that homes were better run.

There is an institutional hostility to adoption in our system, and we need to investigate and overcome it. Until recently, there was a preference for returning children in care to their parents. That is desirable when the parents are able to take them back, but fostering or retention in institutional care has also been preferred to adoption. The processes of adoption, the attitudes prevalent in the system and the incentives built into it are hurdles that discourage or delay adoption.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden pointed out, delays are endemic in the system. She related some telling cases and gave other evidence for that. The British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering study of some 1,600 children who had been adopted from care showed that, contrary to expectations, more than half entered care before their first birthday; more than half of those entered care within a month of being born. Many adopted children have therefore been in the care system since they were very young, yet the average age of placement is three-and-a-half years, and that of adoption is five-and-a-half years. There are long delays in the system for even the minority of children who are adopted.

The reason for the delay is not periods in care punctuated by periods with the birth parents. Eighty per cent. of adopted children never return to their birth parents. The excuse that children may return to their birth parents is often used for retaining children in care and not placing them for adoption, but 80 per cent. never do. They are in care precisely because their parents have proved unable or reluctant to look after them. The desire to return them to the birth parents is therefore often an excuse for retaining them in the system.

There is bureaucratic delay in the processes that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden described, and a lack of urgency. As she pointed out, that is partly caused by the perhaps understandable desire to place the children who are more difficult to place—those who have been in care for a long time and suffer the most disadvantages—in adoptive homes. Emphasis is therefore placed not on the youngest children but on older children who have been in residential or foster care for some time. I believe that that approach is mistaken.

The evidence that the hon. Member for Tooting gave of people's willingness to adopt from abroad, often so that they can adopt a young child, suggests that plenty of people would adopt young children from care, but cannot do so because of the delays and processes that are inherent in our system. They therefore resort to going abroad to look for children, and even try to enter into commercial arrangements. I condemn that as wholeheartedly as the hon. Gentleman did.

Another institutional process that is so damaging to the young children who are ultimately in our care is the shuffling from pillar to post, whereby they are moved from foster family to foster family. Almost one in five children have more than three placements in a year; one in seven have more than six. Fewer than half of those who have been in care for four years or more have spent two years continuously with the same foster parent. We are putting children in care at an added disadvantage, on top of all the problems that they experienced in their early life before they came into care. There has not been enough urgency in trying to overcome that.

For many, if not most, children in care, adoption—permanent placement in a loving household whose members are committed to them—is the most desirable outcome. We must speed up and simplify the process of achieving that happy outcome for many children, and remove the processes that delay it.

Another reason for my interest in this issue is that, by coincidence, I know a number of people who have been involved in adopting children. I spoke to a small number of them before this debate, to draw on their experience. They emphasised that adoption is not for parents; it is for children. Adoption takes advantage of the fact that there are parents with an unfulfilled desire to love children, and we are happy to have that supply of parents to meet the children's needs. That unfulfilled capacity to love exists in society through, for some, the misfortune of being unable to have children, and, for others, a willingness to take on children in addition to their own birth children.

Among the experiences that I heard from other people—I am just reporting what I heard; I am not suggesting that they are a random, representative sample—was what was referred to as, at best, mistrust and, at worst, hostility among some social workers towards potential adoptive parents. There was almost a presumption of guilt on the part of adoptive parents, who seemed to have to prove that they were innocent.

One parent described a sense that the social workers with whom he had dealt were too risk averse. Prolonged checks were carried out into the parent's background, attitudes and approach. That process is never gone through with birth parents, or with those receiving fertility treatment. Nor, apparently, is that thoroughness applied to those working in the care system—or certainly not as thoroughly as we now realise is necessary and desirable—or to the social workers who make these judgments.

One parent referred to the patronising approach that had been taken, citing a three-day parental tutoring course that he had been required to attend. He was already bringing up a child—his wife's child—but, none the less, he had to go on that course and indulge in role playing, some of it offensive, much of it demeaning. The participants were asked to undertake odd scenarios led by social workers who, in large part, were not married, had no experience of bringing up children and had little training but a lot of ideology. Such procedures have, unfortunately, been prevalent in local authority departments.

Another parent had adopted two children. The adoption processes had overlapped for the two children, and a social worker or guardian ad liter had been appointed for each child, in addition to a social worker being appointed in respect of each child to work with the parents. Four social workers were involved. I happened to know those parents while they were going through that process, and they said that three of the social workers had severe social problems. The adoptive parents had the added burden of coping with the social problems of the social workers who were meant to be helping them to adopt the children. That was a serious matter.

We are creating additional problems for adoptive parents. One or two of them said that other potential adoptive parents had been put off by the processes. One practical point noted by an adoptive parent was that, although social workers had been appointed to help with the process and to follow it through and ensure that the children were well placed and settling in, there was no out-of-hours contact with social workers. There was no helpline to call out of hours or at weekends. If there were crises—which seemed to happen at weekends—there was no way of getting in touch with social workers, not even an emergency helpline.

It would be a monstrous imposition to expect all social workers to be available 24 hours a day, but a helpline in the local authority social services department might be a desirable supplement to the help that we give adoptive parents to deal with the crises that can erupt at inconvenient times.

Other parents said that there was a presumption in the system that state care was the default option, and that it was not open to criticism. It was assumed to be positive and desirable. The adoptive parents had to prove simultaneously that they were exceptionally able—that it would, therefore be worth taking a child out of care or foster care to give to them for adoption—and they were not exceptional they were exceptional, they might be thought odd. If they were too clever, too bright or too motivated, that could often be taken as a negative factor. Parents had to prove that they were simultaneously exceptional and unexceptional to get through the process.

Class and anti-racist ideology were also mentioned. I have friends who are a mixed-race couple. Their attempts to adopt a child were refused. They were not fussed about the colour of the child whom they adopted, for obvious reasons, but when asked about their attitude to racism and racial intolerance in our society, they said that, yes, they had suffered direct personal experience of it and that it was a bad thing, but that ultimately it did not really disrupt their lives. That was not a satisfactory answer; it showed that they were insensitive to the problems of racism in society, and they were refused acceptance as adoptive parents by the local authority. Happily, they subsequently moved elsewhere and successfully adopted a child from a more enlightened local authority.

Attitudes hostile to the smooth and sensible operation of adoption have been built into the system. We must ensure that they are eradicated. I am sure that they are not universal, and that there are many dedicated, sensible social workers who are experienced in bringing up children in their personal lives, and who bring that experience and help to adoptive parents, but there are all too many exceptions, and those attitudes can become institutionalised. It is important that we eradicate that institutional hostility to adoption.

One very difficult point was mentioned by a parent to whom I spoke—the feeling that there is over-emphasis in the system on encouraging birth parents to demand and exercise a right of on-going contact with their child. That is a difficult issue for adoptive parents. No one wants to break the link between the child and his or her birth parents unnecessarily.

I am merely reporting the case that was put to me, which was that if the birth parent has been thoroughly unable to look after the child and has agreed that it should be adopted, it is in many cases—perhaps not always—easier for the adoptive parents to have unique parental responsibility, rather than suffering the sporadic interventions of a birth parent who is encouraged by the system to pay occasional and sometimes disruptive visits.

I do not have an easy sense of how one strikes the balance between the possibility of retaining a link with the birth parents, and not doing so. On certain occasions, however, we should allow—as I believe the courts have—a clear run for the adoptive parents when there is a danger that contact with the birth parents might be disruptive, at least until the child nears adulthood.

All those problems can discourage prospective adoptive parents from coming forward. That is sad, when there are children in care who would be better off in adoptive households, and for whom no adoptive parents are available.

What are the remedies? My hon. Friend's Bill provides some important improvements on the present system, particularly the fast-tracking procedure that she emphasised for younger children. If those younger children are clearly not to return to their birth parents, they must be speedily placed in adoptive homes so that they do not have a disrupted early childhood and can rapidly bond with their new parents at an early stage. All the evidence is that they will be much more likely to have happy and settled futures ahead of them if that happens. We must cut out unnecessary delays.

The passporting of finance is also important. One or two parents whom I spoke to said that there appears to be a financial incentive to keep children in the system: the greater the number who are satisfactorily moved to adoption, the more the institutional handling of such children will shrink. That causes a subconscious feeling that the financial incentives built into the system discourage adoption. We do not want that to be exacerbated when a child is moved between local authorities. Therefore, if finance can be passported to remove any disincentive and to ensure that there is adequate provision for aftercare, help and support for an adoptive family, that will be a good thing.

The appeals mechanism is important and my hon. Friend's proposed ombudsman system for all the parties involved would help to smooth over some of the problems. It would also probably help to change attitudes, and I emphasise that point. Change is happening spontaneously and I hope that the Government, through their Bill, take forward that change of attitude in the service to achieve a much more positive approach to encouraging adoption and encouraging parents to come forward and adopt.

That is a matter not only for Members of the House and the Government, but for Churches and community groups, which should encourage people with an unfulfilled capacity to love children to take them into their homes, not least in the case of some of the most difficult and damaged, who would otherwise remain in the care of institutions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing her Bill and welcome the Government's. I believe that the measures are complementary and I hope that they represent the point in our generation at which we can improve the provision for children whom otherwise we have lamentably failed.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 11:22, 30 March 2001

I never thought that I would stand up in the Chamber and say that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) reminds me of the Sundance Kid, but all that has changed this morning. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will remember that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were employed by a Mexican miner to protect his shipment of gold, which was going up the hill, not down it, as he had to point out to them.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

As the hon. Gentleman is far more expert than me not only on cinematography but on Latin America, I am happy to accept his correction.

The key fact is that, when interviewed for that job, the Sundance Kid was told to shoot at a coin that the Colombian mine owner threw on to the ground. Sundance felt very uncomfortable about that. He got out his gun, aimed and fired. He got pretty close to the coin, sitting there on the ground, but he missed. That was probably the first time in his life that he had missed anything with a bullet. Then he said, "Now can I move?" The Colombian said, "Yes, you can do what you like." So he moved, drew his gun, fired at the coin as it flew through the air and hit it several times before it landed. That is the point of the story: the hon. Member for Meriden is unique in choosing to go for a moving target rather than a standing one.

The hon. Lady's measure is a Bill to amend the law on adoption. The question is, which law on adoption? Is it that which is in force or that which may result from the Government's introduction of a Bill whose Second Reading we debated on Monday? Their proposal is a Bill to restate and amend the law about adoption and amend the Children Act 1989. It may pass through the House and become law. Why has she chosen a moving target? I find it absolutely inexplicable. Usually, if one disagrees with a Bill, one ensures that one makes a speech on Second Reading and tables amendments in Committee. That is the normal procedure in the House.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that when my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) entered the ballot, the Government had not announced in the Queen's Speech any intention to introduce an adoption Bill. She offered the Government the chance to use her Bill, but they did not take that up. Indeed, they published their own Bill very late in the day. My hon. Friend has introduced a useful measure and I hope that he agrees, like other Labour Members, that it complements the Government's Bill.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. However, he must know that the Prime Minister announced that he would personally lead a review of adoption policy in February 2000—not this year. He commissioned the Cabinet Office performance and innovation unit to assess the evidence and prepare a report making recommendations for Government policy. The Cabinet Office report, entitled "Prime Minister's Review Adoption", was published for consultation in July 2000. A White Paper entitled "Adoption: a new approach" was published in December 2000. It included a commitment to introduce new adoption legislation in 2001. That is the Bill that we discussed earlier this week.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

There is an important distinction here and the point about 2001 was made very clearly when we withdrew our new clause during debate on the Care Standards Act 2000. The hon. Gentleman is ignoring the fact that the election was likely to be announced, and had it been called for 5 April the Government Bill would never have received a Second Reading.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I listen to what the hon. Lady says and my purpose is not to be obstructive and destructive, but the positive work of engaging with the Government and, to use a word uttered many times by Opposition Members, weaving the changes proposed in her Bill into the Government's legislation would be far better done in the Standing Committee considering the Government Bill. I have made my point.

Every Member of the House would agree that amendment of the adoption law is long overdue. The Adoption and Children Bill introduced to Parliament by the Government on 15 March is substantially the most important such measure for some time and it will thoroughly reform adoption law in England and Wales. It represents the most radical overhaul in about 20 years and follows the adoption White Paper published in December 2000.

The new legislation will play an essential part in underpinning the programme that we set out in the White Paper to encourage greater use of adoption and to deliver our target of a 40 per cent. increase in the number of adoptions from care by 2004–05. It will transform adoption services and put the interests of children at the centre of the adoption process.

On Monday, the whole House was shocked to hear the statistics that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), proclaimed to the House: 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 been in care. As my hon. Friend went on to say That is a failure not of the children in care, but of the system of care.—[Official Report, 26 March 2001; Vol. 59, c. 698.] That is why it is right for this House, in its deliberations earlier this week and in future on the Government Bill, and in its deliberations today, to pay particular attention to that issue.

As quite a regular at our Friday morning debates, I must say in passing that I was overwhelmed to see how full the House was this morning. I know that normally Fridays are sacrosanct for many hon. Members, who like to spend them in their constituencies—[Interruption.] I am sure that they are taking surgeries and doing other very important work.

The fact that our Chamber is fuller today than it normally is on a Friday must be a testimony to the hon. Member for Meriden and her Bill, and her capacity to engender support for it among her colleagues, many of whom are supporting her this morning. I would hate to think that it had anything to do with the second Bill on the Order Paper—the Secret Societies (Registration of Membership) Bill, which would Require that a person elected to public office shall register with the public body to which he has been elected his membership of any secret society", such as the freemasons.

I can, of course, register that—

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

No. I can register that I have no such connection with any secret society.

I hope that it is not because of any desire to obstruct the Bill to be introduced by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) later this morning that we see such a large body of Members on the Opposition Benches. I hope that, like the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who is not in his place at the moment, but has been attending closely to the debate most of the morning, those hon. Members all have a long-standing commitment to child welfare in this country. I know that that is an interest that the hon. Gentleman, like the hon. Member for Meriden, has pursued on many occasions.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I wrote to all 659 Members to encourage them to attend the debates when I originally decided to introduce the Bill. When the Government Bill was introduced, many Members wrote back to me, and more than 40 people said yes, but the hon. Gentleman was not one of them, so he did not receive my billet doux earlier this week containing the draft Bill and an explanatory note. Had he done so, he would have seen that I redoubled my efforts with those who said that they would be able to attend, but unfortunately, he did not receive the briefing.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

The hon. Lady's efforts have clearly not gone unrewarded, and she is well supported.

By modernising and overhauling the adoption law, the Adoption and Children Bill will play a vital role in the drive to transform the adoption service and get many more looked-after children adopted. The Bill will support the White Paper programme in five key ways.

The Bill puts the needs of the child at the centre of the adoption process by aligning the Adoption and Children Bill with the Children Act 1959 in making the child's welfare of paramount concern in all decisions concerning adoption. It will encourage more people to adopt looked-after children, by ensuring that the support that they need will be available, and local authorities will have a clear-cut duty to provide an adoption support service and a new right to an assessment for new adoptive families, as promised in the White Paper.

In clause 1, the hon. Lady seeks, as she puts it, to make the allowances follow the child, to ensure that the cost of taking care of the child when adopted should be able to cross local authority boundaries. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley)—I apologise to him for having caught only the latter part of his speech, because I was temporarily out of the Chamber when he began it—referred to the disparity between what happens when a new child is received into a natural family and when a child is received into an adoptive family.

As the parent of four children, I echo that sentiment. I well remember taking my first child home, being presented with him on the hospital steps by the sister, and thinking, "Well, is that it?" There was no induction procedure, whether for three days or any other length of time. Natural parents have got to get on with it. [Interruption.] Yes, there is often a crisis at weekends in my house—but there is no hotline for social services to send someone to sort it out.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden said that we must begin to treat adoptive parents more like natural parents and say, "They are parents now; let them get on with it." That applies equally when considering what the hon. Lady suggests in clause 1—

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I would be happy to give way on that point—as soon as I have finished making it.

It seems to me that a child adopted by parents in a local authority area becomes, not the child who came from local authority A and is an import to local authority B, stigmatised by having some awkward financial relationship tailing back, but simply a child of that area, as any other local child would be. The hon. Lady must consider carefully the potential stigma for the child funded by a distant local authority—although I understand her reasons for wanting the money to follow the child.

As for allowances following the child, the hon. Lady talked about capital allowances whereby, perhaps, if a family were accepting siblings together, their car could be upgraded from a saloon to a people carrier. I found that part of her speech somewhat strange. We could have been forgiven for thinking that the Conservative party had proposed to increase the social security budget rather than refusing to match the Government's spending proposals. The idea that adoptive children will bring with them large enough resources to upgrade the family car is strange.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I was surprised by what the hon. Gentleman said earlier, because when people adopt older children, many come with a host of problems from their earlier lives. I suggest that training for adoptive parents is important in such cases, and that the sort of financial support that my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden talked about is vital too. I invite the hon. Gentleman to reconsider the points that he has been making. If people take on a child who has been placed in short-term foster care on numerous occasions, especially if an attempt is being made to re-establish a disintegrated family, with the child moving backwards and forwards, they will certainly need some help.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I do not propose that there should not be allowances available when a child comes into a new family, but that they should not necessarily follow from the old authority. My objections related to the transfer from one authority into the new area.

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

The hon. Gentleman has been a distinguished member of the Public Accounts Committee, and has been a signatory to a number of reports in which we have highlighted perverse behaviour by local authorities. Housing benefit is an example that comes to mind. Local authorities can behave perversely because they would lose out as a result of a proper action. My hon. Friend's proposals are designed to prevent such perverse behaviour. How would the hon. Gentleman's proposals achieve that?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, but perhaps he did not listen carefully enough to what I said. I said that I thought there was another aspect that the hon. Member for Meriden should consider. I did not say that there was not good reason in principle to ensure that money follows the child: support must be provided.

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman said about perverse incentives, but it is important for the new local authority providing care to have a sense of ownership of the child in the new community, and a sense that this child is different. The existence of a funding stream relating to the previous authority may create an artificial distinction between the children in the new authority's remit. I am not saying that the point about perverse incentives was not fair, but there must be some way of overcoming the resistance of authorities to the transfer or acceptance of children into adoptive-parent structures.

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

Might not the same end be achieved by a ring-fenced direct change in standard spending assessment? That would have exactly the same effect.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

In many respects, that might indeed be a better way around the problem.

The existing adoption legislation needs to be changed, and the Adoption and Children Bill, which we discussed earlier in the week, will help that. It will support efforts to build confidence in the adoption process—efforts whose importance has been stressed by Members on both side of the House today—by encouraging more people to come forward to adopt, and enabling the Secretary of State to establish an independent review mechanism for applicants who consider that they are being turned down unfairly. It will help to cut harmful delays. We have already set challenging time targets for decision making in the application process in the draft national adoption standards that were published with the White Paper. The Bill provides for the Secretary of State to establish a national adoption register to reduce delays for adopters and children waiting to be matched, which must be a good thing. It also includes measures requiring the courts to draw up timetables for adoption cases, to help cut delays in the legal process.

The Bill that we are now discussing deals with an important topic, which all Members think the Government should address and which the Government have rightly addressed. I believe that the best way of ensuring that we have the best legislation for our children is for the Adoption and Children Bill to receive widespread and all-party support, for Members to engage in constructive discussion of that Bill both here and in the Standing Committee, and for sensible amendments—such as those contained in the hon. Lady's Bill, which make important points and may well improve the Government's legislation—to be made in that Committee. I do not believe that the hon. Lady's Bill, as a free-standing private Member's Bill, is appropriate at this stage of the parliamentary process.

Mr. Humfrey Matins (Woking):

Let me begin by declaring an interest. As a solicitor, I practised for some years in the field of family law and adoption, before moving on to a career in crime—[Laughter.] Perhaps that is the wrong phrase. In due course I sat, and continue to sit, as a recorder in the Crown court, and as a district judge in the magistrates courts.

Putting children's needs at the centre of the process: that is a laudable aim. The Government Bill sought to achieve that aim, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her Bill because it complements the Government's Bill. As the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said earlier, Friday mornings can show the House at its best, when Members are not arguing with each other but trying to be constructive.

I believe that adoption should be very high on our agenda. I ask Members to accompany me on a journey. Let them come with me to the courts where I sit day after day—perhaps to Camberwell Green, or to the south-western court of Clapham; perhaps to Greenwich, Woolwich, or the Thames court at Bow in Poplar. Let them sit with me on the bench, and look at the court in front of me. They will see 50, 60, 70 defendants, all to be dealt with that morning. Many are aged between 18 and 21. They are there for crimes of violence involving drink—quite often—or drugs—quite often.

The defendant may be black, or he may be white. He is young: he is certainly young. Before we sentence him we read the pre-sentence report, which reads as follows. "This defendant has a very troubled background. His father was violent; his mother was an alcoholic. When he was two his home life broke up, and he was taken into care. He spent some time with foster parents, then went back into care, then went back to the foster parents. Between the ages of five and 17, he was in care. He never had a settled background; he never acquired a qualification. He was in care, in care, in care."

If Members look up from the bench, they will see the young man in front of them. He represents a real problem: the link between a family background that is non-existent—a really troubled childhood—and crime. As was said earlier today, some 40 per cent. of young criminals have been in care. I do no often read a report that tells me that a young man, or woman, was adopted at the age of one and brought up by a loving couple. Oh no: I read "in care".

Let no one be under any illusions about the crisis that faces a nation in which, as I am led to believe, nearly 60,000 children are in care. That is the future criminal generation—and who is to say that it is their fault? Did not my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) say that the state was not a good parent, or words to that effect? How right he was. That is why this is such an important debate . Was it the Jesuits who said, "Give us a child until he is seven, and we can always keep him thereafter", or something like that? Do we not all know that those are indeed the most formative years of a child's life?

I understand that there are some 4,000 adoptions per year in England and Wales. I would be interested to know the number of children available for adoption, and whether that 4,000 figure represents as small a proportion of the available children as I believe it does.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The 4,000 figure represents a fall from the figure of some 25,000 in 1975.

Photo of Humfrey Malins Humfrey Malins Conservative, Woking

I did not know that. It is a telling statistic, and it must have something to do with the problems of the young in our society today.

I should also like to know what proportion of the 4,000 children are aged between nought and two, what proportion are aged between two and four, what proportion are between four and eight and what proportion are between eight and 12. If adoption is to be effective, it is surely terribly important for a young child to be very young when adopted—no older than eight or nine.

I want to comment on one or two aspects of my hon. Friend's Bill and compare it with the Government's Bill. Under clause 96 of the Government Bill, the Secretary of State can establish and maintain a national adoption register containing some prescribed information—so far so good—but we all agree that there is a need to ensure that the process of matching children and parents should become much more effective and efficient. One feels—dare I say it?—that the dead hand of bureaucracy and paperwork, which is daily and irresistibly increasing in our lives, needs to be kept in check as much as possible in the adoption process. We all agree that the process of matching children and parents should take a much shorter time. Every day or month that slips by can delay the much needed arrival of the stability and security that adoption can bring.

Most usefully, my hon. Friend's Bill focuses on the need to passport the money. Currently, a disincentive exists, as an authority that receives a child from another authority will be liable for all payments connected to it. Under her Bill, the authority responsible for the child—the one under which the adoption plan for the child was made—will have financial responsibility too.

I move to the appeals system and an omission in the Government Bill which I believe most of us recognise. Currently, appeals go into the system. Often, a complaint against an authority is dealt with by the director of social services. It has been pointed out that that is not always a satisfactory situation. My hon. Friend's Bill widens the appeals process. It refers to the ability of an adoptive parent or prospective adoptive parent to appeal against any decision by an adoption agency. It goes further; it states that the guardian ad litem for a child may appeal against any decision by an adoption agency that materially affects the interests of that child.

The role of the guardian ad litem is important and should perhaps be extended considerably in time, noting as we should his obvious ability to articulate complaints that the child or young person could not so readily do. Should there not be provision for those who may be concerned about a child to make a complaint on behalf of the child—for example, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, a paediatrician who may have a lot of contact through his or her professional life with a child and who may have any number of concerns? The Children's Commissioner for Wales and the children's rights director in England could be given power to oversee the whole process of adoption and to act as ombudsman. They could and perhaps should be given unrestricted access to the child in care to establish at the point of delivery whether proper care is being provided and whether the adoption process is proceeding fast enough.

I move to what we call the fast-tracking of babies within the adoption system. It is dealt with in clause 3 of my hon. Friend's Bill. We all know that it is much easier to place a baby for adoption than an older child such as a teenager. In recent times, much emphasis has been placed on the tricky placement of those older children. That is all very well, but has that been at the expense of placing babies and very young children?

Some children are growing up in a succession of foster homes. It is difficult for them to form a stable and permanent relationship with any adoptive family. That is doubly bad, for we all know that the younger a child is, the more easily it will settle into a new family. Equally, if younger children are placed more efficiently and quickly, there will be fewer older and, by definition, more difficult children to deal with. A fast track for adoption of babies and young children where time limits were lower than for older children would thus help to reduce the problem. The main point is that it is critical that a young child should have the chance to settle into a family as soon as possible.

Let us never forget that the needs of the child are paramount, and that that child is already—do not forget it—damaged by the fact that its home life is in some difficulty. Next and most importantly, as institutions, the family and marriage are still vital to the safe continuance of a free society. It saddens me that they are both institutions that in today's climate are often sneered at and undervalued. All research confirms that the best, although not of course the only, environment for children to be brought up in is marriage. A stable home based on marriage and the family, and the influence of a mother and father, are the best guarantees against a child turning to crime—I should know that.

Let me ask hon. Members to look up from their desk in Camberwell court and see the young man aged 19 who is standing trembling 10 yd away, and who, for the 14th, 12th or 10th time, is before us for sentence. He has never been adopted. He should have been adopted as a baby because then he would have had a chance. He was in care. Which of us dares look at him and tell him to go to Feltham young offenders institution for over-18s, the biggest hell-hole I have ever seen, for six months? That is why I say that adoption should go right to the top of our agenda when we think about young people.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne 11:57, 30 March 2001

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), first, on being successful in the private Member's Bill ballot last December, secondly, on choosing adoption as the subject for her Bill and her excellent presentation this morning, and thirdly, for revealing a serious omission in the Labour Government's legislative programme that was outlined in the Queen's Speech. I am sure that the Minister is aware that many of us were extremely disappointed that adoption was not given priority by the Government at the beginning of the parliamentary Session, but I am pleased that that has now been corrected by the Government s recently published Bill on adoption and children, which had its Second Reading last Monday.

Unfortunately, I was unable to participate in that debate owing to other parliamentary commitments, but naturally I welcome any measures that focus on the interests of children throughout adoption procedures. I know that Opposition Front Benchers have indicated their support for the principle of that Bill. I also, of course, welcome my hon. Friend's Bill, which addresses additional adoption issues.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) for their contributions to today's debate. I think that they have clearly demonstrated the consensus on both sides of the Chamber on encouraging adoption by means of the measures that the House is considering.

Hon. Members may know that I was Chairman of the Select Committee on Health for five years, from 1992 to 1997, in which time the Committee undertook an inquiry into children's health. It was the first time such an inquiry had been conducted. The inquiry was very wide ranging, and it was broken down into reports on specific headings—such as the health needs of children and young people; health services for children and young people in the community, home and school; child and adolescent mental health services; and hospital services for children and young people. Unfortunately, the 1997 general election interrupted our programme of investigations.

Following that general election, I was no longer a member of that Committee. However, I am delighted to say that the new Committee members continued the unfinished business and, in July 1998, produced a report on children looked after by local authorities in which, of course, adoption featured.

The report endorsed the view that the Children Act 1989 is correct to presume that the best possible outcome to episodes of care is the child's successful reunion with a loving birth family which receives appropriate support to enable it to cope with the child. None the less, in some cases, there is no realistic prospect of a child ever returning to his or her birth family. In those circumstances, adoption is one of a number of options that should be considered.

Adoption should proceed only when, first, it is judged that there is no realistic prospect of reconciliation with the birth family; secondly, when adoption is in accord with the wishes of the child, assuming of course that the child is old enough to reach a decision on such matters; and thirdly, when the would-be adoptive parents have been assessed as capable of coping with the demands that the child will place on them

A social services inspectorate report, with the evidence that the Health Committee took from others at that time, made it clear that local authorities too often fail to take adoption sufficiently seriously as an option, that unnecessary delays occur and that insufficient support is offered to adoptive parents. When a looked-after child is adopted, it is important that the decision-making process should proceed without undue delay, and that appropriate support be offered to adoptive parents during and after the process of adoption.

In 1996, the social services inspectorate found that serious delays frequently occurred between the forming of a plan for the adoption of a child and the making of a placement. Those delays were found to be attributable partly to the absence of a sense of urgency on the part of the social services department or an unwillingness to commit resources to the cost of inter-agency placement. Of course we know that some local authorities discharge their duties competently. However, several of the witnesses who came before the Committee claimed that social services departments and social workers can display an irrational hostility to the concept of adoption.

The organisation Adoption Forum stated that the presumption that all children are better off with their birth families … is palpably lacking in common sense when so many children are mistreated, abused and neglected by those families", and claimed that linked to this presumption is the practice of returning children time and again to their abusers or those who have been seen to be unable to deal with life as a parent … functioning biology does not make a person a good enough parent". Adoption Forum argued that a child who has been "looked after" continuously for six months is unlikely to be successfully reconciled with his of her birth family in the long term, that in such cases adoption should be considered, and that it should be a statutory requirement for adoption to be considered in the cases of children who have spent more than 18 months in the care system.

A group of adoptive parents also gave oral evidence to the Health Select Committee. They claimed that many social workers were biased against adoption and that, when mothers were unable to cope with very young children and wished to have them adopted, undue pressure was often brought to bear on them to change their mind.

Sir William Utting said that his review team, reporting on the safeguards for children living away from home, had found evidence in 1987 that authorities are too careful and painstaking in their regard for parental rights and are less active in protecting children against known or suspected harm … some children told us that one of the worst things for them was actually being made to go home at weekends to families where they had been abused". The Parent to Parent Information on Adoption Services body agreed with the Adoption Forum that delays and too stringent criteria in the current care system made it unnecessarily difficult to adopt. However, it added that an I improved system would still not turn thousands of young, inexperienced, infertile couples who long for a baby into parents immediately able to take on board the needs and behaviour of an 18-month-old who has been severely neglected from birth, an eight-year old who has been rejected by his birth mother, abused by his mother's partners and moved 26 times through the care system, or a group of four brothers and sisters who need to stay together and to recover from years of sexual abuse.

Clause 3, which deals with fast tracking for the adoption of babies and young children, is particularly relevant to the points that I have raised. There is no doubt in my mind that it is in the best interests of a child to settle as young as possible into a new and permanent family unit. Let us make no mistake about it—influences on small babies and young children can have a profound effect on how they develop and mature. A warm, stable and, importantly, loving environment in which to grow up from the earliest moment is essential for laying the foundations of a well balanced and happy adult—an individual who will take their place in society as a contributor to the well-being of their community and give their own families, in due course, security and the knowledge of the meaning of loving care.

The more disruption there is in a child's life, the more difficult it may become to place that child as it grows older and to heal the damage from which it may have suffered, both physically and mentally, during the course of its early years.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:08, 30 March 2001

I support the Bill of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and I am delighted that it has been introduced. Just like waiting for a bus, we have waited ages for such a Bill, and now two have come along at once. It is ironic that we have had what seems like Bill after Bill on this subject in the past couple of weeks.

I should like to declare two interests. The first is formal: I am a member of Stockport metropolitan borough council's social services committee, which is an adopting agency, so I see some of these issues from the local authority's angle. It has been a matter of intense concern to members of the committee to ensure that the life chances and educational chances of children in our care and protection are handled sensitively, and that we provide them in full measure as best we can.

My second interest is informal. I have five children, two of whom are adopted and of mixed race. They would probably be a little insulted to be described as children; they are both in their twenties and are making their way, very successfully, in the world. One of the facts of life in the adoption culture is that we would not have been permitted to adopt them if we had begun to do so five years later than we did because of their mixed racial background. I therefore have a particular perspective on the debate.

As my earlier intervention on the hon. Member for Meriden showed, I think that preserving young people's life and educational chances is absolutely fundamental. That is the why I strongly support the changes to the adoption laws proposed in the Bill and in the Adoption and Children Bill, which the Government have introduced. The delays, the multiple placements, the changed physical locations, the different relationships that children have to form, the different schools that they attend, the different school friends that they have to make and the damage to a young person's emotional development that all that implies are precisely what creates the circumstances that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) outlined in referring to his court experiences. We must recognise the tremendous damage that we do simply because we try too hard to ensure that the care and the parents are appropriate.

If the revised laws, which I hope will soon be introduced, have the effect that their promoters, including the hon. Lady, want them to have, and if we can do anything to reduce the disruption and emotional betrayal, we will have done young people a tremendous service and, incidentally, produced real benefits for society. The fact of the matter is that children who slip through the adoption system are exactly the people who turn up in court later on.

As an adoptive parent, I am perhaps in a good position to make a couple of points. Children are not a commodity. We are not simply trying to produce a more efficient supermarket so that the goods reach consumers as quickly as possible. The proposals are not about making it easy for adoptive parents; they must never be seen as a way to fulfil the wishes of middle-class couples in the shortest possible time. I say in all sincerity that, like every other hon. Member, I deal with people seeking adoption and a variety of matters relating to adoption, and people's expectations can be based on their own wish fulfilment, rather than on meeting the needs of children and young people.

Having said that, I want to turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who spoke about the training that adoptive parents undergo and the lack of training that he had as a natural parent. My wife and I had two natural children before starting our programme of adoption, if that is not too grand a title. We were aware of the stark contrast that existed. We did not have to ask anyone, and no one asked us, about our two natural children, but as soon as we wanted to adopt, people started to ask questions. When we had the first two, no one knew whether we were alcoholics, drug abusers or child abusers, and no one asked.

Luck was on our side and everything was okay, but as soon as we sought to adopt, every question was asked and every examination carried out. I do not resent that at all—in fact, it has brought my wife and I to a conclusion that is the reverse of that reached by the hon. Member for Brent, North: it should be rather more difficult to have natural children.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am well aware that a bit of levity does not go amiss, but we need to ensure that our young people have the parenting skills that make them effective natural parents, as well as ensuring that those who seek to become adoptive parents have the requisite skills. The level of skill needed is not lower for natural parents; it is the same. We make real efforts to ensure that adoptive parents have those skills. We test their skills before we let them loose. Parenting skills should perhaps be another subject in the national curriculum.

The hon. Member for Meriden needs to do a little more work on two or three points. She talked about extending the role of guardians ad litem so that they play a supervisory role for longer. The Minister asked precisely what she meant, and I hope that she will not mind my saying that she was a teeny bit woolly in her response. Does she envisage an extra six months, six years or 16 years? My experience as a member of a social services committee is that guardians ad litem are like gold dust. They have to be qualified social workers from outside the area. In Stockport, a number of our senior social workers already spend a good deal of their time acting as guardians to children in other authorities, and vice versa. There is a problem about expecting senior qualified people on loan from other authorities to provide the service for an extended period. That is not to say that behind her proposal there is not a good idea, but the hon. Lady perhaps needs to take a second look at it.

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made a point about the life experience that social workers bring to the job. My experience of adoption is many years ago now, but the social worker whom we dealt with was a young, unmarried woman. There was no harm in that; she was excellent. I have no complaints, but I hear stories that suggest that social workers sometimes come to the task with little idea of what bringing up children is about and carry out tests as though from a book. Some parents who have more experience of children and of life find that pretty tedious, especially if they are rejected. There is an issue not so much about social work training as about ensuring that social workers have the life experience that will fit them for their role.

I do not want to nit-pick with regard to this Bill or the Government's Bill. I am delighted that we are at last making progress in an area that cries out for reform, and I wish the Bill well

Photo of David Davis David Davis Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 12:17, 30 March 2001

There is in my part of the world a rather apposite proverb, which is that good ideas have many parents and bad ideas have none. By that measure, the proposed adoption legislation is a good idea, because many claims have been made to its parenthood—to its maternity and paternity rights. I will not revisit the spat that we had on Monday, but my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) has done a good job of midwifery on the legislative programme in encouraging what may be one of the most important pieces of social legislation of the decade. Her Bill highlights and corrects gaps in the Government's Adoption and Children Bill that were recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the Minister, on Monday.

It is clear that the Government's Bill was rapidly drafted. That is why the Government sensibly took the route of a special Select Committee, which no doubt will run into the next parliament, whichever party wins the general election. Notable omissions were picked up in Monday's debate, and my hon. Friend has corrected them all in her Bill. We should be careful with social legislation, especially if it is important and is supported by Members on both sides of the House. Such legislation is most prone to being enacted without sufficient care and attention to detail. The Bill to create the Child Support Agency, to introduce care in the community and a series of other Bills are examples of that.

I am sorry that the Minister is not on the Bench, but I hope that the Government will adopt my hon. Friend's proposals in the special Select Committee that will consider their Bill. That is their best chance of making the statute book.

It is difficult to follow the many excellent speeches that have been made, including from the past Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), a magistrate who has dealt with the victims, if that is the right word, of the current system, a past Secretary of State for Social Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. I shall be brief, and take up one point on each of the three clauses.

First, I refer to the passporting of money, on which there was some argument across the Chamber. The best example of the need for it was highlighted when the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, which represents most of the local authorities involved in adoption and fostering, tried to introduce a national adoption scheme of its own, by circulating pictures and details of children to many parents throughout the country. That scheme was thwarted by local authorities refusing to allow parents in their areas to cross borders. They had spent money on selecting parents. That simple resource shortage thwarted the first voluntary attempt to set up a national adoption register

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is entirely right when she says that we must have a capitation scheme. It does not matter whether that goes through the standard spending assessment directly or whether it is a legislative scheme, as is proposed. It must be clear, and it must apply to voluntary agencies. There are quite serious problems even between the voluntary sector and local authorities in this context.

For example, most local authorities think that it costs about £3,000 to recruit a new adoptive parent. Voluntary agencies have to find £14,000 for each parent. There are real problems in terms of how much to pay and where the money will come from, which thwarted the previous attempt to set up a register. These problems apply also to the various types of children who are passed on, and include age and the extent of damage. Those factors should dictate different levels of capitation. Therefore, the system will need to be carefully thought through.

My hon. Friend was right when she spoke about the appeals system. The White Paper contains several paragraphs that start with these words The Government will legislate to revise the review mechanism for assessments, to establish a new independent system. That is taken up in some detail in paragraph 6.23. The matter is important in its own right. As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said, there are some difficulties. However, it is necessarily important, not only because it will provide justice with in the system but because it will change the behaviour patterns of local authorities.

One of the difficulties within local authorities is the lack of oversight. In a non-transparent system, the pressures to behave properly and justly, with a view to the right outcome in the long term, disappear. They are often subsumed by matters such as resource shortages or the department having only untrained youngsters to put into the adoption and fostering sector. We are talking of a necessary requirement for justice and for a change of behaviour.

The Bill contains a proposal to fast-track babies, which arose on Monday. There is no doubt that it is an extremely important issue, as the Minister recognised on Monday. It is dreadful that the Association of Directors of Social Services does not recognise that. It does not regard fast tracking as one of the most serious issues to be taken on board. That is why legislation is required, or strong legislative guidance.

It is obviously assumed that fast tracking is the right thing. It is clear that a year in care for a one-year-old does more harm than a year in care for an 11-year-old, who perhaps has already been in care for 10 years. Statistics show that break-up rates for older children are much higher than those for younger children, but that does not pick up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, which was that the qualitative nature of the bond with a one-year-old is different from the bond with an 11-year-old. One knows that if one has teenage children, let alone if they are adopted. The Minister has accepted that argument, but directors of social services departments do not, and we must make that clear.

Finally, record keeping is extraordinarily important. Again, it is not dealt with in legislation, but it is important to recognise it from the perspective of social services directors and local authorities. Do social services directors know about all the children who have been moved six or seven times or even, in the case I cited on Monday night, 60 times? If a child dies in care from a drugs overdose, having been moved 60 times, social services directors must know how many times the child had been moved, and must have that drawn to their attention; the information must be easily available. Furthermore, everybody in their department must know that the figures will be available to the world at large—not information about individuals, but overall statistics on how well the department has done and what has happened to the children in its care.

If we do not have those records, the situation will continue; the placing of children will be driven by resources—how many foster parents are available—and the expediency of having to solve a problem by the end of the week, rather than solving it properly. My hon. Friend is right to put record keeping in her Bill.

May I repeat to the Minister what I said at the beginning of my speech? I hope that he will take note of the points that I have made, none of which is partisan, and virtually all of which were made on Monday by Members on both sides of the House, including the chairman of the all-party adoption group, a member of the Minister's own party. All those points are important and are perfect items to be considered during the special Select Committee stage of the Government Bill. That is the best way to ensure that the Minister gets a good Bill and that my hon. Friend's Bill makes it into law.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 12:27, 30 March 2001

May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on introducing a timely measure? I pay tribute to the work that she has put in during the lead-up to the presentation of her Bill, especially in the past week, not least since the publication of the Government Bill. A tremendous effort is involved in putting together and introducing a Bill that is in order, especially when there is short notice as a consequence of the introduction of a Government Bill on the subject.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the impact that she has had in expediting the Government measure. She sounded a cautionary note on the necessity of staying in order when debating her Bill, given the existence of the Government Bill; I took that as a warning that I should not be tempted to repeat the speech that I made on the Government Bill on Monday. I shall endeavour not to repeat myself but, given the number of Members who did not speak on Monday but have had a second opportunity to address the House on an important subject, it will be difficult to avoid much of the same agenda, even if I avoid making the same speech.

In her exposition of her Bill, my hon. Friend was extremely lucid about the importance of passporting finance and the question of an adoption allowance. If any Members were in the dark about the intricacy of those subjects before her presentation, they could not claim to be so now. Certainly, it would be impertinent of me to address those subjects in any detail, given her exposition. That is also true of what she said about the need for a fair and transparent appeals system.

My hon. Friend was followed by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who could not be with us on Monday. Had he been here, he would not have been out of place because our proceedings were characterised by a high-quality debate, and his contribution today lived up to that standard.

The hon. Gentleman brought us his valuable experience as the chairman of the Council of Europe social affairs committee. He drew our attention, rightly, to the variable performance of local authorities and he introduced a significant constituency case. Opinionated as we politicians naturally are, it is important for us to be conditioned by the real experience of ordinary constituents. Such constituency cases brought to our attention in the Chamber are vital to anchor us in the reality that ordinary people experience. The hon. Gentleman emphasised the need to scrutinise adoption agencies, and dealt with important aspects of overseas investment. He ended with a powerful call for unanimity and for the two Bills to be married together. I should certainly welcome that as the outcome of our debate today.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) followed, and introduced a point that is implicit in all that has been said in the debate, but it was valuable to have it made explicit that adoption is for children. He went on to argue cogently that the state has failed as a parent and that, by contrast, adoption is a success. He drew attention to a troubling problem in some local authorities, but by no means all: in some cases, there is an institutional hostility to adoption and a preference for returning children to their birth families.

We know the possible consequences when those families have no desire for the children's return or are inadequate to it. I draw the attention of the House to the case of Rikki Neave in that respect. My right hon. Friend noted that 80 per cent. of children never return to their birth parents, and it is to those 80 per cent. that we owe a huge duty of care. By introducing measures such as the Bill, we shall provide them with a much greater opportunity to achieve the adoption that they so badly need.

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) did us a service by drawing our attention to the Prime Minister's commitment to the subject. I hope that as a result of that commitment, the agenda will be moved swiftly forward and that both Bills will be united. The hon. Gentleman told us a great deal about the Government's Bill, which was not unhelpful. Notwithstanding the fact that we are not debating that Bill, it was useful to be reminded of the Government's proposals, and 1 thank him for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Matins) spoke powerfully. It was a privilege to have the benefit of his experience as a member of the magistracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) gave us the benefit of her experience as a member of the Select Committee on Health. She gave an excellent exposition and spoke of the realistic prospect of reconciliation with birth families. That should not be denied, but I wonder whether she would agree that there is a difficulty when, social workers put the possibility of reconciliation with the birth family above every other priority. Such reconciliations fail much more often than do adoptions. I do not believe that public policy should ever be allowed to be driven by the sometimes capricious demands of birth families to be considered and to maintain some cursory contact, where that may wreck the child's chance of a new start in an adoptive family.

As I said on Monday, the irresponsibility of some birth parents must be limited in that respect. There are serial mothers who fantasise about gathering all their children together at some time in an ideal future, but such fantasies cannot be allowed to prevent children from pursuing their lives and getting a new start in the meantime. Of course, the alternative is to go through the care system, with all the consequences about which we have heard. I assume that my hon. Friend is thoroughly aware of those issues, as she quoted the Utting report in that regard.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made a tremendous contribution that was born out of his experience not only as a member of a local government social services committee, but as an adoptive parent. I thought that he was rather disparaging when he said that being an adoptive parent was no more difficult than being a natural one. I bow to his experience, as he is both, but I should have thought that being an adoptive parent was more difficult, as if requires greater resourcefulness. He implied that adoptive parents were more resourceful by saying that only they are required to demonstrate that they can carry out the task of parenting before they are allowed to do so.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problem of mixed-race adoption. I have done some reading about that, and I hope that he can help me on some of the issues that are raised. I have read expositions suggesting that children from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds should not be expected to be adopted in the same way as children from other backgrounds, because of the huge and much wider support systems that exist in Afro-Caribbean families. It is sometimes suggested that the children of such families can more readily be raised by aunts, uncles and close relatives than children from indigenous families.

I am doubtful about that. The reality is that statistics about those who are categorised as black children for adoption deal mainly with mixed-race children for adoption.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I shall do so once I have formulated my argument—if, indeed, I can do so.

The children to Whom I refer are generally of mixed race and usually have a white mother and a black father whose relationship has broken down. Such children have no means of support and no extended family, so there is a case for suggesting that we should not concern ourselves too much with finding the ideal family for a particular child. If staying in care is a likely consequence, surely any other option is better.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I hesitate to lurch from being a parent to being a world expert in one intervention, but I must say that, in an increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic Britain, we need to recognise that we are not talking about first-generation immigrants. That is certainly the case with my children, who were the product of natural parents who were not themselves first-generation immigrants. We are talking about people who are British, but of a different colour. I say to the hon. Gentleman—I want to keep this intervention short—that I hope that I shall have some debates with Conservative Members about precisely what we mean by the terms "multicultural" and "multi-ethnic". The fact is that we are talking about British children who happen to have a different ethnic background. They do not intrinsically have better support services or better—or even different—cultural backgrounds.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That was a helpful intervention, and I bow to the hon. Gentleman's experience.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) said that it was difficult to follow so many excellent speeches. I remind him of his excellent speech on Monday. In his short, important contribution today, he drew to our attention the way in which the previous attempt to establish a national register for adoption on a voluntary basis was thwarted because finance could not be passported. The Bill tries to tackle that problem. My right hon. Friend's telling point will inform our decision on the measure. He also spoke of the importance of fast tracking babies, and provided the significant insight that a year in care is much more damaging for a small child than for are 11-year-old.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned record keeping, which the Bill covers. Other speakers have not dwelt on that important point, but I shall say more about it later. He suggested considerations that directors of social services should make about the records that their local authorities should collect. Again, I want to revert to that subject shortly.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden set out the reasons for the Bill, she did us a service by recalling that we have an opportunity that generally occurs once in a generation in the history of adoption. That history goes well beyond the House's involvement, which began in the 1920s. Adoption has an ancient and distinguished history. The course of history would have been different if Moses had not been adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. However, transplanting an adoptee into a new family as a full member of it is a 20th-century phenomenon.

In the past, adoption was different. Foundlings and orphans were taken in by relatives or others in ancient societies, but they were rarely considered full members of the adoptive families with equal rights in the way in which the Adoption of Children Act 1926 established for the first time in Anglo-Saxon legal history. In the past, considerations of lineage and inheritance worked against the inclusion of adoptees as full and equal members of a family.

Despite the 1926 Act, institutions were considered to be the proper places in which to care for foundlings, orphans and children who had been rejected by their birth parents. That ethos extended into the second half of last century, when large institutions, many of them charitable, were created specifically for that purpose.

The Bill seeks to amend the Adoption Act 1976, which is the successor of the 1926 Act. Our understanding of adoption as shown in the measure and in the 1976 Act is a relatively new, 20th-century phenomenon. They are not based on the models of adoption that stretch back to ancient times.

It was stressed on Monday and today that an institutional background for children has been a disaster, which is compounded by the increase in family breakdown that we witness in our times.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden did us a service by drawing the level of family breakdown to our attention. In my experience, when constituents come to my surgeries with a problem, that problem might have manifested itself in any of a number of ways—but, in nine out of 10 cases, if we scratch the surface, family breakdown usually lies behind it. That is something that we face in our time more than ever before.

Local authorities have not been successful in protecting children in their care. Those children are the most disadvantaged, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden gave us a series of powerful statistics to bear that out. Let us face it, children leaving care account for less than 1 per cent. of their generation, yet they are vastly over-represented in measures of deprivation such as psychiatric disorder, poor health and a lack of educational achievement—75 per cent. of such children have no educational qualifications at all.

Children leaving care lack many of the basic life skills. More importantly, they are deprived of that kin support system that young adults enjoy by being members of a family, and being able to go home with their problems and receive advice, love and financial support. That is not available to children in care. That is why children who have been in care are over-represented among the homeless, the unemployed and those in prison. It is a shocking statistic that one in seven young women leaving care is either already a mother or pregnant. What possible start in life can a child have, being born to a young girl leaving care? The whole cycle of deprivation is set to begin again.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), said on Monday that there had been a significant increase recently in the number of foster parents making their services available. That is encouraging and most welcome, because two thirds of local authorities have problems recruiting foster parents. One study showed that 60 per cent. of foster parents had been fostering for less than a year, so there is a relatively high turnover. As a result of the shortage, only 20 per cent. of local authorities can offer a choice of placement to a child under 10. Only 3 per cent. of local authorities can offer a choice of placement to an older child. That lack of scope for choice raises the question of how many children get a placement determined by a proper measure of their needs.

The foremost feature of the system is the children's experience of moving through multiple placements. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden spoke of a case in which a child had had 60 placements. There are many 10-year-old children in our land who have had 10 foster homes since the age of five. It is little wonder that they emerge from the process so disadvantaged. To be honest, we have abolished their childhood.

The alternative social policy to care and fostering is adoption. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden pointed out, adoption is a success: it works. In so far as anything works, only a substitute family seems up to the task of bringing troubled children into adulthood. That bears testimony to the therapeutic effects of the love of the new family. I suggest that the tremendous ability to overcome early disadvantage is evidence of grace working through our modern world.

Adopted children have fewer problems than non-adopted children from similar circumstances. It is important to bear that in mind, because in a telling intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), we learned that only 9 per cent. of adoptions fail. The figure is higher for older children who suffer with a number of particular disadvantages such as learning difficulties and special needs. Nevertheless, even for older children with special needs, the adoption failure rate is only about 20 per cent and, overall, adoption is successful in 90 per cent. of cases.

Of course, the younger the age at which adoption takes place, the more successful it is. Therefore, as I said on Monday, there is, to an extent, a possibility that adoption delayed is adoption denied, so our purpose must be to fashion a public policy to allow more children to benefit from adoption, and to benefit from it sooner, by tackling the delays. That is the context in which I consider the Bill.

The local authorities are the instrument through which adoption takes place and their performance is patchy: some are very good or exemplary, others not so. We have heard about the differential rates at which adoption is achieved, which are highly variable. We must find ways to get the worst to perform as the best and we must attack the endemic and systemic delays in the process.

We must also tackle the perception—I choose my words carefully—of political correctness, which hon. Members dealt with not so much today as on Monday. The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) made a brave attempt, and certainly the only one made on that occasion, to defend what some people would regard as political correctness, pointing out that, in many cases, it represents common sense. There is some force in what he said, but the risks in being adopted by fat people or smokers are very, very much smaller than those attendant on a child who is not adopted, but left in care.

It is important that we devise methods, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, to ensure that more children are adopted and adopted more quickly. We must also ensure that the decision-making process involves appropriate decisiveness and minimum delay, and at various points we need sanctions against bureaucratic inertia.

Schools make public their performance tables annually. It would not be unreasonable to expect local authorities to publish—say, within 30 days of the year end—the number of children in care, the time that they have been in care and the number who are free to be adopted, but who have not yet been put in pre-adoptive placements. The provision of such statistics and the collection of that information would in itself provide incentives for the less-well-performing local authorities to perform better.

Given the increasing court time taken up by child protection and adoption cases, a culture of delay in family justice also has to be tackled. Time limits should be built into the regulations to enable proceedings to be expedited, as far as possible, with fast-track procedures such as those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden drew attention. Is it unreasonable to expect an adoption application to be completed in, say, three months, subject to the consent of the natural parents? Some cases are difficult, but in many examples it would be reasonable to expect that to be achieved. There is, of course, a wider argument about separating children's cases from the generality of court work.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on whether the existence of difficult cases perhaps places a question mark over including time limits in regulations rather than in best practice guidance?

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

That is a forceful point. I would certainly want a framework of regulation to allow fast-track procedures. Even if we did not specify in regulations the timetables involved, I would want to see a framework there to achieve that. I look forward to discussing that with the Minister in the Committee that I am sure will follow our deliberations—

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Yes; this one will run and run.

As a cautionary note to what I was saying just before the Minister intervened, we would not want family law and adoption cases to be separated from the generality of court work and the judicial mainstream, and become simply an arm of social services departments.

Social services departments have not emerged from many reports and investigations as particularly efficient. Rather, they have often been seen as confused over their roles, with a lack of openness and accountability, and inexperienced and unqualified staff at both ground and supervisory levels. Obviously, problems concerning the prioritisation of adoption work have flowed from that. I refer in particular to the Murch and Lowe study, "Pathways to Adoption", which was published by the centre for family studies at Bristol university.

In contrast, workers from voluntary agencies are likely to have specialist training in child placement, small case loads and good supervision. The review of adoption law commissioned by the Department of Health and the Law Commission questioned whether local authorities should continue to have the primary responsibility for adoption practice at all, and in 1996 the social services inspectorate questioned whether the nature and volume of adoption work justified local authorities continuing to provide in-house services. It said that all the indicators pointed to a need for better managed and properly resourced network of adoption agencies. They possibly indicate the need to remove adoption work from … local authorities altogether—an option which at least should be considered. Whether improved management could best be achieved by a consortium of local authorities say on a regional basis, or by voluntary agencies acting on behalf of the local authorities, or even entirely separate from them, is not for us to say. The 1996 draft Bill preserved the role of local authorities. Indeed, the Government's recently published Adoption and Children Bill, which we debated on Monday, also preserves that role. My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, however, has suggested some measures that would provide a useful means of gingering up the performance of local authorities in the discharge of their responsibilities.

Some of the inertia would be broken by providing passporting for finance in clause 1(3). The case for fast tracking was drawn movingly to our attention on Monday by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who gave an exposition of the importance, for small children in particular, of being sped through the system. What my hon. Friend suggests in subsection (3) is important in that respect.

An independent and transparent means of adjudicating on complaints—an appeals system, as provided by clause 2—is vital for providing a check on the conduct of the local authority.

In clause 3(2) my hon. Friend draws attention to the collection of data. The lack of routine data places a constraint on the ability of Government and organisations to monitor what is happening, and to be alert to changes. That important point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Only by having such data can people recognise shortcomings, and realise that certain things must be investigated. Even when records are kept, there have been considerable differences in format and coverage among different agencies.

Accurate and relevant information is essential to the management of any process, and to the wise development of policy. There has been some improvement—I welcome the recent statistical reports of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering and the Office for National Statistics—but such initiatives rely on the care with which data have been collected locally, and that is dependent on how clear staff are about what information is to be kept, in what format, and for what purpose. It is dependent on the training of clerical staff, and on standardisation. We should learn from the example of Scotland, which has a much more comprehensive approach to the collection of adoption statistics. All that is in keeping with what the Secretary of State said in a letter about quality protects, which he sent to all elected members of social services committees at the end of 1998.

The quality of service to the individual is also affected by the quality of the information available. Those who make professional decisions about adoption must possess detailed and accurate histories of the children in question. Should a child be adopted, and when? Should it be placed with brothers and sisters? What kind of family is most likely to meet its needs? What support is required? Wise decisions about adoption also depend on a detailed and up-to-date knowledge of birth families, and the families with which children have been placed or might be placed. The assembly of that information must be selective and purposeful. We must identify the key information.

The Thomas and Beckford study "Adopted Children Speaking", a British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering publication of 1999, reveals that many children felt they had been denied details about their past, as well as information about the adoptive families to whom they were going. Although valuable information in the form of "life story" books can be available, many such books have not been available, and a great deal of information has been missing because it had not bee n kept up to date. I think that children should be able to obtain a full picture of their histories, albeit perhaps later in their lives, and such history needs to be kept in trust for them. The Bill addresses that issue.

The study also reports considerable dissatisfaction among adopters with the information they are given about children. They also complained about lack of information, court procedures and adoption allowances, but the two main complaints related to insufficient information about children's backgrounds—particularly their medical history—and the fact that some information was incorrect. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) made some powerful points in the House on Monday about the need to provide information so that adoptive parents know what they are taking on.

Birth parents cannot be ignored. After all, it is from them that essential information must be obtained, and recorded accurately and objectively. If adopters or children receive a negative picture of the birth parents and their way of life, attitudes can be created that prejudice the child's view of his or her history and origins. Although this morning's debate has not focused on it, the question of the recording of information—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has so usefully drawn to our attention—is a vital part of the overall equation.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, had compliments heaped upon him on Monday from hon. Members on both sides of the House, including many Conservative Members, regarding his commitment to his Bill and the way in which he had brought it forward and was striving to maintain a bipartisan approach. I hope that his ministerial colleague at the Department, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), will be able to share in those plaudits through the way in which he addresses the Bill today.

Many foster children discover that it is an embarrassment to be a foster child and experience that embarrassment at a very young age. Those children like to pretend that they have real parents because they have a strong desire to have a proper family. This Bill, together with the Government's Bill, offers many of those children the potential to make their pretence a reality—to make their dreams come true, in effect. It is down to those of us who are close to the levers of power—indeed, we are getting closer by the day—and those who have the levers of power in their hands at the moment to adopt a bipartisan approach and, to use the Prime Minister's phrase, to strain every sinew on behalf of those children. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health) 1:07, 30 March 2001

I congratulate the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) on her success in the private Member's ballot and on her choice of this topic for a private Member's Bill. I acknowledge her consistent interest in the issue, which she has shown again today. I would like to recognise and to pay tribute, as, in effect, hon. Members on both sides of the House have done, to the personal commitment of the Prime Minister to the issue of adoption. I do not think that anyone would question that he has been instrumental in ensuring that not just in my own Department, but in Departments across Government, issues of children's welfare and adoption in particular have been driven forward. I also pay tribute to the work of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who has done the hard slog in producing both the White Paper and the associated national standards and the Bill.

We have had a good debate, as we did on Monday. The House can therefore be confident that our proceedings will be comprehensively ignored by the media and the world outside, which concentrate on affairs here only if we are having a big row with each other. We can draw some confidence from the debates on Monday and today that, as the Government Bill proceeds through the House, there is a commitment on both sides of the House to the proper scrutiny of that Bill and the many issues that have been raised today, including the issues raised by the hon. Member for Meriden, so that we get the legislation right.

Reference was made on Monday—I am afraid that, sitting here this morning, I have been unable to track it down in Hansard—to the dangers of legislation that has cross-party support. Someone referred to the Child Support Agency as a not terribly impressive example of both sides of the House basically agreeing with what the measure was about and not managing to get the detail correct. It is essential that, as the legislation on adoption goes through the House, we make sure that it is properly scrutinised, that all the issues are dealt with and that the right amendments are tabled and adopted.

We can be fairly certain that there is considerable expertise among hon. Members on both sides of the House—much more than I personally would claim to have on the issue. A number of hon. Members have been pursuing an interest in the topic over several years. Provided that we can bring that to bear on the legislation, we can make the once in a generation step forward to which hon. Members have referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner)—replying to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who suggested that adoption was a relatively recent invention—offered me a list of literary references, from Shakespeare to the Brontës and Dickens, to comparable arrangements. However, as my hon. Friend also thought that the final scenes of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" took place in Mexico, I shall not share those references.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

The hon. Gentleman is wrong, and I am sure that he would not wish to mislead the House. I am sure that the combined wisdom of the Treasury-Bench quiz team is right in saying that the final scenes took place in Bolivia.

The hon. Member for Meriden quite rightly said that there are precedents for private Members' legislation being considered so speedily after the Second Reading of similar Government legislation. However, there was perhaps more of an edge to the disability discrimination legislation, because the sentiment behind that private Member's legislation was to make the Government's legislation much more radical. None the less, it is quite appropriate that we should have a second debate on this type of legislation.

The hon. Lady explained that her Bill had been written essentially between Monday night and Thursday lunchtime. She will forgive me if I say that, on a first reading, that shows. However, she explained the procedural reasons why the Bill had to be framed as it has been and the need to concentrate on issues that have not already been discussed by the House.

I should like to reply to most of the points that have been raised today by hon. Members. Then I hope to address any remaining issues and, in particular, to indicate the Government's initial response on the Bill's key provisions. I think that the hon. Lady and the whole House will accept that those proposals should be considered as issues for discussion and as possible amendments to the Government's Adoption and Children Bill as that legislation is considered by the House. Therefore, although my comments will indicate our initial reaction to the Adoption Bill, which was printed yesterday, I am sure that the House will wish to consider the Bill's proposals in more depth and detail than we shall be able to give them today

On several occasions, the hon. Lady mentioned social services spending, particularly adoption allowances—which I shall deal with later. It would have been helpful to know whether the Opposition were committing themselves to sustain even current projected levels of social services spending. As the Opposition have failed so far to do that, I think that one is allowed some scepticism when they mention the need for additional spending.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox)—who has given his apologies for having to leave the debate to return for his constituency surgery this afternoon—spoke with great experience as a parliamentarian both in the House and internationally in the Council of Europe, and based on his constituency and local government roles. He stressed the importance of putting children's needs and interests at the heart of the adoption process.

My hon. Friend expressed some concern about the scrutiny of adoption agencies. In the United Kingdom, however, unregulated adoption agencies are unlawful. Only local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies approved by the Secretary of State can make arrangements for adoption. Currently, voluntary adoption agencies are inspected and approved by the social services inspectorate.

From 2002, however, the National Care Standards Commission will regulate voluntary adoption agencies and local authority adoption services. The commission will conduct regular inspections of services against new national minimum standards. I therefore hope that, if there are any shortcomings in current arrangements for the regulation of voluntary adoption agencies, they will be effectively addressed when the new arrangements are implemented.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting was the only hon. Member to talk at any length today about international adoption issues. I do not intend to dwell for long on those issues today. However, on Monday, in introducing the Government's Adoption and Children Bill, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health informed the House of that Bill's provisions to strengthen the safeguards on international adoption. We are taking measures through other legislation to sign up to the Hague convention. Once we have done so, not only can other safeguards be put in place but it will enable us to consider, if necessary, whether the existing bilateral arrangements are the right ones. I therefore believe that those concerns are being progressively addressed by the measures that the Government are taking

The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made a wide-ranging and constructive speech. He discussed the costs and causes of delay in the system. He also highlighted the possible danger if everything was concentrated on dealing with the hardest cases of placement, and described how delaying placement for children who were easier to place would, in turn, become a problem for those children. We have acknowledged that; the White Paper that we published before Christmas drew attention to the success that some councils have had in establishing a permanence team to allow them to reduce the length of time that children have to wait for adopters.

The White Paper referred to my local authority of Southampton, which established a permanence team in 1997 covering all aspects of adoption. Contingency planning is now established practice. It provides a virtually seamless transfer between the teams, with the plan for adoption being considered by the adoption panel prior to the final court hearing. The experience has been that the waiting time has been reduced, especially for babies with no special placement needs. I endorse the right hon. Gentleman's call for best practice to be spread so that we can tackle problems as effectively as possible.

An interesting part of the debate has been the difference in emphasis put by right hon. and hon. Members on the process of deciding whether it was in the best interests of the child to go for adoption. From his local government experience, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting justified what he considered the reasonable inquiries that should be made before a child is placed with adoptive parents, while the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden was critical of some of those inquiries.

I believe that the answer lies in the way in which the Government Bill attempts to set out clearly the process that should be followed, the time scales that should be worked towards, the issues that should be taken into account and, to support all those factors, the training that should be made available to the professional staff in each case to make sure that the decision taken is in the best interests of the child. None of us believes that we can make sweeping statements about what is in the best interests of children, aside from a proper consideration of each child and his or her needs. The standards and issues identified in the Government Bill clearly put the interests of the children first.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North referred to children who are placed into adoption out of their local authority area. A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Meriden, spoke about where the financial responsibility lies in such a situation, how funds are transferred, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North was making the point that an adoption should be seen as a successful placement of a child with a family, and that it is not desirable to have links for ever and ever with the history of that child and hence with the local authority from which the child comes.

It is clearly important to have a financial arrangement that facilitates adoption, including adoption out of the child's original local authority. After all, the whole point of having a national register is so that children can be matched with prospective adopted parents. In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) referred to placing children outside their own local authority area.

I shall deal with a number of those issues together. In our view, it is normally better to place children in their own local authority areas, except where they would be at risk, and it is for each local authority to find the best placement for each child, although that may be outside the child's local authority area in some cases. The House will know that one of the priorities in the quality protects initiative is to improve placement choice, and we are working closely with local authorities and other key organisations to ensure that the substantial funding provided by that initiative is appropriately targeted.

In a related intervention, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) asked whether children would be the responsibility of the local authority that had originally placed them for adoption, or that of the new, home local authority, if an adoption broke down. At present, the position varies. If the placement breaks down before adoption, the child is still the responsibility of the placing authority. If it breaks down after adoption, when the child is, by definition, no longer in care, the responsibility tends to fall to the receiving authority.

We shall develop the new framework for adoption support in consultation with the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association and others. That will include how money flows around the system to support the objective of having a national register for adoption, which will be accessible to adoptive parents and children who need to he placed for adoption. That is, in part, a response to the hon. Lady's initiative in clause 1.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With some difficulty, I have just obtained from the Vote Office the document issued by the Department of Trade and Industry entitled, "Mirror Group Newspapers PLC", which has just been published and is available through the Stationery Office. On making inquiries, the very helpful young man in the Vote Office told me that he did not expect any further supplies of the document from the Department of Trade and Industry because someone there had said something along the lines of "Not us, guv. Nothing to do with us. You'll have to go elsewhere."

I should like to ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to cause inquiries to be made into the status of that document and into whether it should be made freely available to Members through the Vote Office in the normal way; there should be no question whatever of the Department of Trade and Industry seeking to limit supplies of the document to Members.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is not a matter for the Chair to comment on directly. Those on the Government Front Bench will have heard what he has had to say, and it is to be hoped that the matter will be put right as quickly as possible.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

As I was saying, in developing the new framework for adoption support, which will include post-adoption support and the financial allowances, we want to consider how our objectives of making a national register available to prospective adoptive parents and children who need to be adopted can be satisfactorily achieved. We will want to make regulations, under clauses 3(8) and 4(8) of the Adoption and Children Bill, to set out clearly the financial responsibility of placing and receiving local authorities.

We are, of course, generally providing more money—more than £60 million over the next three years—to support the promotion of adoption. That will help to tackle the disincentives relating to resources that have been mentioned. The hon. Lady proposes a particular mechanism to link the money to each child, by which she seeks to achieve the objective of creating a system with no disincentives. We are not convinced that that is the right way forward. We recognise the need to tackle the issue, and propose to do so through regulations, but I am sure that the detail of how money flows around the system will be properly discussed when the Adoption and Children Bill is considered in Committee.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) spoke about the cost to individual children and society of failures in the child care system, as did several hon. Members on both sides of the House. He drew from his experience in discussing the link between failures of the child care system and involvement in crime. He went through several provisions in the Bill—on finance, which I have dealt with, on appeals, which I shall come to later, and on fast-tracking younger children, which I have dealt with in part but shall come back to later.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) referred to some conclusions drawn by the Health Select Committee, including conclusions drawn during her distinguished chairmanship. She used the expression "absence of urgency" in referring to the procedures of some social services departments in dealing with adoption, and talked about problems of resources. I hope that the Government's Adoption and Children Bill will deal with both issues by establishing a framework that will include time scales within which local authority social services departments will be expected to consider whether a child should go for adoption and within which adoption should successfully be achieved. We will also invest new money in adoption through quality protects. We will help to tackle both issues.

The hon. Lady suggested that there was an over-emphasis on returning children to the birth family, irrespective of other options. The point of the Government's approach—I think that there is cross-party consensus on this—is that the best interests of the child must be the overriding and governing principle. We are setting down in our Bill a set of issues that must be taken into account, subject to the test that any action must be in the best interests of the child. That means that one cannot have a fixed preconception about what is in the interests of a child before he or she has been assessed.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the Minister accept that there is sometimes a professional search for perfection that leads to the very delays and difficulties that undermine a satisfactory outcome?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

The point was made effectively by the hon. Gentleman when he talked about his personal experience, and by several other hon. Members, that purely assessing the absolute merits of a course of action rather than the choices available to a child can lead to a difficult situation. Several hon. Members spoke of their concerns: it is as though the best becomes the enemy of the good. Such an attitude should be challenged if the process of considering the child's best interests has been established. By logic, considering the best interests of the child will lead people to consider the options that are practically open in the circumstances, and which one of those is best.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the Minister have any concerns about social work practice? Does he agree that adoption is seen as a draconian last resort? Is it not necessary for social workers to take far more account of the fact that continually trying to re-establish a child in a family where the parents are hardly able to look after themselves may be draconian in itself?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

I accept that things have been done with the best motivation but have turned out to be wrong. I am not one of those who will indulge in a sweeping attack on the social services profession. Although occasionally—as in any other profession—we see examples of incompetence and bad practice, people have for the most part genuinely believed that what they were doing was in the best interests of the child, even where things have gone wrong. As a Government, we are saying that that has brought us to an outcome that we do not want.

We have heard all the statistics about the failures of children in care in education, their failure to establish relationships, their involvement in crime and so on. The process that we propose, with the expectation that adoption will be properly considered within a reasonable time scale, will begin to change those attitudes and failures.

I would not underestimate the need to back up the legal and procedural charges proposed in the Bill with the need for continued professional training of social workers. We have made substanial sums available over the next few years for improved training of social workers, which is extremely important.

Rather than blaming individuals, I like to recognise attitudes over time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) said on Monday, over an extended period it was thought that sending children to the other side of the world would be in their best interests. We have learned since that some horrific mistakes were made as a result. I am sure that the vast majority of those involved genuinely thought that they were acting in the children's best interests. I hope that the consensus that is reflected in the Chamber now, as it was on Monday, on the important role of adoption and the way in which we should approach it will lead to better outcomes for children than we have seen in the past. That is our commitment, and I think that it is shared throughout the House.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) spoke in part about his own experience. I think that he shared some of my concerns about the role set out in the Bill of guardians ad litem. There is a sign of slippage from their current and specific role of giving advice towards a wider role in the system. I shall return to that.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) raised a number of issues, including the importance of record keeping and the need to know what is happening to children. I share his view that it is important to know what is going on within a system. I have no doubt that one of the reasons for a fall in the number of long trolley waits in accident and emergency departments over the past year or so is that we have insisted that chief executives should Know whether they are happening. People should know what is going on within their organisations. It is a prompt to take action if standards are not being met.

The Government are taking action to improve planning and record keeping for children. Over the next year, we shall develop an integrated record keeping system, which will bring together planning and record keeping for children in need in the community, and for those who are looked after by local authorities.

We want to improve local authorities' information and record keeping so that they can track the progress of the children for whom they are responsible. That is a key theme of the quality protects programme. Implementation of the new time scale targets in the national adoption standards will drive this process. It is worth noting that each year we publish figures by local authorities on the numbers of looked-after children who are adopted. It is a national social services performance indicator. We shall want to review performance indicators to ensure that appropriate indicators are in place to support the measures that are set out in the White Paper.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West rehearsed his concerns about some of the inappropriate established attitudes that might be brought to bear. I think that I expressed my views on that subject in an earlier exchange. Again, it is a matter of getting the process right, getting the measures right, getting the issues right that should be taken into account and ensuring that staff are properly trained.

I have a slight qualification to make. I am not sure that this is what the hon. Gentleman intended, but it sounded at times as though he felt that adoption was the only thing that could work for children in care. I think that we all recognise that that will not always be the outcome. He is aware of the Government's support for adoption and our support also for fostering. It will not always be possible to meet the needs of all children through either of the two routes. We must recognise that there is still a job to be done for children who cannot be cared for in either way.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the role of local authorities and referred to the earlier report, which questioned whether it should be a local authority role to handle adoption. The matter was considered in the performance and innovation unit report, and it has certainly been considered by the Government. It is our view that local authorities generally should be responsible for running the adoption service. The White Paper published in January held out the possibility that, if a local authority was simply unable to run an effective adoption service, responsibility could be transferred to another local authority or voluntary adoption agency. That is not dealt with directly in the Government Bill because the legislative power to make such a transfer is given to us in the best value legislation.

Finally, I turn to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Meriden and the specifics of her Bill. Clause 3 covers the assessment of children for adoption; the Bill also includes powers to make regulations setting out how adoption agencies should carry out their functions of making arrangements for adoption, placing children for adoption and keeping records. We are already dealing with the time scales for assessing children. The national adoption standards, which were published for consultation alongside our adoption White Paper in December, set challenging time scales for assessing children. Standard time scales will not suit all children; they need to be flexible to take into account the needs of individual children. Regulations are unlikely to offer the necessary flexibility. We shall take into account responses to the consultation on the national adoption standards when dealing with those issues.

As the House will know, one objective is that a plan for a child should normally be drawn up no more than six months after he or she has come into care—sooner, if that is appropriate for the child. If adoption is the plan, a best interest decision should be made in six weeks and a match with parents in a further six months. It is important for younger children that decisions should happen as soon as possible; for babies and infants, speed is extremely important. That is why the standards proposed where a parent requests that his or her baby be placed for adoption specify that a placement be identified in three months and adoption panels meet, with 48 hours' notice if necessary, to make decisions on babies and infants.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I have read the Government Bill carefully, and would be grateful for clarification. Will the two processes of placement and adoption take place one after the other, or does the Bill provide for twin-tracking where adoption is the likely outcome?

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

I am not entirely clear what the hon. Lady means by twin-tracking. Placement is part of the adoption procedure set out in the Bill. Perhaps I can write to her on that point. However, we share common ground in recognising that there are circumstances in which it should be possible to place a child for adoption successfully using a timetable faster than that set out for normal circumstances in the national standards. Regulations may tie things down too tightly, but I am sure that that issue can be examined in detail in Committee.

Adoptive families will benefit greatly from improvements to post-adoption support, for which provision is made in the Adoption and Children Bill. It is unacceptable that the provision of adoption services across the country is patchy and inconsistent; as many as one in five adoptive placements break down before the child is legally adopted. We cannot keep letting down children who have already gone through at least one family breakdown. Adoptive families need access to services that will support adoptive placements and help them to last.

Post-adoption support services that adoptive families may find useful include support groups, where they can meet adoptive families with similar experiences; counselling for adoptive children to help them understand their new circumstances; and support for adoptive siblings to help them to come to terms with a new brother or sister. That is why we want to place, for the first time, a clear duty on local authorities to make arrangements to provide adoption support services, including financial support.

Clause 1 deals with the provision of financial support. As I said earlier, we acknowledge the issues, but we believe that we should deal with them in regulation, and shall make those arrangements clear. Again, that can be worked through in detail when the Bill is discussed in Committee.

Clause 2 includes a right of appeal for adopters, prospective adopters and guardians ad litem. Our proposal is that we should build confidence in the adopter recruitment process by ensuring that prospective adopters are treated fairly at all times. We will take powers to set up a new independent review mechanism for prospective adopters who feel that they are being turned down unfairly. 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.

Prospective adopters will have a choice of review methods, but in practice most are likely to prefer the objective nature of the independent review mechanism. In some cases they may wish to go back to the original agency panel instead, to correct simple errors of fact.

There is a specific purpose behind the proposed mechanism. It will build confidence in the assessment process and encourage more prospective adopters. Adoption is a mainstream social services function, and it is appropriate for more general complaints about the adoption service provided by local authorities to be dealt with by the local authority social services complaints procedure. We are carrying out a thorough review of that procedure. We must make sure that it meets the needs of all of those who may need it, including those affected by adoption.

The hon. Lady's Bill is, as she said much wider than the scope of the Government's Bill. She seems to be proposing a system under which any aspect of any decision at any point of the adoption process would be subject to independent review. That cuts across the principle that I set out earlier—that adoption is a mainstream local authority function and should be dealt with through those process. A process whereby every facet of every part of every decision could be subject to independent review would hardly be likely to speed up the process of adoption and clear decision making. Again, I am sure that the matter will be examined in Committee.

The role of guardians ad litem is clearly set out in law. They are appointed in care order and contested adoption cases to provide the court with independent expert advice, and to represent and advise on the child's interest and welfare. They are not set up or empowered to act as some sort of independent inspectorate or regulator of social services, as the hon. Lady seemed to intend—although I may have misinterpreted her. There has been no call from guardians ad litem for an appeal mechanism such as her Bill sets out.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Because of the existence of the two Bills, it is easy to be confused. When he says that the matter will be considered in Committee, is he saying that the provisions of my Bill will be considered in a special Select Committee, or is he speaking of the Government's Bill? I need to know that in order to decide whether to press the Second Reading motion to a Division.

Photo of John Denham John Denham Minister of State (Department of Health)

The answer is that I have no control over the amendments that the Opposition might choose to table to the Government's Bill at the appropriate time. Clearly, all the issues raised by the hon. Lady are capable of being discussed as amendments to the Government's Bill. Procedurally, it is not possible to take both Bills forward at the same time, so it will be for her to decide what she wants to do with her own Bill. The issues that she wishes to raise could be tabled at the appropriate point in Committee as Opposition amendments to the Government's Bill, which received its Second Reading on Monday night. Beyond that, it is not for me to give advice on procedural matters.

We cannot commend the hon. Lady's private Member's Bill because we believe that adoption issues are better dealt with by the Government's Bill. As that Bill makes its way through the House, there will be more than enough opportunity for all the issues that were raised today to be discussed on the basis of amendments tabled by members of that Committee. I have no doubt that the Government will want to ensue that all those issues are properly considered, but I am afraid that I cannot commend the hon. Lady's Bill to the House.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Lady must have the leave of the House.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the Minister's speech, to which I listened attentively I listened especially carefully to his final remarks, which dealt with the specific content of the Bill. Of course, I recognise that the existence of two Bills that deal with adoption—mine and the Adoption and Children Bill—can result in some ambiguity, but I hope that all hon. Members will accept that this debate will at least help to ensure that something will happen in the very near future. That is the important point. Furthermore, if my Bill was a catalyst for the Government's Bill, that would also make it worth while.

The fact that we are debating both Bills at what appears to be the 11th hour before a general election increases the chance of their prompt reappearance in the next Parliament. Obviously, it is arrogant of any Government of any persuasion to assume that they will be re-elected or to think that any business that falls before an election will automatically reappear afterwards. Such assumptions cannot be made, but we have pledged that when and if we are elected, we will announce an adoption Bill in our first Queen's Speech.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), was asked about that on Monday night, but he could not make a commitment. As we heard today, however, the Government are obviously minded to roll their Bill forward into the special Select Committee that was mentioned in the programme motion that was debated on Monday, although it appears that their timing will be knocked asunder by the general election.

Some of the specific questions that were asked on Monday about the way in which the special Select Committee would work were not answered, but are pertinent to the position outlined today by the Minister, who told me that I will have do this work all over again if I am still in the fortunate position of having my job as a Front-Bench spokesman on health with special responsibility for adoption. He said that the Government would not commend my Bill to the House and that we would have to try to introduce its provisions by tabling amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill. That is especially disappointing because I tried to address gaps in that Bill whose existence were acknowledged by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness.

In the bipartisan spirit that has been apparent today, it would have been appropriate for the Government to acknowledge the purpose of my Bill—if not its exact wording, which might not have been is refined as it could have been, because of lack of time—and to think about it, perhaps with a view to tabling their own amendments. It is perfectly possible for a constructive Opposition to provide the sort of nuts and bolts that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), and to make general improvements to the structure that has been put in place by the Government of the day.

I was not entirely satisfied that the Government understood what I meant about the importance of record keeping. The Minister sought to placate me by referring to the better statistical monitoring that the Government have established for adoption, but it is not so much the bare statistics about which I am worried. I am more anxious about the fact that those statistics concern individuals—real people and real children. We are all aware of the number of sad cases that have occurred. We all know the names of the children whose tragedies have been described in the press. For example, Rikki Neave was mentioned. Those names stick in our memory because we know that the system failed them. I want to ensure that a child is not lost in care and does not simply drop through the system. Statistical record keeping and monitoring are important but not enough. I am therefore disappointed that the Minister rejected that aspect of the Bill.

I feel strongly that the Government miss the point about independence in appeals. I was at pains to stress that, in a complaints procedure or an appeals system, it is vital for those who want to make a complaint to believe that it will be heard objectively. Simply saying that there is an appeals procedure that is run by the social services against which the individual wants to complain does not satisfy my quest for an independent appeals system for adoption.

I am not happy that the Government are unwilling to commend the Bill. I remain principally motivated by the child, for whom we are trying to eradicate damaging delay. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West used a phrase that stuck in my mind. He said that adoption postponed is often adoption denied.

The Government's unwillingness to accept or commend the Bill means that we overlook the fact that delays will remain in the system. The principal sufferers are the children whose cases several hon. Members have eloquently pleaded this morning. I therefore wish to press the matter to a Division.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 14, Noes 0.

Division No. 169][1.52 pm
Baldry, TonyRoe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Stunell, Andrew
Gale, RogerSwayne, Desmond
Heald, OliverWardle, Charles
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Lansley, AndrewTellers for the Ayes:
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterMr. Eric Forth and
Paterson, OwenMr. James Paice.
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mr. Andy King.

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.